Glen Gunderson

December 17, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 18th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

I still have a long, long way to go.

When I think about some of the challenges I’ve had to confront, they just pale in comparison to what some of these leaders have had to overcome.  

Their reflections were maddening and heartbreaking, yet inspiring.

There were universal themes, such as the added pressure each of them faces to not only represent themselves and their families, but their communities in a professional setting. Despite the shock of many, including myself, there was the general lack of surprise by my guests at George Floyd’s murder, especially from team members such as Hayley Tompkins who works with young people in that very neighborhood.

There was the brilliant and insightful perspective on U.S. history from Chuck Collins, who noted that it’s the “weaponization of race that’s toxic” and that this is not a “woke moment” for Black people.

“White supremacy is completely ubiquitous in America,” Chuck told me. “This country was built for white, male, landowners, and it was built on the backs of African slaves and indentured servants. This is often called America’s original sin. These are histories that are deeply embedded in being Black. What you’re seeing now is a broadening of that understanding, but only reveals the tip of the iceberg.”

There was the fascinating perspective on “privilege” from Emily Holthaus, who is married to a white man and how they are treated very differently, even when dressed casually at the airport. She also provided a peak into the future after her visit to a Y in Colombia, where she interacted with a thriving board diverse in ethnicity and age.

There was the eye-opening experience of my friend Mohammed Lawal taking a business call in his car, outside his home, yet eventually being questioned by police because someone had called and asserted that he was a “threat” to their life.

There was the mesmerizing reflection of North Minneapolis by Chanda Smith Baker, who grew up and lives there, perspectives that are vastly different from the predominant portrayal of that community.

There was the deeply personal backstory from Jenny Miller, born to a 14-year-old single mom and adopted by a loving interracial couple, on the heart and backbone of the important Y program she pioneered, Enough. Yet I was also moved — and disturbed — that she was stung by an instance of racism yet did not feel believed or supported.

There was our YUSA president, Kevin Washington, a man I greatly respect and admire, predicting to another Y leader — who like me is a white male — that he would get followed at a department store.

Sadly, Kevin was right.

Lastly, there was the incredible story of James Morton, whose childhood was wrought with the pangs of systemic racism that landed his father in jail and wreaked havoc on everyone else in his family.

Yet in each and every one of them, despite their many negative personal and professional experiences, communicated hope in the future, buoyed around what they see in and hear from young people.

These conversations have been overwhelming and emotional, yet such a gift to me. So I am grateful to the past and upcoming guests of A Conversation on Race for their honesty, their willingness to be vulnerable and for both encouraging and challenging me to become a part of the solution and not continue to be a part of the problem.

My 11th guest is Anthony Taylor, who is one of the newest Y team members! He’ll be leading all our outdoor nature work, including camps and cycle health and adventure programming. Anthony has a fascinating background, moving from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to study chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota then remaining to work at companies such as Ecolab and Pillsbury. Then he pivoted into leadership roles at health and athletic clubs. In fact, I worked under Anthony at Lifetime Fitness!

But his skills, talents and passions are broad and diverse, as Anthony has also served as a personality and host for KMOJ-FM Radio and founded the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, which aims to increase biking and mobility initiatives and programs for communities of color. Most recently, in his professional work, Anthony was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission (MPOSC). 

I hope you’ll enjoy my conversation with Anthony Taylor.


Glen: Anthony, thank you for visiting with me. Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself?

 

Anthony: I was born in my grandmother’s house, about a 100 miles from where Emmett Till was killed. My parents were super young; my mom was 15 when she had me. She was kicked out of school because she got pregnant. My grandmother said, ‘You are going to stay home and raise kids.’

As many Black families did, my parents moved to Milwaukee, to look for jobs and opportunities. It was an immigrant experience. You take the worst jobs in the community.

But at that time, even the worst jobs in the factory were union jobs. There was one white woman left in our neighborhood, a German. That’s what the adults called her, the German lady, and she loved us. All my cousins — like 30 of us — lived within a few blocks.

The schools I went to were all Black. Even as I think about timing, people don’t realize how much has changed. I’m old, and people take for granted how old (young) I am!

But when I was a kid, what I remember most deeply is, I’d never seen adults cry. It marked and changed me after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Grown folks just walking around our sidewalks, just crying.

There were two hotspots for the Black Panther movement, Oakland and Chicago. And Milwaukee was obviously real close to Chicago.

 

Glen: When did you first recognize that race in America was a social construct or an issue?

 

Anthony: My grandmother was a domestic. She worked in people’s homes in Mississippi.

As kids, we had very strict constraints around where we could and could not go. There was a corner store, right by my grandmother’s house. I was six years old, and we were buying penny candy. I gave the store clerk the money. Either she dropped the money or I dropped the money, and she immediately says to me, ‘You better pick that up you little n-word. You better pick that up!’

Now, I had been in Milwaukee. Even at six years old, I had already become used to confronting racism. Whiteness was something we pushed back against so my instinct was to have an attitude. I was hyped, and I go and tell my grandmother what happened; she didn't take anything from anyone. 

But she walks me back to the store — and she makes me apologize. I had never seen her be submissive.

It was so deep.

Then she walked me back home, and she hit me on my butt harder than I’d ever been hit before. That was a real clear moment.

The greatest fear of our parents was that they could not protect us. They could not protect us. Even now, as a parent, can you imagine having that feeling?

 

Glen: Reflecting on your Grandmother, how do you feel about safety as your raise your teenage son? 

 

Anthony: I grew up in an era when it was one of the realities. Our parents didn’t have the police conversation. It was, ‘This is how you manage the white world.’

My son, we have to prepare him for those dynamics.

My son walked out of our house, and he was using the keypad to open the car, and a neighbor threatened to call the police. 

We are outdoors a lot, and we are often in predominantly white environments. I’ve trained him to be situationally aware. Managing people. When he starts driving, we are now talking about, ‘What do you do if the police pull you over?’ 

He goes to St. Paul Academy, and he snowboards. My fear is, he’ll be somewhere snowboarding, and he’s going to get his heart broken because someone he thinks is a friend is going to call him the n-word.

Once, he was with a white female friend, and her grandparents decided to say, ‘We don’t approve of interracial dating.’ But they were just friends. 

It’s hard when kids are going through identity-formation periods of their lives. What we don’t do as parents, we are not intentional and strong about moving through that. The police are obvious. That assault is obvious. But what they go through in sixth grade through high school, we have to acknowledge may be a more sinister system than the police. Our educational system, that’s the crazy system!

Families willingly and actively send their kids into that system. Think of how Black and brown kids get ambushed all the time in history class. The Chinese built the railroads, and all Black and brown people show up as someone else’s labor.  

 

Glen: That is powerful. I often think about how we educate our children, especially how we socialize them and the history we teach. I do see some renewed energy for reflecting on our history from a uniquely human perspective rather than as written by white people. So how did you wind up in the Twin Cities?

 

Anthony: I came to the University of Minnesota as a chemical engineering student, but my 18-year-old ego brought me here to play football. I couldn’t play at Wisconsin or Michigan, and Minnesota was the only Big Ten school to give me a chance. I went out, but I wound up quitting. I learned something: I was fast, but in college everyone is BIG and fast! I was on the scout team, running other team’s plays, getting killed, and trying to go to school. 

After I quit, I started biking because the gym was downtown, and parking was a hassle. One day, I skipped the gym, and I kept biking. 

Then I organized Black people biking, starting a Black bike club in the Twin Cities, Major Taylor MN.

I discovered a Marshall "Major" Taylor biography in the basement of a bike shop and researched his life. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of him, and the more I talked to people, no one had heard of him. But he was the most famous athlete in the world in 1900. The first American born Black World Champion in any sport.

In America, Black people have always organized. I think of it like parallel universes. There’s the National Society of Professional Engineers. And then there’s the National Society of Black Engineers. Building community is an impulse of historically oppressed people. In a racist world, you build this parallel universe, because you could find dignity there.

 

Glen: How did you feel after the murder of George Floyd? What is your insight on where we are at?

 

Anthony: I remember the day that it happened, but I refused to watch the video. 
Slowly, things were building up and building up. My family owns a property on 38th and 4th, right down the street. We were about to organize a bike ride. I went down there and started talking to people, and they were describing what was going on and what had happened. So I finally made myself go watch the video, and I couldn’t believe it.

It was so egregious, and the dichotomy of the visual of power, and it pushed everyone over the top, of really understanding the dynamics of the way that Black people are existing in this country. It was quite amazing. 

Those first days took me back to 1968, so I immediately had memories of the riots of Milwaukee. I called my mother and talked to her a lot about it. I talked to a lot of elders. I went to the very first march in Minneapolis, and it was unbelievable.

 

Glen: How are you thinking about the role that the Y can play, relative to nature and equity?

 

Anthony: I have been connected to the Y for a very long time, and it was very selfish. When I talked to families with more resources, we were exploring educational opportunities and extra enrichment activities. Many were putting their kids in the woods. That was a strategy that was used on me as a child. That was a strategy for Black people, and there was a sense that they needed to be active, and outdoors and to explore. I started to reach out to the Y to use the resources that the Y had to get Black families outdoors and, more interestingly, the Y was also reaching out to me.

I really believe that nature-based experiences are the perfect foundation for self-discovery. 

The Y is a mission-driven organization that has tremendous resources, and I saw a couple of things. Leadership development was integral. The Y was developing people. Really, it's stage-appropriate human development. The second thing is, the Y has this tremendous network of progressively connected, geographic resources. There are trips that can take kids one mile or 1,000 miles away. I think that is really important, to create these progressive, self-discovery opportunities.

 

Glen: I’ve heard you speak about nature, the exploration of the outdoors and meaningful youth development experiences as a pathway for racial and social justice.  I couldn’t agree more.

Lastly, what advice would you have for me, a middle-aged white guy? What can I do better?

 

Anthony: To be honest, what really brings me hope is that your daughter and my son have always known social justice. This wasn’t new to her, when George Floyd was killed. So our kids will meet each other, and they will recognize each other, and they will be able to align themselves around the same values, have the language, and they will believe they can do it!

I admire you because of what your daughter has learned being around the Y and what it means to become an ally. Both of our kids are giving us direction on social justice and how to live. They are actively marching. But that’s the great thing about the Y: It’s an intergenerational organization. There are not many places where 6-, 16-, 46- and 66-year olds can interact.

 

Glen: Thank you for the conversation and the encouragement, Anthony! I am excited to welcome you to the Y and work together for a great future for all. 

 

To learn more about Anthony Taylor, click here to read a feature on him in Men’s Journal. Look for a new A Conversation on Race next week.