The American Dream
Mike Peacock: Philando Castile was driving home from dinner with his girlfriend and his child. Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his living room in Dallas. Atatiana Jefferson was babysitting her nephew at home in Fort Worth, Texas. Eric Reason was pulling into a parking spot at a local chicken and fish shop. Dominique Clayton was sleeping in her bed. Breonna Taylor was also asleep in her bed.
These are just a few of the examples of the everyday activities people of color were doing prior to losing their lives at the hands of the police. Now, we have George Floyd, who was at a grocery store, and Rayshard Brooks as the latest victims.
We’re recording this on June 25th, 2020. Will we look back on this moment in time and say this was the start of a truly fundamental shift for our country? Is this time truly going to create lasting change? If so, why?
Mike: Welcome back, friends, to a very special and very important episode of Aldersgate OnAir. James Truslow Adams coined the term “The American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America. His American dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motorcars and highway, merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature at which they are innately capable and be recognized by others for what they are regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
in this episode, we’ll explore this definition of the American dream and what it will take to make it a reality. We are joined today by Boris Henderson, Aldersgate’s chief strategy officer, and Veronica Calderon, Aldersgate’s chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer. Both are incredibly accomplished academically, professionally, and personally. Through actions and words, they’re working to make the world a better place for everyone.
Today, Boris and Veronica are going to speak from their personal experiences on growing up in an America that treats people differently based on the color of their skin. Because the best way to solve a problem is to start with the truth, they will be speaking, unedited, from the heart. By no means are Boris and Veronica the only people of color who represent Aldersgate. This nonprofit life planning community employs people from 34 different countries.
Aldersgate is an inclusive organization that values the richness of diversity and allows each individual the opportunity to contribute their gifts in significant ways to the success of the organization and the betterment of the community. Aldersgate celebrates the value and voice of each individual and engages people of different thoughts, lifestyles, skills, talents, and resources in creating communities and services.
I’m looking forward to having this courageous and candid conversation with Boris and Veronica. Because this subject matter is so important, we didn’t want to limit the content to try to make it fit into a shorter timeline. Because of that, we’ll be bringing you a very special, uncensored, unedited, and uncut episode that will run a little longer than normal. But don’t worry. We left a place in the middle for everyone to take a little break.
Open your minds, open your hearts, as we discuss a topic that is truly impacting the heart of the nation.
Hi, Boris. Hi, Veronica. Welcome to Aldersgate OnAir. Thank you so much for having this conversation today.
Veronica Calderon: Thank you for having us.
Boris Henderson: Great, Mike. Thanks. Thanks for having us.
Mike: Yeah. The honor is all mine. Obviously, we have some pretty heavy topics to talk about in the world. I’m sure that we’re all on the same page and that we agree that these are conversations that need to happen, hopefully, to produce a better outcome and a better sense of understanding on everything.
I think that, Boris, you and Veronica both have a really, really, really rich history that brings a lot to the Aldersgate table and also brings a really cool perspective onto where you’re at and what’s going on in the world today. If you don’t mind, Veronica, why don’t you just kind of start us off? Tell us a little bit about how you’re feeling during these times and just kind of describe, today, how you’re feeling during the state of the world.
Veronica: Yeah. I guess part of me feels very anxious and with a sense of urgency. Both of those things just come from, “We need to do more. We need to do more. We need to do more.”
Also, just exhausted, truly exhausted by what I see, by how I feel, and by how the people that I love are feeling, the burden that they carry on their shoulders, and the burden that I carry on my shoulders. All of that leaves me exhausted, but then that sense of urgency builds up again in me and says, “Okay. It’s time to shake that off and do something about it.”
How about you, Boris?
Boris: Right, Mike. As you can imagine, as an African American male, that’s a very heavy question. But one thing I like to do is start with a quote from one of my favorite devotionals to kind of level set. For that, today it says, “Seek and find the freedom of the spirit for where there is true freedom there is peace, and where there is peace there is love. And it is love that unlocks all doors.”
As we think about the pandemic and the social unrest that we’re experiencing today, I feel, at times, a sense of anger, a sense of frustration, but I’m also led to think about what’s happening in a broader context. You talk to people who remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, you hear their stories, and reexperience what they experienced during the ’60s. In a broader context, it’s something that we as Americans have struggled with since the founding of this country.
But the way I deal with it personally is to re-center on love and hope and understand then that I truly believe that the human spirit is in the direction of love and in the direction of wanting to do better. That’s what gets me motivated and going every day.
Mike: That’s outstanding. Thank you for sharing that quote as well.
Veronica, why don’t you tell us about your history? You came from Ecuador and you’ve got a very inspiring story. Would you mind sharing that with us?
Veronica: Sure. Thank you. Before I get started, I think the title of – every time I hear the word “dreamer,” it really sticks out to me because I believe that that’s exactly what we did. We started a journey about 21 years ago to find that American dream and the American dream can be very painful. People sometimes just don’t see the road that leads you to it, but they just see now, right? How far we’ve come.
Yeah, I’m an immigrant. I immigrated from Ecuador. Actually, I’m from a very small town by the name of Calceta. It’s very far from the capital, so when we get there, when I go visit, it takes a couple of flights and a couple of car rides to get there. But, nonetheless, it’s beautiful and it’s a place that I hold very near and dear to my heart.
Growing up, I was there until I was about 13 years old and I’ve seen it all. I knew why we were moving. I just didn’t know the density of the issues that we were facing to move here, right? As a kid, sometimes you just don’t see what’s around you. You just see that you’re still able to go to school. You’re still eating.
I was raised by a single mother. She’s a mother of three and on a $300 a month salary. When you think about $300 a month, three kids, a single mother, that’s exactly where the American dream started. She wanted a better future for us and she knew that the environment that we were in and that whatever she was able to provide was just not enough. We were going to either be part of the status quo there or she was going to fight for us and she decided to fight for us.
We packed up our bags in five suitcases. A lot of dreams came with it and less than $200. We moved to the U.S. with my grandmother who had been living here for over 40 years.
My mom has always had this huge conviction as a teacher, as a learner, but I remember just seeing her work so hard. When you see somebody work so hard and then you also see that they’re not compensated for it, it makes you upset. That’s when we talk about inequities, and I could see that from a very early age.
We moved here in the fight for a better future for us to go to school, for us to have a better chance at being something and doing something. I always have that in the back of my mind because, to me, she’s my hero. You talk about mentors. You talk about people that you look up to and that’s my mother to me.
I don’t know how she did it. I still sometimes have trouble imagining just all it took for her to make that decision and move here with three kids as a single mother.
I want to share a quick story that I don’t think I’ve shared before but something that has made me who I am today. When I was ten years old, probably around 10:00 p.m., there was a knock on our door. This was back in Ecuador. Our house was very small and there was a knock on the door and I heard it, so I woke my mom up. I said, “I think there’s somebody at the door.”
At the door, there was a little boy. He had to be probably no more than six years old. He was not clothed. He didn’t have a lot of clothes. He looked like he’d been in the streets for a while.
Him and my mom had a conversation. They had a little exchange. All I remember was my mom screaming from the top of her lungs and telling us to go wash our hands and sit at the dinner table.
I was so confused. I was like, “What’s going on?” We had dinner. We were getting ready to go to bed. We were getting ready to go to bed and go to school the next day.
Usually, I’m not the person who sits quietly, but I did. I did because I was trying to process all that was going on around me. Him and my little brother connected over cars and toys, talking about things, and talking about soccer.
My mom was in the kitchen making dinner at 10:30 p.m. My mom brings dinner over and we sit down. We had dinner and we went to bed. Nothing else was said. The little boy went on his way. We went to bed.
It’s one of those things that kept me up all night. As soon as I woke up I said to my mom, “What happened? Who was he? What was he doing?”
She said no child should ever go to bed on an empty stomach and so we fed him. She’s like, “Whatever he needed from us at this moment, we were going to be able to provide.”
Then she said something that sticks with me to today. She said, “You give people what you have and not what you have left.” It has made me who I am. I give people who I am and not what I have left.
In my work, I give my full energy and everything that I have and not just what’s left. It’s not an afterthought, and that’s how I feel around the work that I do around diversity, inclusion, and equity.
One, that it’s my purpose. I’ve seen it. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to people that I love, and it continues to happen in the world.
Like what Boris said, it’s in the history. It’s in the ground of this country. It’s now up to us to make that change, to make that leap, and what does that look like?
Fast-forwarding many years, I worked for a large financial organization in town. I remember, in one day alone, how I sit back and I say, “Wow.” I said, “I am discriminated against from whites and from blacks.”
There was a black customer who walked in and she said, “You are the reason why we don’t have jobs. You’re stealing our jobs.”
Then about an hour later, a white customer walks in and he says, “You wetback, go back to Mexico.”
I was dumbfounded. I was like, “Wow. What a day.” That was my first week at that location at that job. I was like, I just want to go home and cry, and I did. I went home and cried my eyes out and called my mom.
I told her what happened and she said, “It’s fine.” She said, “Cry all you need right now. Cry with me. Shake it off and do better because now you know better, so you need to be better.”
All of that that I’ve been through in my life, I think, has always made me an advocate for diversity but, more than anything else, a vehicle for inclusion. I give you that small picture of who I am as a person to hopefully put into context the work that I’m so passionate about.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that.
How about you, Boris?
Boris: Well, Mike, I’ll say this. I’ve had many opportunities to tell my story. Every time I tell it, it gets harder to tell, particularly in the context of everything that’s happening in the U.S. and around the globe right now.
I was born and raised right here in Charlotte. I was one of five children. My mother had her first child at the age of 13 so, as you would imagine, I got off to a pretty rough start. I’m the middle child, so I wasn’t her firstborn.
One of the unusual things about my childhood, you know, right here in Charlotte, North Carolina, we lived in a house with no indoor plumbing. For the first eight years of my life, I lived in that house.
Sometimes when I tell my story, I vividly remember the route to get to it. You had to go up a dirt road and walk a few. At the end of the dirt road, there the house stood. That marked the first eight years of my life.
It’s one thing to be poor and to not have resources, but the other baggage of being poor and kind of forgotten is you realize you’re poor from what you hear from other folks. One of the things my mom told me later in life—I guess we were too young to share it with us—she said, “You know people would always say nothing good would come out of our house.” We were poor. We couldn’t get on with life, and so she said, “You know, but something did come out of there.”
At the age of eight, we then moved to—I’m not exaggerating the truth here but it was—one of Charlotte’s worst neighborhoods. We used to call it Wyatt Street. It’s now renamed as Genesis Park. It was separated from an abutted neighborhood by a brick wall, believe it or not. On the other side of the brick wall, it was a housing project. But we were on the other side.
Every day, there were gunshots. There were people OD’ing. This was when heroin really hit the streets in the urban core in America in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And so, as a kid, sometimes on our way to school, we would see somebody in the neighborhood who got an early start and OD’d. But we had to process that and move on.
I lived there for maybe two years, two and a half years. I remember the day I came home and my mom was talking to—as a kid, I realized—some pretty important people. Fast forward, she was talking to some representatives from Habitat Charlotte. We qualified for a Habitat House and did all the sweat equity and other requirements you needed to meet to move into a Habitat Home.
We moved into a Habitat Home. When I share my Habitat story, I remember the moment of walking into that home, which represented a new beginning, a new outlook, because it was an environment that was new. It represented stability. There were no gunshots. It was safe to walk around. That was really one of the pivotal moments in my life that allowed me to transform. There’s the physical building, but then the community itself had a lot of resources for kids.
As I said, it was a Habitat Community. In fact, President Carter spent time in that community building houses, so it was really a community of hope. As a kid, I was surrounded with hope and love and lots of prayer. My grades dramatically improved.
The one thing I left out is—don’t laugh at me, but—I failed the first grade. It was a time where I was living in a house with no indoor plumbing and didn’t have the guidance and support I needed. That’s what happens when kids aren’t supported and surrounded with the resources and love they need.
In any event, fast forward, I graduated near the top of my class here in Charlotte in high school and went off to Davidson College. I really enjoyed that experience and ended up in banking for a while. Went back and got my MBA from a really good university.
Working here at Aldersgate, I tell Suzanne, our CEO, and anybody who listens that I feel like it was a calling to come here because I get to do something I love, which is, I’m primarily responsible for our real estate and development efforts here on campus. But I also get to interact with residents who have long histories of much of what we’re talking about that’s occurring in this country. They have a wealth of knowledge and insight that I’ve intentionally tried to learn from. You can learn from anybody.
It also helps me think about my life in a very different way. I think to whom much is given, much is required. It’s, what are you doing with this life, this life of escaping the great odds? Are you quietly living in existence or are you using it to impact change? Not only your immediate family and your immediate community, but can you use it to impact change on a broader scale?
One of the other things I’m involved in is I sit on the Habitat International Board, so I get to share my story globally and to really try to impact change globally. I’m just really blessed and fortunate to work for an organization that is really serious about looking at these tough issues not only within the industry but within the United States, and allowing its employees, Veronica and I, the liberty to do something about it. In my mind, that’s a very humbling situation to be in and one that I certainly don’t take lightly. Thank you.
Mike: No, thank you both for sharing those deeply personal stories. It gives us an amazing insight into your characters and how you came to be into the positions you’re in and also your outlook on kind of things as they are now. That being said, I would love to hear from both of you about what each of you thinks needs to happen to move society forward.
Veronica: Yeah, so Boris said something that I was actually going to bring up right away, too. To whom much is given and much is required. I think, for both of us, we’ve had mentors and angels along the way that have truly helped us get to where we are today. We don’t take that lightly, and that’s why it is an urgency in us to pay that forward and to move that forward.
I would start with education. I think education is extremely, extremely important. I serve on the board of a local organization by the name of Communities in Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. When I see what we do and how we wrap our arms and services around our kids to kind of pave the way for a better future or they can see the end of the tunnel when they’re going through really tough situations gives me hope. It really does, but I truly believe that everything starts with education, educating ourselves around our biases, educating ourselves around what is it when people talk about structural exclusions and racial inequities. What are those structures, those racial structures that have been put in place that continue to keep people down just because of the color of this skin?
I think those are important things that we need to start learning as a society to truly understand that when people are asking, they’re not asking for more. They’re just asking for equal treatment. They’re asking for what is deserved. That really comes to mind. To me, that’s a big thing. It’s education.
Boris: Mike, you know since I’ve shared my story, I can’t hide behind it, so I’ll be open and transparent. RMJJ, which is a program—a race, equity, and inclusion program—I went through years ago, they described it as the system of racism, white supremacy, and structural exclusions have contaminated the lake. This is an accumulation of actions in the United States and globally that have produced outcomes.
As a man of color, I feel the full weight of it because my life has been impacted by it. I just told you about living in a house with no indoor plumbing and the neighborhood I lived in was run by drug dealers, which many of them felt like that was their only hope of survival. We know that the family structure is, in my opinion, one of the great equalizers because if you’re loved and supported at home and if, at home, you can find the resources you need and give you the hope that every kid needs then you can overcome odds across the socioeconomic level, more so than not.
The thing I think about is, I made it out and I’m grateful. It’s by the grace of God. But my reality is, I’ve got more friends and family members who are dead, in jail, or who didn’t finish high school, who have lost hope, fighting the good fight, under the system, and then have gone on to college like Davidson College, which is where I went, and who are doing well in life.
My thought is, we have to devote more resources and energy to the kids who are being impacted by the system. The system has produced these outcomes. If we don’t devote more resources to those young minds then, eventually, they grow up and have families. We know broken people produce broken families, so the cycle continues.
We do need to look at the systems that exist in this country in terms of, is there equality? If you’re a person of color, do you have the same chances of moving up the corporate ladder or having access to credit and other things that allow you to build, sustain wealth, and to move ahead? The great American dream is to try to do a little better than your folks did.
I have a huge inclination to the young people because, if we don’t do more to help that crowd, the riots, the burning buildings, the images of racism in this country, we’re fighting a long, long fight because broken people produce broken outcomes. Again, the lake is contaminated. We have to work hard on the system, but we also need to address the deep, deep wounds that exist.
Veronica: And the people who sustain it, yeah, because those ideas, the racist policies, the racial inequities are sustained by racist ideas.
Mike: Yeah. Some absolutely insightful, thoughtful ideas on how to move things forward. Did you have anything else that either of you wanted to add to that?
Veronica: I think the other thing is, gosh, being able to have very open conversations, very real conversations. Stepping out of the comfort zone, especially if you’re not a person of color, stepping out of the comfort zone and asking the questions. We know that those questions might come out wrong, but we’re going to make it right. We’re going to make it right together.
Having those conversations, being open to listening, but then going from that moment of listening to a movement, into action. Not just sitting there and listening to what’s been said, but truly understanding, okay, so I hear this now. Where are my in this picture and what can I do? How can I use my privilege to move this forward, to break down the systems, to build an organization that is antiracist? That it tears down systems to allow everyone to have the same race.
Mike: Yeah. Boris, your thoughts on that?
Boris: Yeah. One thing I constantly think about is, if you study history since the beginning of this country, great movements have been peppered with great leadership, whether white, black. Frederick Douglas is one of my favorites, Sojourner Truth, and the great abolitionists. The question is, as Americans in this day in age, do we have what it takes to create the change that we all want?
If you look at the riots, it’s not just black folks. The black people I know who marched during the civil rights movement will tell you, this feels different because there are white, black, and different races out here saying, “Enough is a damn enough.” That tells me that, yeah, racism and exclusions exist but, as Americans, more of us than not are saying, “Enough is enough.”
We believe that all men and women are created equal, so it takes leadership to embody those principles, to inspire us all to move it forward, and for it to become a part of really who we are as Americans, as people. I guess my question or suggestion is, as Americans, for us to really look deep down inside and to become those leaders that have moved the needle in the past. We need more of them.
You don’t need a sexy title or a certain lot in life to be a great leader. We’ve also learned that from history. You need a conviction and a willingness to fight for change.
Veronica: That’s right.
Mike: And to follow through.
Veronica: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
Mike: Well, I guess what I’m hearing a lot is also be open to the conversation and don’t be afraid of the conversation, even if it pulls you out of your comfort zone. If you truly desire to move the needle forward, be okay with asking those questions, and then be okay with receiving the honest answers.
Veronica: Absolutely, Mike.
Mike: Well, I think that’s absolutely amazing to hear that perspective. I also think that right now is going to be a great time for the listeners to take a quick break. When we come back, we’re going to dive into some really deep questions that really get to the root of what we can do, how we can act, and how we can follow through. Stick around and we’ll be right back.
[“What’s Going On,” by Marvin Gaye]
Hey, what’s happenin’?
Hey, brother, what’s happenin’?
Boy, this is a groovy party (Hey, how you doin’?)
Man, I can dig it
Yeah, brother, solid, right on
Hey, man, what’s happening?
Everything is everything
We’re gonna do a get down today, boy, I’ll tell ya
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today, yeah
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today, oh (Oh)
Picket lines (Sister) and picket signs (Sister)
Don’t punish me (Sister) with brutality (Sister)
Talk to me (Sister), so you can see (Sister)
Oh, what’s going on (What’s going on)
What’s going on (What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Oh, what’s going on
Ah-ah-ah-ah (In the meantime, right on, baby)
Woo (Right on, baby), woo
Woo (Right on, baby, right on), woo
Ba-da-boo-doo, boo-boo-boo-doo, boo-boo-boo
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long?
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today, oh-oh
Picket lines (Brother) and picket signs (Brother)
Don’t punish me (Brother) with brutality (Brother)
Come on, talk to me (Brother), so you can see (Brother)
Oh, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Tell me what’s going on (What’s going on)
I’ll tell you what’s going on (What’s going on)
Woo-ooh-ooh-ooh (Right on, baby, right on)
Woo, woo (Right on)
Woo (Right on, baby, come on, right on)
Woo (Right on)
Mike: All right. Welcome back. Thanks for coming back after our little break there. Boris and Veronica, thank you so much for sharing your deeply personal stories and giving me, as well as the OnAir audience the opportunity to hear your experiences, wisdom, and hope for our future.
Fear, of course, is at the root of so many irrational behaviors: fear of the unknown, fear of doing or being wrong. Just like you are not the only Latina voice or black male voice to speak for your color, I am not the only white male voice to speak for mine. However, if y’all don’t mind, I’d like to ask you some questions that might be helpful for some of our audience. Is that all right?
Veronica: Yes. Go ahead.
Mike: Great. Thank you so much. All right, so, first up on our agenda here then is poverty and racial inequity go hand-in-hand. Boris, for the white person who might say, “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, so black people can too,” how do you respond to that?
Boris: That’s a great question. John Henrik Clarke gave many speeches. He would say it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots on to begin with. That’s really the reality, the truth in that question.
If you look at the founding of this country and who the benefits were intended for, people of color didn’t have boots to pull themselves up. After reconstruction, we know the racial and economic barriers that were raised to make it much harder for people like me to start businesses and to have communities that thrive.
Recently, images of Tulsa and Black Wallstreet have been replayed in people’s minds. When there were instances where we were pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps we didn’t have, those boots were taken away. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are white people in this country who really work hard to acquire wealth and to grow it but the great reality is that the system and the structure was initially created to support that growth and development.
The other kind of running joke is, it’s easy to score when you start out on third base. [Laughter]
Veronica: That’s a great one.
Boris: I’ve heard that one kind of describing the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” analogy. It’s easier to move ahead when you start ahead.
Mike: That’s a logical argument, for sure.
Boris: Again, not to take anything away from because I have many really close white friends. Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you were born into prosperity either. I mean I have white friends who were born into tough situations. They had to work hard. It was easier for them, but let’s put it on air that in order to achieve any great and lasting success, you have to work hard no matter what color you are, particularly in America where it’s very competitive. My direct answer is, it’s hard to pull yourself up when you don’t have boots to begin with.
Veronica: Enough said.
Mike: It looked like you wanted to add something to that, Veronica.
Veronica: Well, I just wanted to say I totally agree with him. He said that we understand that in order to achieve anything, we have to work hard. But he said something that I think needs to be reiterated is that it is easier if you work hard and you are white to get further. It comes with that privilege of the skin color of the history of how this country was made.
I love the analogy of, you can’t – what was it, Boris? You can’t pull up your bootstraps if you don’t have boots. That’s really deep but that’s exactly where we are and where we continue to be is that vicious cycle.
Boris: Let me add onto that, if I may. The other thing we have to think about in terms of how privilege and power has been distributed in this country. I don’t want the listeners to walk away thinking that all white people have certain views or fit in a certain bucket. We’re talking candidly here.
My long-term mentor is a white man who turned 79 this year. He has poured so much into my life that it would be hypocrisy for me to not acknowledge that, as Americans, we’re in this web of history but there are instances where men of color, women of color, and white people have joined and realized, “Hey, I was born in a position of privilege but, damn it, I’m going to do something to help somebody out who doesn’t look like me.”
I just hope we don’t lose those stories as we move forward because that’s the story of humanity. That’s what we’re after. Yeah, I’ve started out with a little more, but I’m going to share it so that I impact another life. That goes across race and economics.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. You know it’s great that you brought up the idea of mentors because that’s actually where we’re kind of going next. Veronica, you’re nodding your head, so I already know you know where we’re going with this.
Both of you have talked about important mentors to you. Can you describe for us what makes a good mentor, so our listeners can understand?
Veronica: I think Boris did a really good job of talking about that. What I would add is—and I know he has a perfect example—when you’re trying to be somebody’s mentor, make sure it comes from a really good place. It’s not saviorship. It’s not like, “I’m just going to be here and be the savior,” or “Poor black and brown children, and I’m here,” because then you’re not doing it for the right reasons. That is also felt on the other end.
As a recipient of mentorship from amazing people, it is felt when it’s genuine, when it comes from your heart, and when you’re truly trying to teach somebody how to be better and do better because of their own learning and experiences. I love what Boris shared but I would just continue to add, if we’re truly trying to make a difference in somebody’s life, let’s make sure it comes from the right place and it comes from a place of, “I am going to learn from you as much as I want you to learn from me.”
Boris: Mike, I’d like to answer that question by walking you through really the great transformation of my life. How do you have a kid who lived in a house with no indoor plumbing who failed the first grade who dodged bullets in his childhood to go off to Davidson College, worked in the financial services industry for a while, involved in all these organizations, and currently sit on the Habitat International Board? How does that happen in one lifetime?
When we moved into our Habitat House in Optimist Park here in Charlotte, one of the most significant things that happened to me was being a part of an afterschool program. It was headed by an African American man named Mark Davis and an African American woman named Dawn Hahn, which coincidentally has ties to Aldersgate. Once they helped me find a sense of purpose and confidence, my grades improved. Dawn Hahn, I still remember the day it happened. She said, “Boster,” she calls me Boster, she said, “Your grades are getting better. I’m going to tell my mom to hire you in her law firm.”
That law firm is Ferguson Stein Law Offices. It’s one of the first civil rights law firm, certainly in Charlotte, and it may be in the state of North Carolina. But all of a sudden, I was in a world where there were black, prominent black attorneys, assistants, and there were white lawyers and both and female who looked at me. They old told me, “If we catch you doing anything wrong, we’re going to beat your behind.” I got that experience, which helped me reposition my thoughts in terms of what I was capable of.
Then I went on to college and, in college, I met Ed Crutchfield who, at the time, was the CEO of First Union. It was right before the Wachovia acquisition. Here’s a guy who started out with nothing and now his mentor is the CEO of one of the largest banks in the world. That mentor/mentee relationship, as Ed would say, “Being a great mentor is being a great friend.” He’s never tried to steer me in one direction or the other.
But one thing I learned from Ed and I learned from Mark and I learned from Dawn is the importance of believing in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you have a chance. For kids who aren’t tied to caring and loving adults who believe in them, they’re never going to believe in themselves. How do you create change without a sense of confidence and self-love?
Ed has also taught me the importance of taking risk. One day, we were talking and he said, “Hey, you’re a winner. If you want to go after that, why not? If you fail, just try it again.”
A lot of our kids who grow up in tough environments don’t experience that level of support that many of our kids who are in better environments, they experience that. They have a different approach to life. It’s hard to find any lasting success without that mindset.
Those are examples of how mentors have really helped transform my life in the 41 years that I’ve been on earth.
Veronica: Yeah. Mike, I just want to highlight another thing that Boris said that I think is so important as far as mentorship. He talked about when Dawn was able to get him the internship. That is sharing social capital. That is that magic word of social capital and that is sharing what we have to make sure that others have access to it.
We all have social capital in our lives and our jobs. How can we make sure that when we’re mentoring somebody, we’re being that friend? We’re not steering them in one or the other direction, but we’re being there for them. We’re learning from them but also providing that social capital that gets them to that next step, that gets them to see a better future for themselves.
Mike: Yeah. That’s outstanding.
Boris: That’s a great point.
Mike: I love that concept of social capital. I haven’t heard that before but that’s a pretty powerful image you get from that. Thank you. That’s awesome.
I have heard a lot of discussion around what it truly means to be an ally. There are a lot of folks that feel like they’re doing the right things, but there has also been talk that maybe the idea is great, but they’re putting energy into the wrong areas. Boris, what’s your perspective on that?
Boris: The definition of an ally and, to be honest with you, I honestly don’t think in terms of allies versus people who are really supporting, let’s call it, a movement. The reality is—I was telling somebody this the other day. Hopefully, nobody was listening in—it’s easy to go out and march and riot and to verbally display a desire for change. But at some point that “potential energy” has to be converted to action.
The question is, what are we doing, either individually, collectively—and say an ally is conceivably a white person—in our personal lives, in our business, businesses? What are we doing to impact change at a deep level outside of marching or sending a quick email out? What are we willing to put at risk or to give up in order to demonstrate our true commitment for change?
If you think about an ally in that context, I’d say an ally would be somebody who is willing to be impacted the way black folks are being impacted. Are you willing to give money and resources to organizations that are committed to creating a sustainable change? Are you willing and committed to share social capital? Are you willing and committed to have frank conversations with friends and family members who may think differently?
For me, it’s a matter of, in business terms, skin in the game or a demonstration of a deeper level of commitment for change. That’s not only a question of allies, but it’s also a question of everybody else impacted by what we’re after.
Mike: Yeah, actions speak louder than words, right?
Mike: Yeah. Under normal circumstances, I hear that Aldersgate operates a literacy day camp that invites area children to spend six hours a day with residents to work on their literacy skills. Can you tell us about all the initiatives Aldersgate has underway that support diversity, inclusion, and equity?
Veronica: Yeah. That is just one of the many programs and, actually, with a lot of intentionality. They are part of who we are, so I think using the word “program,” it’s underestimating the power of not just intergenerational learning but also the kids who come from the school. It’s a school that is not very far from here. They come from all walks of life from all over the world from, I believe it’s, over 50 different countries. To see them interact with our residents and give our residents also that spark of life that a kid can bring and the kids are learning how to read, it’s beautiful to see.
Furthermore, part of our campus, we have a nonprofit organization that’s an after school program for refugee kids in our county. It’s called ourBRIDGE for KIDS. ourBRIDGE has been in existence for, I believe, a little bit over ten years, but also having them on our campus and for our residents to be able to not just interact but volunteer there and be part of their programming continues to enhance the intentionality around inclusion and building a place as far as Aldersgate that is welcoming of all.
I know that recently—and Boris can speak to this—there was another initiative with some high school students, so everything that we do truly is, how can we open the doors to our campus? Now, our doors look different, right? Now our doors look like a Facetime or a Zoom call. How can we continue to intentionally be part of the community that has given us so much, that has given us character, that makes us who we are?
We are sitting in east Charlotte. The east Charlotte community is the most diverse community in our town, in our city. Diversity from socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, language, everything you can think of, and then we add that precious diversity of age in our residents and the folks who we serve.
Mike: That’s great. Anything you want to add to that, Boris?
Boris: No. I think she said it all.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Pretty right to the point. Outstanding.
Veronica: That’s just scratching the surface, Mike.
Mike: I know. We could do an entire show just on that, right?
Veronica: I was just going to say, we’ll need an entire podcast for that.
Mike: Awesome. Yeah. I know Brooks has a lot that he’s always liked to kind of bring to that table as well. He’s talked about his passion for that quite a bit.
If you two could snap your fingers to change the U.S. today in ways that would change life for people of color, what would you do?
Veronica: Whoof! Go ahead, Boris.
Boris: That’s a tough question.
Mike: It’s a tough one.
Veronica: That’s a heavy question.
Boris: I think, as black people, as African Americans, as you think back to the founding of this country and when we were brought over against our will on ships and we had to endure the treacherous ship rides across the Atlantic, and if you look at the Constitution of the United States and what all Americans were promised, that’s what every black person’s hope and dream is for. If you go back and look at Dr. King’s speeches, particularly the “I Have a Dream” speech, that’s the great reality that we’re after where we’re not judged based on the color of our skin. The color of our skin doesn’t impact our ability to go out and get the best possible mortgage or business loan or advancements within organizations.
It’s a country where all men and women are thought to be created equal, which means we have the ability, like everybody else, to chase our dreams. If we’re willing to put in the work and what it takes to reach that dream that it’s a true possibility. That we have the ability to drive down streets in America and not feel nervous when the blue lights hit and think, “Is it my day to die in the streets of America simply because I’m a black man or woman and made the wrong gesture?”
The great hope is the reason that people across this world knock on the doors of America and why the Statue of Liberty means so much for many. It’s a matter of equality, which is what we’ve talked about, and just equal and fair chance.
Let’s be honest. Even if we lived in that perfect world as Christ would say, not to get religious or too philosophical, socioeconomic status is still going to be with us. There will still be poor people, there will still be the middle class, and there will probably still be just a few at the top. But that pyramid or distribution isn’t based on the color of your skin but it’s based on other elements such as maybe you want to be a plumber versus an investment banker or you want to own a small lawn company versus run a Fortune 500 company.
That’s the great hope of every black American I know is to have a chance, to have an equal chance, and to not have to live in fear of, “If I make the wrong move or if somebody doesn’t like me for whatever reason, then my financial future may change.” That’s what I would think.
Boris: I don’t speak for all black Americans, but that’s my thought and I’m sticking with it.
Mike: They’re your fingers to snap, man.
Veronica: I agree. I agree 1000% with everything Boris just said and also, as an immigrant, as a female, and as someone who clearly sees racial injustice, just what Boris said.
We would like to dismantle the justice system so we can truly be about justice and not by somebody’s skin color. That everyone can go through the same process and have the same conviction for what they did and what was committed and not by what they look like.
I think, for me, that’s one of the biggest ones, and being able to give. Boris said it beautifully. Give everyone the same chance to succeed. No one wants to get into the race late. No one wants to run a 40-meter dash halfway through everybody else. We all want to have the same chance at that 40-meter dash.
Mike: Yeah. Absolutely. Here we are, today, another black life has been lost at the hands of the police. While we’re seeing continuous peaceful demonstrations, unfortunately, some demonstrations have kind of been mixed in with some bad eggs causing violence. In addition to making your voices heard, what would you say to our listeners? What are some actionable steps they can take right now to make a difference?
Veronica: I think the first one would be to start educating yourself. I have been reading a book by Ibram Kendi. The book is called How to Be an Antiracist. He talks about how when people say, “Well, I’m not racist,” well, that’s not enough. We need to move from not being a racist to being antiracist.
What that looks like is truly understanding what are some of the things that I have power over that I can help dismantle, that I can speak up when I see injustices, and not just stay quiet because it’s my comfort zone, it’s not my wheelhouse, or it’s just not something that I’m used to talking about. But if we’re really trying to make that paradigm shift, want to show that we care, that we’re a part of it and, like you said earlier, that we’re allies, we need to speak up and we need to learn but we need to listen.
We need to listen to those lives who have been impacted because, Mike, you said it earlier. You’re also learning with us as we’re having this conversation. But a lot of us don’t understand what it is to have a conversation with our child to tell them what it is to drive because they’re black and what they need to comply with. I know those are conversations that I’ve had with Boris, but this is the understanding that I believe will continue to shift America and what we can have a stab at altering the history. It’s that learning, that learning and becoming antiracist, and fighting against the racist policies, the racial inequities, and also the racist ideas that we can personally impact.
Mike: Okay. Boris?
Boris: Mike, my nickname here at Aldersgate is “Pastor” or “Church Boy.”
Veronica: Who gave you that nickname?
Boris: So, I’m going back to, really, a spiritual response to the question.
Boris: Emmet Fox wrote, “Pass a test in spiritual understanding and never again throughout eternity will that particular task have to be done.” I really do believe, fundamentally, if we examine the core issue of racism and, call it, white supremacy, it’s fundamentally an issue of the heart.
We know that people are created equal no matter what shade your skin tone is or what part of the world you’re born into. Fundamentally, we have to look deep down inside and question those tightly held beliefs and assumptions we have about other people, people who don’t look like us, people who don’t live in the neighborhoods we live in, people who aren’t in our income brackets, people who don’t eat the type of foods we eat. We have to examine those beliefs and the genesis of those beliefs.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we will say, “Well, that’s what my mamma told me,” or “That’s what granddaddy, you know, he just made little comments like that at the dinner table,” or “I had a great-great-grandfather who did such-and-such.” So, it’s really a deeply spiritual question.
The add-on to that question is, what are we going to do to liberate ourselves from those thought processes or that bondage? Part of the way, I think, to break free of those thoughts and feelings, if you’ve read the book Just Mercy, there’s the concept of proximity.
Let’s say you’re a white middle-aged man and you don’t have many friends who don’t look like you. Well, what if you had a black friend? In my case, I played football at Davidson. I used to start fights in the locker room to get us riled up before the game. It’s black guys, white guys. We’re all throwing starch at each other.
What if you had the opportunity to meet a black person or a black guy so deeply that it challenged your beliefs about black people? I think that’s where it needs to start. We have to cross these artificial barriers that we’ve raised to keep us separated rather through race or socioeconomics or level of education. We need to break those barriers so we can come to the realization what we already know is human beings are human beings.
Let’s make judgments based on, as King would say, the content of Mike’s character or how Veronica treats me as a human being versus the fact that Boris is a black guy so I’m going to automatically assume certain things about him. There’s a need in this country to cross those lines, both authentically and regularly. That has to be one of the things that we commit ourselves to.
Veronica: I agree.
Veronica: Those conversations are crucial. Sometimes we surprise ourselves on how we can find common ground. I think we are so installed in our minds how different we look but we forget by having a conversation and telling each other stories, how similar we can be.
I remember the first time I heard Boris’s story. I was like, “Oh, my God! Me too! Me too.” There was so much commonality and here they are, two different people, who grew up in two different, completely different places, who have so much in common. To me, that’s the challenge that I would say to our listeners is, have those conversations to find that common ground.
Mike: Yeah. Outstanding. Thank you for that.
Wrapping this up for y’all, Aldersgate is a big organization with more than 500 residents and 1,000 employees. What commitment has Aldersgate taken to create change in society at large?
Boris: I guess I’ll go first. I tend to think the role of the CEO, the CEO really influences the culture of the organization. People will make decisions or treat people within the organization a certain way based on their interpretation of the CEO’s actions or thoughts and beliefs.
I’ll say Suzanne has done a remarkable job to think about this diversity, equity, and inclusion journey, not only from a theoretical perspective because, as we mentioned earlier, it’s easy to send out emails and to engage in conversations, but what are you doing day in and day out? How does your personal life and your professional decisions in your professional life reflect your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and breaking the barriers of racism?
We have a leader who has hired Veronica to make sure diversity, equity, and inclusion is always a part of our DNA, always has a seat at the table. When we were out marching the other day, Suzanne was out front leading the pack, not only to take pictures, but I know her well enough to know that she was there because she really, really wanted to.
She shared conversations with me about explaining these issues to her son and how “pissed off” he is in looking out and trying to make sense of, well, why was George Floyd killed because he’s a black guy? We have a leader who is committed. We have leadership who has been hired to continue the journey.
But I think, most recently, one of the things that we’ve done to really unleash the energy around creating and impacting change is we understand the importance of elevating everybody’s voice. Yeah, you work in housekeeping, but guess what. You have the ability to send Suzanne an email to say, “I want to impact change this way.” Or you are a nurse in our skilled nursing facility and something doesn’t sit right on you so, in the wee hours of the night you say, “Suzanne, what in the hell are we going to do about this?”
Aldersgate has a culture where we’re not perfect. No family is perfect. But we have the leader in Suzanne and the culture that’s being created here to do something remarkable and sustainable. I think if you talk to any leader across the organization, they will tell you that’s the case and that’s certainly my commitment and Veronica’s commitment and others who are committed to Aldersgate who understand the importance of change.
Veronica: Yeah. I agree with what Boris said. I think I would just add a few more things.
As an organization, and I said this earlier, we are committed to listening, learning, and acting. I think that was very well said, as our CEO sent an external message that we’re also committed to being antiracist and figuring out together what that looks like.
Boris said something extremely important. It is having the voices in the room, but voices in the room sometimes don’t mean anything if we don’t act upon what’s been said. That is the biggest charge that we have and that we’re continually working on is, how can we honor the voices that are in the room and what can we do collectively to build an organization that is like no other that truly cares about everyone else and that everyone can bring their own self to work and themselves to work fully? Creating that sense of belonging of saying, “You know what? I belong there. It doesn’t matter if someone else is trying to pursue me away from this organization. I know that I belong here because of the change that we’ve been able to do together.”
Boris talked about a march. We held two marches. We held an internal march and we called it Marching for Justice, and we had an external march where we had a street outside blocked for us and for our residents. I think the larger message that that march sent not just to everyone here, our teammates, our residents, but also to the community is that we mean this. We are doing this because we have been working for over six-plus years to create a different culture, to building a place for all, and we mean it. I think that us being truly vocal, being out there, and have people see that it comes from a really good place and that it comes from the top-down, bottom, left, right, and also that everyone’s voice is included but is acted upon, it’s what makes us different than other organizations.
Mike: Yeah. Thank you for that. I’d like to thank you both so much for spending time with me here, hanging out on Aldersgate OnAir, and sharing your personal stories as well as insights into racism in America. I definitely appreciate you shining some light on how we can all take actions to make a difference and help solve these major, major issues that we face as a country.
Of course, we want George Floyd’s and Rayshard Brooks’s death to be the last. We want lasting change not just in how the police are held accountable but also for society as a whole.
Listeners, to see Boris’s and Veronica’s reading list and a list of organizations they think make a difference, please go check out aldersgatepodcast.com and we’ll post links to all those resources for you, again.
Boris, Veronica, thank you again so much. Definitely appreciate your time and looking forward to talking to you again in the very near future.
Boris: Great. Thank you.
Veronica: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: Thanks, of course, to all of you for taking the time to listen to this very special episode. If you really want to make a difference and be a part of the solution, go to aldersgatemain.wpengine.com/racialjustice to begin your journey. Listen, learn, and act, and we’ll see you soon at Aldersgate OnAir.
[“One Love/People Get Ready,” by Bob Marley & The Wailers]
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children cryin’ (One love)
Hear the children cryin’ (One heart)
Sayin’ give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Sayin’ let’s get together and feel all right
Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (One love)
There is one question I’d really love to ask (One heart)
Is there a place for the hopeless sinners
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own beliefs
One love! What about the one heart (One heart)
What about the people
Let’s get together and feel all right
As it was in the beginning (One love)
So shall it be in the end (One heart)
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right
One more thing
Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armagiddyon (One love)
So when the Man comes there will be no, no doom (One song)
Have pity on those whose chances grows t’inner
There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation
Sayin’ one love
What about the one heart (One heart)
What about the
Let’s get together and feel all right
I’m pleadin’ to mankind! (One love)
Oh, Lord (One heart)
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right