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FORT COLLINS - LeRoy A. Gomez rolls his eyes and shakes his head when he hears the word "colorblind."

He was a child when he heard his first racial slur — a middle-aged white women called him a "dirty Mexican" — in Leadville. Shortly after arriving in Fort Collins in 1982, he watched minutes pass by in a Fort Collins restaurant as wait staff avoided him, sneering at his Hispanic heritage.

FORT COLLINS COLORADOAN: Racism in Fort Collins takes subtle forms

Gomez, 68, has experienced too much hate to believe that "colorblind" is a reality just yet.

"You look at yourself initially," he said. "Is there something wrong with me? It makes you really inferior."

Gomez endured discrimination quietly for years, making the decision to speak out. He's been an activist for racial equality and inclusivity in Fort Collins for around 26 years, fighting not only for his own Hispanic community, but for all minority groups in Fort Collins.

Though he's seen some victories for inclusivity, he believes racism is alive in Fort Collins.

"They like our food," he said. "But that's about where it stops. This is the Choice City. If you're going to be the Choice City, you better practice what you preach."

Fort Collins' overall population has more than tripled in the past three decades. The Hispanic population has more than quintupled, while the minority population overall has nearly quadrupled. But even with that growth, the minority population is statistically the same as it was 20 years ago.

Gomez said he's "starting to hear rumbles" of increased racism.

What does racism look like in Fort Collins in 2014? It can be seen in subtle glances, stereotypical assumptions and children who feel some shame in speaking their native language.

"I don't want these things to happen again or get out of hand," he said. "I have dealt with so many issues here in Fort Collins."

Charlotte Miller, a Fort Collins woman with a multiethnic family, said racism goes beyond hurting minority groups. It hurts the overall population, particularly in hiring decisions made by local businesses.

"If you exclude a people group — whether they're women, disabled or from a different race — you could be missing out on some great talent," Miller said. "It's supposed to look like America, not Fort Collins."

Racism in Fort Collins

The population in Fort Collins is about 93 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. Census data available.

"If people see someone of color, they give you a look," Gomez said. "It may be subtle, but they check you over. ... The Caucasian community takes it very lightly. They can't understand why we get hurt, mad, upset, angry or whatever. If you walk in my shoes, you'll know."

Extreme racism, such as that seen in Fort Collins in the mid-1900s against Hispanics, has faded. But racism is more than hate signs and violence, said Cheryl Beckett, a founding member and current chairwoman of the local Not In Our Town Alliance. Unlike the infamous "No Mexicans or Dogs" signs that once plagued the windows of Fort Collins restaurants and businesses, racism today is subtle.

Karen Wong-Brown, 42, said she was fired twice in Fort Collins for having an accent. Based on her physical appearance as a Chinese-American, people locally often assume she doesn't speak English and speak loud and slow, she said.

Wong-Brown was born in Hong Kong and lived in Japan before coming to the United States when she was 6. English is one of three languages she speaks. She's known English and two dialects of Chinese most of her life. She's approaching fluency in Spanish.

The struggle is bigger than how others treat her, Wong-Brown said. Her struggle began internally when she was asked to identify herself as a minority while attending Colorado State University in 1991.

"It was the first time I had to check a box to identify my identity," she said. "I'm Karen. Why does anyone need to know I'm Asian-American?"

Being a minority in America creates a unique "battlefield," as she was told often by her mother.

"You can never be Chinese because you won't blend in there after living in America," she said. "But in America, you won't blend in because you aren't white."

Wong-Brown's story is personal. She said she can't speak for all other people of color and that each interaction is different.

She also believes the burden of inclusivity lies on every resident of Fort Collins — whether white or minority.

She takes responsibility for sharing her culture and learning about other cultures.

"They don't need to come to me," she said. "It's my responsibility. It's good to reach out and hear other people's stories."

Finding a solution

One solution could be found at Lesher Middle School, where the administration is implementing programs to support diversity and cultural acceptance.

Lesher is one of Poudre School District's most diverse schools, with 35 percent of the school's 750 students identifying as minorities. Around 42 percent of Lesher's students are eligible for the free-and-reduced-price meal program. Around 28 percent are in a gifted and talented program.

Lesher goes beyond encouraging students to accept each other; the school encourages minority students to accept themselves through a dual language learning program. Around 150 of Lesher's 750 students are enrolled in the program annually. Around half of students in the program are native Spanish speakers and half are native English speakers. All core subjects are taught bilingually through the program, with each student learning in both languages.

"Middle school is a really tough age for all kids. They get lost and need help navigating," coordinator Daniel Gallegos said. "With this program, they become academic equals. It empowers Spanish-speaking students to use their native language. It helps them identify Spanish as an academic, prestigious language."

Using Spanish academically — rather than "on the streets" or in a student's home — is powerful for Spanish-speaking students and their families, Gallegos said.

The idea is personal. Gallegos' grandparents are native Spanish-speakers, but his parents never learned the language because it was not considered beneficial to speak Spanish. He learned the language to keep his culture alive and wants to encourage his students to do the same.

Principal Tom Dodd said the school works tirelessly to support each student's differences.

Lesher is one of 49 Colorado schools awarded the No Place for Hate designation by the Mountain States Office of the Anti-Defamation League. The school has earned the designation two years in a row by implementing practices to support diversity and discourage bullying among students.

A collaborative of students, parents and teachers work together throughout the year to educate students and encourage positive treatment of others. Last year, the school hosted an anti-bullying training. Students also come together for a "resolution of respect" every year. Positive behavior is reinforced with rewards.

"We're not going to stand for bullying," said Waren Morrow, Lesher's assistant principal and athletic director. Morrow helps run the No Place for Hate program. "We're not going to stand for racism. We're not going to stand for putting someone down."

Beckett said the key to breaking down racial barriers in Fort Collins is for each resident to learn to embrace differences.

Her group, the Not In Our Town Alliance, has taken on 10 cases of discrimination since 2005, she said.

"It's hard to get people to understand enough about each other to appreciate them," she said. "If we are not exposed to differences as being OK, generally early on in our life, that lack of understanding creates fear."

NIOTA is a collaborative of around 100 people from the community, government and nonprofits that works to address myriad diversity issues. The organization hopes to make Fort Collins a Gold Star City, which means it must meet national organization guidelines for diverse local leadership, school safety, partnerships with law enforcement, and visible displays of the values of diversity and inclusivity.

NIOTA works primarily through education and partnerships, but also with individuals and groups in instances of racial discrimination. The group also serves as a resource connector for those seeking support and organizations throughout town.

Meanwhile, Gallegos hopes his students at Lesher will make a difference in Fort Collins' diversity issues for years to come. Lesher will send one of its largest groups of native Spanish-speaking students to a high school International Baccalaureate program this year.

"(Our students) are graduating. They're getting better jobs. They're beginning to see their bilingual skills as an asset," Gallegos said. "I know there may be some issues in this community, but there are also a lot of opportunities we're working on."

Sarah Jane Kyle is the Coloradoan reporter covering volunteerism, nonprofits and philanthropy. Follow her on Twitter @sarahjanekyle or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reportersarahjane.

Get help

If you or someone you know is experiencing racial or other discrimination in Fort Collins, call the Not in Our Town Alliance, or NIOTA, hotline at (970) 797-1841 or visit www.niot.org.

Encourage diversity

The following events/places encourage diversity in Fort Collins:

• The Not In Our Town Alliance, or NIOTA, Book Club meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Books can be found online at www.ftcollinsnotinourtown.org. Email Cheryl Beckett, cherylbeckett@q.com, or call (970) 797-1841 for more information.

• Museo de las Tres Colonias is open to the public on the third Saturday of every month and for special events. The Museo highlights Hispanic history, life and the sugar beet industry in Fort Collins and is housed in a historical Fort Collins home. Learn more at www.museodelastrescolonias.org.

• • Lesher Middle School is one of 49 Colorado school designated as a No Place for Hate by the Mountain States Office of the Anti-Defamation League. The school had to complete a yearlong initiative to make the school equitable, safe and respectful.

Stay tuned

This is the first in an informal series of stories looking at diversity and inclusivity in Fort Collins.

(© 2014 Coloradoan, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.)

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