At Dryden Community Center Café on Main Street in Dryden, a group of locals meets every first Friday of the month to discuss one of the arguably most difficult topics to reckon with: Racism in the community.
Many of the group’s members had attended one or more Tompkins County SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meetings in Ithaca “It was very Ithaca-centered,” said Anne Rhodes, of Freeville, “and yet Tompkins County is a lot bigger than Ithaca. So we started a sub-group called The Real Listening Group.”
SURJ is a national organization with chapters across the country. According to the SURJ website, the organization believes that racism and white supremacy “keep the many divided for the benefit of thew few.”
“We must have an inclusive, open-hearted approach to organizing—calling people into this work rather than creating barriers to participation—while maintaining a clear political line,” the website states.
One of SURJ’s values is accountability through collective action. “We build accountability relationships with people of color who are doing racial justice work in the movement and who are accountable to a group of people,” states the website.
In a rural community such as Dryden, being accountable has its own challenges, said the four members of the Real Listening Group who stayed after the monthly meeting Aug. 2 to talk about the group and its mission.
That morning, the 8 a.m. meeting attracted nine members, which was one of the strongest showings since the group began about a year and a half ago.
“It’s an informal gathering to talk about racism in rural areas,” explained Rhodes. “People bring their confusions, misunderstandings, feelings, and this is a place to talk it over with other people. You can just drop in once or come every time.”
Rhodes said the conversation is different every month but that the meetings are a good place for white people and people of color in rural areas to begin to talk about racism.
Several of the members met through a book group in Groton that was reading “The New Jim Crow.” It was clear that the interest in the subject was there but that not everyone was willing to drive to Ithaca to participate in SURJ.
“People who live in Freeville or Dryden don’t regularly go to Ithaca for things,” Rhodes said. “We have neighbors who don’t shop in Ithaca, their congregation isn’t in Ithaca, and it’s not a place they regularly go. So we’re trying to bring the conversation out to other areas.”
There can be a feeling of isolation among residents in rural towns, said Mike Bishop, of Freeville. “They may not be feeling as connected,” he said. The group members agreed that farming towns like Dryden experience different racial issues than those typically found in other places.
“Most [people of color in Dryden] are farm workers or people who couldn’t afford to live in Ithaca and pay the rents there,” said Rhodes. “It’s not common for people of color to voluntarily decide to move into a rural, mostly white society. There’s usually some economic factor that’s driving that decision.”
“As a group, I think it’s important to ask ‘could we play a role, not just with the youth but with congregations, in the wider communities?’” added Bishop. “I think it’s extremely important for white people to be visible talking about these issues widely.”
They are also concerned about the area’s youth. “In any community that’s not racially diverse, people tend to think racism doesn’t exist there,” Rhodes said. In a former job in a local education system, Rhodes said she tried to encourage teachers to bring up issues of racism with their students. “They though it was irrelevant,” she said. “They thought, ‘what is the point?’”
“We want to help people to understand systemic racism,” she added, “and how we white people are hurt by perpetuating it, which is important when there are no people of color around.”
The cafe has provided an ideal backdrop for the challenging discussions, the group said.
“At the Community Cafe it’s easier to exchange our ideas over food,” said Chuck Geisler, of Dryden. “It helps to have a hub.”
The conversations benefit everyone, they said, just by virtue of the exchange of ideas and experiences between people from different backgrounds. Most of the people who have attended the meetings are in the wide age range of mid-30s to 70s, they said.
“We need to be educating each other and not relying on folks of color to be doing that educational piece,” Bishop said, adding that they can often learn from one another. ”Issues of race are closely tied up with class and gender and sexual orientation.”
For Heidi Goldstein, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in New York City, the Real Listening Group was a way to reconnect to societal issues.
“To see so many things happening again in so many ways is very disturbing to me,” she said.
Bishop said he hopes to see more people attend the meetings in the future, including students from Tompkins Cortland Community College. “The more interaction between folks of different backgrounds,” he said, “the better.”