Every year we take our middle school students on a trip to celebrate their hard work in the bakery. We plan the trip so that it’s a lot of fun for the students and filled with new experiences. In the past we’ve gone to the Upper Peninsula, to Chicago, and this year we went up north in Michigan, staying just outside of Traverse City. Our group created many positive memories during our stay. We did the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the students tubed down the Platte River, had the chance to try out stand up paddle boards, and cooked all their food over the campfire.

But unfortunately, our trip wasn’t all positive.

On Sunday we spent the day in downtown Traverse City. We had lunch on the beach and our groups split up- some paddle boarding, some shopping. It wasn’t too long before I got a text from Danah, our High School and Intern Director. An incident had happened in a store, and the students were upset.

Danah wrote a social media post that explains the incident and I fully support her story. Read below:

RACISM IN TRAVERSE CITY: I debated posting this but after some thought, I think it’s best. Accountability is necessary. As some of you know, this weekend I was on a camping trip in Traverse City with 12 middle schoolers with my job. Yesterday, we decided to venture into downtown traverse city. I decided to take a group of 3 girls into different stores to shop. Some background knowledge: all of these girls are Black, and obviously I am also Black. We went into a store called Critters where the girls were looking around and I was closely with them. Upon entering the store, the attendants were quite rude. The girls greeted the employees and received no response. As they continued looking throughout the store, a white employee closely followed us and invaded our personal space. She watched us the whole time like she thought we were going to steal something. Now I noticed this right away and tried to shield the girls from her. No one else in the store (all the rest, white) were being followed. I didn’t say anything to the girls, but after some time they all started noticing the employee following us. They became upset and we left the store, with the girls expressing their frustration and stated they were nearly in tears feeling singled out like that.

Later, we joined the part of our other group in the same store. This group had more white students and were being led by a white chaperone, and none of them were followed—despite being quite loud and rowdy (as expected, they’re kids). In the evening I told my boss what happened and we decided to go file a formalized complaint with the store. We asked to speak to a manager. When we calmly explained the situation and our concerns, we were greeted with hostility and I would go as far to say disrespect. They were very defensive and insisted it wasn’t bias acting out at all.

I’m putting this out there on social media for a few reasons. To express my frustrations with this world— stuff like that happens to me personally often, but to see that happen to these kids I care about broke my heart. They were just trying to have a fun time on a trip they worked hard for, and were confronted with racism. Secondly, I want to hold this business accountable. It’s not right to have these things happen to anybody, particularly children, and it wasn’t right of them to respond how they did.

Thirdly, I want to bring awareness. This stuff happens daily and it’s not okay. White people, speak up with your friends of color if you see this happening. Be aware of it happening. Stand up for what’s right. Businesses, think about how different populations are treated at your store. And if someone makes a similar complaint, come with a learning posture rather than immediately defensive. People of color, it’s okay to call out racism whenever and wherever you see it.

I’m saddened I’m still in a world to worry about these things on a fun trip with kids.”

I was the white leader mentioned in the story above. I observed that my group was not followed while we were shopping that same day. I went with Danah later that day to file a complaint with the manager. We stayed calm as we explained the scenario, what happened, and how it made the group feel. We were told the store instructed staff to follow people due to issues of theft. We tried to explain that this practice had made students in our group feel very uncomfortable. The students felt so uncomfortable, they asked Danah if they had to buy something to prove they weren’t stealing. The managers were both visibly upset by our complaint. We were greeted with resistance and resentment and we left not feeling heard. I received a call from the owner the next day, who apologized for the incident. He assured me that they would talk this over with their staff. I told him I appreciated the phone call, and that I hoped they heard our complaint and would make changes so that another group would not have the same experience in the future. Our conversation was rather brief, and I later regretted getting off the phone before discussing with him how the staff initially responded to our complaint.

I hope people become more aware, as Danah describes above, but that will only happen if we are willing to listen and learn. If you are reading this story and feel defensive or like you want to argue-  please try to listen. Being followed in a store is a very common experience for people of color, and if we don’t call it out, it is not going to change. Danah writes above, “White people, speak up with your friends of color if you see this happening. Be aware of it happening. Stand up for what’s right.” Danah and I have discussed how the conversation could have gone differently if I had not been there with her. White friends, this is our work to do alongside our friends of color. It’s our responsibility to confront racism when we see it. And, if we don’t see it, it is important to believe the stories that people of color share with us.

Why are we dedicating a public blog post on New City Neighbor’s page to sharing this story? Our mission is empowering youth to reach their full potential, and our community is made up of a diversity of youth from different backgrounds. In order to fully achieve our mission, we’ve made a commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization. Not only is this essential to our mission, it’s essential to us living out our faith as Christians. We believe that God created all people in his image, and racism in all its forms, works to destroy that image. Racial superiority and inferiority are lies that our society, history, and media have taught us. These lies look at people’s skin color and then say that some people are better than others, that some are more trustworthy, some work harder, some are more worthy, some are smarter, and that there are some people who are more likely to shoplift. These are all lies, and these lies ultimately have the power to destroy us all if we do not intentionally fight them.

We’ve been intentionally doing the work of dismantling racism and understanding bias at New City Neighbors for the last two and half years. It is important for all of us to regularly evaluate the biases society has taught us, and how they are impacting the way we respond to people around us, both implicitly and explicitly. We require all of our board and staff members to attend anti-racism training through CORR (Congregations Organizing for Racial Reconciliation), and have had partners such as Tall Turf Ministries and The Grand Rapids Urban League do anti-racism and implicit bias trainings with our high school staff. We formed an anti-racism team just over a year ago. We have seen racism, sexism, and other isms impacting our community at all levels of our organization, and we work hard to address them. This is an ongoing journey for all of us.

In order to be a community that empowers youth we need to confront the things that disempower. As the story above illustrates, racism directly impacts our youth, and we cannot ignore it. I echo Danah’s comment, “I’m saddened I’m still living in a world to worry about these things on a fun trip with kids.” Thankfully, overall, we still had a good trip, but this incident will not be forgotten and will have a lasting impact on our youth.

–Alaina Dobkowski, Executive Director