April 29, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 33rd 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 so many events have happened in the 11 months since, from the attack at the Capitol and 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 in Washington D.C., to multiple mass shootings and the alarming spike in domestic hate crimes against Asian Pacific Islanders.
But the national and international spotlight returned to Minneapolis, first with the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, then the shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, by a police officer during a traffic stop on April 11th in nearby Brooklyn Center.
The testimony was powerful and emotional, and many Black people in our community were re-traumatized watching the viral video of Chauvin's knee on George Floyd's neck and hearing the insights of those on the scene next to Cup Foods in Minneapolis. Our community and country anxiously awaited the jury's decision to convict Chauvin on manslaughter, and second- and third-degree murder charges, and now many are wondering if justice will be served for Wright and his family.
In addition, COVID-19 still heavily influences how we live, and there are many daunting challenges that our community and nation are facing. But the YMCA of the North remains focused and committed on our goals.
We will continue our 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 of diverse backgrounds who will be a part of the solution.
My 18th guest is Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls, the YMCA of the North's Chief Social Responsibility Officer. Her background is rooted in education, particularly in and around addressing Minnesota's achievement gap between white students and students of color. She holds multiple degrees, including a doctorate of education in leadership from St. Mary's University, and she held leadership roles in the Minneapolis Public Schools and Bloomington Public Schools before joining the Y in 2009.
She is responsible for the Y’s social responsibility, diversity, inclusion and global efforts and provides leadership for the Equity Innovation Center that is committed to connecting individuals and organizations with valuable information and insight to help them navigate our ever-changing community and learn ways to advance inclusivity and system change so all may thrive.
But beyond that, Hedy has been an invaluable sounding board and colleague of mine. She is a mentor to many and widely admired, locally and nationally, for her expertise.
I hope you'll enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls.
Glen: What is going through your mind right now, as you come into this interview?
Hedy: Interesting you would ask that question because I am in multiple mental models stages right now. In some of my reflections, I realize the opportunity that we as a Y and myself have to really make an impact. In one project, one leader commented that they were looking forward to partnering with me because they see me as an expert. And I thought that's interesting because I've never seen myself as an expert.
To be honest with you, this is the work we do. This is the life I live. These are my beliefs and values. As we continued that conversation, I had to stop and think about what an incredible opportunity for the Y to be seen as "an expert" and that I represent the Y.
Glen: I think part of what makes you such a great leader is that you come at servant leadership so honestly and by virtue of your lived experiences and your powerful intellect, and your clear ability to influence others that you have risen to that point of expert. And yet it doesn't surprise me that you — because of how you lead and how you follow up on a very definitive basis of doing God's work — wouldn't see yourself as the expert, that you serve the ultimate Master, the ultimate Expert. That is such great role modeling that we all have been able to take from you.
But let's take a big step back. Some of those reading this may not necessarily know who you are so share where you have come from. Tell people a little bit of your story and maybe ways race has played into it.
Hedy: I was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during the Civil Rights Era. I have one brother. My parents, during their generation, assumed that having children at young ages was critically important, and both of my parents came from families of eight and they both grew up in Mississippi in poverty, real poverty.
My mother was a school teacher, and really believed education was the way out of any situation. Therefore having two children late in life, she wanted to make sure that we had privileges that she and my father were not able to have. They were committed to exposing us and providing us with an incredible education. I went to Southern University Lab, a K-12 private college prep school. Then I went to Southern University, a historical Black college. My brother actually went to public schools then went to Southern University. I graduated with a business degree; he graduated with an engineering degree.
My father was a contractor, and he believed that the man was the breadwinner and made sure that my brother received all the skills that were necessary to be able to work in both corporations, as well as building houses and freeways, if he needed to do that.
But his thought process was that given the fact I was a female — so we're talking about gender equity here — my role was to get married, have children and take care of the house.
That did not happen. My parents were married for over 40 years. When my father died, I was divorced before I even got to 10 years. So it was a really different mental model mindset, of how you make choices and how you live your life. But throughout that era of growing up, my mother especially was a very strong Christian. When I say Christian, I am not talking about going into a church or practicing a religion. I am talking about having that 911 connection to God. So that at any point in time, if something came up, we would say to her, "You need to pray." I am so blessed and so honored to have grown up in that spiritual background and believe that faith walk is what has brought me to this point.
In my own life, did I experience racism? Yes. In Baton Rouge, you knew very clearly where you could live. You knew what stores you could go into and those you could not go into. You knew what neighborhoods you could and could not go into. All of that was just clearly laid out.
Then when I came to Minnesota to go to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, my mother wanted me to get a degree in education because she thought I would be a schoolteacher, which would be a permanent job for life. That is what she did.
I hated it and actually went into business because I really liked the area. This is also where I was faced with what I would call my first racism experience, out of growing up (in Baton Rouge). In my second class at the Carlson School of Business, we had a group project, and my group was comprised of all people of color and one white male. The professor, who was white, gave the white male an A and gave all the students of color Fs. And when we question it — "Why did we get this?" — he said, "Because the people of color didn't do the work."
That brought back all of my experiences during my college days.
It was not until I got to be 18 years old that we called ourselves Black. So the H. Rap Browns of the world, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis were Black social activists who influenced us during our college days, experiencing all kinds of social unrest and injustices. So I had just come out of that, to then come to Minnesota with the expectation that this was supposed to be this great land, where everybody would enjoy each other, then having that as my first experience. That led me to believe — and I am being truly honest — that all white people are racist.
That was my mental model. "This is where I am, this is what I believe."
I was in corporate for a while, and then stayed at home with the kids for 10 years, during which time I volunteered in their schools. I was offered a job in the Bloomington Public Schools and worked there for seven years; later going to Minneapolis Public Schools as an administrator. That is when I began to realize that there is something else going on here. This is not about all white people being racist. There is something not right here and not really recognizing it and understanding it. It was not until years later that I began to realize that history was not taught in the school system. Talking to my children, I realized they did not know history. It was not in their history books. So if it was not in their history books, then whose history books was it in?
It was in mine. Because in the South and growing up in segregated schools, you had to know your history. It was imperative that you understood history. Even though it may not be in our history books at school, we were taught our history.
So, I have two African-American boys, growing up in Bloomington schools, and that in itself was an experience. Unlike my daughter, the boys had issues. And that was one of the reasons why I literally stopped working to ensure that they were educated. It was my whole mindset that, "I have to make sure they're educated," but then having to pivot to say, "I have to protect my boys." I realized my own mental models and thinking that I cannot have them go out at night, unless I stay up all night waiting for them to come home.
For some reason, staying up all night meant they were going to be okay in faith. And, so going through that and living through that, and then here recently, all of the communication and conversation and social events, and reading all of the articles and peoples' experiences, I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, I went through that many years ago and here it is again. What is going on with us?"
So for me, my "Aha" moment was beginning to recognize and understand that people really didn't know history. So where do you start in these conversations? And at the same time, I can remember saying to someone, "Actually, I am tired. I am done. I am just done. I don't want to do this anymore. What is going on with us?"
And I remember hearing God saying to me, "But if you don't do it, then who?"
And it has guided me on another journey, but a different way of thinking and receiving and responding. And I say this to young people all the time. Once you understand your purpose, then you can live. And at that moment in time, I recognize that, for whatever reason, God had me at the Y.
To learn more about Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls, click here. Look for Part 2 of my “A Conversation on Race” with Hedy next week.