Seeing with Different Eyes with Fred Brown

by Jan 1, 20210 comments

Fred Brown, President & CEO, collaborates with community nonprofit leaders, with Christine Kroger pictured

Fred (he/him) identifies as an African American man. Fred shares insights from working with his community during the pandemic. He describes the resilience of people who have had to figure out how to survive systems they were never intended to be a part of, and how listening to their experiences can be the key to solving real issues for everyone.

Produced by Aimee Breslow.


So I mean when I think about some of the things I read grants that we’ve written over the years. I used to use the word fall in a bowl because it struck a chord in the foundation world as something that got their attention. But I think many of us in nonprofit. The nonprofit sector struggles with that because it doesn’t talk about our strengths, it talks about our weaknesses are people of color or communities of color are communities that are struggling. And so we shifted away from using the word vulnerable to resilience. Because what we’ve discerned over the course of the 38 years I’ve been doing this work is that many of these communities are fighting things on a day-to-day basis that many of us could not even grapple with. I will call a project I was working on in Larmour in the city of Pittsburgh. And I had about six white contractors who were doing environmental scans of a community. And one of the things I required every contractor to do was to build a relationship with community members because I was tired of seeing situations in which other people came into communities of color. Did their expertise and walked out and they were feeling great about their work and there was no transfer of the DNA of the work there was a transaction that occurred. But many people in our community did not understand what was the nature of that work, why was it significant what will resolve what was, what was his intent. And so I remember my contractors coming to me saying, I’ve been following some people meeting with them after work spending quality time with them, and they were astonished that the amount of resilience. These people had to come to the project. I told all the developers and project managers that they had to mentor, one committee member, and they had to learn before they finished the project, what they actually did. What kind of schooling was required. What was the kind of salary that they made, and I wanted that exchange to be one in which the practitioners get to see the resiliency of the community. The community gets to see what it took to do some of the things that were transpiring in their community. And I remember a couple of stakeholders contractors coming to me saying, Hey, I didn’t know it was this challenging for these families and I said What do you mean it’s like, what a one woman I’m working with, she has to get up, take her kids to school and go to work, and pick them up from school then come home, then make dinner, and then meet with me to do that she has to catch three buses, both ways. And when I did the math, it was this many hours, and then we’re asking her to come to do this with us afterward. And she’s excited and happy. And I remember that contractor saying, I don’t know if I could do that. And it was just a symbol of what the difference is when you look externally at a community, and you make a judgment that this group of people is suffering in such a way, and they’re vulnerable. But what we’ve decided is that these communities are resilient, and we should stop using the word vulnerable, and use a more positive word that really reflects their journey and use this opportunity to help them pivot, based upon their resilience to pursue other opportunities in their life that they may not have been aware to have a pension for a desire to learn more about

For the past 41 weeks, I’ve been deeply involved as well as my team with a series of exchanges between public officials and other stakeholders with this desire to ensure that, testing and other critical activity were taking place, and communities of color regarding COVID testing, regarding treatment. Regarding communications, and so I’ve been in a multitude of high-level meetings in which I saw people who have titles of as leaders but functioning like managers and I was confused and trying to decide, okay, we need to be thinking out of the box right now because COVID has drastically impacted our way of being, and that the things that we were used to doing the things that we thought we could anticipate we no longer can do, nor anticipate, and that required us to pivot to be interactive to be agile. I’ve found that many of my white colleagues that I work with and has met over the last 41 weeks weren’t capable of being agile and I struggle with that because I found myself in a space where I believe leadership was essential to helping us pivot. And when you started to dig into what people were contemplating many of these leaders were talking about, I can’t wait till we get back to normal. And I struggle with that because I said, Well, I’m not interested in getting back to normal, because in February 2020 Black people are still getting killed by the police. Oh, that’s not normal I want to get back to, as my colleagues, can we reimagine in this moment, a different reality for us a different opportunity, a different way of being, and what I realized in that moment was that many people had undiagnosed trauma. They were hyper-vigilant as a result of COVID and their ability to manage that resulted in reverting back to what they already knew, which was this is how I know how to do my job. Knowing how to do your job in a COVID environment does not look to the same as a pre-COVID over. And so, I found that we, in my opinion, we missed unique opportunities to be innovative, to be iterative to be agile, to be more inclusive to explore different ways of being understanding, because people were uncomfortable with the stress and shocks that we’re addressing their sector their work environment and maybe even their home. And this dynamic, really, in my opinion, short circuited, our ability to pivot in a meaningful way to ensure all voices are being heard all ideas were being considered. So, even today, When I’m on calls, listen to people who keep referring to, we have to get back to normal, and Kevin what I understand about the virus, the waves of the virus. The secondary effects of the virus was we haven’t heard a lot of both. There is evidence that after you get COVID There is a health dynamic in many people. That is unresolved. And so we need to be thinking about what is a post-COVID reality look like. And this is where I think people of color, who has suffered as a result of racist systems, oppressive nature of people, people of color have had to figure out how to survive, how to work, how to navigate systems in which they weren’t intended to be a part of systems in which they only had a certain level of appreciation, a certain level of power, a certain level of voice, people of color have throughout their entire existence in America have had to figure out how to navigate that. And for me, that is a blind spot for white America. This is what I refer to as white privilege is when you can’t even acknowledge that, in this moment, you have a certain level of privilege to have that has created a blind spot that doesn’t allow you to even see that in this moment, we need to think and be different. And the only thing that you could do is resort back to what you know, you’re, you’re not capable or unable to really explore new opportunities.

And one of the other things that I think is critical is in in that exploration. It also requires in my opinion, that the diversity of thought to diversity of being the diversity of gender diversity of race, and all of these things in essence creates a paradigm shift in which people have to in their mind give up something. And I think there is a resistance to change, not because change is no good. I think there’s a resistance to change because in some people’s minds change means giving up power. I don’t see that as giving up power. I see that as optimizing your ability to create new power, different power from different vantage points, how do you optimize the latent ability of every human being to bring their gifts skills and talents to a problem. How do we honor difference in that problem-solving, that doesn’t allow me to think that I have the answers to all the questions. And I’ve posed this question frequently in meetings, I mean, as I recognize that most of the decision-making power resides in white people making a decision. So in the last few meetings I’ve been in I’ve said, Help me understand how I’m in this room. The room is comprised of 95% 98% white people. The world is comprised of 10% of white people globally, but in every room I mean white people are dominant people in a room to get to make the decisions for the entire world. How does that reflect the diversity of thought, how does that reflect the diversity of of race, ethnicity, socio-economic strata? How does that create real change when a small group of people making all the decisions for the world, like that just, I don’t know how you think you can resolve anything if you don’t have people to have a shared lived experience that can really convey that wouldn’t work or this might work, because this is how to actually functions over reality. It’s almost the same challenge that we have at the government level when you hire a bunch of very smart people, which I don’t think that you should not hire smart people. But I think there should be a balance between very smart people from Ivy League schools with people who have survived. America who have navigated the challenges of America who can tell you what it’s like to be hungry, who can tell you what it’s like to make a decision between paying my rent, pay my call. By my kids school clothes, buy meat or potatoes or our pasta in half, I don’t understand how you can write policy. If you’ve never had that experience and your policies to serve vulnerable people or resilient people. It’s just, if you’re writing policy for resilient people. It seems to me that policy writers should have resilient people at the table saying here’s what my experience is, to me, that doesn’t happen. And that’s not a heavy lift. It’s not difficult to bring people in who have navigated their experience, and you ask them, you know, how did you do that, what did you feel like, what did you sacrifice, they will be more than happy to tell you where they think the system could be better, where they think an impediment exists because it affects their life.

This brings me to another concern that I had is about the blind spots that white America has around power dynamics. I’ve been in meetings and circumstances in which people of color are uncomfortable, expressing their true feelings. Because they’re fearful of retaliation. They’re fearful of being ostracized, they’re fearful that they might lose their job. And at the same meeting, I see white people just saying whatever they fill in things without any hesitation or mental reservation where people don’t understand is the ingredients for power dynamic. If you believe that, in this moment, you have the freedom to speak your mind, without any hesitation or mental reservation because you don’t even think for a second. I might get reprimanded I might get fired, I might. People might stop speaking to me. That is so important to understand that you can never arrive out, solving root issues. If people can’t put issues on the table comfortably. And if I’m uncomfortable, putting a real issue on the table. I’m going to be uncomfortable telling you my experience with the real issue.

When I’ve experienced diversity, equity and inclusion training over the past 30 years and it’s been required at a job. I’ve always seen a resistance and white people who want to know why is this required. They never, for the most part, want to be there and or participate are being transparent and the training is important, but when you require somebody to get training that they don’t want. They’re not going to be willing participants in the change process, they’re going to be obstructionist, and they may be passive aggressive. It might be through omission or commission. But they are not willing participants because they don’t like being told they need to do something, And oh by the way, I really don’t know those people that well. When you considered it a lot of white Americans never interface with people of color, and some of their first interfaces are in a work environment, and they have perceptions of black people’s work ethic, black people’s vocal vocalization of words how they say words differently. Their slurred speech, Ebonics. You know all these things that people have ton of research on. It’s amazing to me how we allow that to drive the relationship that’s required to make real systemic change. Change moves at the speed of trust. And yet, at every level of our existence in the work we do is all predicated on changing something. But the most important ingredient to change something is trust between people trust between and among the first people. How can we ever expect to make change, or we don’t trust is such, you can’t legislate trust. You can’t legislate me liking you. But we have to as practitioners as leaders, as governmental agencies, foster the space and relationship to build honest exchanges that allow people to consider is what I note, accurate is expressed, having now, unique, is this person, an enigma, a unique experience in my life. In the answer’s no. There are a lot of people of color who perform exceedingly well at a job, and there’s a lot of white people to perform exceedingly well their job. There’s a lot of people of color who don’t perform exceedingly well at their job. And there’s a lot of white people who don’t perform extremely well at their job. This notion that one group is underperforming and other one is over performance. That’s not an accurate portrayal of reality. That’s a myth that’s been perpetuated to create divisions among people, to foster distrust.

What most people of color want white America to realize is that his power structure, his base, his ideology. His practices. There’s two justices that exist for people of color, there’s the justice that white people get. And then there’s the justice, other people get. And there’s, there’s no clear evidence of this done in the last several months with Briana Taylor towards Floyd and others were always wonder if this was happening to white people, like, being televised happening as such a epic rate where white Americans sit by and allow our judicial system, and law enforcement to function this way. Deep is most people and understand why they have a fear or concern that if people of color ever get into positions of power are got into leadership roles where they can exact revenge, they should be concerned. And I will say that there has been ample opportunity for people in color to respond with some level of revenge, given how we’ve been treated for over five years in America, and you just don’t see that there’s no real evidence. That is our thought process that is what we want to do what most of us want. Or I will speak for me, but many of my colleagues and I just want the foot to be removed from our necks, figuratively and literally. We want the ability to wake up and feel the rays of the sunshine in an equitable way to serve humanity we want the opportunity to buy houses and cars with the same interest rate that our white counterparts get. We want the same justice and acquire inequality that our white colleagues, receive on a daily basis, you know, when asked what kind of communities do black people want to people of color one. We want the same Healthy Communities why people want. Or have they don’t want them they have. So when I was talking to some police officers about rethinking how policing could be different. And I posed the question to them, know what would policing look like. If every family was important to a precinct to public safety. Despite their race, ethnicity or socio economic strata. What if policing was based upon a framework where every family was valued in a real asset to our society wasn’t generating capital. It was optimizing humanity. How are policing look and be different. We’re not focused on what happened 400 years ago 300 years ago 200 years ago, we are focused on what happened 200 days ago 100 days ago, because what it reveals to us is that despite our adherence to an inequitable system to unequal justice to implicit bias, we still wait patiently for America to level, his freedom in an equitable way. We still wait for that Americans thought process through emotional content to moral compass to come full circle and acknowledge that we should treat all human beings in a fair and equitable way. We wait patiently for that because we know that in that moment, white America will begin to see America through the eyes that many people of color have seen America through for over 400 years and in that moment, white America will begin to have a sense, a small sense of what it’s like to be black or brown in America. And once they grapple with that feeling in the good detail in their spirit of how it makes them feel the visceral feeling of that. It is our hope that white America will lay down the gauntlet, and be different.

It will strive to serve all people in a humane way, they will relinquish this idea of retribution. And they will look for how they can act in a more equitable and just way because in that moment, that actually serves all of humanity, not as some.

In the dark days that we’ve overcome the past nine to 10 months. There’s hope at the end of the tunnel in the vaccination distribution. And that people are beginning to recognize how serious this virus is. It seems to me that we have, let our guard down. As a result, over our desire to be with other human beings, not taking into account how those exchanges can just expand the sickness, thin spaces that we care most about people, our families and our friends and so there is hope today and this new year. As we looked at the forecast for 2021. Here is an offering of new beginnings, but in those new beginnings, I think it is incredibly important that the light that we see at the end of the tunnel must be viewed through a different spectrum, a different lens. One that encompasses humanity as a central point, one that looks at the power of relationships. One that honors differences in the face of adversity, sees that we must find common ground. I think that reimagining how we move forward, how we envision our circumstances. All requires us to consider who should be at the table, what role they should play today’s challenges are not unimaginable. They are predictable, but you disinvested communities for many years, and you find yourself at the very edge of our understanding of problems, because we’ve not taken the time to understand how people find yourselves in such a despondent state or knee jerk reaction is to apply what we know and understand that the solutions. But if you’ve never been hungry. If you’ve never had to choose picking diapers over baby food — or paying your light bill or new kids tennis shoes — or school clothes or not paying your car payment to pay your mortgage. If you’ve never had those experiences, it’s very difficult to understand how to navigate moving forward.

As we look forward, and we’re able to look at the light at the end of the tunnel, how we move forward in 2021. It requires us to be agile and to think in multiple ways about how we problem solve. That will require us to partner with listen to and associate ourselves with people from different cultural values, different persuasions. There’s no doubt in my mind that things will get better. But the question is for whom. If we do business as usual. The same people will benefit. If we take the time to understand the needs of our people. We can create a more just and harmonious world for all.


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