June 15, 2021
Local News

Black community members talk in Ottawa about their experiences growing up with racism

Speakers agree talking about it is the first step

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Sheridan resident Dale Baker said he’s had a weapon pulled on him by a police officer.

Speaking Sunday as one of two Black presenters during “AMPLIFY the Voices of Our Black Neighbors” at the Open Table United Church of Christ in Ottawa, Baker said his father warned him about acting carefully around police.

“Always have your hands on the steering wheel,” Baker said. “You don’t reach for anything.”

Baker, who grew up in Naylor, Georgia, said he tells his sons – ages 10 and 12 – to be careful as well. He said when reaching for an ID during a police stop, he tells the officer multiple times what he’s doing before he does it. He said he “messed up” the time a weapon was pulled on him and didn’t communicate well enough with the officer.

“You just take it and not fight, so you can live another day,” said Baker, who acknowledged he loves police officers and said his brother is a state trooper.

However, he added: “There’s some rough ones out there. Some that don’t need to be cops.”

Baker was one of two speakers Sunday at the Ottawa YMCA for an event that also was streamed online by the Open Table United Church of Christ. Professional runner Coree Aussem-Woltering, who grew up in Ottawa, was the other speaker. Jen Swanson, a ministry team member at Open Table, moderated.

Baker and Aussem-Woltering spoke about their experiences with racism. The two shared different tales from their childhood.

Baker grew up in Southern Georgia during the 1970s and 1980s. He said some white kids would call him names and throw rocks, and one group even broke a beer bottle and threated him with it when he was a preteen, but his mother always insisted he “pray for them.” His parents would explain to him there are mean people in the world.

He said there were many generous people too, who “know who they are” that helped him through it all. He said his mother and grandmother would tell him there’s always good people.

“I thank them for helping my family through some difficult times,” Baker said. “They had to go through some amazing things to help us and defend us. They got it just as bad.”

Baker studied at Valdosta State University and worked in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Defense.

He married Lisa, who is white. He said when the couple goes to the store or out to eat, they sometimes get looks. At the store, they sometimes get followed. He doesn’t let it bother him anymore.

“I don’t say anything. I just let it go,” Baker said.

Aussem-Woltering shared a different experience from his youth.

Born and raised in Ottawa, he said he didn’t experience racism growing up, saying he had good friends and the people in Ottawa knew him from his outgoing personality and participation in activities.

He said it wasn’t until he attended Greenville University, about 3½ hours south of Ottawa, that he experienced his first encounter with racism.

During the 2012 presidential, Aussem-Woltering said his peers would assume he voted for Barack Obama “because he looks like you.” Aussem-Woltering said he didn’t care for the assumption, because he believes politics should be kept personal, if the person chooses. He also said he remembers chants of “KKK” on campus after Obama was elected.

Aussem-Woltering acknowledged he is one of few professional black trail runners. When he attended the world championships, he was one of three.

He said racism toward blacks was not limited to the United States. During a trip to Hong Kong, he went to get a coffee from Starbucks and then meet his husband Tom at the beach, but he was stopped by several police.

“It was an odd situation,” Aussem-Woltering said. “I think I just stuck out and I got stopped.”

He said in Argentina, certain residents look down on others and will not get out of the way when they’re walking, and even bump into people. Aussem-Woltering said he would bump back.

He said he hasn’t run into any issues with having a white husband, except for some looks, which he explained is not his issue, “it’s their issue.”

He said he would like to run in countries where it is illegal to be openly gay.

“Representation does matter,” he said.

The speaking event was part of the Open Table’s initiative to “Acknowledge. Amplify. Act,” which aims to acknowledge systemic racism, amplify Black voices and act for change.

When asked what change is needed, Baker said – and Aussem-Woltering agreed – Sunday’s event was a start.

“We need to have these conversations,” Baker said.

He also said “quit judging people,” admitting he’s been guilty of it, too.

“It’s amazing what you can find out about people if you listen and get to know them,” he said.