The conversation began like many others I had with conference attendees. As I promoted 12plus1 we discussed the mission, purpose and details of the program. Then Ali asked me an unexpected question. Pointing at our banner she asked, “Is that a picture of the Discovery House participants?” I cringed. As a new program, it has been necessary to use stock photos. It is not ideal. Many stock photos look staged and somewhat fake. It has been a source of worry for me. As I explained this to Ali, something told me to ask her why she noticed the banner. She was the first person to mention the picture. Ali told me it caught her attention because the banner had a picture of diverse people. She went on to share how this particular conference was a challenge for her because it lacked diversity. She was being generous. It wasn’t that it lacked diversity, it was almost 100% white. Before Ali had approached our booth, I had noticed the lack of diversity. Perhaps it was because the previous conference I attended was proud of the fact that more than half of their attendees were people of color. Imagine being at a large event where you are one of a handful of people of your gender, ethnicity or age. Imagine again if this fictitious event did not have any people who looked like you on their publicity materials, did not include any speakers who have shared your experience or addressed issues you face. Imagine further, that this conference is sponsored by a Church and designed to help you foster your relationship with God. What message would this send about their perception of who God welcomes and loves? This is the conversation that Ali and I had. A white, (almost) fifty-year-old man talking with a young, black college woman about race. It is not what I expected my experience would be. Unfortunately, she was not the only person to express her concerns about the lack of diversity. Happily, it was a rewarding, barrier breaking, consciousness raising, spiritual experience. God was there, it was holy ground and like Moses at the burning bush, God was calling me to speak to you about this experience.
Later that evening Ali returned with Cynthia and Nick. They hung out at the booth playing Jenga and the conversation about race continued. It was obvious to me that this was not the first time these young people felt left out or diminished because of their ethnicity. It appears to be an almost routine experience for them. Over the course of the conference they stopped by from time to time. On one visit they told me that another young black man was also alarmed by the lack of people of color at this event. As he met others, he asked them for their contact info. He took the initiative to gather this group for lunch. It was a group of 30. The conference had 17,000 attendees. Nick told me he felt so diminished by this conference that he spent one entire day in his hotel room. There was simply nothing there for him and he considered leaving. I am not sure why he didn’t.
On another occasion, I took a break from my booth and walked to a nearby Starbucks when I encountered a homeless man. As we were speaking, a young woman who was attending the conference stopped and gave him water and a granola bar. Her thoughtfulness and generosity were impressive. We walked together to the Starbucks. As we drank our coffee, she shared her wisdom with me: why do we predetermine that if you are homeless you are crazy, incapable of making a good decision? She suggested: the decision to help is on you; what they do with your help is on them. Further she said when she encounters a homeless person, she asks them their name as a way to humanize them. How often do we ask a homeless person their name? As we discussed our successes and failures in trying to help others and feelings of hypocrisy, I was struck by her charisma and character. She stood tall! And it was about then that our conversation took a turn. As it happens, she is also a person of color and shared an experience of the conference that was similar to Ali’s. She stated that she was struggling to find value in it because it was not speaking to her life experience as a black woman. Marie was incredibly open with me. Growing up in a biracial family in a primarily white environment, she has been very conscious of her speech, going to lengths to make sure she spoke like a white person. Mentioning that the people she has looked up to are Oprah, Michele Obama and Beyoncé, her wish was that she personally knew a strong black woman. Often during high school class discussions about race, her peers would look to her to be the one spokesperson for all black people. Upon the start of the next semester she planned to join the black student group at her college hoping she might have her first black friend.
These conversations and visits occurred over a few days. First, please do not feel sad for these young people. They are not looking for sympathy. They do not need sadness. What they want is inclusion.
Personally, I have spent the past month discerning how God is speaking to me through these relationships. Often my default is to try and fix problems. I want to make others happy. There is no way one person can fix hundreds of years of racial injustice and end the racial division in our country. What I did do was listen. What I can do with what I heard is share their story with you. It is not lost on me that it is likely that the majority of people who read this blog will be white. I have to tell you we have a lot of work to do. Most people I know are not racists. But many of us, me included, are too comfortable to adjust our way of thinking and being. If racial unity is going to come about, we cannot be lazy and fearful of others. Trying to hold on to our place is not the answer. Racial harmony and inclusion will demand a willingness to change and be open. For those of us who live in Milwaukee there is a sense of urgency about this change. According to a study released by the Brookings Institute, on December 17, 2018 Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States.
My experience for most of my professional life has been that most of the committees I have served on in the parish or Archdiocesan level have been made up of all white people. Even when I was on the leadership team for the service week was made up of entirely white people. I remember once visiting a high school that was the majority of black students to promote this summer camp. The questions we were asked were what color is the cook, what is the menu, who are the leaders? What they were really asking was does this program have a sensitivity to their cultural experience? The fact is- despite our best intentions and efforts- it did not
For over two-hundred years the culture of the United States has been directed by and focused around white people. We have had every seat at the table. The problem is, it is not our table. The table belongs to God and God expects us to make room for everyone. Therefore, those currently sitting at the table have a moral imperative to create space for everyone. If you are already sitting at the table you have a choice: you can claim your territory, create roadblocks, become defensive and cling to what you think is yours or you can move chairs, pick up your papers, maybe even add a leaf or two so that everyone has a place. Clinging to what is yours is a belief in a philosophy of scarcity. It is a mindset that says there is not enough. It is the mindset that says I worked hard for what I have and if I share it, I will lose it. I must protect what I have. The opposite is a mindset of abundance. It is a mindset that is open and trusting. It does not cling to routine or is threatened by change. It views change and new people as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a stronger more unified community. It trusts that God will always provide and take care of us. There will be enough to go around. For a scripture reference please see: Loaves and Fishes. Racial unity cannot occur if we rest on the idea that I have worked hard for my chair and my place at the table why do I have to share it now? Working hard does not provide us the right to ignore the rights of others. Apathy and indifference are the equivalence of bigotry.
Gathering everyone around the table makes us stronger. It gives us an opportunity to develop relationships with one another. Inclusivity does not mean thinking the same or being the same. It does mean having an appreciation for others and recognizing the value of their opinion, experience and perspective. It demonstrates an understanding that God has made all people- white, yellow, black, red, brown, blue, purple and magenta. This is why I am suggesting that we need to be open to the necessary change to bring about racial harmony and unity. Listen to the stories of others, be open to their experience, be aware of your words, do not become defensive, let go, be open, move your chair, adjust your papers, make a conscious and intentional choice to ensure no one is excluded. This is what needs to be done by the organization that put on the conference. It needs to be done in our Church. It needs to be done in our country.
And it needs to be done by 12plus1. My purpose for attending the conference was to promote 12plus1. I had no idea of the conversations that would occur. It became clear to me that God was calling me through this experience. As I reflect these are the questions I am trying to resolve:
How does 12plus1 ensure a diverse community of participants (racial, gender, age, religious)?
How do we develop a leadership team that reflects the diversity we desire? What strategies are employed in the community, service sites and formation day to ensure all people feel welcome?
Discovery House is geared for individuals ages 18-24. How has our planning included the insights and perspectives of young adults?
We want Discovery House to reflect the stock photo that caught Ali’s attention. It will take conscious choices and intentional actions to make this happen.
I invite you to consider and pray about how you can make your world more diverse and inclusive. It starts with listening and building relationships. If you are not in a place where you ever interact with people of another color or race, take the initiative to get there! Look for a multicultural church, find organizations that promote racial harmony. You will be enriched. Everyone knows what it feels like to be left out. Let’s be especially conscious not to allow that to happen to others by ensuring their place at the table. This is how we will seek and find racial harmony. Let us pray for the guidance of God’s Spirit:
Joe Nettesheim is the founder and director of 12plus1. He has worked in Church ministry since 1991 having led mission experiences for youth, adults and families. He also been an Executive Director for nonprofit organizations. You may contact Joe