For more than 40 years, Diane Rogers has been fighting a virus, a pandemic, you might say.
It’s more deadly than COVID-19. And it has worse economic effects. And it’s so contagious that you already have it. Actually, you were born into it.
It’s the virus of systemic racism and oppression, and what’s particularly sinister about this virus is that it didn’t happen by chance. It wasn’t some scientific fluke in a distant lab that spreads by choosing its victims blindly. No. This pandemic happened by design, Rogers says, and by design, it has infected our country, our city, our neighborhoods, and ourselves—in ways that many of us are only beginning to understand.
So if you want to talk about the challenges you might see in Southeast Fort Wayne today—or any number of other “Southeast” quadrants in cities across the U.S.—you have to start with the virus, Rogers says. The issues here—from a lack of homeownership to a lack of fresh food, disproportionate crime rates to disproportionate infant mortality rates—they’re all symptoms of this human-engineered virus. And when we try to cure the symptoms without addressing the underlying disease, we’re only feeding a cycle of treatment without prevention, Rogers says. Diane Rogers is a lifelong resident of Southeast Fort Wayne.
We’re only making a business out of a pandemic.
That’s how she feels about many systems in the U.S. today, from medical care to policing. After all, Rogers was a Fort Wayne Police Officer herself for 27 years. That’s one of the reasons she moved into the Oxford neighborhood. She was working as a liaison officer in the area, and she felt that her community connections could help her better serve and protect her neighbors by building trust with them and preventing crime before it starts.
Policing isn’t often done that way anymore, Rogers feels. Instead, like many sectors of society, it’s less connected to the grassroots community. It’s less concerned about prevention and more concentrated on responding to problems after they happen.
It’s distracted by the symptoms instead of addressing the systems.
“So many broken systems,” Rogers says. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are revealing that.
In an age where many feel forced to choose between supporting the Black community and supporting the police, Rogers confidently stands in her conviction that Black lives matter and that policing can be done in a way that benefits Black communities—with officers living among the people they serve, building trust, and putting the community first.
It’s all about the way the system is designed, she says, in her common refrain.
But these days, when Rogers looks at all of the broken or dysfunctional systems, the question she keeps asking herself is: “Why?”
“Why, why, why, why?” She says from the back porch of her house in Southeast Fort Wayne—the little oasis she’s created for herself in the midst of this chaotic world. “Nobody can ever answer that question, except with some new, political terminology,” she adds.
Rogers isn’t interested in politics; she’ll tell it to you straight.
A 432 frequency of good energy
Rogers owns her house in Southeast Fort Wayne. Her back porch has a modern hammock swing, a well-manicured lawn, and a hot tub. This could be the yard in a wealthy suburb of the city, but it’s not.
“People ask me: Why don’t you move?” Rogers says.
Diane's backyard oasis in Southeast Fort Wayne.
But her decision to stay on the Southeast side—to build her home here and to invest her life here—is all a part of her vision to live by a different design, a different system, a different pace, you might say.
“A lot of people look at problems and say, ‘That’s not my problem; that can’t be fixed,’” Rogers says. “But I believe that anything that is broken can be fixed or replaced.”
After growing up in Southeast Fort Wayne and bouncing around from home to home, school to school as a kid, Rogers made it her goal to become financially stable and own a home of her own someday—something beautiful and something she could afford. She wanted to provide some stability for her two daughters—some stability for herself and her neighborhood, too. After all, only 35 percent of residents in the Oxford area are homeowners, Rogers points out.
Diane's house in Southeast Fort Wayne.
That’s another symptom of systems designed to be oppressive—to prevent homeownership and wealth-building in certain parts of town, dating back to when the Southeast side was redlined. As Vice President of the Oxford Community Association in her retirement, Rogers believes it’s her job to know statistics like these and to fight to change them. That’s why she’s running for President of the neighborhood association this fall. But the fight to stabilize her neighborhood is personal, too.
Growing up, Rogers saw the impacts that living in a “red zone” had on families of color—the impacts of white flight to the suburbs when businesses like International Harvester left the community, and the resulting disinvestment in the area. She watched as black families were torn apart by design, by the impacts of the prison system and the drug wars. And she was heartbroken by all of the children growing up without stability in their lives—without fathers or with parents working long hours.
But instead of complaining about these challenges she saw, Rogers oriented her life in a way to address them. When she was only 18, she started the Diane Rogers Youth Dance Academy, a performance dance and mentorship program in Southeast Fort Wayne that meets kids where they’re at and helps them grow, not only as dancers, but as people.
Diane Rogers, center, leads the Omotayo Rite of Passage drumming and dance program.
For the past 43 years, her dance program has been a haven for her many “children” on the block, probably more than 1,000, she estimates. About 16 years ago, she turned it into the Omotayo Rite of Passage program she designed herself, adding drumming to the mix. The program has a bit of African tribal flair, she says, noting that her own ancestors hail from Mali, Nigeria, Congo, and France. But it’s really more about a “Diane” flair, she says, with a flourish of her hand.
Resting against her fireplace is a gratitude board with truthful encouragements like, “You are a strong, beautiful woman.”
Truth is a common refrain in Rogers’s life, like design. And pace. The walls of her house display carved wooden masks, framed photos, and newspaper clippings from her years on the police force. There’s a tall, steel African drum by the front door, too.
“Drumming is a 432 frequency of good energy,” Rogers says, walking across the room to the drum. “Do you understand frequency?” she asks. Diane Rogers's drumming program is called Drums Not Guns.
“If you play something like—um, dun-na, dun-na; um, dun-na, dun-na,” she says. “It’s a different zone.”
And with that she taps out the beat on her drum. Um, dun-na, dun-na; um, dun-na, dun-na.
“It’s a pace,” she says. “Life is a pace, and if you pace yourself in life, you can enjoy the flowers and the trees. Life is not just about humans; life is about enjoying everything around you.”
When Rogers started her after-school drumming mentorship program, she called it “Drums, Not Guns” as a way to allude to this different pace of life and tie it into her work on the police force.
“Drums heal; guns kill,” she says. “With drums, you have to feel your own frequency and find your rhythm and coordination to complement the other rhythms that you’re blending with.”
Drumming is a community integration experience. Much like community policing.
Rogers became a police officer in 1989 under the direction of Police Chief Neil Moore and Mayor Paul Helmke. At the time, the City was actively recruiting People of Color to join the force, she says.
The Fort Wayne Police Department was also in the process of upending its models to implement a broad community policing format, where officers spent time building relationships with people in the neighborhoods where they worked and preventing crime through structural improvements, like beautification. In 1994, the Fort Wayne Police Department was recognized for this effort by the Department of Justice and received a grant, which allowed them to hire 33 additional offers to implement community policing, Moore says. Many of them, like Rogers, lived in the neighborhoods they patrolled. Diane Rogers was an officer with the Fort Wayne Police Department for 27 years.
But something that set Rogers apart in her police work was that she truly reflected her community and understood their struggles in more ways than one. Along with being a Black woman, she was also in the process of rising out of poverty.
“I was the po-lice, but I was also the poor-lice,” Rogers says. “I was only one paycheck away from not being able to pay my bills.”
Raising a family on the verge of poverty gave her a deeper sense of empathy for the people she patrolled—many of whom were also low-income residents. As such, Rogers feels that she was able to be a bridge between her neighbors and the police, helping the two groups better understand one another.
Reflecting on her years as an officer, she feels that her community building skills were her greatest asset. She is a connector. So as police philosophies shifted away from community-oriented models in the 2000s, Rogers decided to utilize her skills in different ways.
She retired from the force in 2016. Since then, she’s gotten involved with several other boards and organizations across the city, including the Summit City Rotary, the Fort Wayne Trails, and the Utopian Community Grocery.
“There’s never a dull moment,” she says.
But it’s her involvement in the Oxford Community Association where her calling and her impact is most strongly felt.
Rogers and other members of the Oxford Community Association make plans for their neighborhood's future.
A change of pace
This summer, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogers has rallied her neighbors in the effort to save community pillars like Ward School from being torn down. She’s led car washes to raise money to revitalize the Oxford Community Association building at 1421 Oxford St., too.
The association has owned the building since 1972 and has been using it for monthly meetings in a ramshackle state. Now, they’re in the process of renovating it into a full-fledged neighborhood hub where they can host meetings, bingo nights, and other community events, like job fairs. They want to share the space with other Southeast-area groups, too.
“We’re the only neighborhood association in Southeast Fort Wayne that owns our own facility,” Rogers says. “We’re sitting on a gold mine.”
Diane Rogers is running for President of the Oxford Community Association this fall.
As she runs for President of the neighborhood association this fall, it’s visions like these, on top of her longstanding investments in the community, that are garnering support for her run and building her legacy.
Carolyn Worlds, who has lived on the Southeast side for more than 30 years, says she likes seeing things get done in her neighborhood, and she has confidence in Rogers to make them happen.
“She’s a doer,” Worlds says. “I loved her as a policewoman, but it’s amazing the things that she’s done for this community.”
Carolyn Worlds is a member of the Oxford Community Association.
Derek Taylor, the owner of Big Momma’s Kitchen at 1307 Oxford St. says he’s known Rogers for 20 years now. He worked with her back in her police days when she mentored his children. Since the pandemic began, his restaurant has been donating food and services to community events like Curbside BBQs. Now, he hopes that Rogers becomes the neighborhood association President so progress on Oxford Street continues.
“Hopefully, soon we can collaborate on a few things,” Taylor says. “We’re both putting in the effort to clean this neighborhood up.”
Derek Taylor is the Co-Owner of Big Momma's Kitchen on Oxford Street.
Cynthia McBride, a property owner in the Oxford area who works as a realtor, says she’s been inspired by Diane’s example and enthusiasm in giving back to her community. Now, she wants to see the community rally around their new space at the neighborhood association building.
“This building needs to come back to life,” McBride says. “Now, more than anything else, there needs to be a hub in this side of town where people can get together, talk about their concerns, and put solutions together. We don’t need to listen to other people outside the community saying what needs to be done. We need to hear from people who live in the community.”
Cynthia McBride is a property owner and realtor in the Oxford community.
Condra Ridley, another member of the Oxford Community Association, seconds that opinion and says she’s excited to see neighbors in the area coming together to make something happen for themselves.
“It just requires that everybody be willing to do what we can to make things better,” she says. “We need to get involved. This is our opportunity to show what our collective wealth can do for ourselves, right where we are.”
Condra Ridley is a member of the Oxford Community Association.
It’s this mindset of doing what you can with what you have that has directed Rogers throughout her life. Now, while she is still leading herself, she’s also devoting more of her time to passing the torch and inspiring the next generation of Southeast leaders to rise up and represent their community with honesty, humility, and the firm knowledge of their inherent value.
That’s why she still runs the Omotayo Rite of Passage drumming and dance program, she says. It’s all about investing in the youth, so they know their worth and potential. It’s all about designing reasons for people to hope despite systems and symptoms that attempt to hold them back.
“It’s hard to get people to hope when they don’t understand their worth,” she says.
Diane Rogers, right, and members of the Oxford Community Association.
One of the young adults who has been mentored by Rogers in the community is Lee Wilson Jr.
Wilson says he’s been getting to know Rogers for the past three years, and she’s been teaching him how to get involved in the city on a grassroots level.
“I took that knowledge, and it made me confident enough to run for office this year,” Wilson says. “I’m going for East Allen County School Board, District 5R.”
Inspired by Diane Rogers, Lee Wilson Jr. is running for East Allen County School Board, District 5R, this fall.
At a time when Black residents are underrepresented among Fort Wayne boards, commissions, and leadership positions, seeing the legacy of highly invested individuals, like Rogers, can encourage more young people to get involved. It can give them the hope to make things happen—to change the pace.
“Diane taught me that if I’m going to aim, I’ve got to aim high,” Wilson says. “That’s what I’ve been doing.”