– Jeremy T. Wattles
I grew up in the cookie-cutter, no-sidewalk, no-front-porch North Syracuse suburbs, in an almost entirely white school district that had enough money to build an eight-lane track and football stadium where you could, as my high school track coach boasted, run the Olympic Games. Unlike Geneva, there was no town center or deep sense of place, community, or history. Meanwhile, less than ten miles away as the crow flies, in downtown Syracuse, people of color lived and still to this day live bunched together. Infrastructure integrity, economic opportunity, and educational attainment were/are dramatically lower. Sadly, the greater Syracuse area is a microcosm of our country as a whole; we are incredibly segregated by race and class. Rochester is not much different – the graduation rate for young men of color is in the single digits. In some ways, our schools are more segregated now than they were at the time of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that in 1954 called for desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” These structural problems trace back before the founding of our country, and we must examine their causes in order to understand our current predicament. Oftentimes, due to our American tradition of placing the individual at the center of things, we assign an excessive degree of praise or blame to that person. It is healthier to temper our obsession with individual responsibility, and refine it with an understanding of how your environment and your community has a lasting impact on your life.
Geneva, despite its “urban” characteristics, is not like Syracuse and Rochester in crucial ways. For example, one of Geneva’s strengths is that we are a geographically close-knit and diverse community. In theory, and sometimes in practice, it is easier for us to unify and solve problems because of the scale of our community. Still, we have our invisible walls.
Geneva has also begun a renaissance: that much is clear. It’s exciting, and I’m proud to say I love Geneva. My wife and I recently had our first child, who is biracial and we plan to raise as bilingual. We hope to buy a home here next year. No, we do not plan to live in the town because of the lower property taxes. The town and the city should be dissolved into one entity. It’s a ridiculous and archaic arrangement, and both suffer for it. But that argument is for another day.
Lakefront improvement, downtown revitalization, millions of dollars of investments from New York State, new businesses, tourism – it’s all building momentum. Especially in the last 5-10 years. Before this Geneva suffered. Though I only began living here 6 years ago, my mother’s family stretches back into the 1800s in Geneva. They have seen the arc of the post WWII boom and then the slow and painful decline. There were wistful stories and rueful comments about the shuttered American Can factory. My parents used to drive through a desolate and depressing downtown for family visits in the 1980s and 1990s – classic Rust Belt postindustrial degradation. Geneva’s East Lakeview neighborhood was called the “Butt End” and Geneva as a whole was known as the “Ghetto of the Finger Lakes.” A second argument for another day: the tendency of many Upstate NYers to habitually, through their conversations, run down their communities is a huge mistake. There is so much latent potential in our old and sometimes struggling communities and by verbally abusing them we only reinforce a negative psychology and disengaged citizenry. The 1950’s aren’t coming back. They were an historical aberration. Because WWII destroyed the world economy and the European colonial empires, we had no competition and created huge amounts of wealth, as well as a(n almost entirely white) middle class. That isn’t going to happen again. Now, as we move deeper into the 21st century, perhaps the biggest challenge is reducing income inequality and increasing social mobility. In the post WWII boom, incomes and productivity rose together in tandem; workers worked harder and saw a corresponding increase in pay. Now, even though the global economy is more competitive, productivity has still increased, while wages have remained flat. Workers work harder than ever and see an erosion of their wages. Their earnings haven’t kept up with inflation, let alone productivity. These larger dynamics are things we should keep in mind as we look to redevelop our downtown in an equitable way.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of our finest American novelists, wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. We can debate what defines intelligence – there are many kinds (academic, emotional, physical, interpersonal, observational, etc.) – but we have all kinds of it here in Geneva. I write to challenge all Genevans to consider that quote and this corollary: dissent is patriotic. In other words, almost all of those who ask critical questions or challenge the status quo are displaying love, care, and concern for their community and seek to improve it. It is the rare and dangerous person who truly cares for no one but themself and only seeks to tear things down and destroy. I am hopeful that people in Geneva, when they hear critical questions, will not immediately react with anger or dismissive quips, but will understand that we must hear each other out. If even one person or one family does not find themselves welcomed or included in our community, we are failing them and must do better. No one has a monopoly on the truth about Geneva. We should listen to ideas that may make us uncomfortable or seem outside the norm, because for many in Geneva, the status quo is not working. Can we confront the cognitive dissonance, the differing ideas, concerns, and messages we receive about our community and still function in a healthy way, in a holistic way that understands how systems and structures influence all the individuals in our city?
These critical questions are painful, awkward, and take a long time to discuss, but it is vital that we address them. If I were a high-functioning alcoholic, who did well at his job and was mostly kind to his family, but still displayed hurtful and destructive behavior, it would be important that my family and my loved ones call me out on it. It would be upsetting; I might deny that I had a problem and rail against this critique. Why can’t we all get along? Why are you trying to divide my family and distract me by saying something that’s not true? But if I listened and respected my loved ones, if I was honest with myself, I might understand that I had to reckon with both my successes and my failures and perhaps change my behavior, for my own good and the good of others.
I also write as a founding member of Tools for Social Change, but am not speaking for every person in the group. Despite some opinions and rumors about Tools, and although this has been said before, I am compelled to state that it is a wide-ranging group of people with very different points of view. The group has well over 200 members, who comprise all social classes, faiths, ages, sexual orientations, abilities, and races here in Geneva. Almost all of our work is volunteer-based. We often disagree with each other, but when we are at our best, we trust each other enough to work most of it out, like a loving family. I am hopeful that Geneva as a whole can do the same.
I wonder now, if when some Geneva residents hear individuals or groups like Tools asking critical questions about race, police practices, inclusion, and inequality, they are concerned that we might stunt this new momentum and drag the conversation “backwards.” I have heard words like “distraction” and “division” and “divisive” being used. I am not trying to position either myself or my friends and neighbors in Tools as perfect. My father, a Presbyterian minister who has taught me many things, would say we are all human and therefore flawed, and I wholeheartedly believe him.
But I take issue with this rhetoric. I have heard incredibly hurtful and racist things from my fellow citizens here in Geneva. There are still too many of us who view diversity as a deficit, who do not understand the experience of people of color in the United States of America. As someone who grew up in a nearly all white community for 15 years before I went away to college, I did not understand it. I did not understand it when I went to a liberal arts college that had some, though not enough, diversity. I did not understand it even when I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, a major international capital city with more than one million people in the metropolitan area. I only began to understand on a deep level when I started dating my future wife, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. As of the last census, we have over 1,100 people here in Geneva, our small city of 13,000, who claim Puerto Rican ancestry. That is a higher percentage than the Black community. How well do we listen to them, understand them, and include them into our greater narrative of Geneva’s Renaissance?
A final point on racial diversity: in about 25 years the United States will be majority non-white. It’s already baked into the demographic cake; as of 2014, the majority of babies born in the US were nonwhite. This, like the tremendous negative human influence on climate change, is a fact that can be denied only to our collective peril. Will we evolve into a neo-feudal, neo-apartheid society where the few whites control all the wealth, power, and resources, or will we learn to integrate, and not fear the other? Because, in fact, the other is not an other; he, she, or they are like me, if we take but an honest moment to see them as another person due the same rights and dignity that I have as a white man.
There are still too many of us who are happy to run down the public schools in private conversations and are upset that there is no option for wealthier, whiter students to have separate schooling all the way through high school, that their children have to go to school with “those kids.” Who, exactly, are “those kids?” I think the implication is clear. We can and must do better.
In the coming months, Tools will be rededicating itself to community dialogue. There are exciting projects in the works where I hope that many of us will partner with the public schools on youth empowerment, understanding of difference, and restorative justice. I am also hopeful that some of us will be involved with the new version of the community compact. I also look forward to some of our members being part of the committees and open forums that will decide how to invest the $10 million from NY State.
But when you hear critical questions and feel an urge to disengage, dismiss, or ridicule, I ask that you pause, breathe, reflect on your own assumptions and tendencies, and assume the best in the person asking the question. Assume that they want many of the things you want, and that you’re disagreeing about methods. Many times we have the same goal, but we fight over which road to take to arrive at that goal. We have a lot of “get along” folks here in Geneva who are acquainted with each other but don’t actually know each other. This is partially because it’s a small town and we don’t want to (metaphorically) be at each other’s throats constantly with conflict. But let’s expand our version of getting along to include dissent, constructive criticism, and solutions-based, vulnerable, honest dialogue. We are, after all, living in the area of our country that supported the Underground Railroad and Women’s Suffrage. We should challenge ourselves to be more like those pioneers of justice and equality. We need bold ideas and change in certain areas and certain public policies. We should not be afraid to explore all our options. There may be scorn and misunderstanding along the way, but we must persevere, and bring as many people of good will as we can into the conversation of creating a better Geneva for all residents.