Glen Gunderson

December 10, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 17th 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 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, 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. 

I hope you’ll enjoy part three of our conversation (you can read part 1 here and part 2 here).

Glen: You remain a customer of the Y, you were a team member of the Y, and you experienced some of our systemic challenges. We’ve set a clear objective, now, to be a multicultural, anti-racist and anti-oppressive organization. How would you advise our Y as we head down this path?


Damien: I think you have to continue to turn the lights on, to set the stage for interaction and allow people to grow — or show. They’re either going to grow with you as an organization, or they're going to show that maybe this isn't the vision that they share, and they need to move on. You just have to be able to create platforms for growth. I think a lot of times, the YMCA has been in a very comfortable niche. It's nice to say, ‘We're running it at a medium pace.’ But sometimes, you have to push it a little bit, and you have to challenge some of those communities and say, ‘This is what the YMCA represents, and we’re bringing it to some of our most remote places, just like we’re bringing it to some of the inner city sites.’ You have to give opportunities for cultural interaction and understanding, and then you also have to continue to try to enact programs that are going to identify and execute upon change. And you need to be strong enough to say, 'It's Martin Luther King Day, I'm going to take this Martin Luther King Jr. poster, and I'm going to put it in my most remote site. And what happens, happens.'


Glen: I agree with you. And I hear you calling for courage, getting out of our comfort zone and employing the discipline to drive results. More specifically, what would you like to see me doing? What could I be doing differently from a leadership perspective, as a white, middle-aged guy?


Damien: I do my homework. I see the work you're doing. I'm paying attention to some of the articles and advertising, and things like that, and I know that there's so much work that you're probably doing that I have no idea about. So I'm very thankful and appreciative of that.

But I think the biggest thing is to identify people within your organization who are going to have the same type of vision. And if they have disappeared, ask questions, then ask more questions. Follow through is important.

When we have 15 people of color in leadership positions and next year we have 10, the question is, ‘Why?’ You may find that they left for great reasons, right? But I think it's really an investment in the follow-up.


Glen: I’m looking for that accountability, especially from leaders like you that I admire and respect. And I think your point about pushing deeper and pushing more thoughtfully through to effective conclusions and more dynamic outcomes is a wise encouragement.

I want to pivot. I see you making an incredible investment with your son, and I want to compliment you. I think you're a great dad, and I'm envious that you are at the stage you are, because my kids are now entering the independent stage. I miss walking in the door and having them just come running like you were the coolest person on the planet. You still have that.

But what do you want for your son, in terms of this moment to movement notion? How are you talking to your son about being a person of color in the culture that he lives in?


Damien: That's probably one of the most difficult questions you can ask me, to be honest with you. There is nothing more important to me than that boy, and his growth. I don't care if he wants to be a banker, ballerina, boxer, beautician. Just be great at it. ‘Do the best you can, and give it your best shot, kid. And I'm always going to be there for you.’

But when you talk about those conversations, it's tough because you're talking about this season of innocence. At what point do you sit down with your child and say, ‘Things are going to be different when you go outside sometimes when you leave this house, and it’s not going to be fair.’ Do you have the conversation and prepare them? Do you let them think that everything's okay until the moment that, unfortunately, that smacks them in the face? At what age do you do it? Why do you do it? Who do you do it with? Do you do it by yourself?

Glen, I’m wrestling with that. And I’m thankful that my son right now is 5 years old, and he’s got a place like the YMCA, with people like me around him. My football teammates from Augsburg, some who were in my wedding, my son calls them uncles. He’s already getting a very different picture of the world than I got, although I’m proud of the picture I got. It allowed me to be who I am, growing up on the South Side of Chicago. 


Glen: I appreciate that. That is something that we, on a friend-to-friend basis, can continue to spend time on. But there’s a notion you bring up. I probably didn't even know if I was playing this game growing up and into my professional career, but the whole idea of code-switching. I hear that now a lot in the dialogue, post George Floyd’s murder and in our equity advisory council. How does that show up in your life? It’s new to me. What is code-switching and how do you see it show up?


Damien: Man, Glen. We can take this as deep as you want, man!

Code-switching didn't just start in the 2000s, let’s put it like that. Code-switching is an act of survival, if I’m being honest. It’s an ability and tool for upward mobility, if I’m making it as frank and clear as possible.

Yes, human beings code switch. You code switch from boardroom to bar. But maybe that code-switching isn't as important for your survival as a cultural code-switching.

And there are just some things that are seen as detriments, culturally, when you're looking in the business aspect, or trying to interview, and maybe they shouldn’t be. But you have to sacrifice yourself, your culture, your speech, your address sometimes, to appease for upward mobilization. That’s really the nitty gritty of it. 


Glen: I don’t know if my question shows my ignorance or, to your earlier point, that I’m still looking through a privileged lens. But your insight is really helpful. The last thing I want to ask you about, what’s one challenging life experience that you will share with your son later on?


Damien: I think it’s the micro-aggressions and being cast a villain. Those almost hurt more than the outward acts. The tones of racism, or the times I’ve been pulled over for no reason, or the man who told me to go back to Cabrini Green, when I was taking the garbage out in Calumet City. 

It’s those misrepresentations of who I am and some of the unnecessary anger and fear that people would have, just the overall villainization that is sometimes allowed. 

My experience at the YMCA was interesting, particularly with the older community. I’m 6 foot 3, 225 pounds, and I have a deep voice. At that time, I had a very large beard. But their viewpoint of me changed greatly when they saw me dancing with my son, like there was no care in the world. When they observed that, that made me human. I think that's the most disappointing thing. ‘Well, where were you before that?’ 

Where was their mindset before that? Why was I villainized before that? Why couldn't I start on that end?


Glen: How sobering is that. This conversation is edification of your rising stardom, and I appreciate this a great deal. I learned a lot, and you’ve shared with me, one-on-one some things that really have shaken me and moved me to act differently with our YMCA. Thank you so much for talking to me.


To learn more about Damien Rochon-Washington, click here to read about him. Look for a new A Conversation on Race next week.