Your Turn: We should address racism, sexism with no fear

Lawrence prides itself on being a progressive and inclusive community, but rarely engages in the tough conversations necessary to live up to our values of equity. On May 15, the City Commission considered whether to send a plan for a mural depicting Women of Color in Lawrence to the Arts Commission to start the approval process. It is not standard for the City Commission to consider these requests before hearing feedback from the Arts Commission, but this particular project has generated tension in the community. Specifically, whether the mural should be on the library or the adjunct parking garage. Following the City Commission meeting, the Lawrence Journal-World published an editorial admonishing the Womxn of Color, the group leading the project, and argued the Friends of the Library presented a reasonable compromise in suggesting the mural be moved from the library to the parking garage. The City Commission meeting and editorial demonstrate the disconnect between the values we discuss and the actions we often take as a community.

The compromise to relocate the mural to a less desirable location is reminiscent of the ways that self-proclaimed progressive communities have dealt with difficult discussions of race. The Womxn of Color have made a compelling case for why the mural makes sense on a public institution and how it logistically does not work on the parking garage. The surface of the parking garage presents technical difficulties for displaying this work that are not present on the wall of the library. Further, the mural is being offered to the library and the city at no cost; this is indicative of the unpaid labor women of color often undertake to represent themselves in places that claim to be invested in their interests.

The library has been widely lauded for its beauty, and it is a central public space in our city. The proposal to keep the mural off of the library building can easily be seen as a message that women of color are not wanted in this public space. Although it might seem minute, the symbolic importance of being seen on a building where we see no women of color on staff is staggering for people searching for representation in our community. The library’s patrons represent a large cross section of Lawrence — and it would be wonderful to see even more of our community recognized for their contributions through the mural.

This mural is a positive, educational way to address the historical marginalization of women of color. Discussion of its placement is necessarily tied to issues of race, gender and power. Running an editorial that presents the backlash by the Friends of the Library as a reasonable compromise does not highlight the support the Womxn of Color have already received from the library leadership, and discounts the technical work the Womxn of Color have put into considering space.

These are prime examples of subtle ways our community fails to live up to our values of inclusivity. Rather than admonishing the Womxn of Color, the Lawrence Journal-World should be calling for more public dialogue about the race, gender and power issues that surround the mural. Why is there resistance to art telling the stories of women of color on a public building that symbolizes learning and storytelling? Why do we not see more women of color in leadership roles in our local public institutions? How are these issues related? We can pat ourselves on the back for supporting those that are different from us in the abstract, but push away the opportunity to express support when it is in front of us. As a community, we should lean into the difficult discussions of race, gender and power inequity in our city. We should strive to live up to the values we espouse.

This column developed out of a broader community discussion that took place during a People of Color brunch I co-hosted with Darren Canady. I am grateful to all of the contributions to the conversation that shaped this column, and particularly thankful to the gracious individuals who contributed and provided feedback once this took shape in written form. Thank you Anthony Boynton, Darren Canady, Jameelah Jones and Charlesia McKinney.

Shannon Portillo, Lawrence


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