November 12, 2020
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 14th 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, whose 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 in 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 2 of our conversation. (you can read part 1 here)
Glen: Rich, you’ve got sons. How has that influenced you as a parent, in guiding them and helping them make decisions in this environment?
Rich: I have a 19-year-old about to turn 20, and Devin is a really unique individual. He’s worlds ahead of where I was at his age, and he’s fortunate in that he's grown up in some pretty diverse communities, some of which are predominantly white. So as a person of color, he knows the language, he knows how to carry himself. But I still have to remind him that despite that, he's not exempt from foul play and he has to be extremely mindful and careful in situations where he’s around police. Devin went to school in a suburb of St. Paul, and he had multiple run-ins with police, but he hasn’t had any infractions or any citations. That’s an indicator that it's still real, that a good, high-quality student-athlete, for whatever reason, continues to rub shoulders with police or the truancy officer at school. I haven't really had any intentional conversations with him, but I've definitely shared some of my experiences with him in a manner that I hoped would resonate.
My son Mason is eight years old, and he's African American and Native American, but he's very fair-skinned and has had some really, really unique opportunities to kind of use that influence — that appearance — to make some change. So as he gets older, I want him to know who he is and to know some of the advantages he might have over other people of color and peers around him.
As the dad of Black and multicultural children, all you can do is hope and pray because once they're out of your sight, they’re at the mercy of some potentially hazardous things. I don't want to instill that in my children.
We know a lot of fantastic police officers. The police department over here in north Minneapolis for the most part are really good at their outreach and some of their efforts so we have some good influences.
Glen: Rich, that was awesome. Thank you for sharing. I'm curious about your thoughts about the Y. What would you like to see the Y do from a leadership perspective around racial justice and social cause?
Rich: Like many other organizations, the Y has been under some scrutiny, for some injustices inside the system and for maybe some new trends and behaviors that maybe aren't consistent with equity and with diversity and equal opportunity. And I think the response has been, ‘Well, we'll figure it out,’ and, ‘Let's create new opportunities and cohorts and organizations inside the Y to address these things.’
So in that way, I'm very proud to be a part of the Y. I'm very moved that the Y has the objective lens to say, ‘Hey, this is where we went wrong. Let's fix it.’ It's not to blow smoke.
But also, I think one of the things I'd like to see is that in itself: I want admissions, just ownership of some of these things.
I feel that here in the Y, it's been great to be a part of the equity advisory council, a huge opportunity to give people of color an influence. I think that's important, and it might not be as deep an answer, but it's a start, that we’re trying to move with the times.
Glen: I'm curious about your thoughts on the equity advisory council. We're in that kind of awkward, teenage stage, and I'm wrestling with wanting to give power and authority and decision making to that body. Are there other thoughts that you have in terms of empowering that group?
Rich: You know, that can be a challenging thing, trying to give advice and counsel to your boss! But I've been in those meetings, and I have to take my hat off to you because you take that information in and that feedback as true and whole and kind of remove yourself emotionally so you’re not feeling attacked.
I believe I heard you loud and clear at our last meeting, Glen, where you were saying, ‘Give it to me straight.’
Frankly, as one of the few leaders of color in the organization, I love giving other people the opportunity to speak. I'm an active listener.
But people of color aren't used to having an influence and to being able to have those conversations. There was a lot of tippy-toeing, and we needed to get clarity on what's going to happen if I say this. So I think we are still in that stage of establishing trust. But I think it's a great space to be in, where even having the conversation is the leaps and bounds. We’re probably right where we're supposed to be, even if it feels a little clunky.
Glen: Well, I appreciate that. What advice would you have for me, a middle-aged white dude? What guidance do you have for me?
Rich: For me personally, I'm very proud because we have a middle-aged white dude as our CEO, like 90 percent of the other companies and organizations in the United States — or the world. But Glen, you really challenged the envelope long before George Floyd got killed. So I just want to acknowledge that first. And in terms of what I'd like to see, I’d like to see you challenging the narrative and the gaps between white leaders and leaders of color.
I'd like to see you continue to advocate for that through training cohorts and just real intentional conversations, and just continue to push the envelope. Speak out, go with your heart and gut. You got a good bead on things, and I think we're exactly where we're supposed to be right now. I really do.
Glen: So I'm curious, what did you see and experience around the world?
Rich: Wow! That's a big question, given the scope of my travels. I think one of the main things I noticed, particularly in Europe is that the gaps don't seem as wide economically as they do here. In Germany, everybody seems to be doing okay. I don't like to generalize, but I don't recall seeing any real poverty there, with the exception of maybe Berlin or Munich and some small neighborhoods. So the opportunity is there. It’s really difficult to distinguish where the gaps are, and I think part of that is because there's not a great deal of diversity.
Australia is very abundantly open about oppression. And what I mean by that is, you won't see Aborigines within city limits in most cities, and they're still there. I lived in Cairns, which is a real tourist area with the Esplanade. I mean, just a beautiful landscape, but a community that does not hide the fact that they do not care for diversity very much. I don't know why or what comes from that or where it came from, but that was my take. As it relates to the United States, I think it's just more abundantly obvious where all these injustices are and where all these gaps lie.
These perspectives have really groomed me in a way that I'm still trying to identify and digest as I make a life here for myself in the United States. I think of the quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
I believe that, for me, that has been one of my greatest teachers, to come home and have an influence maybe for others who haven't been able to travel. There's a lot of people stuck in our silos. Some in our communities have no idea of the brilliance and the magnitude and scope of what's out there.
I played in Germany and the medical industry there is superior to anything I've ever seen. But the schools weren't diverse. My son went to school there and didn't have a very good experience. The content was obviously challenging because of the language barrier. But my son also went to a school in Israel, and Israel is a really unique place when you look at it from there, from an American standpoint. I know when I initially thought of the Middle East, I thought about war, and I thought about violence. But all those viewpoints were completely out of my frame of mind in that it's a safe, safe, safe place, where your children can stay out late at night. Schools there are teaching languages that I didn't even know were spoken in Israel. That’s something that I think we could probably learn a lot from, just in terms of not only content, but the manner in which they educate. They go to school from seven to noon, and they go home for lunch. So they take a couple breaks in the afternoon and then they maybe do a little study in the afternoon. And I think that's proven to be much more successful than, you know, keeping kids in school for long periods of time.
Glen: I traveled to Jerusalem, and we did a tour of the Old City. We actually had a Muslim guide, which provided a unique perspective as compared with my Christian roots. In these many experiences, our world view can change. We can appreciate our differences and learn from the experience of others. Well, thank you so much for your time and insight, Rich. You are a leader for good, and I am better for knowing you!
To learn more about Rich Melzer, click here to read a WCCO article about him. Look for another “A Conversation on Race” next week.