By Teresa Nguyen
RCHS History Teller
Exploring Today’s Rock County Diversity
“In the last few years since we’ve been here, I’ve never had a problem. I never had an issue with discrimination toward me for my skin color or my scarf. I feel that I’ve been lucky. I feel comfortable here.” ~ Yasmin Erschen
The Nguyen Family – Asian Americans of Janesville
We moved to Janesville in 1990, after graduating from Iowa State University. My husband took an engineering job with Beloit Corp and we were steered toward Janesville to find a home. Lovely Janesville, home of William Tallman, an abolitionist and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. And now, after all these years, I have the joy of seeing the gorgeous Lincoln-Tallman house on a regular basis as a staff member of the Rock County Historical Society.
We were three years married and didn’t know a soul. Soon after moving here, we were expecting our first son.
At first, Janesville was a world different from the university life we’d grown accustomed to; a diverse student population, cultural events, exciting social gatherings. And here, sometimes it seemed that my Vietnamese husband was about the only ethnic person around. In the local restaurants, while we ate and talked over dinner, people would stare … those uncomfortably long stares. Curious eyes followed us, always landing on his gentle, Asian face.
My husband, strong in spirit, easily lets the small stuff roll off his back. His own life experience, dignity, class, intelligence and mostly, his kindness kept him moving forward, proudly walking beside his American wife, disregarding their judging looks.
They just didn’t know my husband or his incredible, harrowing story as a boat refugee from war-torn Vietnam. Little did they know of his mother, who struggled raise her children without her husband, a military captain, who had been captured by the North Vietnamese at the end of the war.
They were ignorant of how my husband faced culture shock in small town Iowa, how he worked his tail off to get through college, or the challenges he faced to earn his engineering degree at Iowa State, because he wasn’t born speaking English. He poured over books to memorize parts of our U.S. Constitution, amendments that these staring people probably didn’t even know, so that he could earn his U.S. citizenship.
Our three beautiful sons inherited their dad’s exotic Asian eyes, warm brown skin and shiny black hair. Like all new mothers, I swaddled my darling newborns in warm receiving blankets and cuddled them close. I kissed those soft, round cheeks, listened to their baby noises and held those tiny, skinny fingers. We nurtured them, played with them, read to them every day, and watched them grow into amazing boys, each with his own mind and talents.
While out on walks in Janesville, inquisitive strangers would stop to ask me where, not even if, I adopted my children. When I told them they were mine, born at Mercy Hospital, the people would sometimes feel embarrassed by their ignorant question. However, none of this bothered me much.
I was still pretty young, but wise enough to know that it just did not occur to them that I might have married someone of a different race. So, I saw it as a cultural, educational opportunity for them to learn about us, about my family. At the very least, it was a basic lesson in genetics.
My children have grown up Asian-American, a product of two amazing cultures, each with its unique history, customs, food and norms. In our home, we have embraced both worlds and our children have been blessed with their mixed heritage.
Before we judge someone by their appearance, their eyes or their skin color, we must first remember that we each possess a unique, personal story.
Capturing Rock County Stories
“In the midst of overwhelming stimulation, when we turn off the technology, and turn to one another, story still has the potential to calm us, to call us back into ourselves, to remind us of the length and breadth of the journey from which we come.” ~ Christina Baldwin
That is what I love about my work as History Teller at RCHS. Just when I think I know someone or a group of people, I will interview someone with even greater knowledge, depth of involvement, or a new perspective that I could never possess. This is because it is their story, and their own view, not mine.
We all have so much to learn from simply listening. We gain so much from being open-minded toward the experiences of others. I have learned a great deal about Rock County, its history, its people, life along the beautiful Rock River and it has greatly deepened my appreciation for this community.
The following are excerpts of stories from some of my Rock County interviewees. They speak on where we are today in our race relations, in our acceptance of the diversity in our community. Each person’s perspective is unique and born of their own experiences.
Perhaps, if we take the time to contemplate their views, we might learn a thing or two about where we’ve been historically, where we stand today and how we might make a positive difference tomorrow.
We Are All Just Human Beings
By José Carrillo – Activist/Advocate for the Latino Community
When I first came here, the minority populations were so few, you could say nearly insignificant. The people I met at the plant were Latinos from Delevan. Janesville wasn’t really ready for having a more diverse community in those years. But, even though I was encouraged and invited to live in Beloit or Delevan, I decided to stay here in Janesville. My kids all went to school from pre-k through high school graduation in the Janesville district. Over the decades, our Latino community has really grown in Rock County.
I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, especially in the way people approach me. It used to be people insult me to my face, they would say, “Get out of here, you dirty Mexican.” Or they’d say, “Go back to Mexico.” I did experience plenty of racism in the early years here.
And I know it’s still there…that there are people who still feel that way, but we are treated with more respect these days. There are people who are willing to get to know you. They start to know who you are and see that you are just a human being like they are. They are more willing to socialize with you, want to eat your food and drink your tequila.
One of the good changes I’ve witnessed is that there’s been more education about diversity here. People are more open-minded.
By Reverend O’Zell Golden – Advocate for the African American Community
On the African American history in Beloit, the Union Hall in Beloit was once used in the Underground Railroad. Then, after the slave movement, that building was used to house the workers up from Mississippi to work at Fairbanks Morse, manufacturer of locomotive engines, and at Iron Works. The Flats community was created from this extension of the Underground Railroad.
I guess the biggest change I’ve seen is in the rise of unemployment in the Black community county wide. I believe it stems from a lack of education coupled with a lack of opportunity. I have taken it upon myself to walk out in the community to try and find employment for the people in the area of construction. The leaders in the construction business have been seeking people to train and I try to help those folks to get connected to a job.
Even though our ethnic populations have grown in Rock County, it is unfortunate that racism is still very prevalent in our community. I could live and work next to someone for years, but they might never learn about who I really am. I’ve never considered this simply “ignorance”. I feel it’s rather that they didn’t want to know me.
You can change laws, but you can’t change people’s hearts. It takes a special operation to change the heart.
Ethnic Role Models Needed
By Camilla Owen – Member of the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship Fund
The Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship program started in 2008 and its purpose is to provide a multicultural pool of teacher candidates for the Janesville School District. We’re still in need of support.
Sometimes it’s hard to convince people in this area how important it is to bring in people of color in to teach children of color, to be their role models and set an example. We have to face and embrace the diversity in this town.
Without Fear We Become Closer
By Jaleh Dabiri – YWCA Woman of Distinction Recipient, 2011
My first impression was that I didn’t want to live here. I felt that way because I had lived most of my life in Los Angeles and I didn’t know anybody. I felt like I was not included. But, because of our business, it wasn’t that difficult. If it hadn’t been for the business, it would have been a big struggle.
Diversity is not only in look and shape, but what you know about other ethnic groups. I feel like I’m a walking museum. I try, really, I feel like maybe I was meant to come here, to help educate people on what a woman from the Middle East looks like.
The more we let our neighbors and coworkers and friends know about us, the less fear there is, and if there is no fear, we become closer.
We Need to Work Together
By Sam Leibert – Co-Chair of the African-American Liaison Advisory Committee
The Janesville Police Department has joined a variety of community leaders in forming the African American Liaison Advisory Committee (AALAC). The committee assists and supports the department with advice on Africa American related issues within the community.
“I’m incredibly happy to see this committee take off. Now, more than ever, the community and police department should be working hand in hand. The Janesville Police Department has done a lot of great work and outreach, and I believe this will only continue that momentum.”
It Begins with Our Youth
By Kathy Boguszewski – Volunteer Mentor at Rock University High School
As the High School Librarian, I soon learned many ways to open the minds of the students. The collection was pretty traditional, with many resources centering on the lives of white European descendants and youth. I added Rolling Stone magazine, award winning fiction and non-fiction books on African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, books on various religions including Judaism and Islam. In the early nineties, I added the most forbidden of all, books on gays and lesbians.
Opening minds never stops. I am honored to be part of the learning process with the youth in our community.
We Need More Action
By Marc Perry – Director of Community Programs at Community Action, Inc.
We have a very long way to go. On some level, I feel there’s been some regression over the past few years. When it comes to issues of race and culture, people have a hard time of holding others accountable for their misconceptions, for their bigotry, for their ignorance. We give people a pass too often, and at times when we shouldn’t.
It’s wonderful the work that some of these groups are doing in the community, Diversity Action Team being one, but I think overall, our conversation and dialogue about race, our acceptance of differences has to grow.
Discussion is really good. We need to continue the dialogue, but there also has to be some action and some push behind what we say.
We Can Learn from Each Other
By Santo Carfora – Former President, Current Treasurer of Diversity Action Team
I was dealing with situations where people would make me feel awkward about my dialect. They would tease me about it and say to me, “So where are you really from?” And I’d say, “What do you mean? You know I’m from Brooklyn.” And they’d say, “But, no, no, where are you really from?” They wanted to know my ancestry.
Knowing from my homework on the community that we were a pretty homogeneous place, I’d ask, “So where do you think I’m from?” They’d say, “Well with a name like Santo … (pronouncing it incorrectly with an a as in ‘father’, instead of an a as in ‘apple’), you must be Latino and you’re Puerto Rican.” And I looked at them and said, “No, I’m not Puerto Rican.”
I could tell they were relieved that I wasn’t Puerto Rican. So, then they’d ask, “So, are you Mexican?” I said, “No, I’m not Mexican, I don’t even speak Spanish.” And I could tell again that they were thinking, “Oh, that’s good, he’s not Mexican.”
Each of those reactions was like a shot in the heart. This is crazy. But, when they learned that I was an Italian American, they seemed to think that was acceptable. And it broke my heart. Because I thought about those who were Puerto Rican or Mexican or Black…I knew they would not be welcomed here.
I’ve seen demographic changes over the years. We went from a community that had 2 African American families to about a 25 – 28% population of color. Of that, I’d say 18% is Latino, which is consistent with the national demographics, and we have about an 8-9% African American population.
We have a city that has started to look into diversity. We’ve done some work for the city and we actually have a “Diversity Statement” now. We had a City Council President, Sam Liebert, who is African American. We are at a point where the police department has an African American Liaison Advisory Committee, of which I am a member. That is run by an African American, Jason Davis.
Chief Moore is very supportive and he is doing a lot of good things to train his officers. So, rather than reacting to situations, they are learning to respond to the changing demographics. At the end of the day, they just want to still be alive. I tell them, too, “You need to be vigilant and aware. Often YOU are stereotyped. It doesn’t matter what color you are. A cop is a cop.”
Our systemic racism is so deep, that even our cops of color are marginalized citizens of color. And for people raising a Black kid, male in particular, there are things you’re going to tell him that you wouldn’t consider telling your White kid.
I wish we could say, “Let’s get together and figure out how to build bridges. What can we learn from each other?” We are just richer and better working together. It is to our advantage to work with each other.
A Personal Conclusion
After becoming young parents to three little Asian-American boys, we began to see great value in this beautiful, quiet city. There was little crime, we explored so many gorgeous parks, the meandering Rock River area was filled with fun events, we enjoyed a fantastic Children’s Department at Hedberg Public Library and exciting shows at the Janesville Performing Arts Center. Our sons attended excellent public schools, had quality teachers, and wonderful opportunities growing up here in Janesville.
But not all was rosy. My older two boys were often referred to as “Asian” in middle and high school. Not like, “He’s that Asian saxophone player”, but rather, “Hey, Asian, do we have band practice tomorrow?”. My sons became used to it, and in the example of their father, did not confront the issue, but rather proved who they were through their good character. Five years later, when my youngest went to the same high school, I asked him if anyone called him “Asian”. He said, “No, Mom, they only call me by my name.”
We’ve made progress.
Over time, Janesville has made us feel very welcomed. We feel like we belong here, we have a diverse group of wonderful friends and have truly enjoyed living, working and becoming involved in this great community. We’re proud to call Rock County our home.
Over the years, I believe the area has truly changed for the better and we continue to evolve. We’ve learned, through our own growing pains, beyond fall of General Motors, that we can overcome. And here we are now with new business growth and the revitalization of downtown. We can see that by working together, we can embrace change of all types, and thrive as a community.
Just as we grow in economic change and development, we can grow in our acceptance of the new diversity in our community. Moving forward, we will continue to face challenges and choices when it comes to our growing ethnic populations.
Perhaps if we can all see our new neighbors for, as Martin Luther King Jr. hoped, the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, then can we begin to write a new and positive chapter in our Rock County history.