October 29, 2020
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 12th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.
My eighth guest is James Morton, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, one of the largest social services providers in Massachusetts. He also previously served in executive leadership roles at the YMCAs in Hartford and Springfield, Massachusetts, where he worked in the Springfield Public Schools. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin and his Juris Doctorate from Northeastern University School of Law, and he’s a former All-American Masters track and field athlete and holder of several national Masters titles.
James is a leader I greatly admire and respect, and I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation.
Glen: Thank you for your time, James! Can you share about your background and where you have come from?
James: I was born in Liverpool, England to an African American father and Irish mother, so I am the true black Irishman. My father was stationed in Liverpool as a member of the United States Air Force boxing team.
Growing up, I had absolutely no idea what it meant to be Irish. While she was Irish, my mother never said much about her upbringing, though I know she spent part of her childhood in an orphanage.
My parents were married, and one of the first places we came to in the United States was West Virginia. My father’s father was a coal miner there. It must have been a very interesting experience for my mother, as a white woman living with a Black family in a coal-mining town in West Virginia. That would have been in the late 50s. It is worth noting that in Virginia, it was illegal for a Black and white couple to marry until 1967, with the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia.
We would find ourselves settling down at a military base near Madison, Wisconsin, where my father was stationed. After he finished his tour of duty, he would become a professional boxer, training as a boxer by night and working construction by day.
This is where it gets hard for me to talk about. So my father, brother and uncle attended a high school basketball tournament in Madison. A group of white kids called them the N word. My uncle went to a police officer and asked if he was going to do anything. The police officer said, “Well, what are you anyway?”
Words were exchanged between my uncle and the police officer, then the officer began to strike my uncle with his nightstick. My father came to the aid of my uncle. He struck the police officer, and he was arrested and charged; and off to prison he went for assault and battery of a police officer with a dangerous weapon - his fists. As a professional boxer, his hands were considered a dangerous weapon in the eyes of the law.
We had been a traditional two working parent household but went from working poor to welfare poor. From store-bought food to government surplus food. From stable to unstable, overnight. I was really embarrassed about being poor and on welfare. And got into a lot of fights — I was bullied a lot. With my father being a boxer, if kids beat me up, they got bonus points.
All of these experiences became foundational for me.
As I transitioned from elementary school to junior high, I was placed in a special class for slow learners and juvenile delinquents. But I had a seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Lee, who said, “Jimmy, you don’t belong in this class.”
When I was 13 years old, I met Mr. Fox, a business owner and Black male role model. He gave me a job doing janitorial work. He would always tell me how important it was to work hard and serve the community. I worked for him until I was 21 years old.
When I got to high school, I figured the best way to change my life was to become a lawyer. But how would I afford college?
I decided running track and field was the answer. Coach Currie said, “Jimmy, if you work as hard in the classroom as you work on the track, I’ll get you to college.” I got to the University of Wisconsin, not as an athlete; I attended college on the strength of my 3.54 grade point average. Then I went to law school at Northeastern University.
I often share my story, and I share it by saying to you that three people saved my life: Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Fox and Coach Currie. I’m the oldest of five, and I’ve buried two brothers. They spent much of their lives struggling with drug addiction, poverty and despair. I have a third brother who has spent more of his adult life in prison than in freedom.
If it hadn’t been for those three caring adults, I would either be on drugs, incarcerated or dead. They put me on the path. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
Glen: That is incredible. Thank you for sharing that. How did you find the Y, and what has it been like to be a leader of color in the Y?
James: My father was a boxer, so he worked out at a YMCA, and I’d tag along, though those were rather infrequent. But I was also a volunteer in Youth In Government (a nationwide Y program that involves thousands of teens in state-organized, model-government programs) for about six years. We had tremendous success with kids.
If I were to be really candid in this conversation, I would say to you that all the kind things you said about me at the top of this conversation are not necessarily the way I feel when in meetings with Y colleagues. I do not feel welcomed, but resented. Initially, I chalked this up to “being from outside the Y” and a newcomer.
A couple of years back, at the very beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was asked to do a presentation. I said, “Black lives didn’t really matter in America and the proof is in the statistics surrounding the social determinants of health.”
As balanced as I tried to make the presentation, some of our colleagues left feeling I had called them racists.
What has happened and transpired over the last few months is we are now being forced to have that conversation that we were trying to have three or four years ago; however, folks seem to be more willing to discuss the hard issues surrounding equity and privilege. We seem less concerned about getting the language right and more concerned about doing right.
While I appreciate your kind comments, and I do feel that’s the way that you view me, I don’t know that I'm getting that nod from the broader group. And that’s OK. I must live with that.
Glen: I can remember that presentation very well. This could be the pillar upon which we stand on, in the next generation of YMCA. I regret not being more forceful in my reaction and positive in my reaction. I don’t remember what the dialogue was. But I remember the presentation well. It was exceedingly moving. It showed visionary elements of your leadership.
James: I do remember you being one of the people who spoke to me afterwards, and had nice things to say. But there were several individuals in that room who have not “really” spoken to me since.
Glen: Considering your Midwest roots, what went through your heart and soul and mind with the killing of George Floyd? Are we going to get traction, once and for all?
James: So maybe it was a matter of not having a full grasp of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and some of the challenges that were happening in your community. My father did a fair amount of his professional boxing in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I always had that connection there, and I always enjoyed coming there.
Knowing your YMCA, and your YMCA’s commitment, it made me enjoy coming there. I was a little bit surprised that an incident like George Floyd would happen in Minneapolis, but I shouldn’t have been. These issues are happening in just about every YMCA community.
Glen: What about where we are as a nation now? Are we making legitimate progress or are we in the same place?
James: That question pains me. It pains me because as a country, we have so much polarization that it’s hard to make progress in the midst of racial hatred and misinformation. There’s so much antagonism. There’s a lot of whistle-blowing. Dog whistles are silent, but everyone knows when they are being blown.
I wish we could approach this with more optimism. But we have a whole lot more work to do. Part of our role, as a movement, is to do that work.
I do want to share that I think we’re in a different place, in terms of our understanding of what got us here. Even in my own mind, things are being connected for me that I hadn’t previously connected, but I’m actually pretty clear now about how we kind of got to where we are. We’ve got this myth, this fallacy, this idea, this construct, around race; the idea that this one group of people is inferior to another group of people, and this inferiority was the basic foundation for racism, and many of the conditions that exist for people of color today.
How can Africans be seen as being inferior, when Africa is the birthplace of humanity? We need to elevate that story, so we can mitigate the fallacy of racial inferiority. Until we do that, we’ll never get to a place where folks can look at each other and see equals. We’ll spend our resources — time and energy — in ways that counteract this fallacy. That, I believe, is the work of the Y.
Glen: I have been doing a lot of reading and soul-searching around language. How do we pick the right language for our Y moving forward? We want to become an anti-racism, anti-oppressive organization. I’m curious your thoughts on language, and where you think we ought to be as a Y?
James: None of us are victim-free. We have to define what anti-racism means for us. We get hung up on the language, and people will infer what we mean by Black Lives Matter. I’m not in favor of looting, or violence of any sort. Nor would I advocate for either of those things. But I am in favor of change. And I think we can have change without the violence. I am not in favor of the dismantling of Capitalism, but I am in favor of equity, and I want everyone to reach his or her full potential.
Glen: I would love your advice for me, as a white leader in the Y.
James: I’ve been watching you and two other white Y leaders. I think the three of you are “leading the charge, in many ways.” You’re showing the most courage, in the face of a lot of uncertainty. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing. You are, within your YMCA, creating places to have these hard conversations. Nationally, you and others are pushing for us to continue to have these hard conversations as a movement. And by your leadership, you might be able to bring others forward, who are less comfortable raising those issues or using the language of equity and anti-racism, or less likely to participate in unconscious bias training. You are likely to call two or three other CEOs and say, "Will you join me in this training?”
I would encourage you to continue taking constructive revenge on poverty and racism. Use your talents, skills and convictions to create the type of world you are proud to hand to your children and the children of the world. As leaders, we must use our privilege to feed, educate and elevate those we are blessed to serve.
Glen: James, I am incredibly grateful for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
To learn more about James Morton, click here. Look for a new “Candid Conversation on Race” next week.