January 7, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 20th 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.
I still have a long, long way to go.
When I think about some of the challenges I’ve had to confront, they just pale in comparison to what some of these leaders have had to overcome.
Their reflections were maddening and heartbreaking, yet inspiring.
There were universal themes, such as the added pressure each of them faces to not only represent themselves and their families, but their communities in a professional setting. Despite the shock of many, including myself, there was the general lack of surprise by my guests at George Floyd’s murder, especially from team members such as Hayley Tompkins who works with young people in that very neighborhood.
There was the brilliant and insightful perspective on U.S. history from Chuck Collins, who noted that it’s the “weaponization of race that’s toxic” and that this is not a “woke moment” for Black people.
“White supremacy is completely ubiquitous in America,” Chuck told me. “This country was built for white, male, landowners, and it was built on the backs of African slaves and indentured servants. This is often called America’s original sin. These are histories that are deeply embedded in being Black. What you’re seeing now is a broadening of that understanding, but only reveals the tip of the iceberg.”
There was the fascinating perspective on “privilege” from Emily Holthaus, who is married to a white man and how they are treated very differently, even when dressed casually at the airport. She also provided a peak into the future after her visit to a Y in Colombia, where she interacted with a thriving board diverse in ethnicity and age.
There was the eye-opening experience of my friend Mohammed Lawal taking a business call in his car, outside his home, yet eventually being questioned by police because someone had called and asserted that he was a “threat” to their life.
There was the mesmerizing reflection of North Minneapolis by Chanda Smith Baker, who grew up and lives there, perspectives that are vastly different from the predominant portrayal of that community.
There was the deeply personal backstory from Jenny Miller, born to a 14-year-old single mom and adopted by a loving interracial couple, on the heart and backbone of the important Y program she pioneered, Enough. Yet I was also moved — and disturbed — that she was stung by an instance of racism yet did not feel believed or supported.
There was our YUSA president, Kevin Washington, a man I greatly respect and admire, predicting to another Y leader — who like me is a white male — that he would get followed at a department store.
Sadly, Kevin was right.
Lastly, there was the incredible story of James Morton, whose childhood was wrought with the pangs of systemic racism that landed his father in jail and wreaked havoc on everyone else in his family.
Yet each and every one of them, despite their many negative personal and professional experiences, communicated hope in the future, buoyed around what they see in and hear from young people.
These conversations have been overwhelming and emotional, yet such a gift to me. So I am grateful to the past and upcoming guests of A Conversation on Race for their honesty, their willingness to be vulnerable and for both encouraging and challenging me to become a part of the solution and not continue to be a part of the problem.
My 12th guest is LaToya Burrell, a dynamic native of Louisiana who has become a blessing and powerhouse in our community. She's been on the faculty at North Central University since 2015, currently serving as Dean of Graduate Education and Accreditation and Associate Professor of Business Administration. She has bachelor's and master's degrees in Business Administration, and a law degree, graduating in the top of her class from Southern University Law Center. A wife and mother of two sons, LaToya was inspired after the tragic death of George Floyd, penning a book titled, Be Bold: How to Prepare Your Heart & Mind for Racial Reconciliation.
I hope you will find great wisdom and insight in my conversation with LaToya Burrell. (You can read part 1 here)
Glen: You say that Minneapolis and our region can be an incubator. But what are the markers that the social justice incubation is actually taking hold?
LaToya: I can't speak for everyone when I say this, but this is not going to be something that's going to happen overnight. I know a lot of companies came out and made statements, and I just read a study that pointed out the fact that it looks like a lot of companies are creating diversity and equity roles. But the truth is, apparently 60 percent of those companies had more recently — in the last five years — decided to do away with those roles. So now it seems like they're introducing a new role, but it's really them reinstating a role that they had done away with, for whatever reason. And I think it's the thought that creating these positions is a magic formula.
I know some people are talking about the election. Inauguration Day is not going to be a magic formula. This full, four-year administration is not going to be a magic formula because this is not something that was created overnight. So we can't solve the problem overnight. On all sides, it's making people understand that change is not a sprint. It has to be a marathon, and how do you get people to see the big picture?
For me, I think it's transparency. So if I'm talking about an organization, it’s the organization pointing out and acknowledging years — centuries of this problem — and we know that it's not going to be solved overnight, but please know that we are working towards it.
So strategic planning, and I know it's kind of hard for me to even say that because I've been the one to say, 'We don't need any more studies. We know that there's a problem.' We don't need any more studies, but that doesn't mean that we don't need strategic plans. So my thing is make a strategic plan and be very, very transparent with it, but acknowledge even if it's a 10-year strategic plan, that we're not saying that at the end of this 10-year period, that it's going to be dismantled and remedied. We will reevaluate when we get there, and we'll measure and assess the progress that's been made, and then readjust our plan and continue to push forward. And I think that some people just don't want to hear that. What they hear is, 'This is going to be remedied tomorrow,' and I don't think that's possible.
When we talk about eradicating racism, I don't think that's ever going to happen in my lifetime or even my grandchildren's lifetime. But what I do think is possible is for us to get to a place where the people who don't want change — who are okay with the systems, who have racist intentions, policies, beliefs — are the minority. They're the ones uncomfortable, and that's what I believe can happen in maybe my grandkids' lifetime.
That doesn't mean I'm not hopeful. I believe myself to be very optimistic, but I'm also realistic. I do not think that in my lifetime racism will be eradicated, but I do think that in my lifetime there will be measurable change.
Glen: Let's dig in on the racism, a little bit. What do you see as the reasons for why this gets sewn into our social fabric, generation after generation?
LaToya: We have never ended it, we have never acknowledged it enough to put a stop to it. So I'll give an example. It's going to continue to be perpetuated for generations. Joy DeGruy wrote a book called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and essentially she talks about the fact that we've never fully reckoned with it. So if I'm starting with 1619 in Jamestown and then we get to, let's say 1865. It would be different if the slave owners, on their own, had this awakening that what they were doing was not right and said, 'I'm gonna fix this, and you're now free.' No, it was a fight. It was a whole Civil War, followed by Reconstruction, followed by Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s. And the problem is, we expect us to change overnight, but we've never done what it takes to make it right. So it will never be right until we're able to have a hard, fast reckoning. Now what does that look like? Well, that's a whole other discussion.
Glen: I want to take it to the YMCA and our work. Hedy Lemar Walls is leading our UnitedHealth Group Equity Innovation Center, and I give her so much credit for some very novel and unique experiences that are being built and that are coming out of that center. We were delivering classroom-based curriculum before the pandemic, and then had to shift to fully virtual.
To your point on hopeful optimism, we've had to build a muscle – digital delivery of content - that we otherwise wouldn't have been forced to build. So now geographic barriers, transportation barriers have all been taken down. That's one place where we're investing. We're evolving our values to include equity, and we're getting after this notion of being on a trajectory to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization.
What are your thoughts on what you would like to see an organization like the YMCA do? And maybe even some advice for me, as a middle-aged white dude. How do you think about me in this role of leadership and how can I make the biggest impact possible?
LaToya: I wanted the title of my book to be, 'Be Bold,' but the publisher was trying to consider, 'What Can I Do?' I kept getting that question.
My response to that is, 'Do something.' I can't really just give you a 10-point checklist because our situations are different, so what you do may not look like the next person. I say use your resources, your platform, your voice. So in a position such as yours, your platform, your resources, your voice is different. So I say first and foremost, 'Do something.' The equity innovation work that your team is doing is amazing. But it's the idea of making sure that you are assessing it and being transparent about what it is and what it isn't.
Also you said that you are a middle-aged white guy. First of all, I applaud you for what you're doing because you can't know what you don't know. You can't change your race or gender just like I can't change. I didn't choose to be born to teenage parents. I didn't choose to be a Black woman in the South. I didn't choose any of those things. Those are the things that I was given.
But what I do choose, is what I choose to do with the unchangeable factors and how I choose to listen and move forward. So I would say to you, just continue to be open to discussions. In my book, I talk about four steps. But it's not like, 'One, two, three, four.' It's a cycle, and I think that it's continuous. I say in the book, you have to examine yourself. And I think that many people miss that point. So examining yourself is you understanding who you are, you understanding your background. Some people say white privilege, but there's privilege that comes beyond just white.
My kids upbringing is a lot different than my upbringing was. So although they are Black boys who will become Black men, they have a little bit of privilege that maybe another Black kid in a different situation doesn't have. So I think it starts internally, examining yourself, and then listen and learn. And then I say you have to be bold. And what I mean by that is, that you're willing to speak up about it. You're willing to speak up and out about things that are happening every time you see them. So again, to me, you doing this (having this conversation), you being willing to put a voice to it. Is that going to solve everything? No, but it's a step, a starter in this process for you.
Glen: Super helpful perspective…thank you. Would you mind sharing the key learnings you hope folks will take from your book?
LaToya: I think that for me, the key learning is that it starts with you. So for example, for the person who says, 'What can I do?' And for me, we are in a place where we have access to the internet. So if I want to know how to cook something, I'm going to go to Google. If I want to know a number to a doctor, I can go to Google for it. So whether it's a GED or a PhD, if it's something that you wanted, you knew that it would take work. You have to be able to see this entire process as equivalent to that. If it's something that you want, you're going to have to work for it.
So that may mean you being willing to invest time, to having discussions with people. That may mean you watching documentaries and reading books and listening to a podcast or figuring out a plan for you.
But what it can't be is you putting it on someone else. It's not a, 'One size fits all.' Even if I tell you what to do, I can't do it for you. You then have to do it. It's not going to be resolved overnight. This is not me telling you to watch one movie, and then it's all resolved. So the lesson that I hope people take from my book is the fact that it starts internally and it's going to have to be effort on the part of that individual. Your plan for this is going to be you having to decide where you need work, where you need help. I encourage people to read my book with a growth group.
I say in the book, 'History is not our fault, but making the change for the future is our duty.' I'll quote Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
She says in the book that when you inherit a house, any problems that come along with that house are now yours. So you need to know what's happening in the basement and the attic. That's the same way I look at it with slavery.
Okay, no, maybe you didn't own slaves. Maybe you weren't even in line to inherit slaves. I wasn't a slave myself. But it doesn't change the fact that I'm feeling the impact and the remnants of 400 years.
So the biggest thing is, even though I'm saying you have to listen to people, you have to learn, you have to be willing to be bold. I think of the four steps, the most important is the willingness to examine yourself and that it's not just a one-time thing.
Glen: You mentioned Caste. Are there three or four other books, in addition to yours, that you would recommend for people who are really trying to become invested in leading and inspiring change?
LaToya: I've re-read two of Martin Luther King's books recently, Where Do We Go From Here and Love In Action, and I'm like, 'Was this written in the 60s or in 2020?' Though there are newer books, like Isabel Wilkerson's, I find myself gravitating to the older books. So I've been reading James Baldwin books, and I recently re-read Letters From the Birmingham Jail and other sermons and messages from Dr. King, and it's just puzzling to me how similar it is to now.
You know why I believe I am still hopeful? I often wonder if Martin Luther King Jr. had the technology that we have now, what would have happened during the Civil Rights Era, with social media and camera phones? Even though I see similarities, I think the biggest distinguisher is the technology that we have, and I think that is going to be something to make a huge difference. That keeps me hopeful.
Glen: You can't argue that what happened with George Floyd was entirely unacceptable. And there are other instances, where we're getting a video of a young man being shot in the back multiple times. You can't argue...
LaToya: You know, it's funny that you say that because there are people that still argue with it. And so I had a moment. This was after I had already turned my book over to the publisher and I was just in waiting. So the publisher got my book on August 1. And the understanding was if, if we get it by August 1, it could be out by November 1. So I'm like, Okay, I'm going to push myself to meet that August 1st deadline.' And so in the waiting, I think I said that writing had some therapy for me. So there's this website called Medium, and you can write and publish on it. So I published a few articles on Medium, and one of them was why I took my 6-year-old to a George Floyd protest.
And I'll tell you, I did not want to take him. My husband wanted to because we live in downtown Minneapolis, a few blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium. I was like, 'No!' And with COVID? 'Absolutely not! No discussion.'
But my husband said, 'You know, you can't be mama bear forever. You can't shelter him. I think that this is a moment in history. I really think we should take him.' So he's says he's going to bring him, and he'll be really cautious. Then finally I said, 'Well, I'm coming, and I want to be there.'
We're walking toward the stadium, and I'm trying to have this discussion with my kid, who was asking me questions like, 'What does F you mean? Who is George Floyd?'
Because he could hear it. But I realized it's on the news and it's everywhere. We can't avoid this. So I write this article about why did I take him. I talk about the similarities to me and Dr. King, of just wanting our children to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. My dad is 6 foot 6, my husband is 6 foot 2, and my 6-year-old son is already 4 foot 3. He's gonna be tall right? So I put this out there on Medium, and maybe a month later, I led a session on racial reconciliation for a group and somebody who saw it decided to check me out on LinkedIn. He finds this article, and he comments about it, and tells me, 'Your article sounds nice and everything, but some of us know what really happened.' He tells me George Floyd was an awful man, he was on drugs and that's what killed him. He said he knew somebody trustworthy who was on the scene.
So I'm dialoguing with him, and no matter what I say, he's like, 'I'm not going to have this discussion with you. Some of us know what really happened.'
I responded, 'If you think that this is about one bad cop and one person who was on drugs, then apparently you and I are living in two very different worlds. And I leave it at that.' He doesn't respond after that.
I was so defeated that day because there are so many people who, even though we saw this video, still said, 'No, he didn't die because of the knee to his neck. He died because of the drugs in his system.' That was just so heartbreaking for me because I said we still have a lot of work to do.
To learn more about LaToya Burrell, visit her website by clicking here. Look for Part 3 of our A Conversation on Race with LaToya next week.