The Fierce Urgency of Now: Unity as a Pre-Requisite to Equity.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2019, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the ecumenical service hosted by the WV Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission. Below is the speech I shared on that special day.

I am humbled to stand before you today to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I take this invitation seriously as I am very mindful of the fact that if it were not for the work of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders my educational and career achievements may have been limited. Indeed, my experience living in these United States would have been much different.

I’m blessed with a fulfilling life, and some may think I have it all together, but I come from meager beginnings. I am an immigrant. I was born in a small South American country called Guyana, formerly British Guiana.  My family immigrated to Brooklyn, NY when I was 17 years old.  We came to the US legally, in an airplane through JFK, so a border wall would not have kept us out.  For five years we lived in my aunt’s finished basement while my parents worked and saved most of what they earned.  After five years they purchased a home and went through the process to become naturalized US citizens.  Being a citizen, means that I can vote, and you better believe that I vote every chance I get.

I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve lived in Ohio. Almost 26 years ago, when I was recruited by Union Carbide, I chose West Virginia.  I left engineering over 20 years ago and I still chose to stay here.  You see I found my purpose here.  My life has meaning here.  I belief that better is possible here. So, I am here until God says otherwise.

As I look out into this diverse audience, I see brilliant, compassionate, caring people.  We are all positively impacting various sectors, industries and communities in our state. I am here representing the institutional philanthropy sector. Philanthropy – the love of humankind.  

I love the fact that we get to invest in organizations that are making lives better and making communities better. I relish the fact that we get to invest directly into West Virginians who are pursuing post-secondary education via our scholarship program. This year we received a record 812 scholarship applications. My maternal grandmother only had a 4th grade education, but she managed to instill in her children and grandchildren the value of acquiring an education. So, our scholarship program is near and dear to my heart.

The institutional philanthropy sector exists because this state has had and continues to have extraordinarily generous people. People who earned their riches from the extraction, financial services and other industries and whose love for their fellow man compelled them to put that love into action by sharing their assets. These are people who believe that better is possible.  

Disclaimer: Please note that today I am speaking as a private citizen and not in my role as leader of TGKVF.

Yes, better is possible in West Virginia, but we must work even harder NOW to make better a reality.  The title of my message today is “The fierce urgency of now: Unity as a pre-requisite to equity.”  

My journey from chemical engineering to community economic development and then to institutional philanthropy has been propelled by my increasing awareness of the disparities between African Americans and Whites in West Virginia. Many of these disparities are economic in nature; many are social in nature.  Although these disparities are numerous, please indulge me as I highlight a few that exist in poverty, health, employment, asset acquisition, and education; then I will deliver a call to action.  For us to be energized to act, I believe we first need a reality check. We need to be faced with some facts; not alternative facts; FACTS!!

According to Mahatma Gandhi, “poverty is the worse form of violence.” West Virginia usually has among the highest poverty rates in the nation and more African Americans are below the poverty level than Whites.  Even though President Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty 55 years ago, as he stated, “to cure poverty and prevent it,” poverty still plagues many families.  Overall, eighteen percent of West Virginians live in poverty compared to 12 percent of citizens in the US.  Of the 1.8 million people living in West Virginia, only 3.6 percent of us are African American. However, 30 percent of African Americans and only seventeen percent of Whites live in poverty in West Virginia.

If you dig a little deeper, you will discover that an even greater percentage of young West Virginians are existing below the poverty level. One in four West Virginians under 18 years of age lives in poverty. Similarly, 23 percent of Whites in this age demographic live in poverty.  And what’s even worse, almost half of Blacks (46 percent to be exact) under 18 years of age in West Virginia live in poverty; that is for every one White child living in poverty there are two Black children living in poverty in West Virginia!

In his “I have a dream” speech Dr. King said that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” This still rings true today.

In these challenging economic times, it usually takes two incomes for the typical family to thrive.  Seventeen percent of White families in the state are led by single women compared to 39 percent of Black families.  More of these Black, single-parent families are living in poverty, 43 percent compared to 36 percent of the White single-parent families.  These single-parent families are having a rough time friends.

A wise person once said that good health and good sense are two of life’s greatest blessings. West Virginians deserve to be blessed, but our population ranks among the bottom tier of states in numerous health risk factor categories such as the obesity rate; ours is 38 percent, the highest in the nation. These numbers are even higher among West Virginia’s minority population – 45 percent compared to 36 percent among whites.  High poverty levels, income inequality and limited access to affordable food contribute to these high obesity rates. 

Conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. These conditions are known as social determinants of health. Poverty limits access to healthy foods and safe neighborhoods. Furthermore, it is known that more education is a predictor of better health.  You will see a little later that education is also an area of concern. Differences in health are striking in communities with poor social determinants of health, such as unstable housing, low income, unsafe neighborhoods, or substandard education.  Many African Americans live in areas of the state where there are poor social determinants of health.

Just sharing some facts…

Nelson Mandela said that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Historically education has been a priority to African Americans. Even before emancipation, African Americans in western Virginia established a school to educate their children. The Sumner School, which opened in Parkersburg in 1862, was the first publicly financed black school south of the Mason Dixon Line, when the state took over support in 1867. Soon blacks began to establish schools in towns across West Virginia, creating a need for teachers to educate black students. Historic Storer College was established at Harpers Ferry in 1867, consisting of a grammar school and a school to train teachers. In 1891, the state created the West Virginia Colored Institute, now West Virginia State University, followed in 1895 by the Bluefield Colored Institute, now Bluefield State College.

Racial disparities in education among adults in West Virginia are not as great as some of the other areas that I am examining today.  Educational attainment in our state is low in general. Only 20 percent of West Virginians, who are 25 years and older have bachelor’s or higher degrees compared to 31 percent of Americans. The educational attainment of African Americans in this category is 16 percent compared to 20 percent for Whites.  

The education achievement gap between African Americans and Whites among younger age groups is of great concern. This achievement gap is a matter of race and class. In West Virginia and across the U.S., a gap in academic achievement persists between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts. Poverty, poor parental involvement in education, not enough books in the home and not enough parents in the home have been identified as reasons for the achievement gap. According to experts, what happens is schools often take students who have less to begin with and then systematically give them less in school.  

In referring to the emancipation proclamation in his I have a Dream speech, Dr. King said, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.” Some of us today are still crying out insufficient funds!

Asset accumulation is the foundation of economic mobility for low- and middle-income families. However, a wealth gap exists. The net worth for White households is 20 times that of African American households.  This wide wealth gap is a reflection of systemic and social barriers that have long existed and have limited economic mobility. Communities of color face obstacles obtaining reliable jobs to generate consistent and adequate income or accessing banking services in order to save for future investments. 

At 76 percent, the homeownership rate in WV is relatively high. One of the highest in the nation. However, only 46 percent of African Americans in West Virginia are homeowners compared to 71 percent of whites. In a state like ours with limited public transportation, a car is considered an asset.  About a quarter of Blacks do not even own an automobile compared to only eight percent of Whites.

African Americans often lack access to capital that would allow them to start their own business. About 5.5 percent of African Americans own businesses compared to 11.3 percent of Whites. Limited or no access to credit and higher rates of low credit scores make African American families more likely to fall victims to discriminatory and predatory lending practices perpetuated by alternative financial services providers. For White families participating in the mainstream financial system, opening a checking or savings account at a federally insured financial institution is second nature.  However, African Americans use banking accounts at a much lower rate when compared to Whites.

Just sharing some facts…

Historically the lowest in the nation, West Virginia’s labor force participation rate is currently at 53 percent compared to a national rate of 63 percent – 10 percentage points lower than the national average. This means that just a little over a half of our citizens are working or looking for work. Whites exhibit higher labor force participation compared to African Americans nationally and in West Virginia, both overall and for prime-age (ages 25-54) workers. There is a five-percentage point difference overall between White workers and African Americans in general and for prime-age the divide in workforce participation is more than 15 percentage points.

Reasons for our low labor force participation rate include the aging population, drug abuse, poor health outcomes and education.  There is also a mismatch between the skills that West Virginians have versus the skills that are in demand by employers.

The final set of stats I’ll share with you today is regarding our criminal justice system. Unemployment and substance abuse contribute to the growing prison population.  The average yearly inmate population in the WV Division of Corrections more than tripled over the last 20 years. And even though West Virginia is less than four percent Black, our prison population is twelve percent Black.  So, there is disproportionate representation of African Americans in our criminal justice system.  Since 92 percent of our prison population is between the ages of 20 and 59, which includes the 25-54 prime-age group, I deduce that there is a link between African Americans being incarcerated and their lower labor force participation rates.

Yes.  Disparities between Blacks and Whites abound in West Virginia and in these United States, and many of them stem from poverty.  However, I would be remiss, if I failed to acknowledge the role of racism in the lived experiences of people of color. Racism is a root of poverty and is a reason for the disparities we see.  Racism is both overt and covert, and it takes three closely related forms: individual, institutional, and systemic. Individual racism consists of overt acts by individuals that cause death, injury, destruction of property, or denial of services or opportunity. Institutional racism is more subtle but no less destructive. Institutional racism involves polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination. The institutional and systemic forms of racism establish separate and independent barriers to access and quality of services. It should be noted that institutional racism does not have to result from human agency or intention. Thus, racial discrimination can occur in institutions even when the institution does not intend to make distinctions on the basis of race. In fact, institutional discrimination can occur without any awareness that it is happening. Bank lending policies (such as redlining) and racial profiling by security and law enforcement workers are forms of institutional racism.  The under- and misrepresentation of certain racial groups in the media, and barriers to employment or professional advancement based on race are also forms of institutional racism.

Well, my friends, even though racism is still prevalent and within the last couple of years it appears like we have been regressing as a nation instead of progressing, I still believe that better is possible and I will keep working to make life better for the least and the left out until my last day on this earth. We are better than this!

So where do we go from here?  Written in 1967, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” is the title of Dr. King’s final book. It captured Dr. King’s analysis of the state of American race relations and the movement after a decade of U.S. civil rights struggles. He wrote that ‘‘With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end.’’  Dr. King believed that the next phase in the movement would bring its own challenges, as African Americans continued to make demands for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, an education equal to that of whites, and a guarantee that the rights won in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be enforced by the federal government.  

Dr. King makes several recommendations to African Americans in this book. First, the Negro is to gain self-respect, “a rugged sense of somebodyness.” Second, he is to work “passionately for group identity.” This plea is directed especially to middle-class and professional Negroes, many of whom fail or refuse to identify themselves and work with their less educated or less fortunate brethren.  Third, the Negro must take the initiative to implement the rights and opportunities he already has won, to walk through the doors that have already been opened.  Fourth, he must go on with his struggle for full equality through mass nonviolent action and the ballot. Fifth, the Negro must push his claims for freedom and equality beyond of decent housing; and adequate income, and in this struggle the Negro must see himself as only a part of a larger mass of millions of poverty-stricken Americans. 

Let me remind you that my topic today is “The fierce urgency of now: Unity as a pre-requisite to equity.”  Note that I said equity not equality. Equity and equality are two strategies we can use in an effort to produce fairness. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. This is not the case of African Americans living in these United States.

In preparing this message, I felt the need to do some market-research on the unity theme.  I asked my Facebook friends to weigh in on what the word “unity” meant to them.  Over 50 diverse friends responded.  Some notable responses included:

  • Unity is the commitment to stand with each other in a fundamental commitment to equity, so that no one is left behind 
  • Unity recognizes that those with privilege, in any context, are committed to solidarity with those who don’t have privilege (and to defer to their vision of the way forward to address those inequities).
  • Unity is being unified in a common purpose despite differences.
  • Unity is bringing people together to advance the good.
  • Unity could be perceived as the absence of discord. But harmony does not equal unity. Unity requires action.

As you can see, I am surrounded by some very wise people. Unity requires action! 

Friends, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  This is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it is basis of the title of my message and my call to ACTION!!

I implore you, first of all, to get proximate, get close, lean in. Regardless of your current assignment; Regardless of your current sector; and regardless of whether you are active in a career or retired. We all have to become engaged in the West Virginia renaissance movement.  Let us come together to make life better for all West Virginians, while working to eliminate disparities and supporting equity. You may have heard that to whom much is given, much will be required. We are blessed with many talents and treasures.  And our creator expects us to make time to use these gifts to glorify him and benefit others who may need a hand up.

We are better than this.  Let us stand with each other, Black and White, women and men, young and old, Christians, Jews and Muslims, straight and gay, all of us, in a fundamental commitment to equity, so that no one is left behind.  We must step out of our comfort zones, that is, be willing to challenge ourselves to do that which is uncomfortable, and fully appreciate the plight of marginalized individuals and families. 

Getting proximate may mean listening to people we have only dealt with from a distance; those not in our social circles.  It may mean taking the time to mentor or coach a young person on her way out a debilitating situation or on her way up the career ladder. It may mean volunteering at homeless shelter or in a soup kitchen.  It may mean examining the policies and practices in your businesses and organizations, and making sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are considerations. It may mean taking an issue you care deeply about to your mayor, state legislator, or congressional delegation, so that policies, systems and the environment can be changed for the better.  It may EVEN mean running for office at the local, state, or national level. Friends, there is power in proximity.  

We also have to continue to change the narrative about our state.  According to a well-known Proverb, life and death are in the power of the tongue.  West Virginia is the best place to live for people of all ages and races, who want to change the world — a humble place where one can make a difference, raise a family, and find real community.  If WE don’t appreciate OUR state, then who will?  We need our population and tax base to grow, which means that we have to be able to attract new enterprises and new diverse residents; it’s time to embrace diversity as characterized by race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance.

We may be at the bottom of some lists, but we rank in the top 10 in amount of time neighbors spend together and in time we spend with family and friends. And let’s not forget our natural beauty.  West Virginia is blessed with some of the most beautiful trees, mountains, rivers, caverns, and waterfalls; natural wonders that offer great skiing, hiking, rock climbing, camping and so much more. And we have the most friendly, helpful, and kind people here.  This is a great place to live and work! So let us sell all of these attributes to everyone who would listen.

Most of all, we have to remain hopeful.  Yes. We have some challenges, and we have racial disparities, but all is not lost. We are better than this. This is a room full of leaders. Let me remind you that hope is at the core of leadership. Hope provides complete confidence, optimism and enthusiasm for the work we’re doing. Hope propels us to push a little harder, to keep fighting, and to persevere through difficulties. Hope delivers the belief that we need to keep working for equity. Hope gives focus to the outcomes we desire.  So let us remain hopeful as we take action to make West Virginia better as we take action to eliminate disparities as we take action to be more equitable.

So despite the challenges we face in West Virginia, I encourage you to get proximate and to step out and challenge yourselves and do something uncomfortable, but yet extraordinary. Let us deliberately work to change the narrative about West Virginia and be more hopeful about the future of our state. We are better than this. We are better than our current circumstances.

In closing I encourage you to personalize this charge.  As the great hymnologist Charles Wesley wrote,

A charge to keep I have, 

a God to glorify, 

a never-dying soul to save, 

and fit it for the sky. 

To serve the present age, 

my calling to fulfill, 

O may it all my pow’rs engage 

to do my Master’s will! 

Arm me with watchful care 

as in Thy sight to live, 

and now Thy servant, Lord, prepare 

a strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,

and still on Thee rely,

O let me not my trust betray,

but press to realms on high.

Thank you and may God bless each and every one of you!

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