Cass County Minority Coalition promotes racial harmony with International Festival

Published 2:57 am Friday, September 19, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
Cass County Minority Coalition has been working diligently since 1996 to promote diversity and to tear down racial barriers with events such as Sunday's second annual International Festival in and around Dowagiac Union High School.
The coalition received an unappreciated assist from Mother Nature in bringing people together -- a driving rain drove spectators to huddle under a tent in search of shelter and shut down the stage.
Joe Reilly, a singer and songwriter of Cherokee Indian, Italian and Irish heritage, had segued into Annie Humphrey's set by having the Ojibwe Indian from Minnesota join him to provide some harmonies for his final song.
With two children, she said motherhood magnifies events and prompts her to "do things for a reason and to do things for others."
She opened with a song co-written by Sherman Alexie, the author speaking in Dowagiac Oct. 22 and was performing an original tune about women from the deserts of Afghanistan to the genocide in Rwanda when rain returned with a vengeance.
One gust had already overturned a tent. It appeared momentarily that the awning sheltering stage show spectators might also become airborne, but concertgoers leapt from their seats -- and left their feet as the canopy began to ascend -- then wrestled it back to its tethers.
Humphrey won the 2001 Native American Music Awards for Best Female Artist and Best Country/Folk Recording.
Reilly, a Kalamazoo native who lives in Detroit, graduated from the University of Michigan Environmental Justice Initiative.
The west parking lot was blocked off for the festival. Arts and crafts booths lined the fir trees along Paul Street. Food vendors filled the area by APEX, where soccer and other sports were being played, and congregated inside the DUHS cafeteria along with informational stalls sponsored by a variety of community resources, such as the Southwestern Michigan College Museum and Dowagiac Police Department's Officer Susan Worley demonstrating with special goggles the futility of trying to drive after drinking alcohol.
In the cafeteria Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz moderated a panel discussion. Cass was one of eight Michigan counties piloting a rural homeless initiative. This grant from MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, enabled the Cass County Housing Continuum of Care to develop two 90-day emergency shelters.
These single units -- a three-bedroom mobile home and a one-bedroom, both in Cassopolis -- are available to homeless families through the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, which assists single parents and low-housing families in finding resources.
Tracy, a mother of two sons, lived with her grandmother for more than seven years.
Her best friend, roommate and mentor, Selena, 36, is a grandmother in a different situation.
The rural homeless initiative asked her some probing questions and "opened my eyes," Selena said.
"People who figured I had it all together never asked me those questions before. 'Since my child was grown and running her own household for so long, why hadn't I gotten a life?' My life since I was 14 years old had been being there for my child and raising her. Then I woke up one day and she was married.
Tracy's "sons were scared to move in with me because I'm strict. I believe in structure and that the day should be planned all the way up to bedtime," Selena said. Where Tracy let them watch television to fall asleep, as she does, "I believe in the house being totally quiet. I'm old school."
Three months in the rural homeless initiative gave her time to take stock and "decide what I'm going to do to make things better for me. A big thing to me is leaving an inheritance for my grandkids, and I don't mean financially -- I mean inner strengthwise."
Selena helped her be a better mother, Tracy said. "I know I'm a spoiled brat. I'm like, 'Gimme, gimme, can I have?' So I've got these two kids that are blessed with their great-grandma, and they're like worse than me. We're a house full of brats. I feel like I'm the oldest one, so it's my way or the highway, but it doesn't always work like that with two boys, so they run off with me half the time. (Selena's been there) to back me up: 'No, you're not going to do that to your mother because you know you're not supposed to.' I'm afraid of her leaving" because she doesn't know who's going to watch her back now. Her older son is 16 and testing limits anyway.
This year the Minority Coalition honored Lydia Godisak, a native of Mexico City who has taught in Dowagiac's migrant program the past 19 years, and former village president Sondra Mose Ursery, who helped Laotian Buddhist monks establish a temple in Vandalia, and leads tours of Underground Railroad sites, for their promotion of racial harmony.
LeRoy Danzy and Dr. Ilene Sheffer were so honored for the first festival in 2002.