One wildly racist gesture has energized a town to show support for tolerance, inclusiveness, and education.
When she received a phone call one early July day while working at a Pepin County pie shop, Lily Stegemann initially tried to hurry through the conversation, eager to get back to making pie cookies.
“I didn’t know who was calling me,” Stegemann recalled of that conversation. “I didn’t recognize the number. I was kind of rushing him off the phone. I thought it was just someone who had heard about my story, and I had work to do.”
However, this wasn’t just anyone calling Stegemann. It was U.S. Rep. Ron Kind contacting the biracial 16-year-old to commend her for her reaction to a racist incident against her nearly four weeks earlier while she worked at Stockholm Pie and General Store.
Kind, a Democrat from La Crosse, went on to tell Stegemann that after learning of her story, he felt compelled to have an American flag flown in her honor above the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. He then asked if he could come visit her at the pie store soon.
“It took me a second, and then it clicked,” Stegemann said. “I was like ‘Oh my, it’s Ron Kind calling me! He’s a congressman.’ I said ‘Hi Mr. Ron.’ I didn’t know what to say.”
Two weeks later, on July 17, Kind and his son, Johnny, visited the pie store along Highway 35 in the tiny village of Stockholm, where they shared pie and Kind presented Stegemann with the flag that was hoisted above the Capitol to recognize her. As the conversation continued, the magnitude of the moment began to sink in, Stegemann said.
“He told me he wanted me to feel that I’m just as much a citizen as anyone else,” she said. “He said my big dreams will one day become reality.”
When Kind learned how a man dining at the pie shop on June 7 asked Stegemann if she had touched the table where she was cleaning, then told her he refused to eat at a place that employs someone who is Black, he said he felt compelled to support her.
Stegemann was stunned by the man’s racist action, and hurt. She felt demoralized, she said, then overwhelmed with fear. She struggled alone at first, keeping the incident to herself. Then, a few days after it happened, she told her pie shop co-workers what had happened.
Kind previously had flags flown above the national Capitol for military veterans, or for anniversaries and birthdays of constituents. But this would be the first time Kind had accorded that honor to recognize a racial incident.
“With all that is happening now with racial justice, it seemed like it was the time to make that statement,” Kind said. “I thought it was important to recognize this young lady and what she did for this community.”
‘Got your back’
When Stockholm Pie and General Store co-owner Alan Nugent learned about the racist act against Stegemann, he made a statement of his own. On June 15 He posted a message on the store’s Facebook page decrying the customer’s hateful act and giving unconditional support to her.
“We have an awesome young lady who works for us,” the post read. “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, 1,000 shares, and hundreds of comments. Many making comments said they had experienced similar racist behaviors aimed at them, actions that have received worldwide attention since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck.
Pepin County residents learned about what had happened to Stegemann and rallied to support her. On June 26 a couple dozen of them held signs and chanted anti-racist sayings outside the pie shop in support of her and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nugent said he was pleasantly surprised when his post received so much attention, and when Kind reached out to recognize Stegemann.
“Just getting contact from (Kind), I never, ever, ever expected anything like that to happen,” Nugent said. “It was heartening to see someone at the federal level reach out to her.”
Kind praised Nugent for supporting Stegemann and for criticizing the racism against her, regardless of whether it might upset some people and prevent them from patronizing his business in rural, nearly all-white Pepin County.
“He knew what the right thing was, and he did it,” Kind said of Nugent.
Nugent decided to turn the attention generated by his Facebook post and stories by media outlets detailing the racism against Stegemann into something good. He started The Lily Fund, an effort to raise money to help Stegemann afford college.
Stegemann agreed to the idea on one condition: that the money be used to help not only herself but others who have had to overcome adversity. Donations to The Lily Fund can be made by accessing that site on Facebook. So far more than $8,000 has been raised, Nugent said.
“I don’t want this to be just about me,” Stegemann said. “There are lots of other people who have to overcome challenges, and I want this to help them.”
Nugent said his store continues to receive letters from people supporting Stegemann and donating to The Lily Fund. Many customers on a recent day dropped cash into a glass jar used to collect money for the fund.
“I’m blown away by the support,” he said. “I never expected anything like this.”
Stegemann feels similarly. She has received encouraging text messages, phone calls and letters from people from all over offering words of support along with frustration that she endured racist behavior. Someone from the nation of Greece reached out to her, she said, after learning about Stegemann from a relative in the Twin Cities.
She said she is thankful for that support, appreciative of so many kind words that have helped her heal from the racist incident. She is grateful too for her pie shop colleagues, who backed her when she most needed it. And she plans to use those good wishes as motivation to eventually become a lawyer who works to overturn wrongful convictions.
“I see people put five-dollar bills, tens, ones into that jar for The Lily Fund,” she said, “and I know that they care. It’s a reminder for me to keep pushing. The fact that they’re donating their hard-earned money to me and others, it makes me want to work harder to do good in this world.”