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Local organizations work to ease fears of those in crosshairs of new president-elect and his followers 

Can love win in Charlotte?

On the afternoon of November 9, 2016, a group of Charlotte-area refugee and immigrant kids came streaming through the door of the ourBRIDGE for Kids offices, just as they do every afternoon.

While the afternoon was off to a relatively normal start, Sil Ganzo sensed a different mood among the children compared to the countless other days she'd watched them trickle into the afterschool program she founded to help immigrant and refugee children in Charlotte.

"We knew something was different," Ganzo says. "Something happened today that was not a regular, normal day. So what happened?"

What happened was that, just hours before, Donald Trump had become president-elect of the United States. A man whose campaign was based largely on denigrating families like those of the children at ourBRIDGE — along with a number of other already-marginalized American populations — would now be the leader of the country they live in.

Around the country on the days following the election, organizations like ourBRIDGE for Kids and Time Out Youth (TOY), an LGBTQ youth support and advocacy center in Charlotte, offered safe spaces for the young people they serve to sift through the feelings of frustration, anxiety and fear felt by many in the days following Trump's election; a feeling that's yet to subside for most.

click to enlarge A cake awaits students from Oakhurst Elementary School at ourBRIDGE for Kids, an afterschool program for immigrant and refugee students, on the day following the election of Donald Trump. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • A cake awaits students from Oakhurst Elementary School at ourBRIDGE for Kids, an afterschool program for immigrant and refugee students, on the day following the election of Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, after spending time on homework, playing soccer in a nearby field and eating cake custom-made to read "Everything will be ok," the ourBRIDGE kids sat down for their daily group discussion.

During the discussions, ourBRIDGE staff asks kids to volunteer to discuss whether they had a good or bad day and explain why. The answers expressed that Wednesday were indicative of how ourBRIDGE kids often walk a line between the normal concerns of childhood and the anxieties reserved for those much older.

The first girl to raise her hand said she had a bad day because her friend got gum stuck in her hair, and somehow she was blamed for it. The next boy, a refugee whose family settled here from Iraq, said he was involved in a shoving match after someone made fun of his mother. This is a normal occurrence for the boy, whose mother wears a hijab and is active in school, leaving her son open to criticism from other children who see her as different.

The third child to raise his hand said he had a bad day, "Because Donald Trump is now the president." This hit a nerve, as a knowing buzz grew around the circle and separate conversations broke out around the room. Once they quieted down, kids began to share their experiences.

"Last time he was on the news, he said that all the Americans were gonna stay here, and everyone from other countries were going back," said the boy who had originally raised his hand.

Six hands shot up in response. "He's not sending me anywhere," said another boy.

The discussion grew from there, with kids discussing how classmates had already begun telling them they'd all be sent "home" soon. Staff members like Ganzo assured kids that they wouldn't be going anywhere.

Shortly thereafter, a second group of kids who attend Oakhurst STEAM Academy arrived at the ourBRIDGE offices. Unlike the first group — many of whom are immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and southeast Asia — the Oakhurst group is made up mostly of Hispanic kids.

Ganzo led a similar discussion with this group, and students reported hearing how all Mexican kids would have to leave America soon. Once again, Ganzo emphasized that each child had as much right to be in the country as any one of their peers, and also discussed respectability; the refusal to be intimidated by bullies but also the importance of not stooping to the sort of intimidation they were experiencing from others.

"It's horrible," Ganzo said later. "A lot of people know that it's a terrible situation but they don't see the fear that we see in these kids. They cry, 'What if they take my parents away?' They know they were born here, and they know they have a right that their parents don't, and they're scared."

Ganzo, who opened ourBRIDGE nearly seven years ago, has seen an increased need for discussions focused on bullying since Trump began running for president. She has witnessed multiple incidents in which mothers ask their daughters not to wear a hijab in school for fear of harassment or Hispanic families pull their children from afterschool programs because they fear they'll be arrested by immigration agents when they go to pick them up.

"I can't even imagine how these kids feel," she said. "They're growing up in fear and they're children. They should not. They should be worried who kissed who. It's a whole different reality than what we grew up in."

Discussion groups at Time Out Youth, which included youth much older than the elementary-aged kids at ourBRIDGE, went well into the night Wednesday as folks discussed the fear that Trump's followers would feel empowered in their anti-LGBT and other hateful stances.

Two people who planned to attend "Melanin & Magic," a discussion group for LGBT people of color, backed out that night after experiencing incidents just before the group began.

According to Shakira Clarke, who moderates that group, one person said they were on the way to attend the meeting when someone riding the same CATS bus began harassing them over a Black Lives Matter button they were wearing. The suspect allegedly used the N-word and stated that the election results would "keep black people in check."

The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 300 incidents of intimidating and aggressive incidents toward minorities and women in the six days following Trump's election. Anxiety only grew as stories of hate crimes and intimidation spread through social media during those days, and discussions at Time Out Youth have reflected that.

"It became really a conversation less about what can or can't Trump do, but more about what does his victory say to people who propagate or promote homophobic, racist or misogynistic ideology," said O'Neale Atkinson, director of youth programs at Time Out Youth. "There was a lot of concern that, whether or not his direct action was going to impact them, they were more concerned about how his victory emboldens anti-LGBTQ supporters to be more vocal about their aggression toward those communities."

Many of the students involved in Atkinson's discussion group that Wednesday reported already hearing racist, misogynistic, homophobic and Islamophobic statements made on the school bus, seemingly justified to each aggressor by the election results.

Each story Atkinson heard seemed to follow a pattern.

"They're all kind of saying, 'We're making America great again,' then insert racist statement," he said.

Atkinson couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the last statement as he made it, but the reality of the situation has created context for he and Clarke to have the types of discussions nobody serving youth wants to have.

"We talked about if someone were to come into this space and be aggressive; what is our protocol, how do we get out, how do we make sure everyone's safe?" Atkinson said. "It's a little scary even as a staff person to know that we have to have these conversations, but I would much rather our young people be equipped and prepared than blindsided in a moment."

The election has also put Ganzo in an uncomfortable spot with her students; before November 9, she couldn't imagine being untruthful to a child under her care. However, on that Wednesday, a situation presented itself in which she felt she had no choice.

Students thank the ourBRIDGE staff at an event held last winter, the day before then-presidential candidate Donald Trump unveiled his idea to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States.
  • Students thank the ourBRIDGE staff at an event held last winter, the day before then-presidential candidate Donald Trump unveiled his idea to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States.

A student asked Ganzo directly whether she had any concerns about what Trump's presidency would mean for herself and those in the room. Ganzo felt that the need to be a strong example was greater than the need to be open about her fears.

It was in that moment that Ganzo, an Argentinian immigrant, realized the importance of her role as a leader and an example for those that are often made to feel like others in their public schools.

"It dawned on me yesterday why it's so important for them to see a person like me — who is brown and Hispanic and has an accent and wasn't born here or raised here — is in charge," she said. "It's like, 'If she's not worried then we shouldn't be worried.' We were talking about [kids in school] asking people with accents to please go home. It sort of dawned on me then when they said, 'Are you worried? No? Oh ok.' It's much more peaceful for them to hear that I wasn't worried, although I am, but I will not tell them that."

The group discussions can also be a great platform for children who felt helpless watching adults vote for a president that will affect their lives for years to come. While some of the kids at Atkinson's discussion group on Wednesday were able to vote, most were not.

"I think that sense of hopelessness or helplessness was a little more prevalent with young people that were not able to vote yet," he says. "That feeling that they didn't even have a say in this, but for the next four years now they're going to have to be impacted by it and be affected by it."

He believes the experience will stick with those who were just on the verge of voting age and inspire them to be active voters through their adult lives.

"One of the big messages that I was really inspired to hear young people talk through was this message that they were going to not forget this feeling. So when they can vote, they are going to be more apt to vote and vote consistently in all elections and to really be diligent in understanding the importance of voting and knowing beyond just party lines what do candidates stand for," Atkinson said.

It's a message that Ganzo also tries to instill in her students at a very young age. On Wednesday, she discussed with her young students the difference between a kingdom and a democracy, and emphasized the importance of being involved in civic life, from the national to local levels.

In the shorter term, however, for those children lucky enough to be involved with organizations like ourBRIDGE and TOY and have a safe space to discuss the implications of Trump's election, the experience has already begun to ease some of their anxieties. While countless conversations are taking place behind closed doors in the homes of immigrants, people of color, Muslims and LGBTQ folks around the country, being a part of the group discussions taking place at these two Charlotte support centers can be a valuable supplement to inform what kids are hearing from their parents, peers and teachers.

Now, a group of adults are hoping to bring that same idea home for adults when they host a #LoveWinsCLT rally at the ourBRIDGE for Kids offices on Sunday, Nov. 20.

The event originated with a Charlotte woman named Erika Lopez and her friends, all of whom were shocked at the results of the Nov. 8 election, and began discussing ways to do something about it.

The group of mothers was active on a closed Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation, which they've now used to help promote the event. Organizers will have representatives from different nonprofits and advocacy groups so that people who feel disheartened by the country's future will have a way to get involved and make a change in their own way.

For Lopez, it was a way out of the "absolute desolation" she and her friends felt on the morning of Nov. 9. It's also addresses a feeling of guilt that she could have done more before the election.

"This happened, but we have a voice, and we didn't use it before but we're going to use it now." she said. "I think that is a part of what happened: many of us held our feelings too close to the cuff and too close to our hearts and could only talk to people that felt the way that we did. So this is definitely meant to be inclusive. Let's get people together."

Lopez said she hopes to have folks of all political stripes at the event on Sunday, which she said is not a protest but a family-friendly event.

"It's something that you don't have to fear any kind of violence or any kind of incitement of what we're rooting against in this. It's going to be a very positive event," she said. "It's a call to action, so we just really want people there to feel like there are tactical next steps."

As most people know, it's that first step that can often be the hardest.

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