Racism is Real

Antonio Stinson (center) with his Mom and Dad, at a USC Athletic event.
Image: Courtesy of the Stinson Family

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.

Before Breonna, George and Rayshard, there was Ariane McCree: Antonio Stinson’s Story

By Ashley Henyan

“Growing up in South Carolina, my parents taught me to be respectful to everyone—but they stressed it for interactions with law enforcement,” 23-year old TV-news Journalist, Antonio Stinson, told me. “But this is even more important to me now.”

This is because less than a year ago, only days after Antonio had visited his family in Chester, SC for the Thanksgiving holiday, 28-year old, Ariane McCree, was handcuffed and then shot over 20 times by police – killed in broad daylight, in a Walmart parking lot.

Ariane McCree was Antonio Stinson’s cousin.

Antonio lives in Goose Creek, SC – where he was born and raised. He and I are Facebook friends and last Thursday, after I read his post, I scheduled a call for the very next day – to talk about racism in America and learn more about Antonio’s own story. 

“It’s just been bothering me,” said Antonio. How can you get things fixed when you have to change people’s mindsets and what is in their hearts?”

But Antonio’s personal interactions with people of all races, especially as a journalism student (he graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2019), were – for the most part – all good.

“There was one time, at a high-end store. The security guard was focusing on me the whole time,” Antonio said. “I wish I could’ve bought something to prove him wrong.”

It happened at a mall in Charlotte, NC. Antonio had set off on a day trip, with two friends: a Black girl and an Asian guy. He described not being able to afford anything in the store – but still having the right to look. He also described how uncomfortable it felt to be watched closely by security, the entire time he browsed.

To some of this, I can relate. I remember living in South Florida and going to the Ball Harbor Shops for the first time. I was in my early 20’s – and I couldn’t afford one thing in any of the stores. But, the difference between Antonio’s experience and mine: despite plenty of security around, not a single guard gave me a second look.

“It’s not a political issue. It’s a human issue,” Antonio said – after I asked what we needed to do to cultivate progress and permanent change.

Right on, Mr. Stinson. I could not have said it better myself.

In all, our conversation lasted for the better part of an hour – but, Antonio didn’t bring up his cousin’s death until we were nearly ready to get off the phone. For some reason though, this wasn’t surprising to me. Antonio is one of the most respectful young reporters I have worked with in my nearly 20-year career. Throughout our professional interactions, the fact that his parents armed him with the values necessary for success, has always been abundantly clear.

Until last Friday afternoon, I had never heard of Ariane McCree. And, even though the video footage of his death is extremely uncomfortable to watch, I’m thankful Antonio brought it up. Because, now I know that before Breonna Taylor, before George Floyd and before Rayshard Brooks, there have been many other lives lost too soon.

I Ain’t Your Eye Candy, Mr. Non-profit Volunteer.

Photo by Noah Buscher, via Unplash.com

By Ashley Henyan

Back in the summer of 2018, after spending two full days doing back to back media interviews as a spokesperson for my employer, I walked into the lobby of our office. I was new to this particular location and had only met the volunteer who manned the front desk on one or two occasions. Still, when I walked in, I stopped and said hello because one thing we pride ourselves on at work is the respectful manner in which we treat our volunteers. 

“Well hello, there,” he said. When he spoke, he smiled. And his smile seemed just a bit too big for 8 a.m.

“Good morning,” I replied and removed my sunglasses.

“I saw you. You were all over the TV last night.” His smile grew wider.

“Thanks.” I was already feeling uncomfortable about the way he as looking at me.

“Now I know why they put you on TV. Your’re eye candy!” His smile became a full-fledged Cheshire cat grin.

I was shocked, stunned, hurt. They put me on TV because I was able to memorize 360 pages of content from our organization’s messaging book. They put me on TV because I could keep my cool in front of a camera. They did not put me on TV because of how I looked! I wanted to leap over the desk and kick him right where it counts — for saying what he said, for thinking whatever he thought last night, and for getting ready to think it all again as I walked past his desk and down the corridor toward the elevator. 

But I didn’t jump over the desk. Instead, I forced a fake laugh, placed my sunglasses back on my face and opted for the stairs. At least this way he wouldn’t get to see me walk away.

For most of the morning I distracted myself with work. But, by the time lunch rolled around I was down-right mad. And I wasn’t mad at the archaic attitude of the volunteer. I was mad at myself for laughing off his inappropriate comment and not standing up for myself!

There was only one thing I could do.

I got up, marched into my supervisor’s office and filed a formal complaint. Then, I made a promise to myself: the next time something like this happened I would not laugh it off. Instead, I would tell the man his words were an unnecessary and hurtful attempt to undermine my intelligence. And I would probably still consider kicking him in the balls, too!

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.”

Racism is Real

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 my friend and Red Cross colleague 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.

Author’s Note: This blog includes direct quotes involving the use of offensive racial epithets.

Annette Rowland: Speak Up & Sundown Towns

By Ashley Henyan

“Growing up, my parents gave me hints at what the world is like for people with dark skin,” Annette Rowland told me over the phone as we discussed her experiences living with racism in Birmingham, Alabama. “But when it happens to you, it opens up a whole new perspective.”

Our conversation lasted the better part of an hour and the entire time we spoke, the 34-year old mom of two fought hard to hold back tears. This was a side of Annette I had never seen before.

You see, during my tenure as a communicator with the American Red Cross, I had come to know her as a strong, smart, sophisticated woman. In fact, until about six months ago (when I took a different position within the organization) she and I had the exact same title, served the exact same function, and probably brought home the exact same salary. But, as I spoke with Annette over the phone last Thursday afternoon, it hit me like a freight train: because I am white and she is black, our lives have been completely different.

“My parents still remember Jim Crow laws and they still remember dead bodies swinging from trees,” Annette told me in her sweet but matter-of-fact way. Then, she went into detail about some very personal experiences that still haunt her, today.

The first occurred while shopping at a Belk department store with her mom and baby sister, Gabby. Annette was only 15. “Mom was off shopping for whatever and I was pushing Gabby in her stroller,” Annette said.

That’s when a 50-year old white woman stopped to make a fuss about the baby. “She gushed over Gabby, saying how cute she was – but the entire time I could tell she was judging me.”

Then, the white woman locked eyes with Annette and said, “You. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s always black girls like you who are having these babies. It’s disgusting.”

Annette was speechless. “None of what this lady was saying made any sense and before I realized what was happening, tears were falling out of my eyes.”

I asked Annette if, in that moment 20 years ago, she said anything to the woman. “Nothing,” she mustered up through her tears. “I didn’t know what to say because none of it seemed real.”

Flash forward a few years to 2002, now a woman of nearly 18, Annette endured the most hurtful experience of her life. She was in a serious relationship with Matt, a white man, and she was pregnant with his baby. “His mom called me up and asked me to dinner. So, I went.” Annette said.

They had barely placed their orders when Matt’s mom turned to Annette and said, “I want you to find out how much an abortion costs and I will pay for everything. Matt’s daddy is not letting his son have a nigger baby.”

At this point I could all but taste Annette’s heartache through the phone. But being a resilient woman, she quickly regained her composure and said, “Again I said nothing, Ashley. I just sat there, wondering if anything happening was real.”

Eventually, our conversation turned its focus to what might be necessary to eliminate racism in the U.S.

“Well, black people have to vote,” Annette said. “And I honestly believe this is the closest we’ve ever been to seeing real change. But there are still towns in Alabama that I won’t set foot in after dark.”

Now it was my turn to be shocked, “Wait, what!?!?”

“Yeah. Sundown Towns,” Annette calmly told me. “Like Cullman County, Alabama. Out of a general fear for our lives, it’s one of those places black people just don’t go.”

In this moment, I was the one who had no idea what to say.

“You said you studied Civil Rights during college, right?” Annette asked me. “You must know about Sundown Towns.”

The term seemed familiar, but after spending years studying Constitutional Law, The Civil Rights Movement and The Black Power Movement as a government and politics major at the University of Maryland, I couldn’t remember anything specific about Sundown Towns.

After a few minutes of chit-chat, I thanked Annette for her candor, got off the phone, and got right to work researching Sundown Towns.

I found this book by James W. Loewen, which is a 26-hour listen on audible and a must read for anyone interested in understanding one of the significant catalysts of White Supremacy in America. For those of you who’d rather take my word for it, here’s the deal: From 1890 to 1940, thousands of towns across America used fear to drive away black families, posting public signs –  like this 1940 example from Elwood, IN – that read, “Nigger, Don’t let the sun set on you in Elwood.”

Essentially, Sundown Towns are all-white towns that are all-white on purpose. And (and you might want to sit down for this part), they still exist today!

After talking to Annette, I realized that no matter how much you think you already understand about a subject, there’s always more to learn. And, as a result of our conversation, I’ve resolved to amplify a new black voice every chance I get — in a blog that reminds readers that racism is real, racism is wrong, and to begin to reverse its affects we must all raise our voices and speak up!

Let’s face it: Football is more important than politics.

By Ashley Henyan

I am not a football fan; but my older sister, Nickole is. Today, when I shared with her the news that Condoleezza Rice was announced as a serious contender for the Cleveland Browns Head Coach job, she replied, “I would love to be a GM.”

“You would be great,” I told her.

I was speaking the truth.

During our younger days, before gender became a factor, my sister wasn’t just one of the smartest kids in school, she was also one of the toughest.  Football, gymnastics, track and field:  it didn’t matter what sport, she was always the best.

Upon graduating from high school, she accepted a partial basketball scholarship to attend The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. There, she played point guard for all four years. This helped to pay for her Doctor of Pharmacy degree–which she earned just two short months after turning 24. 

After completing her doctorate, she worked multiple clinical positions, simultaneously—then, paid off her student loans and started working her way up the corporate ladder. At age 38, she purchased her fourth investment property: a retirement condo in Naples, Florida. She paid in cash.

Now, she has completed Stanford University’s Executive Development Program and just finished a nearly three-year stint as Vice President (Pharmacy Services and Clinical Operations) for UnitedHealth Groups Optum Division, where she led a team of hundreds of nurses and pharmacists to help patients better understand and manage their health care needs.

Today, and still with UnitedHealth Group, she is responsible for maintaining quality customer service for millions of subscribers and clinicians while achieving performance targets for the healthcare giant’s clinical pharmacy products and services.

But she wants more – because she knows more than science, medicine and business. She knows sports.

When it comes to football, Nickole is a mastermind—and not just with keeping track of the top players and winning teams. She understands the business of football. She can design plays to get the worst offense past the best defense with her left hand while working the numbers for trades, long-term strategy and partnerships with her right.

My sister and other highly qualified women should be serious contenders for top jobs in professional sports—and the gender of athletes on the field should not be a factor. According to CBS News in Austin, TX, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach, Greg Popovich (who works alongside  Spurs Assistant coach, Becky Hammon) claims the only way to make real progress with creating equality for women in professional sports is to hire more women in positions of power. If this is the case, then the NBA, which has hired three women in full-time coaching positions (Jenny Boucek became the third in 2017)  since 1946, has a long way to go. So too, does the NFL. Right now, there are 32 GM’s in professional football. None are women.

The only way to induce permanent change is with steady action. So, today, I call upon all highly qualified candidates – including women – to seek out positions of power in professional sports and apply. Football is more important to most Americans than politics, anyhow. Why can’t the change start there?