Glen Gunderson

November 19, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 15th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized 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, inspiring, heartbreaking. 

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 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 Y USA 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 10th guest is Damien Rochon-Washington, a Chicago native who came to the Twin Cities to play football at Augsburg University, where he was a two-year starter and broke several school records. After playing semi-pro football, Damien focused on becoming a personal trainer, helping to pave new paths to innovative approaches to fitness that have been embraced by a wide range of individuals, from professional basketball players, to mixed-martial arts professionals, members of all the Armed Forces as well as clients focused on weight loss or overall health and wellbeing. His “Caveman Training” is among his most popular, earning him the distinction as “The Best Personal Trainer” by City Pages magazine in 2012. 

I hope you’ll enjoy Part 1 of our conversation.

Glen: Thank you for joining me, Damien. Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?


Damien: I'm originally from the South Side of Chicago. I was born and raised there, although we moved to different parts. At 18, I came to Minnesota to attend Augsburg College. I was an athlete, playing five different sports in high school. 

I started my career as a personal trainer at the Y. I asked the program manager about any good jobs. He kind of looked at me like I was crazy at first. But I just explained to him that community was really important to me. My mother was director of education at a high level for Chicago Public Schools, and my father worked in social services and taught AIDS education and GED courses. 

So I started off with one small shift at 6:30 in the morning on a Sunday. You know, there’s pretty much nobody there. But within a couple of weeks, I got a few more hours and then I worked in a few different areas. Within a couple of years, I was program manager of personal training. 

I really enjoyed the culture of the YMCA. I thought I was going to be there for a very long time. But then my personal training career kind of took off. I ended up starting my own business.

I had been working with a variety of professional athletes, particularly MMA athletes. We were on the front edge of some of the modalities that are commonplace now, like the ropes and tires, and things like that. It's funny because we were just going to Ace Hardware and using what we could afford. But now, everybody’s doing it!

Having my own business also gave me more control and allowed me to spend more time with my son. 

I still remember the very first time I saw you speak, I said, ‘This guy is authentic. He gets it.’ I just wanted to introduce myself and get to know you a little bit. Each time I had the opportunity to talk to you, it felt really genuine and really authentic. And I appreciated that. 

When I had the opportunity to share some of my experiences at the Y, I thought you would appreciate that information. Even though I was removed from the Y experience, I still care about the Y very greatly. And my son still attends daycare there, as a matter of fact, because through all the tumultuous times, I believe in the institution of the Y.

I'm sorry if I got a little long winded there, but I wanted to give you a taste of where I am from and where I am today.


Glen: After you left the Y, your experiences and insights — as a Black man at the Y — were so informative for me. We made a number of changes based on some of that feedback so I want to thank you again for your authenticity and principles and how you went about that. 

I want to shift to your thoughts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. What are you seeing and how are you feeling?


Damien: That's an interesting question. We realize that the people who have been in this ‘struggle,' so to speak, have been aware that this is not something that's going to happen overnight, next week, next month, next year, that it's going to be a continual effort to move that needle forward. I don't think we’re waking up next Wednesday saying, ‘Today's going to be the day that I feel better about this.’

That’s not the perspective that anyone has. I think it's really just assessing where you are now after the initial shock, if you will. The sense of normalcy starts to, unfortunately, return, rather than digging your heels in and saying, ‘Who is still moving that needle forward?’ I think that the majority of the people that I talk to, yes, they’re tired. Yes, they're angry, but they're still willing to work and move that needle.

But this is repetitive, and we can’t get away from that. When you talk about George Floyd, or Emmett Till, but how many names do you not know or remember? 

I've had conversations with my father about the repetitive nature of it. But right now, I feel like you have another cycle of people that are waking up and joining this movement, and there's a willingness to move the needle forward. And we, as young leaders, are taking an assessment of that too, and realizing that this is a time for action.


Glen: I'm curious about the idea of cycles, this ebb and flow. Is this cycle different? Are we going to get traction for real this time?


Damien: One doesn't want to be skeptical. You don't want to be skeptical. But I'll put it like this: when I studied history, when I’m looking at pictures of Ruby Bridges, I’m not looking at her. I’m looking at the mass of people in the background, right? And that's the majority, whatever color they are. People say, ‘Well, Ruby got into that door. She got to have that education.’

But if you look at history, there are very few examples of people in power, the haves saying, ‘Here, have nots.’ It just hasn't happened like that. 

I think that’s the repetitive cycle: Society changes a little bit, and laws change. We get awakened, a little bit more. That happens until we get to where we want to be. And I’m not saying that there’s supposed to be some Star Trek, Utopian society. That’s not what I'm saying. But in order to participate in the race, you have to realize the distance of the race.


To learn more about Damien Rochon-Washington, click here to read about him. Look for Part 2 of “A Conversation on Race” with Damien next week.