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Among Greater Lafayette Activists, Aims Overlap, But Conflicts Persist

Emilie Syberg

Greater Lafayette is home to a host of groups fighting for a cause, whether that’s racial equality, reproductive justice, or an end to gun violence. The broader goals of many of these organizations overlap, but sometimes conflicts can threaten to derail their conversations.

At the end of May, the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette e-mailed its group list, inviting people to participate in a week of events dedicated to gun violence awareness, in partnership with the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. A community cookout was planned in Tapawingo Park. The fountain at Riehle Plaza would turn orange, and so would the dome of the county courthouse. West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis would be issuing a proclamation for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

A few hours passed, and a response appeared.

“Please remove me from this group,” said Mike Vinson, a West Lafayette Lutheran pastor. “I in no way want to be affiliated with an organization that would perpetuate what gun control laws have always been in our nation.” Vinson wrote that he believes those laws were racist, targeting black men and other minorities.

“You know, first we have to acknowledge that there is truth to the racist component of gun control laws,” says Kathy Parker, the leader of the local chapter of Moms Demand. “Pastor Mike is right.” 

Seeking common ground

Parker says Moms Demand focuses on preventing gun violence, and that the organization supports the second amendment. She says the local chapter has lost members over differences in opinion on just how far to go in the fight over gun control; a few years ago, a former member posted on the local Moms Demand Facebook page that it was “time to disarm the police”, a stance Parker says is not a goal of the organization.

“That created quite a ruckus in our local group,” Parker says, “and we had to calm those waters a bit. Still, people don’t agree with us about that. Still, people think we should be disarming the police.”

But, Parker says, progress is generally baby steps.

“And that's something we have to accept,” Parker says. “We can't just have all or nothing. All of our wishes or nothing.”

Vinson declined multiple interview requests, but he reiterated in an e-mailed statement his belief that current gun laws disproportionately impact minority groups.  

Temple Israel’s Rabbi Mike Harvey is the current director of ILGL.

“There's a great deal to be angry about, and a great deal to be upset about,” Harvey says. “And he has every right to feel that way. And I think the association of ILGL with Moms Demand sort of triggered something for him, to say, 'Wait a minute.'" 

He says they’re willing to work with those who want to see activism done differently – they just need to communicate.

“Help educate us so we can also fight that battle with you,” Harvey says. “Because if that's what's going on, maybe we're missing something. And let us fight next to you.”

Harvey says he understands Vinson’s position. He says he was hesitant to participate in a Women in Action of Greater Lafayette event earlier this year, during a time when the national Women’s March movement was being accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric. Harvey says when he raised his concerns, local organizers agreed.

Both Vinson and Harvey’s responses show how otherwise like-minded people can sometimes struggle to reach an accord. Others say differences in race, in age, or even in how long someone has been an activist can also create a communication breakdown.

An increase in activism

Sheila Rosenthal is a coordinator of the group Greater Lafayette Progressives, which she says has existed in one form or another since 2004.

“We had a slogan: “Anyone But Bush,” Rosenthal says. “A-B-B.” She laughs.

Credit Emilie Syberg / WBAA
Diane Fox joined Greater Lafayette Progressives after the 2016 presidential election.

Rosenthal is sitting at her kitchen table with fellow GLP member Diane Fox, who happens to be wearing a Wear Orange hat. Fox says she felt compelled to join an activist group after the 2016 presidential election.

“Maybe if I would have been more involved, I could have seen it coming—I could have done something,” Fox says. “It’s just wanting to do something to participate.”

Rosenthal says she’s seen a surge in the number of people engaging in activism since the 2016 presidential election.

“In general, that's a positive thing, but sometimes, the influx of so many different groups makes it harder to--we're all kind of what I call in our silos, our little spaces, and we have difficulty seeing beyond what we're trying to work on within that group,” Rosenthal says.

Vanessa Pacheco of Younger Women’s Task Force of Greater Lafayette says the most important word for an organizer is solidarity.

“And if people are not prepared to demonstrate solidarity and see the ways in which we are all inextricably tied together, that can produce challenges,” Pacheco says. 

Pacheco also says sometimes there’s an assumption that younger activists shouldn’t, as she puts it, “enter the arena.” And she says getting pushback should be looked at as an opportunity.

“That's a great moment for us to take a look at how we can support each other better--and for me to be radically open to what they have to say to me,” Pacheco says.

“It’s more relationship building. It’s more having the conversations outside of this sort of high pressure context,” says Kirsten Gibson of Showing Up For Racial Justice, or SURJ. “Having a chat about the pros and cons of the last month in organizing over a beer, rather than only talking when somebody needs something, or wants you to come to something.”  

"I think the goal is to work together"

Many of the people interviewed for this story stressed that productive partnerships exist among the groups—many of the rallies and initiatives of the past year sprang from the collaboration of multiple organizations, including a recent ILGL event protesting conditions for immigrants at border facilities that featured representatives from the YWCA to Greater Lafayette Immigrant Allies speaking to a packed house at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

But some were hesitant to speak publicly about more specific conflicts.   

“I think the goal is to work together,” says Sadie Harper-Scott, who’s been president of the local NAACP branch for 12 years.

Harper-Scott didn’t initially receive Mike Vinson’s e-mail about Moms Demand Action—of which she’s a member—but she saw it.

“But what I’m saying to him is—we get you,” Harper-Scott says.I hear what you’re saying. But we cannot harbor that in us. We’ve got to go to the table and talk about that.”

Credit Emilie Syberg / WBAA
Sadie Harper-Scott is the president of the local branch of the NAACP.

She says that means being willing to have uncomfortable conversations.

“I wonder how many organizations and leadership—how many organization groups we have in the community,” Harper-Scott says. “And how many of those are meeting? How many of us are working on the same thing? They’re all different—most of them are all different. But if we came to the table, you know what kind of progress we would make?”

Harper-Scott reached out to Vinson. Eventually, they met, shared a meal, and talked. She says she’s not sure if they walked away agreeing with each other. But she wants to try again.

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