What Can I Do? I’m One Person

It was a gorgeous fall early October day. Dr. Joe had some free time, no meetings, no classes to teach. He decided he’d walk over to the football practice field and watch the team practice. They were 4-0. His feet kick at the chestnuts that fell from the trees, The leaves were starting to turn. He felt good. Good about life. Good about his work. Good about his family. He saw the players in the practice jerseys a hundred yards ahead. The sounds of hitting, and grunting, and coaches shouting instructions added to his good feeling for the day.

Makeshift bleachers were set up for anyone who wanted to watch practice. Girlfriends, students, townies, and a few other faculty made up a sparse showing. He looked to the top row. He spotted a student he knew. He climbed the ten rows, smiled at the students and said, “Mind if I sit here? You hurt?”

Mike Nestor nodded and gave Dr. Joe a half smile.

How come you’re not out on the practice field?” Dr. Joe said.

“It’s a long story.”

“I got time,” said Dr. Joe.

“Last Monday I was in my Contemporary U. S. History class. Dr. Blaine begins class by asking each of us to name the country our ancestors came from. I’m in the first row, five seats back. I hear Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland. Then it’s my turn. Before I can speak, he says, “Never mind Mike, your ancestors were probably slaves and you have no idea what country your ancestors came from. I got up, flipped him off and walked out. He reported me – The coach told me he had to talk the administration out of tossing me out for the semester and taking away my scholarship.”

“You’re kidding?”
“Honest. Every word is true. You know there are 16,000 students here and only three percent are of color. Most of us are from the city.”

“You going to appeal or do anything? said Dr. Joe.”

“What can I do? I’m one person?”

Dr. Joe looked at Mike, “I’ll do something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, but I will do something.”

Dr. Joe met with the provost and asked if he could meet with a focus group of African-American students to learn more about their experience on campus. The provost reluctantly agreed, but added, “You’re okay being the only white person in the room?”

Dr. Joe looked at the provost, chose not to say what he wanted to say, and offered, ¬†“It’s the way I want it.”

A week later Dr. Joe sat at the head of a long table with 15 African-American students, he asked, “Can you share your experience as an African-American student on campus?” The room was silent. He sat in the silence. The students fidgeted. He started to think no one would speak, when a woman raised her hand and said, “My name is Veronica, I’ll tell you what it’s like. I’m a junior. I was in communication lab class last week and the instructor came to me and said, ‘You have so much potential. You have a chance to make it big.’ I was elated until he said, ‘You only have to learn to do one thing, talk white.’ He walked away.”

Her comments opened the floodgates of similar stories. Dr. Joe took his data to the university president. Two months later leaders from the African-American students and leaders from the student body met with him and an external consultant to create a dialogue to make the university culture more inclusive. Mike was one of the student leaders. In two days, the students joined together and collaborated on a plan. Dr. Joe and the external consultant stood at the edge of the room and watched change take place.

This is a true story. I changed some names and didn’t mention the name of the university. When you’re on the moral high ground, you are a majority, no matter how many are against you. Today, I choose to stand up and make a difference.

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