The teen, whose summer job is working at a pie shop, had white customers leave after insulting her because of the color of her skin.
One moment Lily Stegemann was cleaning a table at a Pepin County pie shop, just as she had done so many times during the previous three weeks she had worked there.
The next moment Stegemann, who is 16 and biracial, found herself the target of racist behavior at a time when such acts against Black people are garnering attention and headlines across the country in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
On June 7, Stegemann was working at Stockholm Pie and General Store when a white man asked her if she had touched the table he and a woman were sitting at while she wiped it down. Thinking the man was concerned about cleanliness related to COVID-19, Stegemann pointed out she was wearing gloves and using sanitizer to clean the table.
But worries about the virus had nothing to do with the man’s angry expression, Stegemann was about to learn. Instead, she said, he glared at her, then told Stegemann “We’re not eating here. I can’t believe a place like this hires people like you” before standing up and leaving with his companion.
Stegemann was stunned, and emotionally crushed. She struggled to process the man’s disdain for her based on only her skin color, she said, and suddenly felt both deep sorrow and fear.
“I was demoralized,” Stegemann said Friday. “I didn’t know what to say, and I was so afraid.”
Stegemann kept the incident to herself for several days, experiencing shame following the incident because of the color of her skin. She knew she was a good person, she reminded herself. But that self-reassurance wasn’t enough. She was afraid to return to work, fearful she would encounter more racist customers. She avoided even speaking to people.
She worried if she spoke up about what had happened, she would be seen as an attention seeker, as someone trying to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Four days after the incident, Stegemann did tell someone about it. She reported the incident to the pie shop’s assistant manager, Abigail Halvorson. Halvorson, who is white, is the mother to a 12-year-old biracial son.
“I was angry. And I was hurt for her,” Halvorson said Friday as she recalled the incident. “I thought we were in a safe little bubble here, that we wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of thing. But it turns out I was wrong.”
As Wisconsin’s smallest county geographically, with a sparse, nearly all-white, rural population, Pepin County hardly seems a likely home to protests against police violence against Black people and systemic racism.
The county, in the west-central part of the state, is comprised of rolling hillsides, farm fields, and steep bluffs. It is populated mainly by descendants of Germans and Scandinavians who settled there. Its southwestern edge borders the Mississippi River, and visitors from the Twin Cities and elsewhere frequent the small, artsy towns along Highway 35 during summer and fall before the area shuts down for winter.
Its largest city, Durand, has a population of about 1,900; about 7,300 reside in Pepin County. Of them, 99 percent are white.
Yet a series of protest rallies have occurred at sites across the county, with participants holding signs bearing anti-racist messages. Since Floyd’s death, a few dozen protesters have gathered weekly in Stockholm, Pepin, and Durand, showing their support for change they believe is needed.
“This is an important time, and these are important issues that need to be discussed,” said Bruce Johnson, co-chairperson of the Pepin County Democratic Party who has helped organize the protests. “The people who are protesting want to let the community know that we support needed changes, and those changes are needed here just like everywhere else.”
On Friday protesters gathered again despite a light rain, returning to tiny Stockholm (population 66), this time to protest not only police killings of Black people and systemic racism, but to show support for Stegemann. They held signs bearing such messages as “Black Lives Matter” and “Do You See Me?”
“After hearing about what happened to Lily, we felt like we had to be here today,” Johnson said.
Vehicles honked as they drove past protesters, with some motorists waving at the group or giving thumbs-up. Afterward group members met to discuss the protest and future plans, which include online discussions of community residents about how to address systemic racism.
Johnson and others acknowledged that Pepin County seems an unlikely place for ongoing protests at a time when those events appear to have wrapped up in many larger, more diverse communities. But the graphic nature of Floyd’s death and ongoing discussions of structural racism have prompted them to continue, they said.
“These feelings have been smoldering and smoldering, and then (with Floyd’s death) it just took off,” said Gloria Smit, who lives in the Pepin County community of Nelson and was among Friday’s protesters.
Post of support
When Stockholm Pie and General Store co-owner Alan Nugent heard about the racist action toward Stegemann, he felt compelled to take action to support her. On June 15 he made a Facebook post in support of Lily and called out the unacceptable racist behavior.
“We have an awesome young lady who works for us,” the post reads. “Last week she was the victim of blatant hatred. Simply because she is biracial … No young person should ever have to deal with this. Sadly, this is not an isolated experience for her and others.
“If you believe the way those folks do,” the post continues, “Do. Not. Set. Foot. Here. You are not welcome. She is not keeping silent, and neither will we. Lily. We got your back.”
The post quickly went viral, receiving more than 100,000 views, Nugent said, and hundreds of comments and shares. Many leaving comments said they had experienced similar racist behaviors aimed at them.
Nugent and other pie shop owners decided to turn the attention the post garnered into a good cause. They started The Lily Fund, an effort to raise money to help Stegemann afford college. The effort has been expanded to include funding for others who face challenges, such as rural poverty. Donations to The Lily Fund can be made by accessing that site on Facebook.
“Lily wants this money to go to other kids who have faced challenges, so we’re trying to raise enough money to do that,” Nugent said. “She is really a remarkable person.”
‘Make a difference’
Stegemann appears upbeat and optimistic, but she acknowledges she has had a difficult life at times and has struggled since her great-grandmother, whom she affectionately refers to as “Grandma Long,” died four years ago. Stegemann wears her great-grandmother’s ring as a reminder of the especially close bond the duo shared.
She has felt alone and lost in recent times, she said, and a few days before the racist comment toward her, she was struggling emotionally. Stegemann went for a long walk in a rainstorm and broke down crying, praying for God to give her a purpose. It was the first time she had prayed since her great-grandmother died.
“I was so angry, so lost,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere, like anyone cared about who I was.”
Stegemann struggled more in the aftermath of the encounter at the pie shop. But thanks to the support she has received, first at her workplace, then from others, Stegemann said she has not only rebounded but has found new purpose. She feels like her prayer has been answered.
She is refocused on her goal of attending college, of becoming a lawyer who plans to work for criminal justice reform, helping overturn wrongful convictions of incarcerated people. Thanks in part to The Lily Fund, she believes attending college is financially possible.
“I have received so much support since (the racist incident) happened,” Stegemann said. “People care. I feel loved. And I do have a purpose.”
Among the countless kind messages she has received in recent days is a letter from an Arcadia family that included not only affirmation but a homemade card and a bracelet from an 8-year-old girl. Stegemann has worn it proudly on her right wrist each day since, she said.
Stegemann finished her sophomore year of high school in La Crosse in the spring but is strongly considering transferring to Pepin High School. She is spending the summer in Pepin, living with her grandmother, and has developed an affinity for the community.
Then, after high school, Stegemann has big life plans she now believes she can accomplish.
“My goal in life is to help others,” she said. “After the support I have received recently, I know that is possible.”
“It may take a while, but I am going to make a difference.”