Freedom is Never Given /ˈfrēdəm izˈnevər/ ˈɡivən/ phrase. – a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extracted from King’s letter from Birmingham jail, 16 April 1963. The whole quote states, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” See also. Civil rights leader Malcolm X similarly states in a 1965 speech, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
I am Dennis Carpenter. Man, who am I? Where am I from? I’m a Georgia boy at heart. I have spent my entire professional career working in the field of education. That’s been important to me because I know those of us who are from families that barely had access to the middle class, if we had access to middle class prior to my generation…the surest path to getting there is the formal education that we received. That was something that was instilled in me by my mama and siblings over the course of my childhood. I was crazy enough to believe in the “myth of meritocracy” and it allowed me to gain some level of success. I have served in every role from a teacher’s aide all the way through to being the superintendent of a 20,000-student school district. I was raised in a single parent home, with six siblings. Another myth that we oftentimes engage with is that it’s a deficit coming from a single parent home. To me, that gives those in the majority an excuse to underserve children from said communities.
I had outstanding teachers who had significantly enhanced expectations of me and via those expectations, I rose to the challenge and it allowed me to exceed the competence of many children who came from affluent dual parent homes. So that’s just a little bit about my background and why I believe that education is so important to every single child and it must be delivered in an equitable fashion
It’s such an inward expression. Far too often it is framed via an outward expression. What do I mean…I think the beauty of anything is that it lies in what it possesses. Generally what you possess is either held deeply or internally. So when I think about beauty, I think about all of the inward expressions that can be so affirming, that can be so positive, that can be so uplifting…and when that happens, outward beauty is just a byproduct. But, oftentimes when we get ourselves fixated on outward beauty, far too often we miss the fact that the inward expression may be so flawed. So what I think about that, that’s not just a statement of beauty as it relates to people, but also areas, also policies. I mean you could have something that looks really good on paper and you can use the finest fonts and the finest graphics, but if that policy is inherently flawed, it doesn’t matter how good it appears on the outside. What matters is the substance because that substance can eradicate beauty, access, and opportunity. That’s the way I like to frame that notion of beauty.
Okay, so Black beauty… It’s a feeling. Black beauty is a feeling of self love, self worth, and the only way to possess those things is knowing from where you came. And once you are very, very familiar about your come from, who you are, the why…then beauty, once again, is a byproduct. Black beauty is a clear byproduct. So I think it — so much — starts with self love, knowing who you are, knowing your why. And when you possess those things Black beauty is insurmountable and it’s something that should be unwavering once you understand who you are.
I would say if I had to describe Black culture I would describe it as resilient…and with grace and style. What I mean when I say that Black culture is resilient is that anything that we have faced as a culture, as far back as you would like to go, we’ve always faced it with a clear will to be resolved to get over and through and make it. And that’s always done with a level of grace, sometimes to a fault. It has its own style, its own uniqueness to it. You know, I was looking at the Google commercial the other day and it talks about the most searched, in many different areas…whether it’s athletes: LeBron James, Serena Williams…whether it’s performances: Whitney Houston and the national Anthem…any of those pieces…We are always the most duplicated, we are the most copied but we faced the greatest marginalization in the process. Still, we resolve to get through and we do so with grace and we do so with a level of style that is insurmountable and basically not surpassed by any other culture.
Oh man, that’s an interesting one. It’s amazing that you still hear it in 2020,but — I always embrace this pressure as an internal pressure derived from family and close friends — You hear this notion that African Americans do not value education. And I always challenge that notion because I’ve never seen an African American family that didn’t value education. What I saw growing up is that the school is always right and if the school is always right…. I send you there to learn. Now I may not be able to come to every PTA meeting, I may not be able to come to every school event –because I’m working to meet your basic needs in a job setting that oftentimes that does not allow the level of flexibility that that’s necessary– but when the school calls…The families that I’m accustomed to being around, begin with the assumption that the school is right. And because the school is right, it’s your job to go there and get it right so that you can receive all of the fruits of a better life than the one that you might currently have.
So I say all of that to say the greatest is having to work twice as hard to get half as much. That’s a mantra that I embraced as a child and with it came pressure. As I grew older, I clearly began to understand that notion and that is a notion that I have lived by, even as an adult and a professional, and as I reflect on that here as a middle age adult, it’s still true. In our society, here in these United States, the notion of people of color having to work twice as hard to get half as much is still an unfortunate truth.
I’ll begin with the answer of, of course I’ve experienced racism. I would also argue that as a person of color, the only way that you do not experience racism in these United States is if you walk around asleep and be ignorant to the racism you’re experiencing. Oftentimes, unfortunately, we find that in the African American community as a way to deal with the traumatic effects of racism.
So do I want to get into stories that oftentimes reinjure us around instances in which we’ve been victims of overt racism? Probably not. But at the same time, overt racism is real. I have experienced it. What I like to spend more time on as an adult — And this is even a transfer that Dr. King made as he continued to evolve on his journey — but really dealing with the covert actions. The policies, the procedures. Those are the things that if you give it one look and don’t look deeper, they can come across as effective and good. And those are those covert issues of racism. And generally they take place at the structural or at the systemic level. And that’s the type of racism that I think, in the year 2020, we need to be more intentional about interrupting.
I’m proud of a lot. Number one, when you consider so much that has been placed upon the backs of people of color in our society, I’ll start by saying you’re happy to be alive because there are so many forces working against you living and being alive. And then, in this age of mass incarceration, you’re happy to be free as a person of color. When you think of the notion of White supremacy you think about the notion of never having to worry about those two basic things. As a person of color, especially a successful person of color, you’re always wondering about your physical safety in these United States because there’s so much mental and physical harm that pace placed upon Black and Brown bodies.
And then…freedom. You know, sometimes things are going well and you kind of tap yourself on the shoulder and you say, Am I doing anything not to be free? This is going too well. And that is a feeling that a White person in these United States will never have to experience.
So I began at the foundational level…and of course there have been some successes along the way, both personal and professionally — being a good father, being a good husband, and having some professional accolades that I can hang my hat on — All of those things are important and a part of it. But man, if you’re not in the minority culture in these United States, you don’t understand the basic element of being proud to be alive and be free.
My goals are always centered on helping someone along the way. As I transition now from a young professional to the third quarter — if not the fourth quarter of my career and probably the third quarter of my life, I hope– my transition is to, How can I help someone else along the way? So I’ve been involved now in lots of travel…that involves administrative coaching, executive coaching, professional learning opportunities. So really trying to help to grow the next wave of leaders. That’s across all groups, but more specifically African American leaders and leaders of color because, unfortunately we are so absent from leadership spaces, that we don’t have access to the dominant narrative. And that’s where decision making takes place and that’s where the ability to interrupt systemic or structural racism takes place. So just trying to be a resource for those who are committed to this level of work.
There’s an umbrella issue, that I will probably go to my rocking chair being committed to, and that’s greater equity. That’s aligning the talent that the creator dispersed is equally across the world and allowing that talent to be aligned with access and opportunity. Unfortunately in these United States, talent is not aligned equally with access and opportunity and thus the term inequity.
So when I think about drawing attention to an issue, I like to elevate the notion of a more equitable and a more just society because if we elevate conversation around a more equitable and a more just society, then that hits all areas…That hits the area of housing… that hits the criminal justice system…that hits the education system…that hits the recruitment system…and that hits human capital system. All of which brave, brave inequities exist in each of those systems. Unfortunately, that’s who we are as a country. That’s the foundation upon which we were built. Really trying to elevate conversations around inequity and really posing the question of why people of color in these United States must be the “essential below” that Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about (“Between the World and Me”)…and how do we remove all of those structural pieces that insist upon people of color being “the essential below” in our country? That’s the conversation I’m always going to elevate.
A more just and a more equitable society.
You know, everything, in this part of this conversation, it always comes across as theoretical and idealistic. We don’t need to know another strategy to do this. Our ability to be a more just and a more equitable society rests in the hearts and minds of those who lead our society. And when I think about leadership, I’m not just talking about at the national level or the state level…I’m talking about any leadership opportunity, no matter how small or how great, it resides in the hearts and minds of those in leadership to create a more just and a more equitable condition in that place that they’ve been charged with leading.
So, when I think about the best way to get there… The first step is really, really critiquing leadership and really, really critiquing the equity commitment of those in leadership. From the smallest nonprofit to the president of the United States. From the smallest educational institution to the president of the United States. From the smallest c-suite executive office to the president of the United States. Those are the types of things that we have to always place under critique. You know, we are just a few days removed from a situation where you realize that a double standard is just the norm. When you’re in that majority culture, you can roll off the ideas and you can roll off the decisions of a double standard as if you are doing nothing wrong. We saw that on the national stage on display in some decision making that we all placed under our microscopes this week.
So we can do better with our commitment to being more diverse and more inclusive in hiring practices across all organizations. All organizations can do a better job of placing those socially constructed rules, policies, and procedures that we know have disparate outcomes under the internal microscopes. Realizing that if these procedures, policies and the like are constructed…that the same people who construct that set of policies can also deconstruct them when they realize that they have a disparate impact. That’s the internal work of every organization. To really be mindful of the internal equity commitments and making certain that those internal commitments shine through in their external expressions. When organizations commit to the uncomfortable work of doing this, then and only then do we move toward a more just society.
You know, unfortunately, that’s what too many people are looking for. They’re looking for a technical solution. They are looking for a silver bullet to be more equitable. If we could just employ this program if we just deployed this strategy. Unfortunately being more equitable in the United States of America is something that we have not achieved as a country. Every step of the way, there has been struggle associated with any movement in the area. So there is no strategy that we could use that’s technical in nature if we just do this. I think the way we get there is through work that looks a little more messy. It’s more adaptive in nature. We have to do the difficult work of doing an assessment of the hearts and minds of human beings and being very candid about our organizational and personal commitments and who we let reside in those spaces. So if we are going to have a more just society, it’s going to be contingent upon our ability to do the messy adaptive work of examining the hearts and minds of human beings within every organization, no matter how small or how large. I think technically we already know enough to be more equitable. The only question is how do we feel about the fact that we are not right now?
So that’s a good question. And, I’ll say two things to that question. The reason we don’t have a more just and a more equitable society, in my opinion, is that the persons who have the political, social, financial, positional capital to solve the issue…aren’t impacted by the issue. So, it’s very interesting to see…How much of my capital will I spend on an issue that I’m not impacted by. So, until we have enough people who are committed to the greater good — who are willing to plant a tree that they’ll never have to sit under the shade of that tree, but still they’re willing to plant that tree — Until we have enough of a critical mass doing that, we’re always going to see an equity because those with the power to solve the problem are not impacted by it.
Also, there’s too much data out there for us to keep fooling our children. Is education important? Absolutely. I’ve spent a lifetime devoted to it. But this meritocracy that if you just work harder and become more educated, then you too can access everything that America has to offer, there’s too much data out there showing us that that’s a myth. That’s a myth because we can have equal educational attainment and have less access to jobs. We can have equal educational attainment, as people of color, and our earning power is less. So that goes back to that notion of twice as hard for half as much. We have African American kids of color who have degrees and they’re being left on the battlefield as it relates to securing jobs. America has to grapple with this myth of meritocracy that we have spoken into the hearts and minds of our children. And we have to face some hard truths. And the only way to do so is at every level. Whether it be local level — and there’s no place to start this work that’s too small — If you’re a pastor in a church, if you’re the owner of a small business, if you’re a teacher in a classroom, if you’re a principal of a school building, if you’re involved in one of the smallest nonprofits committed to doing good work, or one of the largest, there is no place too large or too small to begin this work.
I hate to be redundant, but it goes back to this notion of those who are not impacted by the problem because there’s most of the capital to eliminate the problem. And unfortunately, that’s a sad truth. And that’s what I think keeps us from getting there. You know, we’ve heard it from King, we’ve heard it from Sonia Sotomayor — it’s disingenuous to tell a person with no shoes or no feet to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But we still talk about this need for greater grit for those who America has continually left behind. Well, I would argue that if I’ve continually been left behind, but I still show up, and I show up, and I show up then grit is not my problem. My problem is more structural in terms of ideologies and practices that are allowed to persist.
So I think, um, the conversation around equity, I’ve always told persons and organizations that I’ve attempted to influence is that there are multiple on-ramps to getting on board with this issue. And those multiple on-ramp are important because a different on-ramp will bring a different person on-board. So when I think about those who have the positions of power and the resources to influence greater equity, I started thinking about workforce development and economic development. We’re currently at a place where we’re going to have to do a better job of educating minority students, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. That’s the workforce of the future. So if you want your business to continually thrive, you should have a vested interest in a more equitable educational system that gives output across the system at a high level because that’s your workforce of tomorrow. So when I think about it, I start saying that organizations have to be strategic about how they bring persons on board with this conversation. As a leader of color, giving voice to this issue…that’s going to resonate with marginalized groups. I’ve seen that happen. But then I have to be strategic about, How do I bring on the power structure? How can I give them data and information to show that greater equity is important to them as well? Maybe not in a direct way, but indirectly. So that’s always a challenge. But something we have to continue to be strategic about.
There’s so much…so when I think about data, there’s a huge cross section of data. For example, when I think about the need for a more diverse teaching force. There have been longitudinal studies done that suggest if an African American boy has an African American teacher between grades three and five, he or she is 33 times more likely to graduate. And if that child’s more likely to graduate, he’s more likely to be a productive member of our society. That should resonate with everyone. When I think about the fact that we underinvest in education, but we build prisons based on third grade reading level, that shouldn’t be okay in one of the most developed countries in the world.
So those are the types of data points that are out there. We know those data points. The only question that’s still on the table is, How do we feel about the fact that they become permanent and become a fixture in our existence as members of these United States?
Well, it’s this whole notion of not knowing thyself…and how do I continue to learn more, do more so that I’m very cognizant of who I am? I would tell you that I continue to show up as a learner. So from being a kid that was very, very curious and wanting to know more — that’s always been important — all the way up to an adult still showing up as a learner. And reading, always accessing something that’s gonna get you closer to understand that from which you came. And I can go back to learning…Just being curious about gaps in the formal education that was given in public schools. That was specific to me as an African American. I was always fascinated by, Why the gaps? So when I got to college it was extremely important to me to start getting into pieces like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, those types of reads.
Then as a young adult continuing to want to know more and being very, very attentive to historical benchmarks, especially those that have racial connotation. So, getting interested in things like red lining, getting interested in things like the Brown paper bag theory and the like around skin tone and those type things. And once you are in tune in that space, once you develop consciousness in that space, you can’t unlearn what you’ve learned. It’s hard to go back. So then it just comes naturally to pick up Ta-Nehisi Coates “In Between the World and Me”. It just feels natural to pick up “400 Years of White Trash” (White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America) and read that book to try to get greater understanding, as it was written by a White female. That just becomes who you are.
And then culminating to some degree — although the learning continues — getting into travel and really, really seeing from where I came, which is the Western coast of Africa, which I got to see just a couple of months ago. So all types of experiences…I would encourage people to lean into and not just avoid the trauma associated with being a person of color in the United States, but lean in to that. Because on the other side is this reflection of Black beauty. And I’m glad we were able to lift that up today in the conversation.
It’s okay to be a learner in this space. Listening is a communication strategy. Oftentimes we find those who are in majority culture wanting to act, wanting to do something, wanting to outthink people of color about their experience. So I say it’s okay to be a listener. Listening is a communication strategy and also understand the importance of being an ally in this work. It’s important for White folks to do the work..if they want to be an accelerator of racial healing in this country, if White folks want to be an accelerator of greater equity in this country…then commit to being an ally. Commit to interrupting the systems that they are part of and the small acts of marginalization or oppression or racism — structural, covert or overt. Commit to being an ally and be willing to break and understand that that requires a willingness to break with White solidarity. Those are commitments that have to be made internally by those in the majority culture because there’s no neutrality in this work. Either you are accelerating White supremacy and the oppression of people of color in the United States or you are an ally in eradicating it. There is no lukewarm position in this work.
Interview Date: February 7, 2020
Day 22 — Story posted on February 21, 2020
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