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The Neighborhood: Conference seeks to bridge gaps and share stories

Ashadee Miller, left, and Hannah Troyer have put together an event filled with speakers, community members and community leaders, all passionate about sparking conversation to create grassroots change toward creating a more accepting, understanding and loving community.

Ellen Pill

Hannah Troyer and co-organizer Ashadee Miller have put together an event filled with speakers, community members and community leaders, all passionate about sparking conversation to create grassroots change toward creating a more accepting, understanding and loving community. The Neighborhood — Who Is My Neighbor? conference will take place on Saturday, April 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
 
"When we listen to people's stories, we can better understand what it's like to live in their skin," said Troyer, co-organizer of The Neighborhood. "Through a one-day conference, we have a dream that by giving those who have been marginalized in and around our community a voice, we can spark a new conversation."
 
The project was unexpected for both women, who met for the first time last August. As they shared their stories, Miller and Troyer finished each other's sentences as evidence of the close connection that has formed between the two women.
 
"It all started in a random lobby in a church," Troyer said.
 
"I'm originally from Trinidad," said Miller, who emigrated from Trinidad with her family to New York City when she was 5 years old. After moving to Holmes County to marry and having two bi-racial children, she became increasingly aware of the lack of diversity of culture and race in her new community.
 
"It started to weigh on me," Miller said. "I started hearing about events in Canton that were speaking about race and African American history. I'm not African American, but I have brown skin, and I thought, 'I have to learn more about this culture.'"
 
Of attending the culturally diverse events, Miller said, "It blew my mind wide open. It was like balm to my soul to find that people of diverse thought were not that far away from where I lived."
 
It was at one of these events that Miller and Troyer met. "I saw Hannah and her husband there," Miller said.
 
The two women were drawn to each other. "We ended up speaking like we'd known each other forever," Miller said.
 
While the two women chatted, Miller shared her vision of bringing similar events to Holmes County. She approached the speaker about doing an event about racial justice and racism.
 
Miller knew she needed someone to co-chair the event with her, and Troyer was immediately interested.
 
Miller said, "It was like all roads point to Hannah, and that was the best decision ever."
 
And it turned out Miller would need more support and assistance than she had ever envisioned. She and Troyer met in the middle of August, but on Sept. 28, Miller was diagnosed with breast cancer.
 
"It was a really crazy time to start with a big venture," Miller said. "Knowing that Hannah was right there, it was a load off my shoulders."
 
"We knew this event was going to be revolutionary," Troyer said.
 
The planning continued through Miller's chemotherapy treatments, which just recently concluded. For now the organizers are focused on bringing community together. At the end of the month after the conference, Miller will undergo cancer surgery.
 
Although both women are Mennonite, they come from wildly diverse backgrounds. While Miller went to a culturally and racially diverse church in Brooklyn, Troyer was raised in the suburbs of Canton and attended high school at Central Christian.
 
About the same time the two women met, Troyer discovered her calling to work in the church. "But not traditionally," Troyer said. "That doesn't fit for me."
 
Troyer was working at the resource table at the event where the two women met. "Ashadee started talking about what she wanted to do but said she didn't have any connections there in Holmes County," Troyer said.
 
Troyer had the connections. "I don't even know if we knew each other's names before we started sharing our dreams," Troyer said. "Now here we are doing this ridiculously revolutionary thing in Fredericksburg."
 
The two are quick to point out that they are not working alone. Austin Miller and Melinda Yoder are part of their core organizing group. "We also have a few other people that are on our team that have been so helpful," Miller said.
 
Although the team is using resources from out of the area, they have been intentional about hosting the conference in Holmes County.
 
"The beauty and strength of Holmes County is the sense of community and rich heritage," Miller said. "The other side is that in Holmes County it can be very hard for people to hear outside perspectives because they aren't face to face with them. It's all one culture."
 
Miller described living in all-white communities before, yet previous to her move to Holmes County, there was always a wide diversity of residents.
 
"The thing I love is that we are bringing different people from various backgrounds together as a starting point," Miller said.
 
The conference will feature four diverse speakers: Haroldo Nunes, a pastor at Salem Mennonite Church and executive director of Open Arms Hispanic Ministry; Bryant T. Lee, a law professor and director of diversity and social justice initiatives at the University of Akron; Darryl Owens, an educator and youth pastor from Canton who started a home school co-op for inner-city kids; and Jeffrey Daniel Mercado from Flagstaff, Arizona, an artist, poet and advocate for indigenous peoples.
 
"A huge thing we want to do with this conference is to de-politicize race, culture, immigration and refugees," Miller said. "A lot of people haven't had a relationship with someone of diverse thought or color. When you don't humanize people through relationship, you may have strong views about policies rather than actual human experiences."
 
The organizers stress that the event is not political. "Embracing people different from us is not a political or religious thing," Miller said.
 
Another part of the conference will be a round table discussion with community leaders listening to community members from Northeast Ohio share their stories. Community leaders will include someone from local law enforcement, a pastor and a school system representative.
 
Of asking people to participate and share experiences, Troyer said, "A lot of people of color in Wayne and Holmes counties are terrified to speak out."
 
In honor of those individuals, there will be an empty chair at the round table, and anonymous written contributions by those who declined to be present will be shared.
 
The last part of the conference will be a conversation with the organizers.
 
Lunch will be available for purchase at the event. In keeping with the day's focus on diversity, the meal will be soul food catered by ZrootZOrganicZ in Canton.
 
"One of my biggest passions," Troyer said, "is to work at intercultural connections. We can learn so much from each other, especially in the church, the ways we experience God and worship. So much that is happening in our world would be so much better if we listened to each other's stories and told our own."
 
Ultimately Troyer and Miller see The Neighborhood conference as a beginning. "We would love to have little neighborhood meetings," they said, again completing each other's sentences. "We want to help facilitate conversations in rural Anabaptist communities where we discuss taboo topics like immigration and domestic abuse, things that some churches aren't talking about. We'd like to create a safe space to address these issues."
 
The Neighborhood — Who Is My Neighbor? conference will take place Saturday, April 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at The Garden's at Homestead, 8226 OH-241, Fredericksburg. The event is free, although donations are accepted to help cover costs, including speaker fees.
 
T-shirts also are available for purchase to help cover costs. The shirts are fair trade. Purchase helps to support employees in Bangladesh who are survivors of sex trafficking.
 
T-shirt purchases and additional donations may be made online when registering. Online registration is required at www.eventbrite.com/e/the-neighborhood-who-is-my-neighbor-tickets-43655806693.
 
"I think that the most heartbreaking and hardest thing for me," Miller said, "is reading the stories of people of color and knowing they won't share their stories because they have been hurt or not understood or believed. Those experiences have happened to me as well.
 
So many in the county say there is no racism. There is. But it's silent because we don't feel comfortable. I have been told stories of little kids being called the 'n' word in Holmes County by other kids. It's not OK. Where are the children learning this? If people really want to hear the truth, this is an opportunity for them to come and hear it. It needs to be heard."
 
"I think so many times the church gets a bad rap because hate is louder than love," Troyer and Miller said. "We want to flip that script and say, 'Let's lead with love and see where it goes.'"
 

Published: April 4, 2018
New Article ID: 2018180409962