September 10, 2020
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the fifth 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 fourth guest is Mohammed Lawal, the CEO of LSE Architects. Mohammed was born in Florida but spent his early years growing up in North Minneapolis. When he was nine years old, he moved to his father’s native Nigeria, where they lived in five different cities because of educational and job opportunities. After graduating high school early, Mohammed completed two years at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria before continuing his architectural studies at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s. His architectural projects have been widely praised, including projects with the Y.
Mohammed and I first connected through youth basketball as our sons are similar in age, and we coached against one another. He is an acclaimed architect, and he works to help others. Mohammed is a trusted friend.
I hope you’re inspired by Part 1 of our conversation, which focuses on Mohammed’s perspective on race in his personal life.
Glen: You’ve got such a unique life story. Tell me how that’s shaped you?
Mohammed: I have a different perspective than others. A large part of my life, I grew up in Nigeria. I was not considered a minority. I was not talked about as being underrepresented. White privilege was not a construct there, but it is a construct here. A lot of Black Americans don’t realize that I’m African, and when I’m in Africa, they don’t realize that I’m American.
I identify as Black American, but I also identify as African American because my father is Nigerian. I know where my great grandfather is from, and what he did in our community. I know my mother’s father here was a sharecropper. I know I’m one generation away from picking cotton. I know my father marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And my family is bi-racial. So in one instance, I’ve had a potential client that interviewed me for a project say that I am not “black enough” because I am “successful.” In our family, our children identify as Black, however we talk about race and privilege a lot. But there is a real fear in my family. My older sister is a federal officer, and she says, ‘Mohammed, you should just comply with the law.’
My simple response is always, “I comply, and I die.”
In my family, there’s a fear that one of us, that is the way we will go.
Glen: That is so difficult to hear, Mohammed. How does racism impact your family on a daily basis?
Mohammed: There are everyday stories, Glen, that you’ve probably heard a lot from others. Six boys are shopping in a mall, and they get stopped by an employee who accuses them of shoplifting. She puts two on the side, and four boys are searched.
The four boys who are searched do not tell their parents. The two who were not searched do tell their parents.
The two boys put to the side were white, and the four boys searched were Black, one of them my son. For some, including my son, this was the third time they were accused of shoplifting, but at no time had he or they been stealing.
All the boys go to the same school, but there was a conscious effort to separate them.
As a parent, how do I follow up with that? I speak to the head of security of the store. He said, ‘They’re not in trouble.’ I said, ‘But there’s no trouble to begin with.’ Someone tried to explain to me that nothing happened.
Or how about being on a conference call in front of your home, in your car, and an officer knocks on your window and tells you someone believes you are a threat to their life. After they run my license, the officers say, ‘You’re free to go.’
But I was never detained!
Those are things, on a personal level, that represent systemic bias. I am guilty until I prove that I’m innocent as a Black man. Those are two simple examples.
Or when I called the police because there was a fight outside my residence. The two disruptors were white. But when the police arrive, they come to me, and I have to prove that I made the call. It’s not settled until my white wife comes out and explains that I was the one who called the police.
Glen: From your perspective as a dad, how do you feel about these kids growing up with a different social consciousness?
Mohammed: As a dad, I’m really proud to say that I have three very, active and engaged children. Something we’ve taught our children is that, regardless of their race, that they have to dare to stand alone, and oftentimes they will be alone. And they may be alone with their Black friends and peers, and often they’ll be alone and standing with their white friends and peers. And this is something that doesn’t seem fair and doesn’t seem right. It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot. That I feel alone a lot.
They must stand for what they believe is right. We’ve taught our children, that regardless of who they are with, to tell the truth because that will always matter in the end. We’ve taught them they will make mistakes, but when you do, own up to them.
Be proud of their heritage and be proud of where they come from.
Do not fear anyone. Wear a hoodie, drive whatever car you want, drive without fear of any consequences. Dare to be you.
One thing we never had is 'The Talk,’ the conversation about how to act when a police officer stops you. We refused to have that as a conversation.
I’ve found my children to be very socially conscious.
One of my sons and a couple of his friends raised a good sum of money in less than five days. They went out and picked a charitable cause, bought goods, and figured out what they needed and did it on their own. They reached across the country to their social network.
Glen: How did you feel after George Floyd’s murder?
Mohammed: My son used to pick up one of his AAU basketball teammates, at that intersection (38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis). That was the only way his teammate could get to practice. When his friend was late one time, my son got benched because he would not say that he was late because his teammate didn’t have anyone else to give him a ride and that made them late.
So watching that man kneel on George Floyd’s neck, that was one of those thoughts, ‘We may have to have The Talk.’ These guys do not care about my life or his life or our lives. So all I could think about was my son, sitting in his car, every day at 4:30, waiting to pick up his friend because you never leave your teammate behind. That’s how real and close it gets for us. He would be in the parking lot of the church right there.
Glen: Mohammed, that is so hard to hear. But this just reminds me: These conversations — as hard as they are — must happen. Thank you for your candor, your transparency and your leadership. I am grateful.
We will publish Part 2 of our conversation with Mohammed Lawal next week. To learn more about him, visit his company’s website by clicking here.