Community Gets Chance to 'Meet a Black Guy' Sean Brown and Jeff Oliver, two residents in Corvalis, Or., felt like their community needed some exposure to racial diversity. So they set up a 'Meet A Black Guy' booth at their local farmer's market. The two men discuss their idea and the community response.

Community Gets Chance to 'Meet a Black Guy'

Community Gets Chance to 'Meet a Black Guy'

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Sean Brown and Jeff Oliver, two residents in Corvalis, Or., felt like their community needed some exposure to racial diversity. So they set up a 'Meet A Black Guy' booth at their local farmer's market. The two men discuss their idea and the community response.

Corvallis, Or., residents Jeff Oliver and Sean Brown. hide caption

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But first, let's go to Corvallis, a city in Central Oregon where a majority of the population is white. Two residents decided that it would be fun to educate their neighbors about diversity by setting up a meet-a-black-guy booth at the local farmer's market. Well, those two guys are will us now. Sean Brown thought of the idea and Jeff Oliver was the black guy in the booth. Sean and Jeff, welcome.

SEAN BROWN: Welcome.

JEFF OLIVER: Welcome. Thank you.

CORLEY: So, Sean, let's start with you.

BROWN: Sure.

CORLEY: How did you come up with this idea, and why did you think the community needed it?

BROWN: And originally I brought the idea to Jeff and he loved it. I mean, it's gotten very political, but originally, we had no political intent. We just wanted to make people laugh and have them come over and meet Jeff. And get your picture taken...


BROWN: And meet me, a white Jewish guy...

CORLEY: And go from there. Let's get Jeff's take on this. Did you love it? And how did Sean really get you to agree to it?

OLIVER: Well, yeah, I did love the idea of - Sean and I worked together at the Dark Side Cinema, a kind of local, independent place where a lot of different movies come through.

CORLEY: An appropriate name, I guess, for...

OLIVER: Yes. And we were working there on night and he brought this concept up to me, and he showed me the video of this group, Improv Everywhere, who did sort of a similar thing in Aspen a few years ago. And I just loved it. And so we decided to, you know, set up a booth just right next to the farmer's market and you know, see what would come of it. Not really thinking what the response might be.

CORLEY: So why did you love the idea? A lot of people, you know, might be offended.

OLIVER: So I wanted to let people know because there was this kind of misconception that we shouldn't really talk about it because we are all, you know, we are all the same inside. Which I believe we are, but there are such differences that I believe it's appropriate to bring it up.

CORLEY: Well, as you mentioned, you are of mixed heritage and I was wondering, did that come up in your conversations with people at the booth? And what did you say about it?

OLIVER: Definitely. Yeah, I let people know, definitely. My father came here from Sudan and my mother was from Oregon. A lot of people's first question was, where did I come from? And some people were struck that I was born and raised in Oregon and not from maybe a community where there were more African-Americans.

CORLEY: Well, Sean, you also took a turn in this booth so that market-goers could meet a white Jewish guy, so...

BROWN: That's correct.

CORLEY: So what kind of reception did you get?

BROWN: Well, the main thing that most people came up to me and said was, hey, I'm Jewish. too. We can have two Jewish people now. So it turns out, little did I know, that Corvallis has a lot of Jewish population. They weren't really shocked by the white Jewish guy. I guess it's not really a shocking thing, but they did want to get their pictures taken with me and they did want to shake our hands. And they thought it was a great idea.

CORLEY: Well, if you are just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley and we are talking with Sean Brown and Jeff Oliver about creating a "meet a black guy" and as it turns out, "meet a white Jewish guy," booth. Sean, you did this at the farmer's market more than a week ago. Have you heard from people since then who thought you were either exploiting your friend or insulting the community?

BROWN: Well, most people are very happy that we are doing it, not really think that we are exploiting or anything. It just starts up a lot of conversations and it really eases the tension around the subject of diversity here in Corvallis, at least. Few people didn't really like what we were doing, but there's always, you know, somebody out there that doesn't like what you are doing.

CORLEY: I'm really interested in hearing what some of the negative things might have been and how you handled that. There have been instances in the past where blacks were put on display and their existence really minimized. I was wondering how you thought about that or if people approached you that way?

OLIVER: We only really had a couple of people who came up who were offended by the nature of what we are doing, and what they didn't see is the inherent comedy we were trying to bring to it. We were taking something that could be construed as something that was offensive, but we were doing in such a way that we wanted to have people laugh about it. And so I think that was the main misconception people had, that we were doing something to be degrading, whereas we really felt that we were doing something to create something different, something new that hadn't been done. I don't know if we'd want to do more because I think we've definitely done what we started out to do and so much more.

BROWN: And I kind of feel bad because we're really not trying to hurt anybody with this.

CORLEY: Jeff, I'm going to give you the last word here. What do you think about this approach for creating a racial dialogue, and do you think it's something that other communities should try?

OLIVER: Oh, I definitely do. I think that we are entering a new era for race relations, especially with the fact that we have an African-American running for the highest office in this country. And I think that we need to let people know that it's OK to have that kind of a dialogue with people who are of a different nationality or a different race. There needs to be kind of a change from we are all the same, to yes, we are all the same, but we have differences that we should really have a dialogue about.

CORLEY: Sean Brown and Jeff Oliver joined us from Media Services at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Thank you both.

BROWN: Thank you.

OLIVER: Thank you.

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