Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Response Time: Amid a polarizing political climate, a local grassroots group responds to hate and works to bridge divides.

A mother of four elementary schoolers, Amina Anjum relies on her weekly trips to Costco to buy staples for her family.

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“I mostly get milk, bread, eggs, the routine,” she told me. “Snacks for the kids.”

Typically, she shops quickly. She’s in and out in less time than her children’s hour-long enrichment classes. She slowed her pace when I tagged along on the busy Wednesday between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

We met in the parking lot. I stood, watching cars circling the lot unable to find a space, and I told her on the phone I was wearing a gray sweater and purple earrings.

“You’ll be able to tell it’s me,” she said.

Amina wears a hijab, a visible marker of her faith. I spotted her quickly as she crossed the crosswalk in my direction. The hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf, makes her stand out, she said, sometimes leading to looks of fear, shock or even innocent curiosity. In recent months, since the presidential election, those reactions have increased, she said. Her friends have experienced hostility, too. One man asked her friend if she had a bomb (she didn’t). A few people have tried to tug the hijab from behind, a fear for Amina.

For the past several months, a local grassroots coalition, Community Responders Network (CRN), has been busy responding to what it sees as a growing number of incidents that threaten or intimidate others. Samia Malik, CRN co-chair, said that those who spread hate have “become emboldened,” no longer as hesitant as they once were.   

During the campaign, now-President Donald Trump spoke out against many individuals and groups, mocking a disabled reporter, generally calling Mexican immigrants criminals and flirting with the idea of a Muslim registry.

“His political rhetoric was scary,” Malik said. “But was it only the political rhetoric? Was it always there, and there were covers pulled over it, and as soon as the politicians started to say this, then the covers came off?”

Locally, hateful events flanked election night. A neo-Nazi group rallied on the state Capitol steps the Saturday before the election. The day after the election, a few students at York County School of Technology celebrated by shouting “white power” and carrying Trump signs. The York Daily Record reported that some students left early because they felt unsafe.

The York Tech story reached national attention, with CBS, CNN and other outlets picking it up. Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit, tracked a spike in hate- or bias-related incidents. In the month after the election, between Nov. 9 and Dec. 12, SPLC counted 1,094 incidents, 51 of which reportedly happened in Pennsylvania.

“In so many of the bias incidents that we know of in Pennsylvania and across the country, the actor has referred to Trump,” said Ann Van Dyke, the chair of CRN’s Rapid Response committee.

In late November, Steelton’s Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg received a letter from “Americans for a Better Way.” The author wrote, “There’s a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump,” and that Trump will do “what Hitler did to the Jews.”

This letter wasn’t unique. Mosques in five states received this same letter. On top of that, about 37 percent of all incidents directly referenced Trump, his campaign slogans or his sexual assault comments, per the SPLC’s report.

This is the type of incident that CRN, under the umbrella of the YWCA Greater Harrisburg, responds to and tries to prevent through education since its founding in 2008.

Malik, the organization’s co-chair, first heard about the letter when she had a house full of guests celebrating Thanksgiving. She alerted Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, state Rep. Patty Kim and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which investigates hate crimes.

Later that week, city and state officials held a press conference. “They gave us so much support,” Malik said. “They said this will not be tolerated here.”

But come time for Sunday school, some families did not feel safe going to their place of worship. Normally, about 100 children attend. Some parents teach. Some stay to chit-chat. Others drop off the young ones and pick them up in the early afternoon.

Ann Van Dyke. Photo by Dani Fresh.

Ann Van Dyke. Photo by Dani Fresh.

CRN helped gather about 50 people from the interfaith community to stand around the building while families entered the mosque. Supporters carried signs that said things such as, “You belong. Be strong. Be blessed.”

“We are like a clearinghouse. We go ‘foo’ and get it out,” said Van Dyke, while making a ‘woosh’ motion with her hands.

She said that her group often acts as a catalyst to get the message into the public realm. “It’s not like CRN wants the credit for anything,” she said.  

We Need You

I drove around the bends of a long driveway to arrive at YWCA’s hilltop location. Cars occupied every space. I parked on a side street in the Allison Hill neighborhood and followed a few others looking for CRN’s “Call to Action” event.

As I entered the building, a cheery greeter welcomed me. Upstairs, I entered a packed house. I took a seat at one of the 12 circular tables. At the 6 p.m. start time, more than 100 people filled the room. A dozen stragglers pulled up chairs. Some stood around the edges of the meeting space.

I chatted with the man sitting next to me, a Philly native turned Harrisburg transplant. He said he came out to the event because the election rhetoric shocked him. He wanted to do something locally about it.

Many in the crowd seemed to feel the same way.

After the Nov. 8 election, at least six people reached out to CRN to join its 20 active members, said co-chair Margee Kooistra. Now, the new faces flipped through CRN fliers, including a membership form.

“We are here tonight because each of us is concerned about the rise of hate, bias, and that has increased across our nation in our many, many communities over the past two-plus months,” emcee Shaashawn Dial-Snowden said to the crowd.

Most people stayed for the entirety of the two-hour event. Potential new members mulled over how they saw themselves in the organization—helping with education, response or in an ad hoc committee created to handle the election backlash.

Listening to each presenter, I gathered that CRN could use as much help as it could get.

Van Dyke put it this way: “We need you.” Then she paused. “We really need you.”

During the second half of the meeting, our tables turned into a facilitated discussion about local instances of bias and intolerance. My table consisted of a father and daughter, two friends, two women who came alone and a CRN volunteer. 

The volunteer passed out six colors of sticky notes. She instructed us to write down what we or CRN could do to create a more loving community. We had six semi-academic categories to brainstorm for: crisis responding, safety planning, reporting, mobilizing allies, safe spaces and healing.

Around 8 p.m., we put our sticky notes on the six sheets of paper at the front of the room. I read a few as attendees mingled after the meeting. A handful of people filled out membership paperwork.

Themes of communication and education echoed in the rainbow of sticky notes behind the podium.

A pink note in capitalized letters read, “COMMUNICATION IS KEY.” Another read, “Reach out to neighbors in the community. Get to know the unknown.” 

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Not Alone

“This is exclusive to Costco members and only found in the Costco store,” said an employee positioned behind a white booth. She offered passing customers small plastic containers of tuna quinoa salad.

Amina and I took the samples and continued walking passed the stacks of canned tuna.

“The finest albacore,” the employee called out. 

Amina pushed the cart down the frozen food aisle. We passed a woman shaking her head, as if wrestling with a difficult thought. She looked in Amina’s direction, locked eyes with me, then looked at Amina again, still shaking her head. Amina gave her a smile.

After the woman passed us, I ask Amina about her.  

“I don’t think she did that at me,” she said.

“I wasn’t sure,” I said.

Most of the discomfort Amina feels when she’s out stems from the “look,” a mix of fear and shock that strikes people’s faces when they initially see her.

This doesn’t always happen. But, when it does, she tries to be positive. 

“If I’m giving them a smile, I get a smile back,” she said.

Much like Amina smiling at a frowning shopper, CRN tries to turn hate incidents into a way to bridge divides.

For example, CRN helped organize a “unity rally” to divert attention from the neo-Nazi group rallying in Harrisburg the weekend before the election. The Unity Rally, a day of celebrating diversity, brought about 400 attendees into Harrisburg High School’s auditorium, twice as many as at the hate rally, Van Dyke said.

“I walked in and went, ‘Woah.’ Because you can feel good will,” she said. “When people applauded, it was like you were being hugged.”

Van Dyke spent 33 years with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. She followed hate groups across the state, organizing communities against the groups as she went town to town.

In her retirement, she took the helm on CRN’s rapid response team. “Which is rarely rapid. I always say that,” she said.

We chatted over omelets and coffee at one of her favorite diners. Her words took on an energetic, quick tempo.

When CRN members hear of a hate incident, they alert the rapid response team. The team works with individuals targeted by the incident, “Simply to say ‘You are not alone,’” Van Dyke said. Then the team takes the proper steps to report and try to correct the incident.

Recently, a West Shore business owner put an Islamophobic sign in his window, which offended, saddened and outraged Muslim clientele shopping at neighboring stores.

Van Dyke contacted the business owner and the landlord, who took down the sign. The state’s civil rights law, The PA Human Relations Act, says that businesses are legally obligated to take reasonable measures to create an unbiased environment for the public.

Van Dyke received four emails from strangers in the Muslim community thanking her. Someone even sent her a bouquet of roses.

“I was honored, humbled and saddened,” she said.

The business owner was furious that he could not hang the sign. His outrage did not stop two women in the Muslim community from bringing him cookies and peace-making conversation.  

“Maybe in a month or so, we will go to say, ‘Hello, how are you doing? We meant no harm,’” Malik said.

Walking with You 

We stood in the snack aisle. Amina flipped over a tin of chocolate cookies.

“Thirteen grams? That’s a lot,” she said to herself as she put the product back on the shelf.

“Chocolate is my weakness,” she admitted.

We have nearly looped back to the cash registers. Nearing the end of our shopping trip, Amina’s cart was full of staples like bread and bananas. A sampling booth convinced her to buy some salsa. She picked up a “Harry Potter” boxed set for her 10-year-old daughter who loves to read.

I asked her about the looks she received today.

An older man’s eyes curiously followed her as she walked. In the checkout line, a woman’s face turned hostile when Amina turned around. I noticed that a few employees offering samples directed their pitches toward me, though Amina showed interest in purchasing the items.

As a white woman, I’m not 100-percent versed in the language of microaggressions, small, daily incidents of bias, sometimes unconsciously performed. But I thought the shopping trip was pleasant, and Amina, charming and friendly.

“Another thing that makes them feel comfortable is, I guess, because I’m walking with you,” she said.

“I guess that makes people feel good, that two people can be friends,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be two women with hijabs. It can be an American and myself.”

For more information on the Community Responders Network, including how to become a member, visit the YWCA Greater Harrisburg’s website: www.ywcahbg.org.

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