Solidarity Talk, mural in Breckenridge work to break down stereotypes
*Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to give correct information on where Jess Taing grew up.
BRECKENRIDGE — As the paint dried on Denver-based artist Latasha Dunston’s solidarity mural, the second monthly Solidarity Talk run by Solidarity Nation brought together local residents, town officials, business owners and other leaders on the lawn of the Riverwalk Center on Sunday.
Spectators gathered at 11 a.m. at Washington Avenue near Main Street to hear Dunston speak about the context and inspiration behind the mural on the pavement there, which she finished painting Sunday morning. The center of the mural features the word “solidarity” painted among aspen trees with a fist placed at the top. The grove’s foliage contains questions written in English and in Spanish, asking things like, “How am I practicing anti-racist principals in my daily life?” and “How can I support Black, Indigenous and people of color?”
Dunston said she hopes these questions will be used by people to self-reflect. She said that while she feels the town is overall supportive of her art, she did experience a racist encounter while creating her mural. She recounted this experience during the Solidarity Talk and said that her goal with this mural is to break down the stereotypes that are present. Dunston said that the questions painted into the foliage can spark conversations among families and other passersby.
“I exist radically in spaces that do not necessarily welcome me and that in itself is a form of activism,” Dunston said when asked if she considers herself an activist, noting that she has also engaged in fundraisers. “My identity plus nature equals my art.”
Dunston said she was inspired to paint outside in the elements when she moved to Colorado and experienced the landscape of the West. She said she wanted the piece to be personal to Breckenridge by incorporating local elements, such as the aspens. She agreed to do the commissioned mural in Breckenridge because she said feels like she has a connection with the town and has turned down similar offers in other towns where she doesn’t feel a connection and felt tokenized.
The second of a monthly event, the Solidarity Talk, kicked off at 2 p.m. with a violin performance by Monica Nigon from the rocks of the Blue River. The theme of the talk was “Clarity for Misconceptions,” which event leader Alexandria Carns said was chosen to help people think about and examine the ways they label and judge one another, which she said could lay the foundation for “more love and less judgment.”
The speakers of the event — Isabel Rodríguez, Joe Howdyshell, Jess Taing, Drea Edwards and Dunston — each shared their personal stories of how they have or haven’t been labeled and how labels have been individually impactful.
Rodriguez gave a passionate speech about her past, from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally as a child to her education, marriage, home life with family in downtown Denver and current program manager position at The Cycle Effect. Rodriguez started sentences with, “What if I told you…?” and shared something about her life, asking the audience if they would label her something different with each step.
“I did that,” Rodriguez said after sharing how she had just closed on her first home. “I who? An immigrant. A female, Mexican immigrant, illegal and undocumented, low income, at risk, brown and female with dual citizenship, multilingual, biliterate, bicultural, resilient and full of grit with abilities and skills you only develop with a story such as this. … We have a chance each day to enable others to be a part of breaking down those stereotypes and labels and the first step is being aware.”
Howdyshell shared that he has never felt discriminated against as a heterosexual white man, but that he has always lived his life knowing that while that is true for him, he believes other people’s truths. He said that he was asked to speak because his job as a Summit Endurance Academy coach is to help people change. Howdyshell encouraged the audience to examine themselves and see how they can change their own mindset and to have faith that other people can also change.
Taing talked about growing up in Florida as a person of color, often being the only Asian American or person of color in a classroom. When she shared her parents’ stories of escaping or living through the Cambodian genocide at an elementary class presentation, she was told to no longer speak of her family’s past and “conditioned to erase a part of (her)self.” Tiang, who now lives in Avon, talked about the aggressions she experienced in the Vail Valley with the outbreak of COVID-19 as people moved away from her or gave side glances in the grocery store, made racist comments and interrogated her on where she was from and when she arrived in the area.
“I was not safe at home either,” Taing said. “One of my roommates made veiled racist comments towards Asian people and I wondered, ‘Does she know what I look like? Is she seeing me right now?’ And in that moment I decided to speak up against racist rhetoric. In that moment I liberated that 8-year-old girl who was told to never express herself honestly. I began my own anti-racism. Silence will no longer be an option for me.”
Edwards discussed the stereotype she was presented with earlier in life and worked hard against: that of the “angry black woman.” She said that even when she had a reason to be angry, she would not show it for fear of fulfilling this stereotype. Edwards said this reaction rolled her into another stereotype of the “strong black woman” who does not get upset or show emotion but instead supports everyone around her.
“Why I think that these (stereotypes) are both problematic is because they deny humanity,” Edwards said. “People, as human beings, we have a wide range of emotions. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes it’s vulnerable, sometimes it’s happy and to deny my range of emotions no matter if it is angry or if it is, ‘I’m not feeling that strong right now, I feel vulnerable and I feel like I’m about to fall apart,’ denying that range of emotions is denying my humanity.”
At the end, Carns invited the people to share their stories or strategies they have for moving forward with anti-racism and inclusion in Summit County. Dunston suggested that a grant be set up to encourage people of color to start small businesses in the area and that more cultural music be played as performers continue to create music throughout Breckenridge’s town core.
Priscilla Broomall suggested that there be a way for people of color in the community to get together and exercise through hiking, biking, climbing or other outdoor activities. New Summit School District Superintendent Marion Smith Jr. said that he looks forward to working with the Summit County community to address inequitable policies, practices, procedures and systems. Summit County’s state Rep. Julie McCluskie encouraged people to vote.
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