With the increasingly sharp political and social divisions between the two camps of Americans, perhaps unprecedented since the Civil War, we hear calls from some editorial writers, clergymen and …
With the increasingly sharp political and social divisions between the two camps of Americans, perhaps unprecedented since the Civil War, we hear calls from some editorial writers, clergymen and women, etc., to reach across the ideological divide, recognize our common humanity rather than stereotypes, possibly even develop personal relationships with those on the other side.
It is a lot easier to give that advice than to put it into practice, however, but one lifelong Mt. Airy resident who has done it is Jasmine Schley, 33, a Girls High School and Temple University alumna who has worked as an actuary since college, first for Lincoln Financial Co. in Radnor and now for Accolade in Plymouth Meeting. (An actuary is a business professional who uses math and statistics to estimate the financial impact of uncertainty and help clients minimize risk.)
Late last May, following the murder of George Floyd and resulting protests and riots in many cities, National Guardsmen were brought into center city and some Philadelphia neighborhoods because city police were unable to stop all of the widespread looting and destruction of businesses by rioters. Some of those Guardsmen patrolled parts of Mt. Airy for several days, including the area around Wadsworth Avenue and Pickering Street, where Schley lives.
“They were supposed to be there for protection,” said Schley, “but at first it felt like an unwanted occupation. For one thing, they were all white, and our neighborhood is largely Black. I'd say they were in their late 20s and early 30s and from Western Pennsylvania. On the first day they walked past my house, and no one spoke. On the second day, I said 'Hello,' and the man who seemed to be in charge acknowledged me.
“On the third day, which was a Saturday morning, they walked by. I said 'Hi,' and the main guy did, too. Then we started talking, and I realized I should not have been directing my anger at them as people. So I invited them to a socially distanced cookout at my house at 6 p.m. that evening. They were clearly glad to be invited, and they said they'd come back at 6 p.m.”
That evening the eight Guardsmen came back at 6 p.m., as did several of Schley's neighbors and family members.
“I used my family's 'rib diplomacy,'” said Schley. “We all ate and talked for about an hour. There was no tension. The Guardsmen were definitely respectful, pleasant and appreciative and glad to have some ribs.”
According to Schley, the white Guardsmen with their camouflage uniforms and assault rifles, casually standing among lawn chairs and shrubbery, definitely stood out in the mostly Black neighborhood.
“But as we ate, we found some common ground. One of my neighbors, a veteran, chatted with the Guardsmen about his service. The leader of the Guard group and I discussed trips we’d taken to Vegas. A couple of uninvited neighbors even pulled over just to stop and talk.
“We didn’t solve any of the complex issues facing society, including the ones driving the protests that brought the Guardsmen into the city. But we shared a meal, exchanged stories and got to see each other as individuals.
“While we ate our ribs and talked, someone drove slowly by, shaking his head before shouting 'Black lives matter!' Apparently to him, my neighborhood cookout demanded some resistance. Perhaps in his oversimplified reality, a Black woman hosting a group of all white, uniformed National Guardsmen fit into a neat little box labeled 'traitor' or 'Uncle Tom.' My dedication and passion for creating opportunity and serving my community felt stripped away.
“I was disappointed, but I understood. As I had done with the Guardsmen, he replaced my humanity with a label. He’d made a lazy assessment of a complex situation and responded with his first emotions. Although his perspective was likely informed by negative personal experiences, he nonetheless reduced complicated individuals into simple categories: 'us' and 'them.'”
Schley, who is also pursuing a master's degree in urban strategy at Drexel University with the goal of transitioning into “workforce development,” has had a similar issue with police officers as with the Guardsmen.
“There are some people who get carried away with their power when you give them a gun and a badge, but we cannot rely on stereotypes that can be dehumanizing … And above all, always remember that our power lies not in disdain for an enemy but in our passion and commitment for our cause.”
For more information, email email@example.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org