November 5, 2020
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 13th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
The murder of George Floyd resounded around the world in the hours, days, weeks and months after. That my hometown of Minneapolis became the epicenter of police reform and social justice demanded that I check my privilege as a white male and utilize my position, both personally and professionally, to compel meaningful change for a more just future for all.
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, inspiring, heartbreaking.
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 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 Y USA 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 ninth guest is Rich Melzer, who grew up in south Minneapolis then moved to River Falls, Wisconsin, where he shined as a basketball player. At the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, Rich was the NCAA Division III Player of the Year, earning All-America honors his final two seasons there. The second all-time leading scorer in school history (with 2,363 points), Rich then embarked on a professional playing career that took him all over the world including France, Germany, Israel and New Zealand. He’s accomplished so much and now Rich is one of our promising leaders at the YMCA of the North.
I hope you’ll enjoy Part 1 of our conversation.
Glen: Rich, could you just share briefly about your upbringing?
Rich: I grew up actually right here in the Twin Cities, in south Minneapolis. I started here, but I got in some trouble in high school, wasn’t making very good decisions, which ultimately led me to be kicked out of school. I was fortunate enough to have really caring and thoughtful people around me that saw something in me. So I ended up getting a second opportunity to finish high school in River Falls. I moved out there with my aunt and uncle, who led a really lucrative business, and was fortunate enough to finish high school and college there.
I started getting kind of good in basketball around my junior and senior year, and NBA scouts started showing up at my games, which — if you know anything about River Falls — is really taboo. I got my foot in the door in the NBA, but I didn't play very long there, then I traveled all over Europe, the Dominican Republic and New Zealand. I got to see parts of Asia and Australia. It was just a really fascinating experience. But as I was doing this, towards the ninth and 10th year of my career, I realized I was kind of being groomed for something after basketball. At that time, I wasn't sure what it was, but I'd always had kind of a philanthropic exposure, in light of my upbringing.
I always had a real passion and drive to give back, but I didn't really know what that looked like. So I started a nonprofit, and I made a ton of mistakes and learned some really cool things about nonprofits. After a couple of really successful and challenging efforts, I kind of stumbled my way to the YMCA. And here we are today, almost five years later! I've worked with youth development, and I’ve run a couple of facilities.
Glen: And I’m glad you’re here! I’m curious about your thoughts on this community now that you've been back for awhile and after the murder of George Floyd? Was that a surprise to you? And how are you thinking about our community now as it relates to race and equity?
Rich: It’s really polarizing because you really get to see firsthand through media, through your peers and colleagues, who’s who. Who has a lot of empathy and whose extremely and profoundly insensitive and still really aloof to the nature of the way things are here in the United States.
At least as it relates to that unfortunate event, I think what it's done has brought a lot of people together for the first time. Also, what we saw in Minneapolis in response to that, the togetherness between Blacks and whites for causes and likeminded outcomes, I don't think we've ever seen that before in the United States.
At peaceful protests and marches, when you looked around, it was populated by mostly white people. And I think that is something that the people didn't have during the Civil Rights era. So I think there, we’re making some really, really good ground. But I still think there’s still a huge disconnect in rural America. But it would be great if people would start to put themselves in other people's shoes to see some of the inequities that are taking place.
Glen: George Floyd, like you, was a tall and talented basketball player. His size may have impacted the perceived threat he presented to police. Is that something you have had to deal with or something you can relate to?
Rich: Firstly, I knew George. I would see him at this Latin club in northeast Minneapolis. We would be the tallest dudes in there. I’m 6-foot-9, and we would joke that we were the best big dancers in the Twin Cities.
I remember initially watching the video, and I'm thinking he already has a strike against him with his size, and I've been in situations like that many, many times, where I've had to intentionally try to diffuse and fall back in situations with police.
It's my personal belief that he was conforming, he was responding appropriately.
I would say that I’ve been in at least 50 situations where I had to really be mindful of my interaction with the police. I worked at Lifetime Fitness in Bloomington for a couple of years before I worked with the Y. I got pulled over by the police 14 times leaving work. And there were a couple of instances there where I was very fearful, and I knew that I had to really conduct myself so I could get home that evening and avoid any conflict with the police. For all those times, I got one citation for not having a light above my license plate.
Glen: That’s heartbreaking, Rich.
To learn more about Rich Melzer, click here to read a WCCO article about him. Look for Part 2 of “A Conversation on Race” with Rich next week.