Residents work to dispel hate in Forest City
The Forest City community is reacting to homophobic and racist comments that Mayor Christopher Glinton said he and other officials have received about a proposed community center.
Community leaders wanted to create a community center for what they felt were their most marginalized members – people of color, children, and queer people. After living away for several years, Community Organizer Christian Chludzinski returned to find that Forest City’s population significantly shrunk. Residents from marginalized groups have been leaving Forest City in droves to find more accepting communities, he said.
“We started talking about it in 2021 because the 2020 Census numbers had come out and showed that Susquehanna County had lost the highest percentage of population of any county in the state,” said Chludzinski. “We had lost, I think it was 11.6 percent of our population in just one decade.”
Chludzinski teamed up with Forest City Mayor Glinton and Susquehanna County Commissioner Judy Herschel to open OUR Community Center (OCC) on Main Street. They’ve raised half of the $300,000 needed to start building renovations, but some residents worry the center will promote LGBTQ+ values. The center will be run by NEPA Community Pride Incorporated and they state that they are LGBTQ+ inclusive.
At Wednesday's ‘No Hate in Our State’ Town Hall, panelist and community member Audrey Waterman said she feels like something stopped the LGBTQ+ community’s progress.
“But now, I feel like we’re going backwards,” said Waterman. “The hate’s on TV, the hate’s in the streets. I took my sticker off my car, because I don’t want it keyed when I go to the grocery store. I don’t feel like that when I’m in an urban area. I like the cities because I feel like I can be inclusive. Here, it’s hard to feel like you’re included.”
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s Executive Director Chad Dion Lassiter added that children are not getting what they need to succeed in many communities. He argued they may end up taking a bad path in life without community support, or even join gangs. Community centers, he said, help children feel included in their hometown.
“What are the true descriptions of a gang member? Usually, they have educational difficulties, usually there’s poverty, there’s lack of parenting in the household – no father, no role model – okay? Lack of subsidence, lack of friends – real friends,” said Lassiter.
Commissioner and Center Co-Founder Herschel told WVIA News that they have the documentation they need to open the center, but there is one thing holding the community center back.
“Fear. Fear of what you don’t know. Fear of that Black person walking down the street – they might be part of a gang – we’ve all heard that. We have. Living here, right? We’ve all heard that fear of ‘you’re going to groom my child, my child will be gay now,” said Herschel.
Community organizers said the center's goal is to bring people together from different backgrounds and identities.
Herschel said Wednesday’s conversation is just the beginning of a dialogue – the community, she said, has a lot of healing to do.
“There were individuals in the room that still have questions and still have fears. They did not feel comfortable talking, so I think the next step is, get rid of the cameras, get rid of the news crew, and have neighbors sit down with neighbors,” said Herschel.
Plans for the proposed community center are still loose, but organizers want to offer tutoring to K-12 students, a community theater, and other services free of charge to community members. They also want the center to be a model for other centers, eventually creating a center in every municipality within Susquehanna County.