Standing Up to Racism: La Crosse teen target of racist incident becoming a voice for others

STOCKHOLM, Wis. (WKBT)- Racism is all around us. It’s happening every day in communities big and small. And yes, right here in our own backyards.

“Can you see? Past the texture of my hair or the color of my skin. Do you see me as a girl or a black girl? Because I see you, not for what society has created, but as a human.”

Those are words written from the heart of a 16-year-old girl in pain, still trying to make sense of the hate that stared her in the face.

“My skin is not a weapon,” reads Lily Stegemann.

Lily will be a Junior at Central High School in La Crosse this fall, but she’s already working towards the next chapter in her life. “I want to go into 4 years of social work and then minor in psychology. And then on top of that, I want to head on to law school and become a defense attorney and then help with youth, teens and young adults that have already been incarcerated and I want to get them out and I want to help turn the other cheek and show there’s more to life.”

Like many teenagers her age, Lily has a job making some extra money. “It’s really nice, I get tips which really help and it helps me get closer to going to college.”

She’s living with her grandma for the summer and working at at the Stockholm Pie Company and General Store in the small town of Stockholm, Wisconsin just outside of Pepin.

“I do a little bit of everything. I help make cookies, I’ll do the dishes, I’ll help in the kitchen, I’ll bus tables, make sure everybody’s OK.”

She serves up customer service with a smile. “It’s a nice little place to work.”

But a day on the job recently took the glimmer out of her eye. “I was just like ‘wow, that really just happened.” And showed that racism can take a seat at the table even in a small town cafe.

“It was on a Sunday and our Sundays are really busy. We’ve had a lot of tourists. I was outside in our little garden area and I was busing tables and I felt like this guy just staring at me and he had a woman with him and I was like ‘OK, maybe just looking at me,’ so he asked me ‘did I bus his table?’ And I said, ‘yes sir, is there an issue? Did I miss a spot, can I get you anything?’ And he kind of just looked at me in disgust and was kind of like ‘you touched my table’ and I was kind of puzzled and I paused and I’m like, ‘I have sanitizer and I have gloves,’ I’m thinking it’s COVID related and then he just gets up , leaves his chair out and says, ‘I can’t believe such a beautiful place hires people like you.'”

Those few words didn’t need an explanation.  Lily knew exactly what they meant.

“At that moment, I kind of just froze and was kind of like wow.”

“I think like any mother, you’re angry. I was initially really angry and that lasted for about 10 sec or so and then I switched gears into I was hurt because this person doesn’t know her,” said Lily’s mom, Julie.

Lily said, “And I didn’t understand because my skin is not a weapon, It’s not something to be afraid of and it doesn’t affect my work ethic or it doesn’t limit my education and it doesn’t make me any different than anybody else.”

Lily tried to brush it off as she finished up her shift. She went home without telling anyone what had happened.

“I didn’t want to start drama, I was like, it’s a new work, I’m happy, I’m enjoying being where I am, I don’t want to come to this new little town and be the issue and I didn’t know how they would react and the last thing I wanted was to be criticized so I was like ‘no. I’m just going to deal with it and move on.’ My grandma didn’t like that!”

Julie said, “She’s 16 years old, but she’s not somebody who’s 40, 50, 60 years that they’ve been battling racism, this was new to her and just kind of slapped her in the face with it.”

Lily spent the night reflecting, the thoughts swirling in her head.

“My heart is heavy and my shoulders are sore. Tired of constantly carrying worry and fear that I may not be accepted because of my skin,” Lily reads from the words she wrote that night.

“I am 16. I work 34 hours a week. Graduating early. But you are blinded by my skin.”

“I cried, I openly wept because it was so vivid and powerful,” said Julie.

“My message to anybody is you can speak, don’t be afraid to speak and it’s important to speak because if you don’t speak now, somebody later may never get that opportunity,” said Lily.

The owner of the Stockholm Pie company quickly got wind of what happened and posted a message of support for Lily on Facebook saying, “If you believe the way those folks do.
Do. Not. Set. Foot. Here. You are not welcome. She is not keeping silent, and neither will we. Lily. We got your back.”

So far, the post has reached thousands of people far and wide.

Lily said, “To me that was like a huge hug, like him telling me I matter and not even knowing me that well meant so much to me.”

“I’m very proud of them for standing up for her and for backing and supporting her,” said Julie.

Lily now carries a constant reminder with her that her voice has already made an impact.

“I got a letter from this family who heard my story on Facebook. Their 8 year old daughter made made a bracelet so I wear it everyday and it’s just a reminder that I did affect somebody.”

On a Sunday afternoon in a beautiful little pie shop along the Great River Road, racism reared its ugly head. And while Lily’s spirit may have been broken, her will to stand up and speak out for those who come after her, was not.

“I can see you, but are you willing to see me?”

The owners of the Stockholm Pie Company created the non-profit, “Lily Fund” where they’re raising money to help Lily pursue her dreams of attending college and law school.

“I didn’t want people to be like ‘oh I feel so bad for her,’ here’s 20 bucks. No. I want you to see me, be proud of me and say, ‘wow look at that independent person who is working, working hard in school.”

And Lily doesn’t want to accept all of the donations on her behalf so instead she is paying it forward. 50% of the donations will go to help other people that need a little extra help. “People are helping me make my dreams a reality so I want to help make other people’s dreams a reality.”

You can make a donation to the Lily Fund in either the Stockholm or Red Wing stores or by visiting here.