By Mary Fuller, United Way area director.
After the death of George Floyd and outcries for justice across the nation, our United Way – like many other organizations – wanted to determine what role we could best play in ending systemic racism in our area. United Way acknowledges that people of color have experienced disparate outcomes related to health, education and income, and understands that we must figure out our role to achieve our mission. In that effort, we pulled together a Race, Equity and Opportunity Committee in June of 2020, co-chaired by Austin Sullivan, a retired executive who lives in the Ford Field & River Club, and Katrina Bostick, executive director of Family Promise of the Coastal Empire – two people with close ties to Bryan County, one personally and one professionally.
The committee’s mission is to find ways to promote economic opportunity, social mobility and racial equity for all throughout our four-county area. This committee has done an internal assessment looking into our business practices and our community work to provide us with guidance on how to continually improve our efforts through the racial and equity lens. The United Way is currently going through a strategic planning process that began in the fall, and the committee has also provided us with a framework to ensure that we are thinking about structural racism – including in our own internal practices – as we work toward opportunity and upward mobility for all.
This is tough work. Shining the light on unintentional actions and decisions that contribute often unconsciously to continued racism, without pointing fingers. If we don’t recognize the problem, we can’t solve it. This work needs to be done to understand the racial and gender barriers to upward mobility. We have to be strong enough to honestly evaluate the past and make necessary changes for a better future.
Change can be scary but, ultimately, we want everyone to have their best shot at succeeding. Although not everyone will wind up in the same place, everyone should begin the race at the same starting line. The ideal this country was founded on was “everyone is created equal.” Regardless of the errors made along the way, this founding principle must continue to be our aspiration.
Bryan County has a wonderful history that includes significant Black influences. As much as our communities were built by our white forefathers like Henry Ford, John Bacon and Richard Davis, our communities were also built by our black forefathers, like the Rev. David Boles, Generuth Miller and Herman Cooper. It is impressive to see the work of several local groups, along with Richmond Hill’s mayor, start to shine the spotlight on our richly textured past, highlighting the contributions of people of color in making Bryan County what it is today. It is so wonderful to learn and hear stories of how all our past leaders have impacted our communities in such positive ways, but recognizing this history is really just the beginning.
Today, we have people of all colors, men and women alike, who are making a positive impact on our communities. It takes our Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook, and our “First Lady” of Bryan County Schools, Frances Meeks, to raise us above our history. It takes all the Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other people of color; local business owners; and men and women alike to shape what we have today and mold our future. I look forward to the days when we see more women and people of color in local leadership positions paving our way. When we recognize that all types of people are capable, strong contributors regardless of their skin color, chromosomes, or sexual orientation, we all become stronger.
It’s a challenge to every facet of our community – businesses, civic groups, formal and informal community groups, faith-based congregations and every individual. This is the time to start the process of evaluating how each one of us is helping move toward greater equality. Start looking at our business practices – especially hiring and promoting – as people are more likely to buy from businesses who employ people like them. In our groups, assess diversity in membership and identify ways to recruit participation from all people as this diversity will bring new experiences, new skills and new success. Faith-based communities working together across color lines can make greater and more positive impacts. Finally, each of us must take responsibility for learning about other peoples’ experiences and remain open to hearing their points of view while finding ways to help everyone begin their journeys at the same “starting line.”
It will take all of us, people of all colors, to actively learn from others not like us, to work together to change long-standing practices, to be open to doing things different in order to see real change.
This kind of change is needed to break down the longstanding practices that created structural racism, which is sometimes hidden and harder to see. I am hopeful that we’ll keep moving toward equity and opportunity – not only as a nation but in our communities, too.
Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County Area Director. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.