February 10, 2022
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to grow as an equity leader. This is the 60th in a series of blogs as part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage 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.
Following the killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright and, most recently, Amir Locke, by local police officers, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice in our community and beyond will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.
My 26th guest is James White, the YMCA of the North's new vice president of leadership and curriculum development. He previously served as the executive vice president of organizational relations for the Triangle Area YMCA in North Carolina, and he was appointed by the governor as chairman of the North Carolina Dr. Martin Luther King Commission.
After graduating from East Carolina University, James worked with students at Howard University through Cru, a campus ministry, for eight years. In 2009, James received the Cameron Award for Writing Excellence in recognition of an article he wrote in the Association of YMCA Professionals journal, Perspective Magazine. He and his wife Cynthia we have been married for 34 years and are the proud parents of three adult children.
Below is the entire transcript of my talk with James White.
Glen: I look forward to talking through all sorts of things with you, but I think it would be really helpful if we could just start on your personal story.
James: I think the longer I journey, the more it's important to sort of center conversations with who a person really is, because who I am now, at 60 years old, I think I have a more reflective look and can even see how I've been shaped by my childhood. I was born in 1961, rural North Carolina, to parents who were born in 1923. Now that is very significant because that means that the narratives and stories that have influenced my life are narratives and stories of two Black people, who were born only 60-some years after the Emancipation Proclamation, who went through Jim Crow, went through the Depression, who also went through Brown vs. Board of Education. So I have a unique journey in that I'm in the generation that actually lived through Jim Crow and remember the all-Black school. And I was one of the first generations in my county to integrate the school system, along with my mother. So all of that shapes my perspective, my life, in light of who I am now.
So in this journey through that world view, I became the first generation of my family to go to predominantly white institutions, to actually have access to the hopes and dreams of my mother and father and other family members. So that has shaped me, even as I am journeying now.
I was a consultant for a number of years. My first job out of college was a karate instructor because I didn't quite know what I wanted to do. Then I journeyed with a faith-based organization, working with college students at Howard University for about seven years. And that further shaped my perspective of the world.
And as a result of working in that space, I ended up in the place I am now. Around 1991, I joined a group called the Communication Center, which was a think tank that trained people in communication and speaking and thinking skills. I went through as a student, was asked to become an apprentice and ended up joining their staff. And that's how I ended up coming here to Raleigh-Durham in 1992.
Believe it or not, the YMCA was a client, so I worked with YMCAs as a consultant in the early 2000s, and then 16 years ago, joined the staff of the YMCA. I parachuted in as an executive vice president of leadership development.
And so that's sort of how I ended up in the YMCA network. And I would say this: The YMCA has always been a place where I see the scope and opportunities of world change because the historical narrative of the Y is that but even the way the YMCAs are positioned, very much in the framework of communities.
For me, joining the Y was always something even bigger than just the Y as an organization, but I've always seen the YMCA as a movement. And so that gives you a little bit about my journey within the YMCA.
Glen: I appreciate that. And I can appreciate the notion of parachuting as this is my first job in the Y. I really have respected your breadth of perspective, from outside organizations, different forms of ministry and missionary leadership, and those things culminating in your role of strengthening the Y. Thank you for sharing your background.
Would you share some anecdotes or stories on how race has shown up in your life?
James: Part of what's been interesting for me is, very much present with the understanding of who I am, as a Black man. And that understanding sort of being rooted and grounded, I would say, from having a generational reality of a mother who was an educator, a father who was very much a hardworking, blue-collar person, but then even the community around me.
I grew up in this time period where there was a sense — and this may sound strange — that the beauty of segregation, the Black community was in a space of Renaissance and of continuing to recreate the strengths, even in light of being denied human access to reality. So because of that, I grew up in a time period where there was a great deal of ingenuity, creativity, because you had to do that in order to survive. And so for me, race has always been a part of that journey that I've had to take. And so never has there been a time period of sort of looking at it as a negative, but seeing a positive, where even the pressure — the challenges — would bring out the best.
I've always had people in my community, in the Black community, that have moved me to opportunities of excellence, and connection, and giving back, so that I had a strong sense of identity, even in the first grade in integrating the school system. For example, I could read before I went to school, which was very unusual for many, especially in the area that I was from. So very early, I had this sense of self and a sense of being and purpose, and not defining myself through the lenses of majority culture. And when I say majority of white culture, the white dominant framework that we live in.
So my mom is a teacher, and there was a sense of call that was there, a sense of healthy community and identity, in many ways.
I grew up in a time period where yes, the data talked about the disparities, and they were there. But I sort of didn't feel them, and saw even the power of making a difference when it comes to those disparities. I was taught, even in grade school, that you've got a responsibility. I mean, that was the driving narrative, that was there from leaders. I excelled academically, but yet I had people around me that used to often pull me aside in private conversations and say, 'All right, James Alfred, just know that you got a responsibility to give back to your people.' Especially because in many spaces, in my journey, Glen, I would be in a space where I would be the only African-American male, and so I experienced a great deal of loneliness, even very early in my formative years, as a leader and as a child.
Glen: I really love how you kind of espouse this notion of human access to reality. That's an interesting mind bender for me. I appreciate that commentary.
I want to go a little deeper. So relative to race, have there been experiences where racism has been perpetrated upon you? Are there any stories that you might be willing to share?
James: Where do I start, Glen? So it's interesting. For example, now when I say this to certain audiences, you would wonder why I would even be a part of a YMCA, especially because I grew up in a time period where it was not access. Remember: many YMCAs didn't even fully integrate until the government made the YMCAs integrate, which has always been this complexity, for an organization that is supposed to have a Christian mission, yet it would take the federal government to drive them to do the righteous thing. So for me, there's always been a complexity with the Y.
Also, my mother made sure I would go to camp. So I experienced camp, a 4-H camp, when I was in fourth grade. My mother sent me to camp that was almost a seven-hour drive away from home, and I was the only African-American on the bus. And it was one of the most horrific camp experiences in my life. But my mom was real big on, 'Any experience you want to have, you need to have.' And I'll never forget: I remember my counselors — this is why it's so traumatic — were Marsha Powell and William Powell. They were brother and sister. They were the two senior counselors who protected me that whole summer. I remember there were only two other African-American females and one other African-American male out of a camp of about 130 people in western North Carolina. So it was that traumatic: camping experience, being teased. I thought, 'Wow.' And yet that whole journey, there's often this journey of limitation. So in 1976, they had a ski club in the county, and kids would say, 'Well, Black people don't ski.' And teachers said that. So me and another person decided, 'We're going to stop this.' So here I am, a sophomore going into my junior year, deciding, 'Okay, I'm going to go snow skiing.' Now, when I got on the slopes and felt how cold it was, I said, 'Well, maybe they got a point.' On the whole ski resort, I'm the only African-American male there. So many of my acts of really sort of breaking barriers — and that sounds very strong — but a lot of the decisions that I made were to step into places where African-Americans typically wouldn't be in. So in the framing of my mind, I still live with that framing of breaking barriers.
Even my journey with the YMCA, you have subtle micro-aggressions. So in my first year, even though I'm a part of the executive team, I would encounter people, and they would say, 'Well, what branch do you work in?' And that is a slight micro-aggression because surely there couldn't be an African-American man that was sitting in the seat of an executive position. And so all of those realities are things that you experience.
And when we talk about micro-aggressions, some might listen and think, 'Well James, come on. You're being overly sensitive.' Well, when you get enough paper cuts, at the same time, then after a while, infection can sit in, if you're not aware that there's a paper cut.
So Glen, I would say throughout my journey, I've experienced that, and I experienced that in faith-based spaces, too. I worked with an organization for 19 years, and I remember at my first training event, it was in a beautiful place. The sun was going down. Someone who comes from the same faith perspective as me, they said, 'Hey James, smile so we can see you.' This is 1984, and these were people who were people of faith. So I've always had this complexity in my journey of really also having to differentiate between culture, and to have a level of cultural competence. But there's a difference between culture and truth. And sometimes we allow culture to determine truth rather than truth penetrating and determining culture.
Glen: You have some experience, when you were a young man, working with a Korean business, and I'm curious if there is some unique perspective that may have arisen out of that experience?
James: Yes, I think now that experience did a lot to shape me. Even before the experience with the Korean business, it was about being a martial artist. I love Bruce Lee, 1972, 1973. But one of the reasons why I loved him is because here's a picture in cinema of a person who was under oppression, and yet using art and skill to deal with oppressive forces. And even that began to shape very early that the narrative of racism and justice and oppression. It's not just a Black/white narrative, but there's also a Chinese/Japanese narrative, which Bruce Lee really brought to the screen.
In my senior year of college, there was an exchange student, and he needed a roommate. His name was Kee Su Kwak, and he had people not really treat him well, and so he ended up being my roommate. And that opened the door for me to begin engaging with the Korean community. Well, one of his close friends lived right near where I grew up, and his mother and father owned a clothing store and another store that mostly had clientele of the African-American community. So I needed a job, and that ended up with a five-year (working) relationship. Anytime I had a vacation, I had a job, and that opened the door because they were the only Korean family at that time, living where I grew up in a small town. We're talking about 1983. And so they were well-known. That was an educational experience of understanding Korean culture and even what they had to navigate, in light of Mr. Kim being a businessman. So it really opened my eyes to a much more global reality that this is more than just a Black/white situation, but there's a cultural complexity as well.
Glen: Very interesting. You've worked with the Sagamore Institute. Would you describe what the work of Sagamore is about, and maybe some learnings there for you?
James: I am still a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute. And so the Sagamore Institute happened through their leader, Jay Hein. It's a global think-tank that invests in solutions on global issues and cultural problems. My work with Sagamore was primarily engaging thought leadership around issues of race and culture. So back in 2002, when I was a speaker and consultant as I engaged with Sagamore, I encountered the challenge of, 'How do you even talk about race in conservative spaces?' The Sagamore Institute is what I would call a healthy, conservative think-tank that is driven towards solutions much more so than just political ideologies and platforms. But in my mind, if you're going to bring change, you've got to be able to speak to people, no matter where they are on the spectrum, politically. So one of the first things I did with Sagamore was to continue my work on a project that would answer the question, 'How do you talk about race to people who are not listening, from a historical standpoint?' I had been working on a communication project called 'Race on Trial," where you examine race as it's dealt with in eight major Supreme Court cases.
This involved examining arguments, and explaining what you saw, at the highest place of justice in the land, the inequity of race. So we examine, for example, the Dred Scott Case. And so you go, 'Wait a minute. How could Supreme Court people — brilliant people — dehumanize people, even in their briefs and arguments?' And we examined Plessy versus Ferguson. 'You mean the Supreme Court actually thought that a human being was who they were, based on the color of their skin?' And then we would examine Brown versus Board of Education, and we even looked at how Loving versus Virginia. And so what would happen is, you can't argue, and you can't say, 'Well, it's just the social construct.' You actually see the voices of those who had incredible biases, who are in the Supreme Court. So that led to Sagamore inviting me to do a whole host of other things. Most recently, I still do interviews with Sagamore, when there are critical issues. They also love the YMCA. So they are abroad, and they're big on community development. They are located in Indianapolis, and they partner with the Indianapolis Y.
So I enjoy it because it allows me to do thinking in education, world affairs, race and culture, so still very much involved. I even wrote an op-ed for them on Kyle Rittenhouse.
Glen: Wow, what a resource you are to them, too! That's really a great and helpful example around a social construct, but also a reminder of the systemic dynamics that still exist and have existed through time.
Now, we've connected with you by virtue of your incredible reputation with the Y, and you most recently worked with one of the most venerable YMCAs, in the YMCA of the Triangle. I love the leadership there, and certainly you were a major part of that. I wonder: Can you would reflect on what appealed to you, in terms of making a move from Triangle to this job, and then where do you see this going?
James: So there are two things that appeal to me. One, I begin my journey with the UnitedHealth Group Equity Innovation Center of Excellence at the YMCA of the North because the first thing that I worked with you all on dealt with how to engage employees in the midst of COVID. So, for me, that was one of the first things that made my antennas go up because you were concerned about the human dynamic of our staff, about the internal staff of our world. So that was one of the first things, when I knew that you all were engaging in that. But then secondly, when George Floyd happened, there was not moving back, but moving very much into being the YMCA. In my mind, that's the historical reality of the YMCA. When everybody else pulls out, the YMCA leans in. And as you all were leaning into, 'How do we respond as a YMCA,' in the midst of George Floyd. Then I had a chance to facilitate some of the discussions to understand the difference between a protest and a riot and saw that we were wrestling with being in the midst of solutions, rather than simply waiting for solutions to happen.
Well, that was part of what made it very attractive to me. Well, then I think the third thing is the opportunity to really focus on what I think has been at the core of my life journey. And the core of my life journey has always been, 'How do we deal with inequity, by developing influential leaders for lasting cultural change?' And the opportunity to focus on inequities, race and then here's why it's called innovation: I believe when you are trying to tackle historic — what feels like impossible, cultural issues... Because what we're really doing is, we're dealing with something that started in the very framework and fabric of our country. Well, if we're trying to really create equitable, inclusive spaces, innovation is a must, and that's really the history, whether we're talking about indigenous people, whether we're talking about African-American people, or any people group that have come and not fit, that in order to survive, it's innovation. The fact that indigenous people still exist, even after all the horrendous realities of space being taken, etc. There's incredible innovation for us to learn from.
So for me, this is an opportunity to spend the next years of my career focused on issues that really matter. The other thing for me that's exciting is the scope of who we have engaged at the UnitedHealth Group Equity Innovation Center of Excellence. The scope is incredible! For-profit companies, nonprofit companies. I mean, I (recently) facilitated a conversation with the Anoka County Library system. So we're engaging groups that someone would go, 'How in the world could a YMCA engage community-building groups?' But the excitement for me, working with a county and now walking them through learning experiences that are shaping the way — not only how they see the world, but the way they engage with the world.
So for me Glen, we go back to the Y narrative of, whenever you had a historic crisis in our country, in our world, the YMCA would step in.
Now here's what else is unique for me: Whenever we think of inequities, race and justice, we think of the South. And yet we miss the hidden story of the North.
I've been thinking about this: My hope is that at some point, rather than Minnesota being known for Minnesota Nice, that it be known for Minnesota 'Real.' A place where we engage with vulnerability and reality to bring solutions that can impact the country and even impact the world.
There's a reason why the spotlight is on Minnesota, and I'm not sure we know how to deal with that because we're used to... listen to me! I'm using 'we.' But we're now in a time period in history, where we think in terms of geographical boundaries, that technology — the internet — has removed. So the other thing, if we're going to be forward thinking in the future, there are boundaries that we may have to remove when it comes to geographical location.
One of the things that's interesting, when you look at historic change. Historic change often happens from places where you least expect. When you look at movements that really bring change, you go, 'How did that happen there?' That's even true when you go back for me. How in the world could change happen from a place where you would least expect it? The first person to be President of the United States was a Black man. Father is African, mother is white. Who would have thought?
Well, I think we have that same opportunity in Minneapolis.
Glen: Since George Floyd's murder, we've certainly felt some momentum building and we've seen some of it, even in our own investments with our team, and with you coming aboard and engaging at a different level and expanding our offerings with the Equity Innovation Center and on and on. I'm really curious to hear from you. Do you feel that we are building sufficient momentum, that we are moving in the right direction? Would you reflect on that? And then I'm curious, too, can you frame that for our young people? Where do you feel they are in helping us carry this forward?
James: I think we are making incredible gains, and this is where you go back to history and what has changed. Historically, we think in terms of power being moved by simply place. And that's true; I think that we miss that sometimes. We think we've made change, but we still haven't changed the property and the place of who owns things. So for example, in a city, you can build a new building, but if the property is still owned by the same power structure, you really haven't brought any kind of change.
Now, place is being navigated in a very different way. And so now the people of power, the people who are able to have a message, and have over thousands of followers. So now intellectual capital has a premium in a way like never before, and ownership is shifting. I say all of it to say, part of what the gains we're making is, as a non-profit organization, we often don't think before we do. We do and then we think. I think this is where we come in, as the Equity Innovation Center. Because we're really putting the emphasis in, and thinking, being, and doing, and we're helping people to do that. We're helping people to think differently, when it comes to mental models. But then we're helping people to be differently to one another, and understanding engagement, understanding belonging. So I think that's part of what makes us unique and valuable, even in the space that we're in.
I think with the younger generation, there's a generational gap that exists, but when you create spaces of belonging, now we're creating the vehicle where, once again, the younger generation can be heard. And I think part of the message that we have a chance to do is to facilitate rather than dictate.
That's why, at the core of much of our curriculum, the best ideas now can't come from a certain group of people. We will have to facilitate. You see this even in some of the social movements that have taken place, where there's a huge generational gap. And it's because we've tried to dictate rather than to engage and understand the hurts and pains and realities of youth, and their voices in a way like never before. Youth voices have always had power. I mean, Dr. King was in his 20s. He died in his mid-30s. He was a young man. Founding Fathers were not old men, when they came. Name any movement in America, including the YMCA, and it was young people. But it was young people who systemically were connected to other people that cause those movements to grow and to thrive. We have an opportunity to systemically connect with movers, with directors, with leaders in a way that really can be game-changing in the future.
Glen: Your perspective on the potential of our young people is just awesome! And it makes me think about the sheer importance and magnitude of our work, at a youth developmental level, and everything we can do to prepare those leaders to be the game changers, to change the societal and systemic issues for the better. So I appreciate your perspective.
Now I want to ask for your advice, since you've quickly become a mentor for me. I see myself wanting more time to connect with you, and to just absorb that wisdom and get your perspective, more and more.
Here's a chance for you to tell me, how should I think about my leadership here at the Y, a middle-aged white guy? What do you want to see from me? What advice do you have for me?
James: There are a couple of things. I would say, we often talk about servant leadership. I'm not so sure that's strong enough. I would say for those of us, myself included, we will have to lead in such a way, knowing that we won't see much of the fruit in our lifetime. I almost think, Glen, you have to have a seed-planting perspective.
How do you till the soil, how do you plant the seeds, but in a strategic way, so that you're laying groundwork, and you're not frustrated because you may not see some of the changes you're really living for, in your lifetime. Now, this is where being a Black man is invaluable, and this is where the narrative of Black history would do you well. Because you got groups of people who develop institutions, 250 years of slavery. So nine generations, they never saw much of the dreams and hopes that they were moving towards. Yet in reality, they put frameworks in place that I now live from. It's fascinating.
There's a quote by Bobby Kennedy, who talked about one day a Black man would be President. Well, it happens more than 30 years after he died. So I almost think, Glen, there's a need to have that mentality. The other thing that's going to be important is, that you're willing to be courageously misunderstood.
Unfortunately, you're leading in a time of great polarization. And yet what's going to be significant is that you, as a leader, are not trying to politically deal with polarization. When you try to politically deal with polarization, you, too, end up becoming polarized. But what will be important is for you to understand the polarization and have a very truthful, centered, clear perspective. We live in a polarizing culture so if you're trying to sort of use the old method of political gain, then it's going to fail. And I think that what's organizations are experiencing, and what political leaders are experiencing. They're trying to be political in a polarizing framework, rather than being very clear: 'This is who we are, this is where we're going.' And you may not understand me right now, but sooner or later, truth will stand. And I think that's true in our lives period, at this point, in this generation. So it will require a level of courage to lead that way.
Glen: Thank you. How about the Y? What advice do you have for the Y, and for the system of the Y?
James: One, I think there needs to be a moment of grief from some of us older stakeholders. Because the hopes and dreams that we had, that we would bring things back to where they used to be... It's almost very similar to what you're having to do to navigate in COVID, but even before COVID. So much of our leadership, 'Look, we got to get the Y back to what it used to be...' And you even see organizations not thriving because now you have people with COVID saying, 'We got to get back to where we were before COVID.' Leadership moves forward, not back. And what we have to do is say, 'What are the elements and essences of our past that can transcend time and move forward? And how do we move forward without some of the cultural baggage of our past?'
So, for example, for me, people may hear this and say, 'Well, are you trying to say we need to change the mission?' And what I would say is, 'No, we need to make the mission real.' And making the mission real is not compartmentalizing the mission, where we only see Christian principles, or compartmentalizing it, where we only deal with mind and body. But where we see that, 'No, wait a minute. Into practice with a healthy spirit, mind and body.' The whole mission statement really does come from a historical paradigm that would suggest that the mind, the body and the spirit is created in the 'Imago Dei,’ in the image of God. And I think we've lost. I think we've lost it because we've allowed it to be compartmentalized, and I think, as well, people against the mission, what they're against is the way the mission has been culturally hijacked to only serve certain groups of people, to be able to polarize people. And so the Y has to clarify, 'Here's who we are, here's what we need, here's how we move forward.'
The other reality too, is we have to be honest in being cause-driven leaders. And what does that really mean? And what do we have capacity for? And this is where partnership, community engagement, those are realities that have to become part of our narrative. I think we take the best of the past, but we have a new narrative, in many ways.
I grew up with a very one-dimensional Batman. This generation would laugh at the Batman that I grew up with because it was more cartoon. But this generation knows that Batman was who he was because of seeing the tragic death of his mother and father.
I never knew that until much later. This generation has to have tension of both tragedy and triumph. It's not just a heroic story, Glen, it's a human story. And I think we have an opportunity to be an organization that is very honest. We make mistakes, we're growing, but we are not trying to produce heroes. We're trying to produce humans who will can do heroic things and be the best that they could have ever imagined.
Glen: Love that notion! I want to ask you one more question, out of respect for your time, because I would like to do this for another three or four hours.
I'm just learning so much and taking my own notes. What brings you hope?
James: That word is a challenging word. And so for me, hope requires discipline. Because I have to discipline myself daily to have hope because when you look truthfully into our world, you have plenty of things that can cause you to not have hope.
I really have to discipline myself to say, 'Okay, what really is the hopeful news in very dark situations?' So it's why we'll ask the question, whenever I'm talking about COVID. COVID has taken some things but there's some things that we've gained in COVID. As you mentioned earlier in our conversation, we've now gained a whole new way of operating. We've gained talent. We've gained an ability to engage knowledge capital from places we normally wouldn't have.
That gives me hope.
But hope comes when you deal truthfully with the tragedy and the challenges that you face. So I have hope, Glen, when I see organizations like our organization not moving away from the challenges, not denying the challenges, but in the midst of it all, engaging and finding solutions for those challenges. That's part of where I have hope.
And so I have to discipline myself. That's a question I daily have to ask myself, and to be much more reflective because so much in our world is more hopeless narrative and conversations.
Glen: James, thank you so much. This has been inspirational, motivational, and I've been educated. I appreciate you.
James: I appreciate you as well.
Learn more about James White by clicking here.