A railroad divides the city of Lebanon, Pa. in half. In some people’s minds, there is literally a wrong side of the tracks.
“There’s this stigma, this thing, where Blacks and Puerto Ricans — people of color — we all come from the north side,” said Michelle Cotton, who has a white mother and a Black father.
Cotton, 38, has lived in Lebanon all her life, mostly the north side. She moved in 2013 to the other side of town.
“I had a landlord illegally charge me three times security if I wanted to get the house that I have now, and I paid it because I knew that’s just what it is,” she said. “He even said to me, ‘You’re coming from the north side and how do I know you’re not going to ruin my property?’ I had to sign in the lease that I was not a prostitute or sold drugs.”
Lebanon, a city of about 26,000 between Harrisburg and Reading, has seen major demographic shifts in the past few decades, driven by a growing Latino population. In 20 years, the city’s census breakdown by race and Hispanic origin changed from about 16% Latino and 3% Black to 44% Latino and 5% Black. For most of Cotton’s life, the local economy has been evolving, too, growing out of the shadow of the 1986 closure of the town’s steel plant.
Cotton says she grew up learning unspoken rules, like what restaurants and bars to avoid for the overt racism. She watched her mother face prejudice from her family and the community for her parents’ interracial relationship. For a long time, Cotton was one of a few biracial students in the district.
“We got it bad,” she said. “We were teased. I was always asked if I was adopted.”
Beginning around the time she entered high school, she met a more diverse set of friends, mostly people of color who moved from New York, Philadelphia, and Puerto Rico.
“That was everything for us,” she said. “But a lot of older people were like, ‘There goes the neighborhood.’”
Cotton says that ‘us and them’ sentiment is still very much alive.
For instance, the year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Cotton remembers people complaining that local Puerto Rican children were being given too much priority by school officials.
“I want to change that mentality, you know? We should be embracing each other,” she said.
‘Unacceptable for our children’
Cotton has tried to bring people together in this way before.
She wanted to hold a town hall after one of the many police brutality events that made national headlines in the past few years, though she could not remember which one.
“And I’m going, ‘Who’s with me?’ Nobody wanted to do it. It never got anywhere, and I’m just on social media talking about how much Lebanon should speak out,” she said.
To Cotton, police brutality is a Lebanon problem as well as a national problem, one she has observed through friends’ and family members’ experiences with police.
Cotton feels especially driven in her advocacy because her 4-year-old son is autistic and she has custody over her 32-year old brother, who has autism as well. She fears what could happen if they are ever stopped or questioned by police.
“We shouldn’t have to be fearful of that,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be afraid of what this is going to turn into. So, yeah: everything is because I’m a mom. This is unacceptable for our children.”
After George Floyd was killed, Cotton asked around to see if this time anyone was willing to organize in Lebanon.
The response was much different.
Cotton learned two younger women, Paige Hall, 20, and Abigail Bragunier, 19, were planning a protest, and joined them.
“I have been so outside of my comfort zone, but if it gives even any kid who grows up in Lebanon a chance to be more comfortable with themselves, to not have to go through the self-hatred that I had to go through,” said Hall, who is Black, “then, it has to be done.”
Hall describes herself as an introvert and an empath. “I really try to stay away from people because it will affect me greatly.”
At the protest, Hall said to hundreds of community members through a megaphone, “We need to have these difficult conversations with open minds and open hearts; we need to let our feelings be felt.” She implored local authorities to show Lebanon residents of color that they would protect them.
Hall’s friend, Bragunier, who is white, was the other lead organizer.
“I was born into a very racist place and even I knew as a kid this wasn’t right. But Paige is one of my best friends and when I told her I was so mad about George Floyd — and I was, I was so mad — she was like, ‘Do some research.’”
Bragunier says she became more conscious of systemic racism in 2014, when New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner with a chokehold on Staten Island. This year she wanted to do something with feelings and awareness she had just let sit before.
The protest the group organized drew hundreds of people to gather at the Lebanon County courthouse, before an impromptu march to the county jail.
In the lead-up to the event, Bragunier says she received threatening messages on social media.
“It got serious when somebody told me exactly where I worked,” she said. “They knew where I was that day. My family didn’t want me to leave the house. I lost a lot of sleep, and so did Paige, a lot of sleep over it.”
Bragunier hopes to go to college and maybe become a lawyer. She was accepted to Kutztown University but cannot afford tuition yet, so she is becoming certified as a nursing assistant first while studying on her own. Waiting for people to arrive at a Juneteenth celebration organized by Cotton, Bragunier was reading one of her friends’ political science textbooks.
Neither Bragunier nor Hall see a long-term future for themselves in Lebanon.
“That’s why I’m trying so hard to make a difference while I’m here. But for my health, for my peace of mind, I can’t stay here,” Hall said. “Lebanon just taught me I guess how to be tough. How to just, stick it out, push through.”
She is a songwriter and is considering moving to Atlanta for the music scene.
“There are a lot of Black artists down there and there’s a lot of Black prosperity down there. I feel like that’s definitely what I need to be around,” she said.
Michelle Cotton says she and her family are glad they have put down roots in Lebanon. But she says local leaders, including police, need to seize this moment in a way that makes the town more inviting for all.
“Talk to us. Open up something to the public where we can say what has happened to us, our family, our friends, and then act accordingly.”
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
Multiple people who have themselves experienced racism in the community commented that it was a little strange to be interviewed by a white reporter from another town about these experiences, and that they were hopeful but apprehensive about the surge of attention on issues of racism nationwide. Most were frank about the work that needs to be done in Lebanon, but quick to recognize the aspects of the community that make it “beautiful” and “tight-knit,” alongside its problems. One said being interviewed was cathartic, along with other conversations she has been able to have recently with people in her life. I talked to people other than the three women featured in this story, so I’m not just drawing from their reactions to being interviewed, but others’ as well.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
The three women in this story are engaged in what’s going on locally and nationally, but they made a point to leave politics out of their organizing. Their reasons for wanting to give people in Lebanon an opportunity to protest were personal and localized, even as they are dealing with a systemic problem that persists nationwide, and they were really open about them. Maybe the biggest surprise was how quickly this kind of project can reveal the boundaries in a place… physical boundaries as well as divides in experiences and how people participate in community life. The way city leaders and even public commenters talk about local policing, for example, is different from what some in the community have to say. I met residents whose mission is to bridge that gap — generally, not just with policing — through civic engagement, and others who say they will need local leaders to take the next step.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
This is a challenging time for community engagement and I’m still figuring out what works. I think there is something to be said for following up with people after a one-off event to learn on a deeper level what brought them there and how it influenced them. I also think it is helpful to be open about how the story is evolving and why, including people in the process a bit more than you would most public figures or officials. Finally, this is my first story with the project and I know there is plenty more to learn about the community. The first step, I think, is to follow up with people about what they think: what resonates (or doesn’t), and what else is missing.
Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter