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Yale honors the work of a 9-year-old Black girl whose neighbor reported her to police

Bobbi Wilson holds her collection of spotted lanternflies as she is honored at the Yale School of Public Health on Jan. 20.
Andrew Hurley
Yale University
Bobbi Wilson holds her collection of spotted lanternflies as she is honored at the Yale School of Public Health on Jan. 20.

Updated February 4, 2023 at 11:17 AM ET

Nine-year-old Bobbi Wilson may be in the fourth grade, but last month the Yale School of Public Health held a ceremony honoring the budding scientist's recent work.

The university entered Bobbi's collection of 27 spotted lanternflies — an extremely invasive species that is harmful to trees and other plants — into the Peabody Museum of Natural History database. Bobbi was also presented with the title of "donor scientist" during the Jan. 20 ceremony.

"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," Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor at the school, said in a statement.

The accolades come just three months after Bobbi, who is Black, made headlines when former Caldwell Borough Council member Gordon Lawshe, who is white, called local police on the girl.

She was collecting spotted lanternfly specimens. Her neighbor became frightened and called the cops

On Oct. 22, Lawshe was home, and things in the mostly white neighborhood seemed copacetic. But looking at the tree-lined street, Lawshe saw something scary. Recognizing it was not an emergency per se, he called the police department dispatcher instead.

"There's a little Black woman walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence," Lawshe told the dispatcher, according to a call obtained by CNN.

"I don't know what the hell she's doing. Scares me, though," Lawshe added.

Outside, Bobbi, a petite child who wears pink-framed glasses, was doing her bit to comply with the state's Stomp it Out! campaign, which urges New Jersey residents to help eradicate the spotted lanternfly infestation. She'd learned about it at school and made her own version of an insect repellent she'd seen on TikTok. Making her way from tree to tree, Bobbi would spray the bugs, pluck them from the tree and drop them into a plastic bottle.

Bobbi was still at it when an officer arrived, curious about what she was doing. Body camera footage shows officer Kevin O'Neill approach the child before her mother, Monique Joseph, intervenes.

"Am I in trouble?" the small girl asks.

"No," Joseph and O'Neill respond simultaneously.

Joseph adds, "How many trees did you save?"

O'Neill explains that he was responding to a call made by Lawshe. The information appears to baffle Joseph, who has said that she has lived across the street from the 71-year-old for eight years and that they are on friendly terms.

Bobbi's mother and sister speak out about racial profiling

Unable to shake the gnawing feeling that things could have easily escalated and ended in tragedy, as they have in other circumstances involving Black children and law enforcement, Joseph decided to address the issue head-on at a Caldwell council meeting a few weeks later. During the meeting, Joseph and her 13-year-old daughter, Hayden Wilson, called the episode an instance of racial profiling.

"She was not only doing something amazing for our environment — she was doing something that made her feel like a hero," Hayden said in her speech to the council.

"What Mr. Gordon Lawshe did to my sister was extremely offensive, traumatic and scarring towards my family. I can confidently assure you guys that she will never forget this," she added.

Scientists and scholars rally around Bobbi

The outpouring of support for Bobbi and her love of science has been constant since the police stop hit the internet. She has received the Caldwell Environmental Commission's Sustainability Award for her contributions to improving the town's environment. At least one science writer has given Bobbi a collection of books and stickers to encourage her passion for learning. And there is the recognition from Yale.

"Yale doesn't normally do anything like this. ... This is something unique to Bobbi," Opara, the Yale professor, said. She helped organize the recent ceremony and previously invited Bobbi and her sister to the campus to meet "other successful Black female scientists and to counter the horrible memories of that day."

Shortly after the police encounter, Joseph told CNN that her 9-year-old hasn't been the same. But at the ceremony, she expressed gratitude for the community that has rallied around the entire family.

"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. That morning when it happened, my world stopped," Bobbi's mother said, according to the university.

She added: "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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 3, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story referred to the Caldwell city council. It should have said Caldwell Borough Council.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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