SOUTHINGTON — Lauren Johns, the mother of a Southington student and herself a product of the school system, was among a group of speakers Wednesday afternoon asked to define racial consciousness.
Johns, who is African-American, grew up in Southington. She graduated from high school in the early 1990s and attended the University of Connecticut. For a short while she lived in New Jersey. But she has since returned to the town she grew up in. And her parents have never left.
She described racial consciousness, based on her experience, as feeling like an outsider even in her own hometown.
The meeting, conducted by video call, was the second of a three part race and diversity series hosted by the Southington Public Schools Coalition for Social Justice.
Johns, at a very young age, became aware that she was different from her peers. That difference was based on her skin color. Although Southington's demographics have shifted from the time Johns was a student, the town and its school system are still largely white.
According to state Department of Education statistics, during the school year that just ended, almost 80% of the more than 6,300 students enrolled in the school system were white. Less than 3% of students were African-American. Just under 10% of the student population were Hispanic or Latino.
The town is far more diverse than it was when Johns was a student.
“As a lifelong member of the town of Southington, I have always felt like an outsider,” Johns said in a subsequent interview. Even though she grew up and lives in town, Johns still encounters residents who ask where she is from. They often seem surprised to learn they are from the same town.
As a child, Johns developed a defense mechanism for dealing with situations during which she felt like an outsider — humor.
A day after sharing her story at the coalition meeting, Johns described the feeling as “healing for me and it was powerful.”
Johns said it is important for her to stay involved, to provide a voice for her child and for other people of color. She described an experience in the early 1990s when she saw local community members in Ku Klux Klan robes.
The Coalition for Social Justice was formed more than a year ago after a video surfaced on social media in which a Southington High School student used racial slurs and threatened Black classmates with lynching. The coalition’s tasks include taking a deep look at issues related to diversity within the Southington Public Schools.
Board of Education member Bob Brown, a long-time former educator, was another speaker during Wednesday's event. Brown is white. He relayed the experience of growing up in another predominantly white community, Bristol.
He described encountering racism in his own family. It was among the many instances that would shape Brown's views, to be open-minded, accepting, and willing to walk in someone else's shoes.
“I do believe things are changing,” Brown said during the remote conversation. “Personally I wish things would change a little faster.”