Community racial justice group brainstorms plans for bilingual school, trainings with students
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – In response to the police killing of George Floyd in May, community members in Routt County have joined movements around the country to bring racial justice action into their communities.
Chaired by Lisel Petis, a member of Steamboat Springs City Council, the local racial justice committee meets bi-weekly to read various articles, discuss personal experiences and brainstorm solutions on how to make Routt County more inclusive.
“Everyone is at such a different stage in their understanding and appreciation for racial justice,” Petis said. “It has nothing to do with your political beliefs. There’s just something that makes this very difficult for people to talk about without getting upset.”
One central goal of the group, Petis said, is creating a judgment-free zone where participants can ask questions and share disagreements without condemnation or argument.
This approach works well for Irene Avitia, who moved to Steamboat as a teenager after growing up in a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico.
“It’s a safe place where we can talk about these topics and not just whisper,” she said. “It’s OK to not agree, but it’s a safe place to not be attacked for disagreements.”
Avitia is one of the few people of color on the committee, and she said the discussions have provided her a place to share her own experiences as suggestions for how to improve the community as well as hear concerns of others.
Raising children in a bilingual, bicultural household has presented itself as a challenge in a predominantly white community, Avitia said, which is a story she has shared with the other discussion group members.
“It’s been a struggle … and that’s something that I’ve expressed,” she said. “It’s very devastating when your child comes home, and they ask you which country they belong to.”
Avitia also said being a person of color in a predominantly white community has given her a unique perspective to share with the group.
“As a person of color, you definitely experience some of those issues personally,” she said. “I share experiences that I’ve had and little things we can do as a community to welcome all people regardless of their language, regardless of their skin color, regardless of the place they come from.”
Graham Hackett, a member of the committee and the social change program manager for Advocates of Routt County, said while his work has focused on social justice for decades, he’s felt empowered by the opportunity to share that work with others in the community.
“The lack of diversity in Steamboat can limit the amount of visibility people with different backgrounds get,” Hackett said. “We need a group like this to try and acknowledge those circumstances and figure out a path forward where everyone is treated more equitably.”
Petis said a core focus of the group is to ease the tension and stigma around talking about race and make the topic more approachable for those in the community.
“There’s this rhetoric out there that you can’t be pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-police, but you can be both. It’s not one or the other, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many people think otherwise,” she said. “There’s a lot of tension around all of these areas.”
While the group mainly focuses on discussion, members also have brainstormed tangible ideas to present to community leaders.
The creation of a bilingual school in Steamboat is on the group’s agenda, and Avitia said such a school would have helped her when she first moved to Steamboat.
“My focus is how can we support kids who were born here but are growing up in a different culture at home, and they’re proud of that culture,” she said. “How can we support those kids and make them feel welcome when they go to school?”
In addition to pushing for a bilingual school, group members hope to do diversity, equity and inclusivity training with students to prepare them to have those hard conversations as they grow up.
“We talk a lot about how we have to start educating our kids in order to make a change because they’re the future of our country,” Avitia said. “We have to make them the right leaders and the right advocates.”
Petis, along with fellow council member Sonja Macys, plan to present a list of racial justice initiatives to City Council at its next meeting Nov. 10.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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