After her neighbor called the police on her for performing a community service, 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson is being honored by Yale University for her scientific contributions.
In her hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey, Wilson took the initiative to combat the rising number of lanternflies. Instead of spending time online or in front of a television, Wilson spent the autumnal season exploring her neighborhood, spraying the harmful invasive species with a homemade solution of water, dish soap, and apple cider vinegar.
As she sprayed, Wilson was approached by an officer, who said he received a call about a “little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees."
“I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me though,” Gordon Lawshe, a former city councilman, told the police dispatcher that day, according to News12.
While the officer on the scene quickly determined there was nothing wrong, and assured Wilson she was not in trouble, Wilson's mother, Monique Joseph, was well aware that the call could have ended differently — even violently.
"You know, you hear about racism; you kind of experience it in your peripheral. If you’re lucky in your life, it doesn’t come knocking on your door," Joseph said in a statement via Yale University. "That morning when it happened, my world stopped."
Wilson was spraying the bugs under the advice of the state, with the New Jersey agricultural department instructing residents, “If you see a Spotted Lanternfly, help us Stomp it Out!”
Joseph said that her daughter would spend nearly an hour every day catching and spraying the bugs. He added that Lawshe has since apologized to her for the call, but only “under the guise of telling me he was reporting a lost little girl.”
At a city council meeting in November, the family publicly addressed the incident, with Bobbi’s 13-year-old sister, Hayden, saying via CNN that Lawshe's actions were “extremely offensive, traumatic, and scarring towards my family."
“[Bobbi] was not only doing something amazing for our environment, she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” Hayden said, adding, “I can confidently assure you guys that she will never forget this.”
Since the incident went viral online, Yale has decided to honor Wilson for her efforts and passion. She was invited to an event in Montclair, New Jersey, where she was able to meet with successful Black female scientists. The Peabody Museum of Natural History also accepted Wilson's donation of her personal lantern fly collection, which has earned her the title of "donor scientist."
“Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this ... this is something unique to Bobbi,” said Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor with the Yale School of Public Health who organized the event. “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.”
Joseph thanked the university for helping to “change the trajectory of that day," and ensuring that Wilson maintains an interest in science, and “lives up to her fullest potential.”
"The whole community, the science community, got together and said, ‘She’s one of us and we’re not going to let her lose her steam for STEM. We’re going to support the family, we’re going to support this girl,'" she continued. “I am aware this happened for us, not to us. The reason that Bobbi is here, and we are not grieving, is because someone above wanted us to be a part of changing racism in our town."
Joseph added: "It is because we have Bobbi that we are able to stand here and do something about it, to speak up for ourselves.”
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