A mentor of mine once told me the best ways to learn in life are by reading and talking to people. I read as much as I can, but when it comes to social understanding I find the latter is more rewarding. Going different places and speaking to people from different backgrounds gives you a genuine perspective on the true mindset of your community. "Community" is a word we all use and interpret differently.

What is a community? A community is not a geographical location. A community is a connection that we have to the people and places around us. For anyone to be connected to the Rockford community they must have a connection to the people and places within the Rockford community. We must invest in building relationships to develop an independent opinion of the people and places that we share space with.

We live in the era of information, so there is no reason for us to be uneducated consumers. We have access to information and individuals but do not invest the necessary time and energy in developing our own interpretation of the people and places around us. Ultimately, we must be conscious of how we relate to one another. That means examining the things that we say and do and how they impact individuals around us.

When I moved to Rockford, I stayed in a hotel for six months. My goal was to grow my knowledge of different neighborhoods to find the best place to live. Naturally, I asked people from Rockford what neighborhoods I should consider. The conversation always turned into a round about opinion on the “good side” and “bad side” of Rockford. This is where I discovered how diverse the perspectives of Rockfordians can be. Many people warned me not to go west of 20th street. Others argued that south of State Street is a restricted area. These are the imaginary boxes we create for ourselves.

The diversity of Rockford is something that is often overlooked. Rockford is a melting pot of not just various ethnic groups, but also neighborhoods and perspectives. I learned this through my participation in the inaugural planning of the Midtown Ethnic Festival in 2014. It was then that I learned Rockford is home to ethnic associations for; Laotian, Serbian, Indian, African, Jewish and other ethnic groups.

Ethnically, Rockford is most recognized for its rich Italian and Swedish history; however, many ethnic hands have helped plant the roots of the community we call Rockford. If you created a dish based on traditional ingredients from the ancestors of the founding fathers of Rockford I imagine it would be a plantain pancake pizza, with whipped cream and powdered sugar.

Diversity in Rockford

Two European men, Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake, settled Rockford in 1834 with a Black man named Lewis Lemon. My mother once told me if you want to understand anything you have to start at the origin. Since the first brick was laid, diversity has been the cornerstone of the Rockford community. Today, Rockford is still a diverse eco-system. I say system because diversity is a process of the environment, embrace and acceptance. True diversity exists when an environment of people free to accept themselves are embraced as equals by people with distinct differences. This is an effort that is never done. A long-term commitment everyone has to make. I know we have the diversity, and I am proud our community is making a collective effort to celebrate and embrace that diversity. I am speaking about the Midtown Ethnic Festival.

If you do not share my opinion that Rockford is an extremely diverse eco-system I challenge you to do two things. One, the next time you are stopped at a stoplight, look around you. Look at the person driving next to you, the people walking and the people driving by. You will see people of all different colors, shades, and sizes. Two, visit every church and place of worship in Rockford and write a report on your findings. I bet you can not visit them all in one calendar year.  This is our community – Diverse as fingerprints.

Quote of the week: “The opportunity is not, not seeing color. It is seeing color and love through the same lens.” – Joshua Patterson, quote on diversity

Midtown Ethnic Parade & Festival is on Sunday, August 28, 2016, and held in the Midtown District.