Eric

I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had.  I had bill boards all over town.  We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch.  I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.  

In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks.  Aha!  I thought.  That’s how good I am.  Now they’re calling me.  They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences.  They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids.  No youth of the year.  Just average kids.  They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.

That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed.  And no one at the Clubs questioned me.  They trusted me.

So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out.  I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year.   He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.

Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs.  He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood.   He became kind of our own local celebrity. 

I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School.  Now I was worried.  This felt like trouble.  Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it.  Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word.  He wanted to make a difference.  He didn’t need anyone’s permission.  He was 18 years old.  

I called the producers.  Left a message.  Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.  

A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’.  It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back.  Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be.  And it wasn’t just Expose’.  The story was national news.  

The shit hit the fan.  The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club.  My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family. 

I almost lost my job.  To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t.  I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening.  My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.  

The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see.  I get that.  It’s valid.  We need to let the people who are impacted speak.  Tell their truth.  Powerful stories can lead to change.  But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community.   His younger sister had to change schools.  She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.  

The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose.  He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out.  He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay.   It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry.  He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again.  He wanted to make a difference.  And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs. 

A few years later, he was dead.  I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia.  There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee.  I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.  

When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.

This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good.  I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell.  I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.  

I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling.  I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy.  But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being.  Not the story.  Not the organization. Not the media.  Not me.  

Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

 

Here’s a link to the live version told at an Ex Fabula Fellowship event in 2017.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-difficult-conversations