CHESTERTOWN — On a cold and rainy Monday, Dec. 14, the Rev. Robert Brown Jr. was seated behind his desk in historic Bethel AME Church as Gordon Wallace made some final adjustments on a pair of cameras.
They were working on a video with Wallace interviewing Brown about the history of the church, Brown’s career and his role on Chestertown’s Equity Advisory Committee.
Also at the church that afternoon were Bayside HOYAS (Helping Our Youth Achieve Success) co-founder John Queen, chairman of the Equity Advisory Committee, and committee member Kate Livie.
The committee is a key component of the Chestertown Unites Against Racism initiative, a 16-month plan brought to the town council by Mayor Chris Cerino in the fall.
Livie said she connected with Queen after sensing they had a kindred spirit and a shared desire to want to make Chestertown a better place for everyone.
“Both of us are doers and we were very interested in what could we do to effect change. And I think John had some very visionary ideas that I was excited to support,” said Livie, who is secretary of the committee.
Livie said the committee’s role is to have recommendations for the town, to flesh out ideas on educating community members about equity issues and seeking to address them. She said it goes beyond planning events like the annual Juneteenth celebration to addressing issues such as gentrification and policing.
She spoke about Cerino’s interests in learning more about issues such as redlining, in which banks refused loans for those in specific areas, and the politicization of race to better move forward in addressing where we are right now and looking at policies and laws currently on the books.
She said videos like the one Wallace was shooting of Brown that afternoon is a public-facing part of the effort, while Queen and Cerino have some ambitious subjects they want to dive into.
“We’ve got some big meaty projects to tackle over the course of the next 15 months,” Livie said. “And really, we’re just getting started.”
COVID-19 has added to the challenge, with Livie saying the pandemic has made outreach and training sessions difficult.
Queen spoke about the need for leadership here, including at the county level, to be held accountable. He said that microscope has not been placed on the Kent County Commissioners.
Livie agreed, calling for county leadership to acknowledge that inequity exists here and recognize the need for change.
For Brown — a Kent County native, retired educator and now minister of a church with long ties to his family, the same church where he was baptized — the fight for equality and equity has been a part of his entire life. At 9 years old he was on the front lines, a Black student among the first to integrate schools here.
“I remember segregation here and it was not pretty — very difficult, very tough. But some of us had to be put on the line to make life better for those who were coming after us,” Brown said in an interview after he wrapped filming with Wallace.
Brown spoke about how the integration effort began with one Black boy and one Black girl to each otherwise white classroom. While some had positive experiences, his was not. But he did it for the greater good.
“We really went through a very difficult situation. We were made to feel that we certainly were less than. We were called names. We were jumped on. And of course, what could the two of us do against an entire class? And our teacher was of no support at all,” Brown said.
Brown hoped that the generations that followed would never have to experience such treatment. The protests throughout this year have shone a spotlight on how those hopes have not been realized, how the nation is more divided than ever and why Brown has stayed in the fight.
“That is way I’m a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, because I just don’t see the point or the reality of everybody not being treated equally, everybody not being respected on the same level. There’s no way that folks ought to be divided in this country now at all, but certainly not based on race or the color of anyone’s skin,” he said.
Queen spoke about the importance of having people like Livie, who is white and a Kent County native, being a part of the Equity Advisory Committee’s efforts. Queen said people tend to hear complaints of inequity as rhetoric from the Black community.
“It has to be said in that perspective where whites can embrace that, understand that — hearing it from their own people,” he said. “When you hear that from someone from your same race who benefits that same way you benefit from white privilege and the way society is structured, it should hit a little different.”
Livie said the members of the Equity Advisory Committee are a coalition of people prepared to lay the issues out the table, talk about them and then consider what can be done together to move forward.
“I think John and I both believe in a plain-spoken practicality when it comes to matters of race, in that it’s important not to get caught up in blame and guilt. Because I don’t believe those are particularly productive or effective ways to implement change,” Livie said.
She said that conversations get stuck when people feel bad or guilty or threatened. She said it is difficult to move past those emotions.
“We’re focused on moving forward with action that can effect change in a positive way that we can all get behind. That is how we build community. That’s how we build an equal community. It’s working toward a positive future that acknowledges that the past has been unequal and for a lot of people bad, and saying that together we can move forward and do better,” Livie said.
Queen said that is why Chestertown Unites Against Racism is so much of a driving force not just here, but on the Eastern Shore as a model for community organizing and moving forward together.
Livie said small communities are looking at how to move past these issues. For her, Chestertown Unites Against Racism represents a positive approach to moving forward.
“I think we’re doing a real disservice when we only look at the past with a rose-tinted view,” she said. “We are the South. We think we’re not, but we are.”
Livie said there is a legacy of slavery here. She said all those charming historic homes in downtown Chestertown were built through slavery.
“Having these conversations is important and it can be uncomfortable,” Livie said. “All change comes with a sense of discomfort. All growth comes with a sense of discomfort. And to move and grow, you have to hit that head on and acknowledge that’s how you progress. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK to bring up things and maybe acknowledge that your perspective wasn’t right, or incorrect — that your nostalgia for the past was a nostalgia that was inherently privileged by the fact that you’re a white person.”
Livie said none of that taints the past, it makes the past whole.
Queen reiterated the important role education plays in this effort.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of videos, a lot of soft introductions to the harder conversations,” he said. “There’s a lot of things within that education pillar that are going to reshape Chestertown and Kent County again when we get there.”
Among the issues Queen wants people to learn about as efforts move forward include redlining and the fact that the ACLU came in to push the town to redistrict voting wards as required by law.
“There’s a lot of things in that education pillar that are going to shake people to the core because, for the Equity Advisory Committee, in doing this Chestertown Unites Against Racism, it’s our due diligence and our duty to go deeper, to look at things that are going to make you question everything,” Queen said.
He said it not just about going through sensitivity training or being able to say, “I wave to my neighbor now.” He said it is about having people demand changes in laws and policies and calling for accountability.
“We have to hold everyone accountable,” he said.
Going forward, Livie said people have to understand the foundations of the community they have inherited.
“We need to understand what we have so we can fix it,” she said.
Livie said a lot of people like her are reading books about equity and learning about privilege. She said they want to build on what they have learned and be a part of the solution.
“This group has provided a way for me to feel like I can answer that for other people. We’re giving them that opportunity. If you’re ready to take the next step, this is a really good way to do it. And it’s allowing Black voices to guide us in the decisions that we’re making so that it’s not just white voices filling up the room,” she said.
White people need to have that empathy and respect that so many claim to have but do not exhibit, Queen said.
Livie spoke to how the Equity Advisory Committee is one group among several that are seeking to address racial issues here. She said while they may not transform the community in the next few years, they are getting conversations going.
Queen said Chestertown Unites Against Racism is a plan for action, with end goals outlined. He said conversations must turn into action — “simple as that.”
“We’re past the Civil Rights era. We’re past courageous conversations. We need civil action. Period,” Queen said.
“And we can show people what civil action looks like, and it isn’t scary. It’s about people coming together and making decisions for the future they want,” Livie said.
Brown believes that his hopes for real integration, for eliminating racism, for closing that divide between people can happen this time around and he wants to be a part of the support system.
“That’s why I’m a part of the committee, because as we put our minds together and as we work together, across racial lines, together we’re going to make it happen. We’re going to make a difference,” he said.
Brown said the Black community cannot do it alone. He said people of all races need to be a part of the effort.
He said it will not happen overnight. He said there will be growing pains, but everyone has to be willing to change.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to continue to call it the United States of America and not function as the United States of America,” Brown said. “It’s time for America and it’s time for Kent County to live in unity and not divisive(ness) and live what we claim we believe in: ‘One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’”
Meetings of the Equity Advisory Committee are held on the second Tuesday of the month. The meetings are livestreamed for the public.
Go to townofchestertown.com/events/category/government-meetings/ for more information.
To learn more about Chestertown Unites Against Racism, visit chestertown unites.com.