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Ryemarkable Joan Grangenois-Thomas

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Tell us a little bit about your family and your personal story. How did you begin your work with NAACP? What is your role there?

My husband and I moved to Port Chester in 1989.  We lived at the Lifesaver Building.  We have two millennial children, a daughter and son who attended and graduated from Port Chester Schools.  Both my husband and I became very connected to the community through the schools; I was PTA president at my kids' elementary school for several years.  My husband was on a technology committee and the construction committee when the school was being renovated.  Then we joined the Port Chester/Rye NAACP in the late 90's.  I became more involved when I ran for school board.  The membership embraced my campaign.  I didn't win, but I met a lot of great people.  I became more immersed in the school district as a result.  I sat on the Education Committee for the branch, was president of the branch for one and a half terms, and I am still an active member.

What does the NAACP do? Does it impact Rye or only Port Chester? The NAACP  works in several areas to improve access to and increase participation in the areas of education, civic engagement, legal redress, criminal justice, environmental justice, health, economic development. It also aids people who feel they've experienced discrimination in any of these areas including housing and workplace.  The branch's impact is felt more keenly in Port Chester than it does in Rye.  There was an area of Rye that was an historically black neighborhood.  Robert Brown, one of the founding members lived in Rye.  His home was on Midland Avenue near the recreation center.  In and around there was where many of Rye's working class blacks lived.  That area has almost completely been redeveloped.  It would be great to reestablish a connection to the Rye community.

(above: photo of Robert Brown's home)

How does our city's culture impact the thoughts of our own children and families (our schools, clubs, cars, neighborhoods)?  It is the proverbial 'bubble'.  When affordable housing is built on the outskirts of town, you don't have to worry about seeing 'those people' while you stroll Purchase Street.  There is a sameness and as far as I'm concerned; it's boring.  The same faces, clothes, cars, etc. There's no variety.  These are broad strokes, don't get me wrong.  But when kids don't see people of color in positions of authority, it becomes easier to dismiss the ones that they do run into.  It is much more valuable for a white student to have a black science, math, English or history teacher than it is for a black kid.  This normalizes the idea that black people or people of color are learned and valuable assets to the community.  So when they socialize at country clubs, etc, seeing all white people becomes the norm and is seen as being acceptable. That's not what the world looks like. 

What are the ways Rye feels exclusive? Uninviting? How do we change that? Again, go back to affordable housing development on Cottage Street.  Otherwise, it's a sense a person of color feels when they walk into a store that they are being watched or worse, ignored.  Changing that takes work.  People need to audit everything they do to see how are the rules written that might exclude people? Look at your own social circles.  Who do you invite to your dinner parties?  Are they all white?  Who do you see at your country club?  Are the servers all people of color and the members all white?  If there is a black man in the elevator do you get a sense of dread?  Why?  Ask yourself why you react or respond the way you do when you are in the company of someone who doesn't look like you. 

How can we help our kids to help them better understand the problem--and become part of the solution? Talk with them.  Our kids are more aware than we might give them credit for. Don't think you have all the answers, if you did, we wouldn't be in this predicament.  Ask them about the music they listen to. What books they're reading.  With younger kids, ensure that the story books you read to them are about different types of children.  When we are able, attend service at a house of worship that is not your faith.  Maybe you can speak with the clergy afterward to ask questions.  

How can we have courage to break our silence and speak up without the fear of retribution for a misspoken thought or idea? How do we express our thoughts without offending?  Ask questions.  Having these conversations with your own friends and family can be much more difficult than you know.  Be self-depricating, admit this is new for you and ask for forgiveness in advance.  You might offend - you can't avoid that altogether, take the risk.  We would all hope that people are coming from a place of good intention. 

What are the biggest blindspots of white residents? What are well-intentioned people doing that we might not even recognize as being racist?  People believe that being racist is to be mean. It can be very subtle.  It's assuming your housekeeper wants your cast-off clothes, rather than talking with her to find out what her dreams are and helping her to achieve them. It's not considering the impact policy has on people of lesser means - affordable housing for example.  It's the assumptions we make about people who don't look like us.  It's going along with that joke that someone in our foursome tells and not having the guts to say something.

Anything else? I'm thrilled that so many people took to heart the remarks I made at the BLM event. I'm thrilled that the students who pulled that together are following up with other actions.  This effort is a marathon not a sprint. If we all took responsibility to audit the institutions we are involved in, whether that is at work, home, school or play, and really questioned how the rules and regulations of those institutions impact people of color and then vowed to make appropriate changes, we might be onto something.  First ask yourself, what are your assumptions? What are your own attitudes?  How do they manifest? Then, get yourself better informed.


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