By Norene G. Ball
Director of Hallmark Programs, YWCA McLean County
February was Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month. My own limited life experience convinces me that both Black History Month and Women’s History Month are good ideas. I grew up in the ’50s and early ’60s in a small town that had one black family living there. I never interacted with that family. Consequently, I grew up knowing nothing about black people. I had no idea of the contributions they make or the lives they lead. I saw blacks in stores or on the street, but since they were not a part of my world, the only information I had was the racial stereotypes and prejudices of my family and friends.
When I graduated from high school in 1965, I went for training as a dental assistant in Chicago Heights, Illinois. For the first time, I saw large groups of black kids hanging out together, and it terrified me, but there was one black girl in my classes. For the first time, I saw a black person as an individual and I learned we had a lot in common.
I finished school, met and married my first husband, and had a baby. When we were in the process of building our home, a black family started a home in the neighborhood. One night, vandals came into the sub-division and knocked down the framework of the black family’s house. The next day, my father-in-law was at their property with his tractor, helping to clean up the mess the vandals had made. I knew the haters were still out there and their children probably went to the same school that my little daughter attended. There was fear, but more than fear; there was also pride. Our family had taken a stand for justice. Intuitively I knew it was the right thing to do, and that gave me courage.
Over the years, I still lived my separate life, encountering people of color now and again, but never having a close black friend. I started working at YWCA McLean County in the Senior Services program. Soon I found myself in charge of programs for our women. I attended meetings where we talked about racial inequality and injustices committed against people of color. A side benefit of my involvement in the organization is that I met a black woman who took a chance and befriended me. I will never forget the look of pain on her face when she heard that employees of a local business were caught on audio tape denigrating black people. “No matter what we do or what we accomplish, it’s never enough,” she said. The goal for my life became to help create an environment in which every person is given the opportunity to be all they were created to be and contribute to society in a way that fits with who they are. I learned that there were far too many people still living in a “separate” world, as I had done.
Upon reviewing YWCA McLean County’s history, there are some real shining moments. In the late ’40s, YWCA members, including the only African-American board member, held sit-ins at area “whites only” restaurants, including the YWCA’s own tea room. In 1952, we invited the Director of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations to discuss a race riot in Cicero that happened when an African-American family moved into the all-white community. In 1955, YWCA McLean County named our first African-American Board President. Recently, we have sponsored summits on racial justice, held study circles to educate people, and participated in “Not In Our Town” events to send the message that hatred and intolerance is not welcomed in this community. We hosted a racial justice council where area agencies and people interested in the issues could come to share ideas and tell their stories.
But the work has just begun. A local radio station is doing a series of interviews entitled “In Their Own Words.” The series was inspired by interviews conducted by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s. Hurston traveled throughout the South inviting Black Americans to share their experiences, memories and aspirations. The local radio station is asking people of color in our community to do the same. A handful of the stories have aired and the experiences are not all positive. There is still a divide in our community and society. Women and people of color have so many stories about their individual and group experiences that need to be heard. Given the diversity of our community, there are numerous opportunities to learn and grow.
It makes me sad to look back over my life and realize the opportunities I have missed because I was afraid to get to know people that were “different” from me. The precious relationships that I have with other women and people of color have enriched my life so much, and I know my life would have been much fuller if it had been populated with a variety of people.
If I had begun, at an early age, to learn about the historical accomplishments and contributions of women and people of color, respect and appreciation could have grown along with my knowledge. Relationships would have been established through common interests and curiosity about the stories of others. I would have learned what it is like to live in another person’s world. I would have discovered that we share some basic human values, and that attitudes are often shaped by our personal experiences. It might even have resulted in our worlds coming closer together. I know it would have given me more confidence to follow my dreams, and more courage to be myself, rather than the girl/woman others expected me to be. I would have spent my time and energy working for positive change in the world, rather turning myself inside out to please other people. I want today’s children to have the opportunity to see into other worlds, broaden their own, and know the people that inhabit their world. And I want them to be all they are created to be, because that makes this a better place for all of us.
Norene Ball is the Director of Hallmark Programs for YWCA McLean County, Illinois. She grew up in northern Illinois, but has lived in Bloomington, Illinois since 1979. She has received the Illinois Municipal Human Relations Association Award and the Baha’i Light of Unity Award.