By Mark Bergel
Founder and Executive Director, A Wider Circle
“When was the first time you had a teacher of a different race?”
That was one of the questions posed by the facilitator during the first session of Expanding the Table for Racial Equity, the Thought Leadership Series being put on by Leadership Greater Washington and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.
Well, I was in school from age 5 to 35, so I must have had several teachers of different races, I thought.
Elementary school… nope. Not one. How about a staff person of a different race? Nope. Not one African-American teacher, Hispanic teacher, or teacher of any race other than White to help shape my early understanding of life.
As I moved onto memories of junior high school, high school, college and graduate school, again no other races were represented in the teaching staff.
Today, I imagine every one of those institutions has teachers of different races. I hope it would be difficult for anyone now to have 30 years of formal schooling without being taught by someone of a different race.
The first of this six-session series was filled with other questions and conversations that highlighted the different worlds we occupy in this same space.
We heard from individuals of many races who shared the impact that racism has on their lives – not had, has.
For me, as the leader of A Wider Circle, the decision to serve as one of the sponsors of this series was an easy one. Racism has had as much to do with the growth and allowance of poverty as any other factor. In fact, racism and classism combine to propel poverty.
How else can we explain how we allow people to live in such dangerous conditions day after day, night after night? When a child is shot in Bethesda, the whole town almost stops – for days – until we understand and solve what must have led to it. When a child is shot in Anacostia, we do not even take notice. We almost live each day with the expectation that it will happen, and that is deeply connected to racism.
On a personal level, I signed up for this series to understand my own racist thoughts and tendencies, whatever they may be, aimed at whatever race or races for which I feel them. I have lived my entire adult life trying to look beyond color, beyond religion, and focus in on our sameness. But I know I fail, and I know I judge – and pre-judge.
Still, I cling to the knowledge that we are deeply interconnected, much more alike than different. We all know that there is variation among individual human beings, from size and shape to religion and skin color. But the DNA of all human beings living today is 99.9% alike. We are deeply interconnected, yet we seem to live in that .1% difference.
I believe this series will cast a light on why and how we can change that – and why we must do it now.