Growing up, Laëtitia Hollard was one of only a few students of color in her school. She felt ashamed of who she was throughout much of her childhood.

“I thought black was a bad word up to the fourth grade,” she said. “It was a word that no one liked, that no one would use, because we thought it was offensive.”

Hollard believed that because of her skin and hair, she would never be smart enough, pretty enough or safe enough. Only when she, as a teenager, performed in a play about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s did she learn about and appreciate the culture and contributions of the black community. And, she understood how smart and beautiful she was. But safe?

“We do not deserve to die because of the color of our skin,” she said.

Hollard, a student at McFarland High School, organized a Black Lives Matter gathering Wednesday, June 3, at Arnold Larson Park in the village. Several hundred people showed up for the peaceful event held in response to the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers, most recently George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We’ve been carrying this around and have been quiet about our pain and suffering, but there comes a time when we’re tired, and I’m exhausted,” Hollard said. “My brothers and sisters are being killed, and there seems to be no end. We have to put our foot down.”

She encouraged those in attendance to sign a petition to present to the McFarland Village Board and McFarland School Board urging more diversity and equity initiatives, better representation of people of color, the creation of a diversity or inclusion committee to the task force, and to join Dane County’s community restorative court, among others. Large-scale changes can be made by starting at the local level.

“I don’t want to be followed around in the store anymore. I don’t want to be belittled and called the n-word. I don’t want to be harassed because of the color of my skin, because my mind and soul is the same as any of you,” Hollard told the crowd.

More than two years, as a McFarland High School student, Emmanuel Aweay and others created the Black Student Union to give students of color a voice.

He said if he and others had been educated properly – for example, not learning black history apart from American history – many issues of today wouldn’t exist.

“If I had known what I know now when coming up with the idea of the BSU, there wouldn’t have been no BSU,” he said. “It would have been an all-student union, a union that gives a voice for all students and makes sure that all students are treated as equal.”

He asked why students had to form a separate group to feel included.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And in the metaphorical chain of the United States, the black community has been weakened by the hands of our oppressors for far too long,” Aweay said. “If we truly want to make America great, we need to strengthen our weakest link. Once that is accomplished, we can accomplish anything. There is strength in numbers.”

Robert Robinson spoke about what he described as the most difficult conversation ever with his 9-year-old son.

“I had to explain to my son that one day you will be judged by the color of your skin – not because you’re smart, not because you can bring things to this world – and that you may be killed by the hands of someone wearing a badge that serves to protect you,” he said.

He also encouraged blacks to reach out to their white neighbors.

“It’s not about us being divided,” Robinson said. “Let’s sit down at the table and discuss our differences.”

Halfway through the 60-minute event, the crowd knelt in silence for nine minutes in recognition of how long Floyd was held down by Minneapolis police officers. Joining in were the McFarland police officers present.

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