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Community

'We Are Ready For Change And We're Starting Today': A Small Front Range Town Celebrates Its First Juneteenth On Saturday

A crowd marches down the street in Erie, Colorado (toward camera) holding signs with "Black Lives Matter" and other phrases and symbols associated with the racial justice movement.
Courtesy Christina Pisano
Over 1,000 people attended Erie's Black Lives Matter rally last year. The front row includes the founding members of the Being Better Neighbors nonprofit and town Board of Trustees.

Juneteenth is coming up on Saturday. The annual celebration marks the date some of the last enslaved people in this country — specifically in Texas —were freed, nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln's emancipation proclamation.

For the first time, elected leaders in Boulder County and Denver issued proclamations this year recognizing the importance of Juneteenth.

Denver is home to one of the largest annual Juneteenth celebrations in the nation. And in Boulder County, a virtual event is being held by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Executive Committee for African American Cultural Events.

Erie is a town of 27,003 people, according to 2019 Census estimates, that sits partially in both Boulder and Weld Counties. Their town board issued their first proclamation recognizing Juneteenth last year. The town — with a population that is 87% non-Hispanic white and 0.2% Black — will hold its inaugural Juneteenth celebration on Saturday.

Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke to Being Better Neighbors co-founder Justin Brooks and Erie mayor Jennifer Carroll about the upcoming celebration and the community's other efforts to increase racial equity. Both have lived in Erie for over a decade.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: Justin, let's start with you. How would you describe why Juneteenth is important to people who don't know much about the day?

Justin Brooks: I would say that in the history of our country, there are a lot of historical events and traumas that have occurred that are not widely known. And I think that as we look forward and celebrate the progress that's been made since those events and tragedies have happened, it's important for us to educate one another on the differences in background and experiences that different cultural groups or ethnic groups have gone through within this country so that we can recognize that we've come very far.

We've made a lot of progress. More progress is to be made, but there are certain atrocities and certain injustices that we certainly don't want to have repeated. And so by sharing the story of how far we've come and from where we came, we can serve to make and build a better community with more understanding of the diaspora that exists here in our country.

What do you think about the celebration’s importance specifically for smaller, very white communities like Erie?

Brooks: We felt it was very important to share the historical significance of the celebration that is Juneteenth as the country really changes with minorities or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) people migrating more into rural and suburban landscapes. Other folks who are not of that makeup who are there, I think it's important for them to celebrate along with the BIPOC population and have an understanding of what Juneteenth means for the African American community and really serve to exchange stories and learn from it.

And Jennifer, same question to you as mayor.

Jennifer Carroll: For me, it's really important that our community is inclusive and welcoming to all people and that we celebrate our differences. The history of people that live in our community and our country is really important so that we can do better as a community and as neighbors moving forward, all with the hopes of being a more inclusive town. Erie is very fortunate to have Justin and all the other members of the Being Better Neighbors organization so committed to this cause.

Can you both describe the changes that you've seen and the events that have occurred in Erie immediately after and in the year since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd?

Carroll: For us, after the death of George Floyd, I think like a lot of other cities and towns across the country, it was a turning point that (showed) things needed to change. And how we saw that happen in Erie was a group of citizens came together and said, "We are demanding change in our community and our world, but let's start where we live." And that's where Being Better Neighbors came from.

And so this group helped organize a march, which was a positive event in solidarity against racial injustice. We had over a thousand community members present, which is one of the largest events or gatherings I've ever been to in Erie, so it was a very moving event to be at and to be a part of. I was there with Justin and all of our Board of Trustees, all of the residents, staff members, our police chief and police officers. It was a very unifying moment to signify at least we are ready for change and we're starting today.

Since then, we've seen a lot of movement in different areas. The town's created a diversity, equity and inclusion advisory board to help be the interface between the community and the town elected officials. Right now, we’re hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion manager to be the expert in helping improve the efforts in our town. Along with Being Better Neighbors, we hosted different events like community conversations on talking about racism and anti-bias. Or talking to your children about race, which was a series that the NAACP and Being Better Neighbors helped put on.

So there are so many things happening right now that are all working toward that cause to not just not be a racist, but to be anti-racist and really make a change for our children and that next generation.

Brooks: Absolutely. We as a town and a community really wanted to take a proactive approach to further the conversations with regard to justice and equity and inclusion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as well as Elijah McClain's. And those are two very raw wounds at the time. And they're still very sensitive to many of us in the community who want to see progress made.

And so what's different about Erie, perhaps, is that the police department and the town stepped forward first and said, "Hey, we want to find a way to further the conversation, to improve the situation." And since then, we've been working together to try to find a way to keep the dialog going so that we don't want to have tragedies like that on our front doorstep in our town, but also that we further the progress toward having equal justice for everyone.

Jennifer, why did those of you in local government think it was important to join the march and to issue a Juneteenth proclamation and to take some of these other steps you describe when other local governments have been reluctant or apprehensive to dive in this way?

Carroll: I knew that we needed change. And our community was making it apparent that they wanted and demanded change as well. There was never a question in my mind on should I participate or not. And I think that's how every board member felt as well. This is the right thing to do. We care about it. We need to show our residents that top-down we are all supporting this and we are hoping that they stand beside us and go through this journey with us.

As for proclamations, we never really looked outwardly to say, "Hey, what are other people doing throughout all of this?" We were just focused on what do we want to do in Erie. It's more about what do we, the Erie residents, want out of our community moving forward? And as a town, we use proclamations to highlight items of significant impact to our community. Last year, it was very apparent that Juneteenth was a really important day that we needed to talk about and highlight and bring more attention to.

Erie and other communities in Colorado and across the country have made these proclamations. After a decades-long push, a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday passed the U.S. Senate this week. What kind of power and impact do you think such official recognitions can have?

Carroll: Having a proclamation at the local level, the state level, the federal level sets the stage for this being a day that people need to understand. We need to know the importance of Juneteenth. We need to understand the history and we need to understand what we want to change moving forward to be a better town, state, country. I think it just highlights the importance of the day and the movement and the people that have been impacted by slavery and racism in our country. And hopefully, it sets the stage for more communities to jump on board and say this is important to us, too, and here's how we're going to make our communities better, or our state better.

Brooks: I'm honestly still processing the Senate passage of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. I think on one hand, it's a great sign of progress and acknowledgment of the significance of the day. However, the same Senate has been collectively against teaching racism and the cause of what led to Juneteenth in schools. I'm a little conflicted that we as a country seem to be at a place where we're open to the idea of marking a holiday and perhaps providing paid federal time off. But we seem unwilling to really discuss what caused it, the historical significance and overall positivity that has happened since then for the affected community of Juneteenth.

So I'm still, I guess, a little raw with understanding exactly what we're going to do with that holiday as a country. And I would just hope and pray that it would include an education as to why it is significant and that we really do use it as an opportunity to raise awareness and increase mutual understanding as opposed to just providing a performative measure.

I do want to ask about the Juneteenth celebration happening this Saturday in Erie. I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what people could expect if they attend?

Brooks: Absolutely. Yeah, we're really excited about it, Henry. We've got the Juneteenth celebration, which is going to get kicked off at 1:30 p.m. at Coal Creek Park. (We've) got food vendors. We've got a beer garden as the as the day goes on. We've got performances that'll come to us from DJ Smooth. We have Kutandara, which is an African percussion troupe that's going to perform. And then we have LOGO LIGI, which is also an African drumming circle that's going to be performing and then to cap off the Juneteenth portion of the celebration. We've got Soul School, which is a local band. That portion of the event will go until about 5 p.m.

We're really excited to be able to highlight BIPOC artists that will be having vendor booths there. Also an education booth where we will be talking about the significance of Juneteenth and spreading the Juneteenth stories so people can understand both the significance and how they can amplify and participate in that celebration as well. We're probably expecting anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people at the park that weekend, and it's going to be amazing.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for June 16. You can find the full episode here.

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