Glynis Board Published

Q&A: How George Floyd Woke The Ohio Valley… For A Little Bit

Director of Cultural Diversity and Community Outreach at YWCA Ron Scott Jr. leads a discussion about diversity in Wheeling.

A longtime community leader in the Northern Panhandle, Ron Scott Jr. was born and raised in a family of community advocates in Wheeling. He founded and directs the Ohio Valley African American Student Association — an organization that “encourages & promotes higher and continued education for Black and Bi-Racial students in the Ohio Valley.” Now he’s the Director of Cultural Diversity and Community Outreach at the YWCA in Wheeling. The mission of the YWCA is, “Eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.” 

West Virginia Public Broadcasting met up with him to learn about some of the changes he’s seen in his community in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ron Scott Jr. is currently helping to coordinate a multi-year plan to address racial issues across public and private high schools throughout Ohio County. And since the killing of George Floyd began with an altercation over a counterfeit 20 dollar bill, the YWCA has also launched what they’re calling “Change for a 20 Challenge” asking community members to donate a 20 dollar bill and post why they donate in social media channels with #Changefora20. Funds are slated to go to scholarships, and programs and events designed to address diversity, human rights, race relations, and ultimately to cultivate unified community.

Glynis Board: The YWCA in Wheeling began in 1906, right? Talk to me about its history of dedication to diversity. 

Ron Scott Jr.: I’ve never seen an agency that has “eliminating racism” in their mission statement. That’s it. And it’s before “empowering women.” “Eliminating racism, empowering women…” They did something — they called it the Blue Triangle, during segregation. There weren’t services for black women and children and families. It just didn’t exist. So they went out of their way to make a separate agency called the Blue Triangle that was affiliated with the YWCA and it just served black women and children and families. It was around for a while through segregation stuff through Jim Crow. And I’m amazed that I never learned anything about that. Or it’s never been celebrated — the bravery of an agency like that back then. Because you weren’t getting rewarded for that sort of stuff, then. You weren’t considered a visionary for doing that. You were just breaking the rules. And now they were on the right side of history. So it’s kind of cool to be affiliated with an agency that has historically been on the right side of history. 

Board: Have you seen an uptick in interest and in people been coming to you for guidance in the wake of George Floyd’s killing?

Scott: Definitely. And me and a good friend of mine, Jermaine Lucius, we’ve been trying to figure out why this is so different, because the act itself — this isn’t new. Especially not to us. This isn’t a new thing. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I think it may have been the combination of the quarantines from the virus, people just being at home, just watching TV, and it dominating the news stories, and nothing else can take your eyes off. There’s no football games and basketball games; there’s nothing to distract you. So they kind of got to see it, and really let it soak in this time. 

And the outpouring and outcry has been incredible to me. I’ve never experienced this kind of outrage from the white community for an issue that, in essence, doesn’t affect them. It’s not like George Floyd was a white guy that was just doing this thing and got murdered. But I’ve been just inundated with, “What can I do?” “How can I make my agency better? My community better?” 

I thought originally I was going to get a week out of this. And so I’m jumping on whenever I can. Whoever asked me anything, I’m on it. And a week passes, and then two weeks pass, and a month passes and people are still asking me, “What can I do?” And they don’t just want to put a little bandaid on. They’re like, “What can we do that is sustaining?” “How can we change the culture of this agency or this hair salon?”  I’ve been speaking to groups that I just didn’t even know, had those kind of concerns.

There was a local hair salon who had an issue that was race related because people were speaking out we’re seeing these things happen and play out in front of us right on TV. So folks bean to speak out and made it tense and uncomfortable in the salon. And the owner asked me to come and speak to all the staff and we just had a great conversation about their views. 

Because I don’t ever go into the situation with, “You’re wrong. Let me tell you why.” And so we just kind of flesh out whatever it is they already think, what they already feel, and who they want to be, and how they want to be perceived by other people. So once we fleshed all that out, we then realize places like salons are social hubs. People come there and get more candid than they do in doctors offices and therapists offices. And so being able to do that kind of a presentation and talk at a place like that, it has a ripple effect. And that’s how real change happens. You know, it’s not me standing in front of the city building with a megaphone. It’s having presentations at like hair salons or community centers, places like that. And all these places are asking, they’re saying, “What can we do?”

Board: Is there a common theme in these conversations?

Scott: Well, there’s an underlying theme that a lot of people that reach out to me seem to be working with: the issue of them being perceived a racist sometimes seems to be worse than being one. So what they want to make sure happens is — I don’t want to do or say anything that might make folks believe that I’m a racist, or I just have no real sensitivity or tolerance to anyone different than me. So it’s almost like they want me to come in and we do some assessment of the idea, like, “I’ve been in the city for a long time, and I’ve had a few black employees, and my roommate in college…” So we go through all of that sort of stuff. And it’s like they’re unsure because they’re seeing how the systematic racism has permeated almost every institution that they’ve loved. And now, it’s like — and I don’t know why now — they just seem to see it clearly. And some of them it scares them; some are in denial about it; and others just want to go to action. They’re like, “We got to fix this. I didn’t realize this is how you felt every day.” And they’re ready to go. So I’m like, let’s go then! I’m not slowing down. Not until they are.

Board: I hesitate to use the word “hope,” but how do you feel about the future? Do you think that with this more substantial sort of movement afoot, that there will actually be tangible policy changes and cultural shifts?

Scott: Right now, I think I’m hopeful for attitude shifts, paradigm shifts in thinking, and  thinking and personalities — those kind of shifts are definitely happening. And I think we’re gonna to be able to see more of it. But I have begun lately to lose some of the hope because there are certain narratives that are like comfortable shoes to people, you know. And the newest one is the idea that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization that has an agenda that just kill random and innocent white people. I’ve had folks tell me that places are just like war zones now like Beirut and, you know, people don’t want to drive through them anymore. And that narrative, people have adopted it. It’s finally given me a little bit of pause where I can see this starting to lose some traction, because people are believing stuff that they haven’t seen. They haven’t experienced it. No one’s even telling them second or third hand. This is just an abstract idea someone’s just saying and they’re like, “Yes. That’s the case. Let me get back to being comfortable and live in my life. And just give me a few blinders. We need some leagues to come back, we need some games to start, we need something. So I could put these blinders back up and go back to business as usual.” 

Because real change is uncomfortable. And for a minute there people were just ready to get uncomfortable. They were ready to hear this conversation. But with this idea that there’s a terrorist group called Black Lives Matter that’s just killing people, randomly and innocent people for no reasons. It just is a ridiculous notion but people are clinging to it. And I think that might slow us down. 

I’ve been explaining to people, the Black Lives Matters and it isn’t even an organization in a sense. It’s a movement. It’s a sentiment. It’s an idea. I mean, yeah, they got a website. They got principles. There’s a founder. But so does #MeToo, but there’s not a #MeToo office or a board of directors for the #MeToo movement that could organize… No it’s the idea of it. And it’s one that resonates when you get it. When you understand that what you’re saying is black lives matter as well, too. Just like my life matters Black Lives Matter as well. Once you wrap your mind around it is such a simple sentiment and it’s so easy to get behind. But when you throw a little dose of fear in there people are ready to put the comfortable shoe back on, like, “Okay, they’re killing people. We’re good. We’re gonna stay in the house.”

Board: Well, what about here in West Virginia? I’m curious… I don’t even know what I’m curious about now. Now I’m just like, sad.

Scott: Don’t be sad. There’s good stuff. There’s still people — like tonight at five I’m speaking to a group in St. Clairsville. That didn’t exist maybe a month ago. All the stuff was going on. One woman had an interest, so she gathered up people who had an interest, and they want to … they just want to have a conversation to see if there’s more that they can learn, or if they can do better, and I love the idea that someone can still be teachable, nowadays. You can be a grown adult with kids, a successful job, and still say, “There’s stuff, I just don’t get still, and you might be able to help me get it.” And that’s fantastic. Because they’re not looking at that as a weakness. They’re just ready to go.