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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

Many Military Families Of Color Feel Unsafe In Their Own Communities. Some Are Trying To Change That

Dr. Karockas Watkins of the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce talks with the local board and staff of BancorpSouth in Hunstville, Alabama in 2020.
Photo courtesy Karockas Watkins
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Dr. Karockas Watkins of the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce talks with the local board and staff of BancorpSouth in Hunstville, Alabama in 2020.

While the military has become more racially diverse, a recent survey found some Black and Hispanic service members don’t always feel welcome off base, in their civilian host communities. Some military communities have now taken steps to promote diversity and inclusion.

The Association of Defense Communities conducted the survey, asking service members and their families what they think about the towns and cities they call home, outside the gate.

“The conversation started with the murder of George Floyd, the unrest and protests over the summer,” said Matt Borron, executive director at the Association of Defense Communities. The group connects military bases with their host communities.

Almost every Black military spouse who was surveyed reported unequal access to employment, and said the criminal justice system is unfair.

“It's not surprising that these [military] communities reflect what's going on in society,” Borron said.

Some Black and Hispanic families say sometimes they don’t even feel safe off base. Borron said that can make or break a service member’s decision to stay in the military.

“They're making career decisions,” he said. “They'll leave the military rather than go to someplace where they don't feel safe.”

Now, some local civilian communities said they want to fix that.

Karockas Watkins heads up a task force on diversity, equity and inclusion for the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce in northern Alabama, near Redstone Arsenal. Huntsville/Madison is one of several chambers across the country that encouraged their local military families to participate in the survey.

“Some of the findings are in line with what we see in the United States all over,” Watkins said. “We had several people who felt actually there was no issues of race here. And we had on the other hand some that feel like we need more education, and that justice is not being served.”

Watkins said the chamber plans to increase diversity through a mentoring program and grants for minority-owned businesses, and roundtable discussions to learn more about the needs of military families.

“A lot of times we assume we know what people want, what they need and so we want to hear it from them,” Watkins said. “There may be things that we can do, maybe some things that we can’t do — but we need to listen to our community.”

Jennifer Brantley is a lawyer, entrepreneur and military spouse. The lack of diversity she found in military communities led her to develop FindMe Mobile, an app that connects Black military families with businesses and community groups.
Credit Ray Photography J5 Productions
Jennifer Brantley is a lawyer, entrepreneur and military spouse. The lack of diversity she found in military communities led her to develop FindMe Mobile, an app that connects Black military families with businesses and community groups.

Jennifer Brantley, a lawyer and an entrepreneur, said the survey results are pretty much in line with her own experiences as a Black professional married to an Air Force chaplain. They've lived in Georgia, Nebraska, and are currently stationed overseas in a remote area of England.

“Little comments, microaggressions in the workplace, outright inappropriateness — as a minority, you feel like you just have to sit there and take it,” Brantley said. “Or if you say anything, you become the bad guy or the ‘angry Black woman’ trope.”

The lack of diversity she saw in military communities led her to develop FindMe Mobile, an app that connects Black and Hispanic military members with local businesses like hair salons and restaurants.

“And it's more than haircare for minorities,” Brantley said about the need for community connections. “We need something that makes us feel safe, where we know both our presence and our dollars will be welcome. And I'm like, ‘Well, how about an app?’”

But she said the path to equity is more complicated than an app, or roundtable chats.

“I think it's more about education versus talking to people and talking at people,” Brantley said. “Every effort is appreciated, but we need to figure out: What can we do to get to actual change, to get to people's hearts, to get to people's minds?”

Borron of the Association of Defense Communities said local inclusion efforts are important, but the military’s top leaders also need to act.

“It can't just be at the local level, because installation leadership might feel that they don't necessarily have top cover, that they should probably steer clear if it's controversial,” Borron said.

He’s supporting an effort in Congress that would require the Defense Department to survey military families every other year about the racial climate in defense communities.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.