Bobbi Wilson, 9, was spraying invasive lanternflies with a homemade repellent to protect trees in her Caldwell, N.J., neighborhood last October, when a White neighbor called police to report her activity as suspicious.
Last month, the Yale School of Public Health honored Wilson, who is Black, for her courage and dedication to science after her mother spoke out against the alleged racial profiling her daughter endured when Gordon Lawshe reported her to police, referring to Wilson as “a little Black woman” and telling dispatchers she “scares me,” according to footage obtained by CNN.
At a Jan. 20 ceremony at the prestigious university, the girl’s personal lanternfly collection was catalogued, labeled and officially added to a database at Yale’s Peabody Museum, where it went on display for public viewing. Wilson is credited as the donor scientist for her contribution to the museum’s collection.
“Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this … this is something unique to Bobbi,” said Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor at the school and organizer of the event, according to the school’s summary of the ceremony. “We wanted to show her bravery and how inspiring she is, and we just want to make sure she continues to feel honored and loved by the Yale community.”
The Peabody Museum’s Entomology Collections Manager Lawrence Gall also praised Wilson for her efforts in New Jersey to mitigate the effects of the lanternflies, which suck nutrients from plants and can harm trees and crops.
“We’re so grateful for all of the work you’ve done down in New Jersey and your interest in conservation and checking out the lanternflies’ advance,” Gall said. “We don’t have many of them in Connecticut right now. They are just starting to come up here. But I’m sure we’ll see them, so we’re very happy to have these specimens.”
Wilson’s mother, Monique Joseph, spoke at the event on Jan. 20, praising Yale’s leaders for recognizing her daughter and helping to sooth a painful memory.
“Dr. Opara, you have been a blessing,” Monique said. “You are part of our testimonial and what it means to have a community of amazing, beautiful, Black, intelligent scientists and doctors, and more important than that is your heart and your passion for the work that you do… You helped us change the trajectory of that day.”
“I just appreciate it. It means the world. We will not let this be in vain,” she continued. “You guys will forever hear Bobbi because, between her dad, myself, my family, we are going to support her and make sure that she lives up to her fullest potential.”
On Nov. 1, Joseph described the October incident during a Caldwell Borough Council meeting. “Racism, intentional or not, is still racism,” Joseph told community leaders.
“My neighbor’s words put my daughter in harm’s way. His words and actions were unconscionable, and the impact of the aftermath of this incident will not be kept secret,” Joseph also said. “My 9-year-old daughter was afraid to go outside her front door the next day. She was afraid that her neighbor that she knows has a reason, unknown to her, to call the police on her.”
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Wilson’s older sister, 13-year-old Hayden, also spoke at the meeting, and said her neighbor’s actions were “extremely offensive, traumatic, and scarring” for her family.
Afterwards, officers invited Wilson and Joseph to West Caldwell Police Department, where the pair was given a tour and a chance to discuss race relations, The Progress reported.
At the Yale event in January, Joseph explained why she decided to bring attention to what happened to her daughter. “I don’t just speak up for Bobbi. I don’t just speak up for my daughters. I speak up for children,” Joseph said. “I speak up for anyone that checks that ‘other’ box, that has racism against them, biases against them.”
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
- Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
- ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
- National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.