Glen Gunderson

May 6, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 34th 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 2 of my talk with Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: Where does your reservoir of hope come from? How do you have so much hope and what's driving that?


Hedy: Being able to recognize the fact that the truth is out. I just quoted a Bible scripture last night that whatever is done in the dark, God will always reveal in the light. He is revealing, and you're seeing it. Truth is being revealed and what's interesting is, I didn't recognize how God was revealing it through social media. And the difference between Civil Rights, when I grew up in the 60s, and Civil Rights today is you can see it when it happens. You don't even have to question it. You literally can watch it unfold. History is unfolding before our eyes. We're able to capture it and see it for ourselves.

That is what has given me hope, because peoples' eyes are opening. And when you have the whole world saying, "We want justice," this is a whole different world.


Glen: As you think about opportunities to advance equity and to advance a more overt pathway towards human dignity for all, what advice do you have for me, as a middle-aged white leader? Also, what would you like to see the Y do?


Hedy: As a leader for you, Glen, I would advise you to have patience. Understand — and I have to bring my mother's wisdom into this — Rome wasn't built in a day. So understanding that life happens, and recognizing that everything that's been brought to your attention may have an element of truth, and may have an element of error.

Don't take it personal, stay focused, understand why you are in the position that you are in. Understand your purpose in this work around what we call the diversity, equity and inclusion space, because you are not to be the "be all," you cannot be the "be all." But what's your purpose in this space, and then hold that, stand your ground with that, and knowing that you are surrounding yourself with leaders who can do some of that heavy lifting.

That, to me, is so critical for you in your position, so that you don't get tired and burned out. That to me is critically important. And don't stop reading the Bible, and know that when you make a major decision, that prayer will reveal the answer to that decision.


Glen: For sure. And then what about the Y? What, in your dreamscape, would you like to see from the Y in driving equity?


Hedy: I think one of the critical pieces that I would like to see with the Y is acknowledging. I've heard a lot of people say this and now I'm recognizing that it's important that we acknowledge that we have made mistakes.  We have erred, in a lot of spaces. That's number one. But number two, that we also have hope we are embracing our truth. We're embracing that history, and we are ready to move forward.

How do we move forward? One is really taking stock of all of the work that we're doing and how we're doing it, and understanding, "Is this where we should be, or should we be in a different place or location?"

We are committed to community engagement. Understanding what that means, helping our leaders and our staff to understand what community engagement means and then do it and not be in a position to "engage the community,” and then we come back and make decisions that had nothing to do with what the community wanted. That, to me, is so critical to ensuring that we are doing what the community is asking us to do. 


Glen: That's great. Thank you for that. And I know that you'll continue to help lift my arms, head and heart up as we go forward. You've been an amazing mentor in helping me to understand and to take my own blinders off and to be even more humble in service and I appreciate that so much.

As you think about the national movement and the Y nationally, what are your dreams there? Where do you think the national movement ought to go, relative to our equity work?


Hedy: I would hope and pray, first of all, that the decision-makers for the leadership are making that decision for new leadership through a lens of equity. I do not see the national level having any kind of a movement without that happening. Then number two, at the national level, they have to begin to really recognize where their gaps are in services and getting the right people on the bus. Once that has happened, then start to lay out a strategy to mobilize and move forward. There's a lot of work that has to be done to even begin to build up trust.

There are larger Ys around the country that want to start the work around equity, diversity and inclusion. They want an equity center, similar to the one that we have now, that will require customizing it to the work based on their community, which is what we want to see happen. 

But I want to be clear: When we talk about change, we're talking about systems change. But people are systems, so we do need people to change, too. 

At the national level, they are working on partnerships and communication to build trust now to get this work out there in a meaningful way that's effective. And yet acknowledging that in each area of the country, they'll be doing the work based on what their needs are.


Glen: So I'm curious: Are you surprised? You established the Mission Impact Council, which was, I think quite frankly, a brilliant concept, bringing over 40 different nonprofit organizations and kind of community-serving organizations together to start to row in a direction.

It actually gave this Y such a halo around our openness to partnership and our ability to check our own collective organizational ego and find that there were amazing leaders and unique work that was going on that perhaps we could help  support.

That effort was so visionary and then what it gave birth to, relative to the equity work and the equity innovation center. Can you go backwards, in a revisionist sense, and think about those nascent days compared to where we are now?


Hedy: I'm gonna be honest with you: I'm still surprised, and I'm still amazed. I'm sorry — and I have to say this — but when you're in your purpose, things are moving so fast, and I'm just trying to figure it out and staying with it. Because it's moving. It really is.

The Mission Impact Council, I chuckle when I think about it because I remember those beginning days of having those conversations. And I have to give credit to my 17-plus years in Minneapolis Public Schools, and understanding the political fabric of Minneapolis, and how things have to connect and operate together. It really laid the foundation for me. When I came to the Y, to understand the importance and the necessity of making sure that I'm connecting with the right people at the right organizations because the connection does create that network. And so it has to be done in a way that you're building this network. That was my learning and my experience from my early days. 

So identifying 10 people at the beginning, that would be at the table with us, helping to create the Mission Impact Council, and also giving credit to Dr. James Toole, who had the gift of not only doing research, but being able to collect data and interpret data and write results on data, which is very unusual to have all of that in one person. That is what really helped us to jumpstart the Mission Impact Council, and beginning to outreach within the different BIPOC communities and beginning to build trust — because there was no trust — and build bridges that had not been there before. That gave us a level of respect for the Y that we had at one time and maybe didn't have all of the time. But to bring back that level of respect within those respective communities was critically important. 


To learn more about Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls, click here. Look for Part 3 of my “A Conversation on Race” with Hedy next week.