When Bay Village resident Terry Coursen was a child, his mother, Deborah, took him to his white grandparents’ house for Christmas. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, quiet argumentative whispers between his mother and grandparents filled the room.
His grandparents told his mother they would never accept Terry, who is African American, as a grandson. That was until Coursen got involved with those angry whispers. Sitting on his grandmother’s lap, he introduced himself and eventually won his grandparents over.
Now as an adult, Coursen is leading the conversation on race and inequality in Bay Village.
“It’s important that we all recognize our biases. Just because we live in a suburban community, that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues of inequity,” Coursen said. The 43-year-old activist says he’s encountered racial issues several times in Bay, including when a former neighbor called the police on his kids while they were playing basketball in his front yard.
Inspired by the protests in Cleveland following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 and shocked at the negative coverage the May 30 downtown march received, Coursen decided to take the conversation into his own hands.
Coursen started walking daily from his home on the east side of Bay Village to the Bay Village police station on Wolf Road while wearing a sign that said, “I am not a threat.”
During the walks, which take him down Lake Road, Coursen has received a variety of reactions. Some people have flipped him off or cussed at him. In a video he recorded during one of his walks, a man driving an SUV confronted him and asked him why he doesn’t just go to a city where Blacks are being slaughtered and protest there instead of Bay Village. The man also accused Coursen of being a paid political actor and said that he’s trying to destroy the country.
However, some people in Bay Village have supported his cause. Some have joined his protests in front of the police station. Others have dropped off water for him and have honked in support of his message.
That’s how he met Sarah Sweeney and her sisters, Elizabeth and Molly. Together, the four planned a large protest in the city that attracted more than 500 demonstrators. The group marched on June 5 from Huntington Reservation to the police station in support of Black Lives Matter. The two-hour protest included chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and demonstrators lying face down in Cahoon Memorial Park for nearly nine minutes, the same time it took for police to kill Floyd.
“It was amazing to see all of these people come together and continue the conversation of race and inequality,” Coursen said. “I just couldn’t believe so many people came together. We weren’t expecting the turnout we had.”
After the protest, Coursen helped the sisters found the Bay Village Anti-Racism Network. The grassroots organization was created to ensure those uncomfortable conversations on race and inequality continued in suburban communities like Bay Village.
The group, which has more than 600 Facebook members, has been involved in local politics since its formation last year. The network hosted conversations with Police Chief Kathleen Leasure on police brutality, had a virtual poverty simulator, and demanded that the city look into how the police department handles diversity issues and pass a resolution denouncing racism.
Coursen and group members also helped the school district form the Equity in Action Committee, created by the district’s Director of Human Resources Holly Schafer and Bay High School Vice Principal Ramsey Inman. The group’s goal is to support cultural education, enforce district policies to prevent racism and provide equitable access to co-curricular or extracurricular activities in the district, according to information provided by the district.
A teacher in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Coursen moved to Bay Village with his wife, Amy, to raise their children. Even before coming to Bay Village, Coursen said, he’s been pushing racial boundaries. Growing up in Huntsman Village, Arkansas, he says he was the first Black child to go to school in that district and the first Black kid to live in the city.
There he faced his own challenges, such as being ignored by his teachers or having to hide his relationships with white girls to avoid scrutiny, he said.
While he has stopped the daily journey to the police station because of the winter, Coursen is continuing the conversation in Bay. Now, he’s researching other communities to see how they’re handling racial inequity to form a plan to enact in his community. It’s unclear what that plan will look like, but Coursen hopes to set it into motion soon.
“We need to talk about these issues and get people talking about the pain and displeasure of how Black people are treated in society,” he said. “Some people may look at me like I’m crazy or weird, but all that matters to me is that the conversation continues.”
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