What’s next for Black advocacy in Holland?

When 4,000 people lined Unity Bridge to show their support for Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, organizers were floored.

But a movement can’t be just one march; it can’t be just one day. What’s next?

March organizers Henry and Lindsay Cherry's answer to “what’s next” begins with answering a slightly different question: “How do I become an ally?”

Ally to Accomplice

With the help of other community leaders, they created a four-part web series called “Ally to Accomplice.” It’s a starting point for people who haven’t necessarily experienced racism, but want to help eradicate it.

The a four-part web series for those who want to actively move toward identifying and helping to dismantle racist systems.
  • Part 1 (Introduction)
  • Part 2 (History of policing and the defund the police movement)
  • Part 3 (Systemic nature of racism)
  • Part 4 (Local leaders speak and next steps)

After video surfaced earlier this year of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, dying while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, the pervasive racism in America seemed to crystalize for many who didn’t have to face it in their everyday lives.

Dismantling racism

How, exactly, do you go about dismantling the racist system? The answer isn’t easy. The Cherrys and a local group still in its infancy have suggested starting by cutting 5% or 10% from the Holland Department of Public Safety police budget and using that to bring down barriers to wifi for low-income households or creating a rec center near the South Washington low-income apartments. The closest park is 1.5 miles away.

A recreation center could be a huge draw for companies hoping to attract talent, the Cherrys say.

It’s one small step toward moving resources away from punishment and toward helping to break the cycle of generational poverty, they say. 

The average White family possesses 10 times the wealth of the average Black family in America, according to the Brookings Institute. 

Inequity has been passed down generation-to-generation from chattel slavery to the destruction of Black Wall Street to Jim Crow to redlining

“We don’t want to take their piece of the pie. We just want our own piece,” Lindsay Cherry says. We’re just another family. I just want my children to have the same opportunities, the same respect you expect for your own children”

Helping hand

Henry Cherry spent several years as a site supervisor (a job title now known as assistant dean) at Holland Public Schools, but more recently as director of local engagement at Christ Memorial Church.

These students are part of I AM Academy, a community nonprofit for Black youth mentorship.
His work at the church puts Cherry at the beginning of the process when he can offer a hand up instead of focusing on discipline as might be necessary in a school system. Cherry now works with entire families, improving the home environment and helping with basic needs such as food and housing.

“If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me. Yeah, I’m a husband but I also identify as a Black man and all the things that come with that,” he says, adding he is glad he is at Christ Memorial, because without his voice certain conversations wouldn’t happen.

Peace march

Lindsay and Henry Cherry had planned their peace march in honor of George Floyd for Sunday, May 31, but riots in Grand Rapids raised safety concerns. The momentum had already started, however, and a few hundred people showed up at the original time and place despite the protest’s cancellation. 

The Cherrys pushed their event to coincide with another peace march planned for Sunday, June 7.

Organizers thought if 1,000 people marched to Unity Bridge known as George’s Peaceful Unity Demonstration, it would be amazing. 

Nearly 4,000 people lined the bridge that links the city of Holland and Holland Charter Township, organizers say.

“To see that many people show up, it didn’t seem real,” Henry Cherry says.

Before everyone started marching toward Unity Bridge, several people spoke. It was important that young people were a part of that, the Cherrys say.

Event co-organizer Lily Harman, 18, told the Sunday afternoon crowd: “I stand here today to tell you I hear you, I see you, and everyone who came out here today to support sees you, too, and we want change.”

Representation in schools

Lindsay Cherry has carried the banner for Black students and other students of color at West Ottawa Public Schools.

“There’s a huge lack of representation, so they (black students) aren’t seeing themselves represented in the curriculum. They aren’t seeing themselves represented in the adults,” says Cherry, the only Black teacher at West Ottawa. Holland Public Schools has two black teachers.

Students who have endured years of lowered expectations start to believe that’s all they are capable of, Lindsay Cherry says. She pushes her students of color to take on advanced classes. If they don’t see peers who look like them in advanced classes, they are less likely to volunteer, not wanting to be “the only one,” she says.

Approximately 60% of area students are people of color, but less than 1 percent of area educators are. It makes it difficult to see their possibilities if they don’t see people who look like them achieving those dreams.

“Do they see themselves as principals? Or as doctors or as lawyers or as the president?” Lindsay Cherry asks.

She hopes her presence shows students of color “If I can do it, you can do it.”

“That’s not to say white teachers can’t do that,” she says, “but they have to be intentional.”

She has found support from her fellow teachers, and West Ottawa will start a districtwide diversity, equity, and inclusion training this year led by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

Tomorrow’s Leaders

The Cherrys have been working with Black high school and middle school students through clubs called Tomorrow’s Leaders. The meetings introduce mentors, weekly check-ins, and Black male community leaders to show what is possible. Other students are welcome, too, but they will learn about how to be an ally. 

They recently formed a nonprofit around the Tomorrow’s Leaders idea called I AM Academy. A $20,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area will help get I Am Academy off the ground.

“We want to see our future generations experience a better journey through the education system and know that success is within their reach,” a founding document of the group states. “We are passionate about guiding, helping, and seeing young Black men and women stay the course towards a successful future. This initiative matters because it will keep children out of the school-to-prison pipeline and open up new opportunities for students and the community.”
At least a few times a week, Black students can see people who look like them who are achieving their goals.

“(Students need to know) there’s a lot more they can offer this world than being an entertainer,” Henry says. “If you want to do that, you can do that too. But you’re more than that.”
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