Racism is Real

Image Courtesy of Joe Hayes

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, social media was flooded with painful personal stories about navigating life amid a society fueled by racism. Every story I read was impactful in its own way. But on May 30, 2020, when I read  Annette Rowland’s Facebook post, I wanted to pack-up my old VW, head to DC, protest my ass off and then find a job working for the ACLU. Thanks to technology though, I quickly realized I could augment the pleas of both friends and strangers right from the pandemic-free environment of my very own home – by leveraging my writer’s voice to help cultivate permanent change.

Joe Hayes: Compassion Has No Color

By Ashley Henyan

From July 2018 to December 2019, I lived in Atlanta. At only 18-months long, it was a short stint – but I loved it because Atlanta is a remarkably diverse city. In fact, that might be the best part about it: anywhere you go you are bound to be around people who look like you and people who don’t look like you – all at the same time! Somehow though, this diversity disappears when it comes to some of the city’s largest high schools. That was just one of the topics I discussed with this week’s interviewee, 34-year-old father of two, Joe Hayes.

Joe is a helper, a leader and the Executive Director for the Gilliam Hayes Institute based in Rock Hill, SC. Growing up, he moved around a lot – but eventually ended up in Atlanta, where he finished high school and graduated from Kennesaw State University.  His first job out of college was with the Boy Scouts of America and he worked closely with students at various Atlanta-area schools.

“South Dekalb County Schools were mostly all black – and classrooms often used lamps for lights, had fewer books and discipline was a running theme,” Joe told me. “But just a few miles up the road, in the City of Decatur, the situation was better. And the majority of the students in those schools were white.”

Everything he was telling me sounded awfully familiar to what I had learned last week – about Sundown Towns. Because of this, I had to do some digging.

A few searches later, I found that Joe was right. The majority of students in high schools in South Dekalb County  are black – like Southwest Dekalb High School where 98% of students are black and the other 2% are Hispanic. But, high schools in Decatur look much different – like Decatur High School, where more than half the student population is white.

Of course, this was only one example, so I dug a little deeper to see if there might be a reason why. Sure enough, Avondale Estates, which sits right on the edge of Decatur, Georgia was a Sundown Town. It makes perfect sense that black families found somewhere else to live.

Although Joe agreed that Atlanta was one of the most diverse places he too had ever lived, he often found himself in situations where he was the only black man in the room. We talked about one instance that stood out. 

Joe was a 22-year old new executive with the Boy Scouts. His job was to invite, involve and inspire scout leaders and youth in Cherokee and Pickens County (both located in Northeast Georgia and both 98% white).

“One day, during a regular troop outing, a group of 12 to 14- year old boys made a black effigy doll and they also made a noose. Then, they hung the black doll from a tree,” Joe said, without a single hint of anger in his voice.

Immediately, I assumed the boys’ behavior warranted them being removed from the Boy Scouts all together. Joe told me that was exactly what the troop leader and even some of the parents thought should’ve been done. 

But he saw the situation differently – as an opportunity to make a life-changing impact on the minds and lives of these boys, by educating them about difference in a more positive light.

“The easy solution would’ve been to kick them out,” Joe said. “Instead, as the only black man around, I wanted to show them that compassion has no color and that whatever negative image they had of black people was just wrong.”

Over the next few months, Joe worked to build a diversity program for the Scouts. It encouraged that particular troop to partner with an inner city troop for Boy Scout activities and for each child and their parents to visit the MLK Center. Joe even bought all the boys this book to read.

“I still keep in touch with those boys today,” said Joe.  “And after working with them, I know we can change the system if we change it from the root and focus on re-educating our kids.”

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