A 10-year-old child recalled being called “blackie” at school. A medical field employee faced a racist slur in the workplace. And another person was berated for 15 minutes with anti-gay slurs at a restaurant.
The acts of discrimination all have one thing in common: They occurred in La Plata County, according to residents who spoke this week at a listening session hosted by the city of Durango’s Community Relations Commission. The virtual meeting was attended by more than 50 people, including city leaders tasked with addressing race-related concerns in Durango. It came amid a backdrop of nationwide demonstrations in response to the recent deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police.
Some people view Durango as a bubble, somehow a unique exception to other parts of the country where racism and discrimination are prevalent. But participants who attended Tuesday’s listening session were quick to dismiss that idea.
The listening session took place on computer screens because of the coronavirus. Speakers typically provide their names and addresses at public meetings, but the Community Relations Commission did not require participants to do so in hopes of encouraging participation.
“It’s a giant ask to have people share their very intimate, personal stories around discrimination and how they have to carry that weight with them through their workplaces, through their daily lives,” said Tirzah Camacho, a CRC member. “People willing to share this stuff is not taken lightly.”
About 10 individuals who identified themselves as people of color or members of an LGBTQ community shared their experiences. They recounted situations at gas stations, with police, at workplaces and while frequenting businesses across La Plata County.
A 10-year-old boy said another student called him a “blackie” in the second grade. Sharina Ramsey Adams, who was raised in Durango and said she is African American and Irish, was first called a racist slur in fourth grade; her son faced his first racial slur in the third grade, she said.
“I remember holding it in, going home and crying to my mother because I had no idea what was going on,” Ramsey Adams said. “We need to prepare our children and let them know color is cool. Colors are beautiful.”
The first person to speak, who identified herself as Black and Indigenous, shared experiences of discrimination as an employee in Durango. In one episode, a white coworker in her 40s used a racist slur and blamed it on another coworker, a person of color, she said.
“You’re trying to stay professional, but you’re enraged,” she said. “There’s so many things you want to say. Nothing seems like the right thing.”
Kate Jones of Durango recalled facing anti-gay slurs in a restaurant for 15 minutes, while no other patrons did anything.
“That’s the day I got to explain to my son what a f----t is and why people hate gay and trans people,” Jones said. “As you can tell by my voice, it’s very damaging, especially to our youth, who have no understanding of why people behave this way.”
Among those listening were four City Council members; Bob Brammer, chief of the Durango Police Department; Sandy Irwin, director of Durango Public Library; and a member of the city’s “Core team” addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
During the meeting, Councilor Melissa Youssef said her family was one of the first Muslim families in Durango . In an interview afterward, Youssef said she received inappropriate comments because of her last name while she was campaigning for City Council. Her children experienced some discrimination in middle school because of their last name and physical features, such as skin color and hair texture.
Hearing residents’ negative experiences made her feel discouraged and upset, like maybe the city is backtracking.
“We need to prioritize (equity work). It will require funding. It doesn’t just happen,” Youssef said, advocating for goal-setting and more training. She did not offer a statement about race-related issues in Durango, such as the controversial Chief sign near Toh-Atin Gallery or reforming police funding.
During the meeting, several speakers called for action and more education to address discrimination. One participant criticized the CRC listening session, saying it seemed like a public relations strategy.
“You’re in a group that’s trying to do something with the issue of racism which has been going on for over 500 years in this country,” said Stephanie, who did not provide her last name and identified herself as Navajo and Apache. “Figure out a way to start educating people in this town about what’s going on ... to tell them that Durango is just as much a part of the problem as everywhere else is.”
This is the first year the CRC has organized listening sessions since it was created in 2012.
Brammer increased his involvement with the commission after Minnesota police killed George Floyd in May, sparking protests around the world. The commission has not had a City Council liaison, unlike other advisory boards. But council member Barbara Noseworthy offered to take the position in June.
“People think it’s not here. It is here,” Irwin said. “I think it’s important for our community to face that reality. We need to start educating ourselves.”
The city’s Core team, made up of upper-level city officials, is putting together a framework to identify diversity, equity and inclusion areas to address.
“I know that sounds like a big runaround, but it’s not,” Irwin said. It’s the first time in her 10-year career with the city that the Core team has made DEI issues the top priority, she said.
“This is a moment in time we need to embrace,” she said. “The circumstances that got us here are sad and tragic. But if we don’t make a change now, when are we going to do it?”
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story gave an incorrect pronoun for a 10-year-old boy who was called “blackie” in school.