When I moved back to La Grande in 2017 after living transiently for a year, I was eager to plant some roots in the community I was proud to call home. I looked into service organizations, and Rotary caught my attention. I was impressed with the work that Rotary International did throughout the globe, and I liked that I wouldn’t be inventing the wheel of volunteerism: in the past, I had often tried to launch do-good projects without any help, network, or overhead. Rotary seemed like a good way to get to know my neighbors, make the world a better place, and join an organization with name-recognition.
I’ve learned from past experiences that when you’re the new guy, it’s best to simply listen for a while. I didn’t want to jump into Rotary and announce on my first day that I thought their mission of giving printed dictionaries to all third graders was an outdated waste of time. I consciously gave myself a year to simply get to know the ropes. I learned the members names as best I could, invited speakers to come when there were open slots, and participated in events like Community Clean Up Day, Daddy Daughter Dance, and whatever we do on Thanksgiving where we serve free meals at McDonalds.
Every meeting, I made a conscious effort to engage with my fellow Rotarians, asking them about their lives and following up when I knew they’d had a family gathering or a big business breakthrough. My nametag said I was a writer, but nobody ever asked me what I’d written. That was okay. I wasn’t sure they wanted to hear about my book, anyway. To break the social ice, I once asked the president at the time if I was allowed to email the group to invite them all to a party I was hosting. He deflected, never giving me a specific answer. Inversely, I was never invited to any social gatherings by Rotarians outside of formal Rotary business, unless you count the time one dear little old lady needed help taking down her Christmas decorations.
I remember feeling particularly prickly when Tucker Billman, a white man in his twenties who would later become the club president, was invited to speak at a lunch meeting. (I am using Tucker's real name because he accepted a public position of authority; I will conceal all real names of Rotary members at large.) He talked about his career as a political assistant to a prominent Republican. He said he’d attended college somewhere near Portland, then rolled his eyes and said, “and you guys know how intolerant academia can be of conservative opinions.” The whole room chuckled. If it hadn’t been clear before, it was crystal clear now: the “us” of this group meant “Republican,” and anything else was the silent minority.
Another time, an older Rotarian spoke of his life and career during our Tuesday lunch. He talked about Vietnam and I listened intently. Then, tangentially, he started talking about that “communist” Allende in Chile and his successor, the noble Pinochet. My jaw dropped. I had to look it up on my phone just to make sure I was remembering my history correctly. With my heart pounding, I worked up the courage to raise my hand.
“Are you talking about Salvador Allende, who was democratically elected by his people? And Pinochet? The dictator installed after a bloody, U.S.-backed coup?” I asked. My heart rate rises even as I write this sentence to recall the moment.
“That’s what the liberal media would have you think,” he said, “but it was more complicated than that. Allende was a bad guy, and I would have killed him a hundred times over.” The room laughed. I swear to God, the room laughed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘Wait a second,’ I thought. ‘Aren’t these the same people who say a prayer to JESUS CHRIST every time we sit down to eat? They identify and Christians, but they think an assassination of a human being is funny?’
Fast forward to the spring of 2020. I’d been in Rotary about year, which was my mental deadline to start speaking up. George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the nation with renewed passion. A week went by. Two weeks. Rotary remained silent. I combed my emails, making sure I hadn’t missed something. ‘Even Amazon has managed to make a statement, and their whole MO is profit’ I thought. Rotary’s MO was making the world a better place and we hadn’t said squat.
I wrote an email to the whole group with the subject line reading something along the lines of “those who remain silent…” I said it was Rotary’s responsibility to make a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, and soon! One fellow, a Mormon, wrote back to me privately to say he “didn’t know” what he thought about George Floyd’s murder. I thought, ‘well, when are you going to know? In another week? Month? Lifetime?’ I didn’t hear anything from leadership and nobody responded to the group as a whole. So I wrote again. “Listen, guys,” I said. “Thank you to the few of you who wrote back privately, but my intention was to have a group discussion.” That’s when things started heating up.
I’ll say now that there were two or three voices that spoke up in support of Black Lives Matter. They said it was absolutely in keeping with Rotary’s mission… but those voices eventually acquiesced to the much louder, dominant, majority voices. One man, a fleshy fellow who had served as a church leader, was most vocal about his disagreement. (I'd like to note that I'm not making a judgment about his physical size, merely an observation; his size was his most identifiable trait, so I'm using it here to identify him.) He said that there were lots of terrible things happening in the world (like rape) and we as Rotarians didn’t feel compelled to make statements all the time condemning rape. Another Rotarian, a woman, responded by saying she didn’t condone looting or violence of any kind. The minority Black man of the group said that Rotarians showed unconditional love in our daily actions, and that if we made a statement supporting Black Lives Matter, it would be perceived as disingenuous. Then Tucker, the one who’d felt so persecuted by liberals at college, spoke up. “I’m going to be taking over as President in the next month,” he said, “so I thought I should chime in.” He said that, while he knew and hoped we all knew in our hearts that Black lives matter, the Black Lives Matter movement sought to make changes in policing policies, and was thereby a political movement. “Rotary is not a political organization,” he argued, thereby shutting down the conversation. The fleshy man and many others echoed their agreement with the president’s. “Plus, we have law enforcement in this club!” the fleshy man added, as if that settled it.
At the end of it all, the group agreed to post Rotary International’s statement condemning racism “of all kinds” on our La Grande Rotary Facebook page. We further agreed to invite speakers who could shed more light on the Black Lives Matter movement and the history of racial injustice. It wasn’t a resounding success, but I felt like the door had been cracked open. I was proud of myself and the dialogue I thought I was starting.
I began reaching out to the higher ups of our Rotary district. The new district governor, Jo Crenshaw, was a Black woman, and I was eager to hear her feedback about what was going on in La Grande Rotary. She wrote back to me right away, praised me for my passion, but essentially redirected me back to my group. She encouraged me to solve all my problems at the local level. I was bummed. I felt like I’d asked for help and been told “sorry, I’m not here for that.” When I emailed the person who was supposed to be in charge of the whole district’s new racial response team, my email went unanswered. I wrote two more times and didn’t hear a peep. I reached out to the person on Facebook, introduced myself as Evelyn, and asked for more information about how Rotary was responding to the pressing issue of racial inequity. A few days later, I got a response. “Dear Sarah,” it started, then informed me about an online meeting for everyone throughout the district to come together and brainstorm. I wrote back, thanked her for the meeting details, and reminded her that I preferred my middle name, Evelyn.
When I logged on to the Zoom meeting, I was optimistic. And the people who joined seemed optimistic, too. They were excited to share their stories about what their clubs were doing. One man said that his club had hosted their local sheriff and discussed what law enforcement was doing to assure their Black citizens that their lives mattered. Another man introduced himself as a racist, acknowledging that when we are raised within systemic racism, the idea of white supremacy is baked into us; it is our duty, he proclaimed, to become aware of this so we can change it. The moderator of the discussion was clearly reading something else during the meeting, and in between each speaker, she would attempt a recap. Her summaries were lifeless and inaccurate, and I thought how happy I would be to do her job. When she later encouraged anyone who wanted to help host future meetings to reach out to her, I did so.
“Hi, Evelyn here again,” I wrote on that same Facebook messenger thread. “I’d love to help in whatever way I can with the district-wide conversation/ Zoom meetings,” I said. “Dear Sarah,” she wrote back. Goodness gracious! Was anybody even listening?!
A few weeks later, when the dust had settled, I found a letter to the editor of a local-ish paper written by a fourteen-year-old white kid about white privilege. (As a rural community, “local” usually means the eastern half of our state, and this paper was from a community about two hours away.) I suggested we invite the young fellow to speak at one of our meetings. He had shown leadership by writing into the paper, which is a characteristic we allegedly valued as Rotarians, he was local-ish, and he was speaking from the same position (i.e. white male) that represented the vast majority of La Grande Rotarians. I thought he would be an ideal, non-threatening speaker who could open the conversational door a little wider.
But Tucker disagreed, and wrote back to me saying as much. He said he’d have to get board approval before allowing me to reach out to the young man. I asked if that was standard procedure for guest speakers, and he said no. Then he launched into the multitude of reasons why this speaker was inappropriate for Rotary. These are the reasons he gave:
By this time, a few things were clear to me: 1) I was on my own and couldn’t count on higher-up Rotary “leadership” for support or back up. 2) My local club wanted nothing more than for me to sit down and shut up.
I was exhausted. Whatever door had cracked open was now being slammed shut. I cut and paste my emails with Tucker into a blog post, then added my commentary and responses to his long-winded shut down. If I wasn’t making any headway within the group, I was going to take the conversation to a more public sphere. After all, I reasoned, Rotary wasn’t a top-secret organization. These emails weren’t confidential or private. Plus, weren’t we trying to expand membership? Anyone who wanted to join had a right to know what was really going on.
This public outing enraged many Rotarians. The next meeting I attended got heated. Men were pacing like angry tigers when I accepted Tucker’s invitation to speak. What was I saying that was so inflammatory? I was simply restating the events that had transpired. “There was a lot of pushback when I said we should make a statement in support of Black Lives Matter,” I said.
One man shouted me down. “I won’t sit here and be lectured by you,” he said.
“Excuse me,” I responded. “I was invited to speak. And I am merely retelling the story of what already happened.”
“Well, we don’t need to hear it,” he continued. “Just get to the point.”
One man said he’d been in Rotary for fifty years, and that I owed Tucker an apology. Tucker didn’t correct him or tell him that he could solicit his own apology if need be. The fifty-year-Rotarian said I should look in my heart and ask myself if Rotary was the right place for me. I mention this because I was being told out loud and in public that I was unwelcome, and nobody from leadership spoke up to say otherwise. Rotary was showing itself to be a place where the majority opinion ruled, the minority opinion was attacked, and “leadership” was willing sit back and watch a member get bullied.
Another man, the fleshy one, said, “saying ‘silence equals violence’ is bullshit!” He said that. He said “bullshit” in a Rotary meeting. He reminded me how offensive it was to say Black lives matter, because, again, “we have law enforcement here!” One man said that all those problems they have in cities just don’t exist here in La Grande. “I mean, who’s to say they stopped George Floyd because he was Black? Some might say it was because he was a criminal.” Then the club treasurer spoke up. “This isn’t any different than what they were all saying in the sixties,” he noted. I nodded emphatically in agreement. “So what makes us think we can do anything different now?” I guess his point was that racial injustice had been around for such a long time, we should just give up on it? The Black guy, who had literally been walking back and forth across the whole picnic area, finally cut in. “I’m not going to get preached at by some fourteen year old white kid about white privilege,” he said angrily. ‘Well, why not?’ I wondered. Plus, why is it that when someone who speaks from a different view point, it was considered “lecturing” or “preaching” or “pushing an agenda”? How many ways we humans have invented to block our ears from information we find uncomfortable!
I decided that I wouldn’t be intimidated or scared away. Before the following week’s meeting, it was announced that the Black Rotarian would be speaking; I’ll call him Mike. I attended the meeting and listened to Mike’s story. He talked about his time in the military, befriending his white supremacist roommate. He talked about his racist neighbor in La Grande who ended up forging a relationship with his (the neighbor’s) own mixed-race grandchild after forging a relationship with him, Mike. He talked about being racially profiled by a member of La Grande law enforcement (who happened to be in attendance at that very meeting) years prior; he had been driving home from work when he noticed a police car behind him, so he started zig zagging through the neighborhoods. The cop followed him, so he eventually drove to the grocery store. When he got out of his car and started toward the entrance, the cop called out on his megaphone “Halt! Return to your vehicle!” Mike gritted his teeth as he told the story, and I was indignant and humiliated for him and with him. He continued: “Officer X was like ‘I’m sorry to have to do this, but… can I search your vehicle.’ And I said ‘no,’ and that was that.” I think Mike was trying to protect the cop, to tell the story in a way that ensured he wasn’t making it the cop’s fault, but I couldn’t help but think: ‘exactly! This is exactly what we need to be talking about!’
I reached out to Mike after the meeting to thank him for sharing. He responded kindly and said we can learn a lot if we’re only willing to listen to each other. ‘Bingo,’ I thought. ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to do for over a year.’ I asked him if he wanted to be a panelist on an amateur Youtube show I was putting together called “Is It Racist?” where people could submit anonymous questions and have people of color answer those questions. It was my attempt at creating a safe space for people to learn how to become better anti-racists. Mike took a pass. “You can’t push it down people’s throats,” he said. “I’m more about education and outreach.” ‘Me, too,’ I thought, shaking my head.
I was on tenuous ground with Rotary, but committed to remaining a member. ‘They can expel me from their Republican meetings,’ I thought, ‘but they can’t expel me from Rotary.’ I arrived late to our first indoor meeting since Covid hit; it was in a large school gym and everyone was sitting at least six feet apart. And yet… nobody was wearing a mask! Rotarians are not a young group, in general, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! When my dear friend Marshall died in 2016, I remember feeling like I would do ANYTHING I could to prevent him from dying. And here we were in 2020, with an opportunity to do SOMETHING, and we weren’t doing it! Later, the Rotarians would claim that they were eating lunch and that everyone was wearing a mask when they weren’t eating. But I’ll tell you: I didn’t see a single bite being raised to anyone’s mouth, and there were only two or three people in the back wearing masks.
“I’m really not comfortable staying,” I said to Tucker as I handed him a house warming present.
“I hear you,” he said, rushing to put his mask back on. “You’re welcome to say something to the group. It’s hard, you know, telling people what to do. I think it will be good coming from the members.”
‘But that’s what leaders do,’ I thought, even as I nodded.
I went home and posted a video on Youtube about how shocked I was at entering a room full of maskless octogenarians. “Do you not value your LIFE?” I asked. “Or MINE?” In the video, I retrieved my giant sugar skull and introduced her to the audience. “This is Maestra, a giant piece of art I carry around. Nobody in Rotary has ever asked me about it, and that’s fine, you guys don’t have to be curious about my life. But I carry my death on my shoulder. I think about death a lot. I don’t welcome it, but I accept its inevitability. And also, I do everything within my power to delay it! And wearing a mask is something within my power! I just don’t understand why you would risk it. Even if you don’t wear masks and nobody dies… is that a risk you’re willing to take? Why can’t we just protect each other?”
I shared the link with my Rotary group, and there was a flurry of responses. “Rotary is about doing good work in the community,” wrote one retired doctor. “Now it seems like we’re just being held hostage to one persons’ beliefs and opinions.” The fleshy man, always one for confrontation, spoke up. “Nothing I saw in that room today bothered me. I’ll wear a mask if someone asks me, but I won’t be shamed into anything.” Holy moly pants. I was talking about death and he was talking about shame.
“I’m sure this will come as a relief to many of you,” I wrote at 5 am the next morning. “But I’ll no longer be part of La Grande Rotary.” I felt like I’d done everything I knew how to do to reach across the aisle to the community members who were different than I was, and it hadn’t worked. I felt hopeless.
Tucker never responded. He still hasn’t. That’s what La Grande Rotary leadership looks like.
Would I do things differently if I had the chance? Yes. I would have sent Tucker’s response to my inquiry on the white-privilege speaker, along with my commentary, to the Rotary group instead of to the world at large. I would have taken a breath after the maskless meeting and, with love in my heart, written a strongly-worded letter to my fellow Rotarians. But I did the best I knew how each step of the way. Including this one.
In the end, I’m writing this essay because I feel heartbroken for my community and for my world. I got run out of Rotary on a pole, and they see ME as the intolerant one. How are we ever going to make this world a better place, which had always been my goal in joining Rotary, if this is how we respond to those who challenge our belief systems? Because the truth is we will NEVER be able to expel the people who are different than we are. Rotarians expelled me from their club, but I’m still here in their town. Human history is full of people trying to divide and separate by category, but it has NEVER worked. Even when we "succeed," we end up finding NEW ways to divide. (I'm looking at YOU, Christianity!) Dear reader, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but we are all imprisoned on this little blue planet together. We are basically married to each other, and divorce is not an option. And if we are more invested in the fantasy of how great our lives would be if only THEY weren’t NEAR me (which is DISTINCT from the truth of how great our lives would be if only they weren’t KILLING me), if we are more invested in expelling the other than we are in figuring out how to mutually survival, well, outlook not good on mutual survival. I guess the question, as always, is what do we really want: do we want to be happy? Do we want to be right? Do we want to keep fighting? Do we want to listen to each other? Do we want to survive?
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to offer $100 to Shelter From the Storm, our local women’s shelter, a non-partisan non-profit, as an incentive for having (a socially-distant) dinner with a Democrat. If you live in La Grande and you are a Republican, let’s have dinner! I'll order take-out from whatever local restaurant you choose and we can meet at my house in a room that allows for 10 feet between us. Let’s find a way back to recognizing the humanity in the other. We may disagree, but we are not enemies! We are NEIGHBORS! We don’t even have to talk about politics over dinner. In fact, I’d rather we didn’t. But if you’re exhausted from this constant state of fighting and if learning how to live side by side sounds like a relief to you, send me a message. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Rotarians are welcome to apply.