Leah Ralls on the NAACP, Juneteenth, and racism in Connecticut
By Jackie Nappo and Leah Ralls
Leah Ralls is in her third term as president of the Windham/Willimantic, CT branch of the NAACP, a civil rights organization that fights to eliminate discrimination in areas of employment, housing, police relations, health care, and much more. She spoke to Universal Health Care about her work, Juneteenth, and her outlook.
This Juneteenth, the Windham/Willimantic NAACP will host a presentation in collaboration with the Willimantic Library. They will have Dr. Stacey Close, the associate provost and vice president of equity and diversity at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is an expert on Juneteenth and will give a presentation.
Also, on Juneteenth, a portion of the proceeds from Craig’s Soul Food in Vernon will be donated to the Windham/Willimantic NAACP. Craig’s Soul Food is a restaurant owned by a Black man who was formerly incarcerated and now has built his own business from the bottom up.
Q: What led you to this work?
A: I come from a social work background,so I’ve been an advocate for people for many years. My mother was a social worker, my sister was a social worker…and my mom and sister got involved in the NAACP Norwich, CT branch. Their president, Jackie Owens, was president of that branch for over 30 years, and she reactivated a branch out of Willimantic.
We came together and started to meet to form a chapter, and we got formed. I don’t know how I got to be president other than the fact that I had the biggest mouth. Our branch is very diverse, our membership is in the 200s, and we cover the whole northeast corner of the state. We cover some towns that are technically in the Hartford area, but because their issues are so similar to those in Willimantic, most of their residents have come over to our branch.
Q: What kind of issues are those?
A: You know, it’s the small town, predominantly white school, housing, and health care system. They tend to have instances of subtle racism that isn’t blatant, but you can feel it and know it’s happening. Our branch has decided to confront those concerns through various avenues: either through encouraging people to seek legal damages, or through education in the school system and in the community.
Q: Can you give some examples of community education?
A: We’ve done conversations on race in the community through presentations and through film. We host a film every month, wherein we encourage participants to view the film and come together on zoom to discuss the issues. Usually we do documentaries, and not necessarily Hollywood type movies, because while some of those are real, we want to get to the core of the issue.
In the school systems, we have four segments of our education committee that work to bring various types of programming to students. A lot of times it’s school based, they ask us to come in for assistance, particularly if they’re finding they have some racial bullying going on, or just an abundance of racial tension. We have a program educating other students about different issues regarding race, particularly around the use of the N-word, why you shouldn’t call a black man “boy”, why we kneel for the flag, why we kneel for justice, etc. We’ve had a lot of conversations with students. We also have a program called Dream Big, which brings professionals of color to the schools. It’s been a very powerful program and students are very, very receptive.
Q: What kind of work do you do in regards to health care?
A: We also are engaged in the fight to maintain or reinstate our labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital. We feel it’s a health equity issue in terms of quality of care and access to care for women of color. It just baffles us as to why Hartford Health Care made this decision (to close the labor and delivery unit). And when we discussed it with them, the answer they gave us just didn’t feel valid. It feels like it’s a corporate decision that didn’t take this community into account, and we feel as though they have come in and scooped up our hospital and put all the money into other areas of the state. It’s a hardship for the women in this area: Black, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican… it doesn’t matter. We’re engrossed in that right now, working with the coalition in hopes that we can convince the state to stop this process, or come up with some real viable alternatives, because the ones they have now are just horrendous.
We have several discrimination cases on our board right now, those I won’t talk about in public. But they’re there, and the legal redress team has been busy. We have a PAC that follows bills, that encourages action, like letter writing campaigns to reach legislators.
Q: What should people know about this work in Connecticut?
A: I think it’s important for everyone to know the work is ongoing and doesn’t stop. It won’t stop until the playing field is equal. There’s opportunity and equity for everyone, particularly people of color to have the same opportunities to reach the financial freedom, the educational freedom, the housing freedom, employment freedom, and medical freedom that other citizens have. So the work is ongoing, it doesn’t stop. We don’t get to graduate from this. We don’t get to say, “Job complete” and move on. You know, some of the same issues that were prevalent back in the 60's are still prevalent today, you know. Even beyond the 60's, I don’t even want to put a year on it. So the work is ongoing.
Each generation finds themselves chasing different barriers. But they feel the same.
Q: As a Black woman, what keeps you going?
A: Well of course we’ve made progress over the years. I mean we came out of slavery. We’ve made progress over the years, but there’s more progress to be made until we are no longer faced with hate and opposition toward our race. And not just by police, but by people in general. Because it’s not just police that do this, so I mean you know let’s think about the Amazon Warehouse. We’ve had seven noose hangings, that’s just unimaginable in this day and time.
That’s the kind of episode that re-energizes you, and tells you that you can’t give up- you can’t give up this fight. You have to stick and stay, and maybe one day our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren won’t have to live in this fear based world. This fear of the color of your skin. People don’t get what that feels like.
So that’s what keeps it going, people’s actions.
Q: What is on your mind as Juneteenth is approaching?
You know what reflection I have about Juneteenth? I think it’s absolutely horrible that we were never taught about Juneteenth in school. And so, as an adult, at 60 years old, I’m beginning to learn about Juneteenth, and I still haven’t gotten behind the 8-ball. You know? So I think it’s time for us to learn as much about that time as we possibly can, to educate our children, our families, and our communities. And we need to celebrate that freedom.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about education, how do you view it as part of your broader work?
A: You know, we have to continue to look at where we can make change through education. And I don’t necessarily mean in school, but community education as well. Because that’s how you change, you change through learning. If you don’t know better, you don’t do better; once you know better, you do better. There has to be a continued effort to educate the community, to highlight the positives of the black community, and people of color, because there are a lot of positives. There is a lot of information about the history of black people that people don’t know. People don’t know about all the inventions and the buildings and the work that we have put into our society. That needs to be shared.
Q: What do you want white people to know?
A: Well first of all, I’d want white people to understand that the thing that separates us is melanin, which is a byproduct in our skin. And if you took that melanin away from me and from you, we’d be the same. We’d be flesh, and flesh is one color. So I want people to understand that more than there are differences, there are similarities. And the thing that separates us is ignorance. And it’s generational hate. And as a black woman, I work really hard to break those barriers down for myself and for others and try to teach that to my children.
I know for a fact that our family, we come from Charlottesville, VA, and there’s a real connection to Thomas Jefferson. My great great grandfather looks just like him, not through Sally Hemmings but maybe through her sister, Betty. So there’s a lot of diversity in my family stemming all the way back then.
But my family has also experienced a lot of hate, racism, microaggressions, you know, the gambit. But we persevere, we’re strong people. We’re not just going to lay down and let you walk all over us, we’re gonna fight. Being a mother of Black male children, I have that constant fear, that constant worry. I’m constantly praying for their safety to make sure they make it home safely every night to their families.
But you can’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder all your life. You gotta meet this thing head on and you can’t complain and then not be willing to do anything about it. Right now I’m caught up in doing something about it, when that’s going to end- I’m not sure.