On Monday, Oct. 19, 15 members of the Knox County community gathered in a room in the Hunter Hall of Mount Vernon Nazarene University. A mix of people, young and old, sat at desks grouped loosely around a projector. The projected image stated the following goals: “Promote the diversity that exists in our community; Be proactive to prevent local incidences of injustice and inequality; Serve as a resource to the local community.” The attendants spoke passionately, suggesting ideas for events and outreach opportunities.
This meeting was the first of the Knox Alliance for Racial Equality, or KARE, a local organization dedicated to opening up discussion of racial issues within the community. The meeting was organized and led by Reverend Scott Elliott, a minister at the Mount Vernon First Congregational United Church of Christ. A life-long champion of civil rights, Elliott became concerned about racial issues within Mount Vernon in 2014. At this time, Elliott’s church hung a banner in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Shortly afterward, the banner was stolen.
Elliott was surprised by the community backlash against the church’s stance. He believes it’s sometimes tempting to ignore issues of racial inequality, even when they impact people in our community. “This is something it’s easy for people not to see,” he said. “Our hope is to bring people to the point where they can see that.”
KARE was created, in part, as a response to the lack of racial awareness Elliott saw in the Knox County community. While the group considered structuring itself as a chapter of the NAACP, they eventually decided that a local organization would be more conducive to their goals of outreach and conversation.
While KARE is Elliott’s most recent project involving racial justice, it isn’t his first. In 2016, he worked in concert with three other churches to launch a program called Overcoming Racism. Structured as a combination classroom/book discussion group, Overcoming Racism seeks to educate its members on issues of racial inequality by exposing them to a variety of literature. Their first book, America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallace, examined America’s racial issues from a Christian perspective. Their most recent, a memoir by Dan-el Padilla Peralta titled Undocumented, tells the author’s story of going through an American school system without the benefits of a visa. In addition to discussions of the book, the class features panels of local community members who share their experiences with racism in Knox County. It has also featured, in its most recent iteration, a visit from the author of the book.
Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld, has led a number of these discussions. She believes the classes have been successful, despite the problems inherent in programs of this kind.
“I think there’s always the challenge of how you get beyond preaching to the choir,” Schoenfeld said. “Some of the folks who most need to think about racism and white privilege in Knox County maybe would not show up to an Overcoming Racism class. But I think those who do show up have learned things and thought deeply and made connections.”
The Overcoming Racism class is open to the public and runs in six week sessions at 7 p.m. on Mondays at the Parish House. Students can contact Priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish and Chaplain Rachel Kessler ’04 at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about upcoming sessions.