Glen Gunderson

February 4, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 23rd 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. 

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6th is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.

Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president. Any transfer of power brings the prospect of hope, new thinking and innovation, a fresh perspective.

But no one illustrated all of that better than Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate. She is a shining example of this burgeoning potential of the young people we serve at the Y and their ability to bring about change. To be able to talk to our neighbors, respect our differences, and see the humanness and wholeness of one another. There was so much brilliance in Amanda's Inaugural Poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," but these lines in particular resonate with me and our mission at the Y:

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, 
colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands 
between us,
but what stands before us

The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.

My 13th guest is Dave Brown, the President and CEO of the Capital District YMCA in New York. He has one of the most remarkable career trajectories at the Y, as you'll learn in our conversation. He's esteemed in his community, having won awards such as 40 Elite Alumni Honoree and the NYS Governor’s African American Community Distinction and Director of the Year Award.

Dave is highly accomplished, but he's also a good friend of mine, sharing a passion for sports, especially basketball. In fact, we had tickets to enjoy some March Madness in 2020 before COVID-19 altered that plan. 

I hope you will enjoy Part 2 of my conversation with Dave Brown. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: Early on, did Ron Sargent ever share with you the challenges he dealt with and the realities for him, even though he was a prominent leader and executive within your community?


Dave: It's funny, we had never really talked specifically about things that he encountered. But he always advised me on what I might encounter and how I should deal with it, what to look out for.

One thing that does stick out in my mind that he shared with me was how much systemic racism existed within the YMCA - how African-Americans would be appointed to certain jobs but not given the opportunity in other areas. He always coached me on what experiences I needed to have so that those would not be things people could use against me. For example, to make sure I had the right membership experience, make sure I got camping and all the things I needed to so I understood what it took to run branch operations. He also advised me what type of job not to invest a lot of time into, so I wasn't painted into a corner.

So he was very clear on the systemic racism. But what's interesting is, I don't think he ever used those words.


Glen: Can you share some experiences that you, as a Black man in your community, have experienced?


Dave: I'm one of the few African-American leaders in this community, and so I get picked to be on a lot of stuff. And over time, I've had to be careful to make sure that when someone asks me to participate in something, that it's not tokenism. And I've had a few experiences where it was really clear that it was tokenism.

So I've been very particular about what I'll say yes to, or if I get involved in something, how long I'll stay, whether or not it seems authentic to me. I've been here a long time, so I think (the community) has literally watched me grow up. I think that's played a big part. 

But I would tell you in the national Y movement, I think I've seen it more for me personally. You and I talked about this Glen, where I've been involved in different searches, and it was clear by the time the search ended that they weren't serious about me as a candidate, as much as they were serious about rounding out the table. So, again, tokenism. I've seen that, and I've seen that more on the national stage than I have on the local stage.


Glen: That's so disappointing to hear, Dave. How do you deal with that? How do you move from that?


Dave: Well, your initial reaction is frustration and sometimes even anger. But you know, as an African-American male, one of the things you learn in life is to keep a level head and to be professional. We've seen our ancestors endure, and you see those examples. I think what's changing with generations like myself and the generation that's coming behind me — and behind them — is that they're a little bit more vocal. They speak up more. They don't have a tendency to stay with the same company for 20 years. They'll leave, and they'll leave you in a heartbeat. So there is a little bit more of a free agency mindset than my generation had.

For me, the way that I've dealt with that is to just go and perform, to use that as motivation to say, 'Hey, I'm going to do more things. I'm going to do it better. And I'm going to achieve more. I'm going to show them.'

But what you've probably heard other African-Americans say is, it's exhausting sometimes being a person of color because you really feel like you have to run twice as fast in the same race as everybody else.


Glen: What about the Y movement and leaders like me? What do you expect to see and hear? And what are you counting on from peers like me, a middle-aged white dude?


Dave: I've been very fortunate to have friends like you. My predecessor, John Flynn, he's white. I've gone into these rooms with people, not looking at them as white, Black, or Latin X or any kinds of things. What happens is, there's just this expectation that, 'Hey, we're Y professionals, and we're supposed to be about the mission of the Y.' And I think some of that now is getting a little bit more specific in saying to people, 'Okay, we need you to be a champion of anti-racism and multiculturalism.' Where before, I think we just kind of said, 'Hey, that's what we do at the Y,' and then we started realizing that not everybody's doing that and not thinking that way.

So my expectation of you is just to keep doing what you've been doing, which is to be your authentic self. I think you and Stephen Ives and the Todd Tibbits — and there's others — have a compassion for human beings in making sure that all people are given opportunities and have a quality life. I think that's the expectation. But certainly speaking out against these injustices. Also, too, I got to tell you, I've been at some meetings, you probably have been in the room with me where I've opened my mouth, and I didn't know the language change. And I said that wrong and just say, 'Oh, Hey, I'm sorry.' Right. And I think we need more of our leaders to just say, 'I didn't know.' Then someone says, 'How can I help you with that?'

I think you and others are good at that. And that's really my expectations for people, to be their authentic self, challenge themselves to learn and to listen.


Glen: That's good. I'm also curious your perspective on the political environment in this country and how the Y can play a role.


Dave: I think you have to look at what's best for the country and what's right. And it's not about the policies and the politics. It's more about what are the ethics, what are the morals and the values that we hold to be true. And I think that that's the conversation that we should be having with people. It's okay for you to be part of this party, of that party, to be conservative or to be liberal. That doesn't mean you're a good or bad person. But some of the values that we embrace, we have to ask ourselves, 'Is that right?'

And I think that's where the Y can really help because our mission does mean something. Our mission means something, and our values mean something. I think that those are the kinds of things that help people walk in the right path, just to show a certain sense of humility and civility. If you look back at the history of the Y over time, those are the things that we've brought to the table: Strong kids, strong families and strong communities. We have values and the mission is important, and I think that's where the focus has to be.


Glen: That's great, Dave. Has there been a book that you read that you would recommend to people?


Dave: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. She has given, in my opinion, the best breakdown of what white privilege is and what it isn't. She provides a great definition and explanation of what racism is. And I think it's very good, and I think it's a great read.


Glen: Well, good. Any other advice or thoughts you'd love to share that we haven't touched on?


Dave: I mean, these are great questions. This has been a great conversation, and I applaud you for facilitating these and asking these questions. It would be great if we did a panel of a diverse group leaders. I think that would be a dynamic conversation.


Glen: That's something I've thought of. Thank you very much for joining me in this conversation and thank you for your leadership. I learned so much from and about you!


To learn more about Dave Brown, click here. To watch Amanda Gorman's Inaugural Poem, click here. Look for a new A Conversation on Race next week.