When I was much younger, my mother worked for a rural United Methodist parish that had black pastor who served several churches in small, neighboring communities.
One day, as he made routine visits to members of a congregation, he parked his car and was walking along the road from one home to another.
A state police cruiser pulled over in front of him.
The trooper climbed from his vehicle and asked the pastor what he was doing.
A black man, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a Bible, was grilled about his business in that neighborhood.
My mother was shocked that this could happen – years after the civil rights movement, and involving a man of deep faith – until the pastor explained that this wasn’t an isolated incident, that he often fell under suspicion from police and others for simply being black.
That and a thousand other stories written or encountered have inspired me to be an agent of change, someone who makes a difference.
I have never been arrested, spit upon, threatened or attacked because of the color of my skin.
I have never been denied a job or career advancement opportunities because of my race – or my gender, age or sexual preference.
Yet, I have tried to push back against those prejudices in my life and my career, striving to treat people around me with understanding and respect, working to stand in the shoes of others and respond with compassion and empathy.
And I have failed.
Continuously and miserably.
I know this because trusted advisers in the Johnstown black community have counseled me that this newspaper does not treat all readers fairly and evenly. And they’re right.
Since I took my first collegiate ethics course and then got into this business, I knew it was important to fairly reflect the community where you work – showing people from all backgrounds experiencing various aspects of life.
And yet, too often, the black faces in this newspaper are either on the sports pages or in the crime reports. And far too often, the sources of our reporting about what is happening and what matters in Johnstown and the Cambria-Somerset region are white.
That’s on me. We will do better.
As Deacon Jeffrey Wilson said during a unity rally Wednesday in downtown Johnstown, the issue of race relations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd is not just about the interactions between the police and black residents.
This is about all of us – our fears and ignorance of one another, the suspicions and divisions driven into our hearts and minds by our culture and our environment.
Wilson spoke of an imbalance in the portrayal of black residents in local media news reports and advertising – too few “people of color doing positive things in the regular fabric of life,” he said, activities such as buying a car, banking, purchasing groceries, going to school.
He’s right. Change is needed and it starts with me.
When Tribune-Democrat reporter Ronald Fisher passed away in December, our newsroom lost an important connection to the local African American community.
Ron grew up black in Johnstown, and helped us connect with African American readers while reminding us of the need to expand our understanding of what it means to cover all points on the map of a community.
At his funeral, I spoke to a sanctuary filled with a diverse collection of family members and others mourning the loss of a son, a father, a brother, a friend and colleague.
I told them that Ron would respond to my notes about a breaking story or new assignment by saying: “I’m on it.”
My pledge – and my wish for the community – was that we would be “on it,” that we would carry forward Ron’s mission to enhance and improve his home region, that we would not be divided by our challenges, but that we would work together, more strongly, in a spirit of unity.
I told that gathering that remembering doesn’t just happen in your mind or in your heart. Remembering can be, indeed must be, an action – a movement.
The notion of a movement has been echoed across the country and around our community as protests erupted in the wake of Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
In the coming weeks, you will hear about a fund in Fisher’s honor that will be launched at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies for the purposes of preserving local black history and educating the community through classroom activities, field trips, forums and other events.
This project was in development when the coronavirus pandemic hit, bringing financial challenges to many people and impacting the realm of charitable giving. Who knows when we’ll be back to normal?
But this effort can’t wait.
If you would like to be involved with this fund and the work it supports, contact me.
If you have suggestions for how The Tribune-Democrat can better reflect the communities and people it serves, contact me.
If you’re hurting, angry or confused, if you’re inspired to step forward and act, contact me.
Because change will start with me.