Glen Gunderson

December 3, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 16th 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 peek 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 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, as well as members of all the Armed Forces as well as clients focused on weight loss or overall health and well-being. His “Caveman Training” is among his most popular, earning him the distinction as “The Best Personal Trainer” by City Pages magazine in 2012. 

In part two of my conversation with Damien (you can read part 1 here), we’ll focus on what gives him hope for our nation’s future and what his experience was like coming to the Twin Cities from Chicago.

Glen: What are the things that bring you hope? I mean, I wake up and there are days when I'm more pessimistic or skeptical than I'd like to be. What are your thoughts on that?


Damien: Believe it or not, it isn't necessarily the massive law change. I think it's the everyday conversations that I'm having, like this conversation with you, and the impact that I know that this may have. And that's pretty much how I live my life, as an African American living in Minneapolis today. I think about how different things are from when I was 18 years old, coming from the South Side of Chicago, and you have to make decisions about quality relationships so that you can move the needle forward.

It happens in one relationship, with one individual, one conversation at a time — and all of those small choices matter. They matter, how you interact with someone. I'm not saying you necessarily have to code switch, and that’s a whole different topic in itself. But you do have to be aware of bridging some gaps, and I think that's OK. I think acknowledging that there's a gap to bridge is important, and I think that's where we are now.  

Find people who are going to have a positive influence on your ability to understand different cultures and understand different movements and moments, and try to be open minded about that. People would like rocket science, the exact answer. But really what it comes down to is our relationship with people. That’s what relationships do, humanize people, so you understand what I went through, as a person of color in this community, in this organization.

So when you talk about redlining or police brutality or food deserts in certain communities, their ears perk up, they start to lean, as I’ve heard you say, and start to at least be concerned. So as long as you encourage people and give people more reasons to lean in, we will start to move that needle forward.

It’s unfortunate. We are where we are. But we’re going to do everything we can to do our part to fill in that ugly hole. Every little shovel of dirt, and this conversation and relationship is shoveling dirt in that hole.


Glen: I want to pick up on something you said about moments. I think that is powerful because every one of us can get up in the morning, and we can get after some of those moments where we're building trust, we're building connection, we're building a belief system. Where we are moving in small ways that can have a very powerful effect. A systemic effect. And so I wonder sometimes, do we get caught up in the movement versus the moment? Also, I appreciated the reminder that this is a human dynamic. Those are two things I'll take with me, regardless of where the rest of the conversation goes, and I'm learning. So thank you.

Another thing I’d like to know: What was your experience like, growing up on the South Side of Chicago and moving to Minnesota? How did growing up in Chicago impact your experience here?


Damien: I feel like I have lived four lives, economically. When I was young, I lived on West 53rd in Chicago, and — I’m not exaggerating about this — there were gang fights, maybe 60 to 80 people deep, in front of my home. And my mom would walk through this, to the police, and they would not come down there because they would fear for their lives.

At that time, my mother was a teacher, struggling to raise three kids, pretty much by herself. She was trying to do the best for our community, still going through night school to get her master’s degree with the hope of becoming a principal. And that’s the kind of stock that I come from.

By the end of sixth grade, I was getting to be about six feet tall, voice getting a little deep, she said, ‘I gotta protect this kid.’ My sister was living in Germany; she had married a man that was stationed there. So I went to seventh grade in Germany. Then by the time I came back for eighth grade, she had moved to Calumet City, Illinois, and we were one of the first families of color in that immediate area. I stayed there a year, and I had some very not pleasant experiences because of the color of my skin. 

So now I’m getting ready to go to high school, and my father — who was involved in my life — moved to Hyde Park so I could attend Kenwood Academy. And now I'm in Hyde Park, a more affluent Black community. If Wakanda were real, that would be Hyde Park! I came from a place where there were African American bookstores, and pictures of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. At my elementary school, we sang, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ every Friday after we sang the National Anthem. And so that really set the tone. If I knew the principal today, I would give thanks because that's an individual choice, and they were really trying to instill some pride of self in us, and that was so influential. 

So then I come to Minnesota and really I came here because I knew I was a young man coming of age. I was trying to be safe. I'm not saying that Chicago is a really dangerous place, but math is math, and I had an opportunity to experience a different area of the world. But I'm happy with my decision because it gave me a wonderful life. I have friends that I can’t tell you how much love I have for the people that I've met, since I've been here and the community that I have. I could shed a tear because they span a wide-range of cultural beliefs, ethnicities and everything – and I’m very proud of that.  

Some of my philosophy was self-preservation. You have to be patient, you have to understand, you have to be willing to educate. Because at first, I was all alone in Minneapolis.


Glen: Can you give me an example?


Damien: I was in a car with two of my buddies. And a gentleman asked me, ‘Is it true that all Black people like chicken, Damien?’ Right there, I'm in the middle of a car, taking a tour of Hastings, and I’m looking around and thinking, ‘How do I handle this?’

I took a deep breath, and I had to censor, a little bit, so I could educate. And I’m proud to say that a lot of those people that maybe had some of those beliefs before now, I consider great allies, great friends because you have to realize that ignorance is different than stupidity. Until you acknowledge that, you can walk around and be really angry at a lot of people, as a person of color. 

We’re all ignorant, to some extent, of each other's beliefs, cultures, likes, dislikes and all of those things. But until we're able to have a relationship, we won’t ever move that needle forward.


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