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Burbank: Do the Right Thing : The city’s leadership needs to welcome people of color, or be overrun by alienated souls who just don’t care. One disillusioned couple flees.

<i> Sharon Woodson-Bryant has moved to Miami, where she is public relations director for the chairman of the Dade County Board of Commissioners</i>

As I helped my husband pack to leave our home in California for the last time, I stopped a moment to look at our poster from the 1984 Olympics. It had decorated our hallway as a sort of symbol of the optimism we felt a decade ago when we moved to Burbank.

Now it is cracked from the earthquake, a less upbeat symbol of our episode in Southern California--an area undergoing an economic, political and spiritual crisis.

The recession that started in 1990, the riots of 1992, the Jan. 17 quake--all contributed to our desire to move on. No longer did there appear to be a shared vision among local leaders. Nor was there a sense of hopefulness within the community. And job prospects for African Americans that offered a better quality of life became more dismal each year.

Actually our disillusionment started soon after we bought a townhouse in Burbank, where we had been attracted by the wholesome appearance and handy location. My husband-to-be had relocated from Florida, and I had moved from San Francisco to get married. Overwhelmed by the vastness of L.A., we hoped for the feeling of a small community. But we sensed a problem when my younger brother was stopped by Burbank police while walking from the grocery store carrying a sack. When they discovered it was a quart of milk, they let him go.

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I’m bidding farewell to Burbank as well as California. Along with the rest of the region, the city has seen enormous change in the past 10 years. Perhaps more than most, Burbank’s leadership needs an attitude adjustment if the city is to thrive in the next 10.

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We felt that Burbank--traditional, white Burbank--held an icy contempt for African Americans and other people of color. Not that there were many of us. After months of shopping without seeing any other blacks, I had to laugh the day a man stopped in the supermarket and pointed me out to his wife. “Look, there is another black person besides us in Burbank,” he said.

A few months later, a less humorous incident occurred when my husband got a speeding ticket. He and a young Latino man were stopped and he was written up as another officer trained his radar gun on passing cars. Peeking at the gun, my husband saw two white women in their early twenties speed by, going 10 m.p.h. over the limit--just as he had been accused of doing--without getting stopped. Incidents like that force a black or brown person to question the rules.

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In an attempt to get involved in the community, my husband saw an ad for a volunteer to do graphic design for a private agency’s newsletter. When he arrived, an older white woman (a volunteer herself) turned him down, saying they didn’t want a Latino for the position. Latino? My husband is African American. He is also persistent. He called back later, talked to an apologetic staff member and managed to donate his services. But as we saw it, he’d had another unpleasant encounter with Old Burbank.

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As time went by, I shared some of these stories with a co-worker whose parents are Puerto Rican. She said that since moving to Burbank she could remember numerous experiences in which she was treated differently from her mother. In stores, she would be served first and more politely. She believed this is because she is fair and blond and her mother is brown skinned.

Such moments cling tenaciously to your memory, undermining your self-esteem. And unless the city’s leadership begins embracing those of us who are “new to the neighborhood,” they will see Burbank eroded by a myriad of people who have no connection to the structure and no motivation to build, protect and keep it safe, clean and desirable.

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Burbank cops no longer stop the young black male for walking in the street as they did my brother 10 years ago. But that is not because attitudes have changed--it’s because the city has changed. After a decade of social change, we no longer stand out. Now there are gangs and a growing influx of people who don’t know, understand or feel connected to Burbank.

I hope the city’s leaders identify and work with people who are advocates for these groups, people who are accountable to their ethnic communities. Without a sense of belonging, the community will be overrun by alienated souls who just don’t care.

Someone needs to encourage them. The city’s leadership needs to get outside its narrow, traditional boundaries.

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I recall reading that one Burbank high school did not celebrate Black History Month in February. A news article indicated that because of the small number of African-American students, an administrator felt that the time should be devoted to academic activities.

Someone missed the point. School administrators should realize that the month is a tool toward recognizing the importance of contributions African Americans have made to this country. White students must become sensitive to a broad, diverse society.

The test of Burbank’s character will require more than applauding politicians and passing resolutions. In the end, it’s not the laws but the lives we lead. Embracing and valuing diversity bring a commonality of hope. My hope is that Burbank will take the right path despite the risks. But it will take community leaders with courage.


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