Inspiration from Three Remarkable Women
The Greenburgh Central School System (originally known as the Greenburgh Central Seven), in Hartsdale, New York, was one of the first school districts to be integrated in the country. It was considered a model of school desegregation in the 1950s. In fact, researchers from Columbia University spent four weeks studying everything from where students hung out on the playground to where they sat in the lunchroom. This is where I was lucky enough to attend high school. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. That study quoted black-and-white students saying that there still was a sense of “us” and “them.”
I feel fortunate that I was able to grow up with an incredibly diverse group of friends that I still keep in touch with today. It’s been more than 40 years, but there are three women in particular who I can still pick up a phone and chat with them as if no time at all had gone by.
One of those women is Yvette Yelardy. Yvette is black, and her husband is white. Neither family was thrilled with the arrangement at first, but when Yvette and Dan began discussing having kids, she decided that things needed to change.
“At this point in life I found my inner mama bear,” Yvette says. “I realized that although I had never been invited over to family events such as Passover, I also had never not been invited.”
Thus, Yvette took her father-in-law aside, and explained her concerns. He said that she was absolutely right, and that things had to change, and they did. By the next week, she was seated at the table for Passover Seder.
These kinds of conversations are often hard. Everybody is afraid of offending everybody else. However, that’s the only way that we can start to understand each other. I think about how proud her two children must be to hear how tough their mother is, and it makes me remember how important it is to talk with my own children about how we make the world better.
Then, there’s my friend Donna Thomas Marable. She was always interested in the inner workings of the human body. I’ll bet that she was the only one who looked forward to going to our high-school health class. After graduation, she attended Springfield College in Massachusetts. At this time Donna considered becoming a physical therapist, but decided against that route because she “wanted to have a reach to the community.”
In grad school, Donna became concerned that African Americans do not receive the same level of care as their white counterparts. She saw the results in her own family: Her uncle passed away at 45 after suffering from a heart attack; her mother died of breast cancer, and her father died of colon cancer. (They both were in their 50s.)
…“I’ve had substandard care myself,” says Donna. “A hospital refused to give me an ultrasound along with the mammogram, which was the protocol at that time for a patient with my personal and family history. An ultrasound can detect a lump in a fibrocystic breast that a mammogram alone may not.”
Donna responded by starting her own health and wellness company called SmartFit, Inc. For more than 30 years the company has offered a variety of innovative programs that help improve the lives of black people.
Sculpture, Vinnie Bagwell, is also a graduate of the The Greenburgh Central School System. I’ve come to know over the years even though we were several years apart in school. She recalls our school making progress when it came to race. There were face-face issues, she says, “but it was handled well by the administration.”
Vinnie’s work inspires me. She creates monumental works about black history to “balance the narrative in America.” Her first public artwork, “The First Lady of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald,” stands at the Yonkers Metro North Amtrak Train Station in Yonkers, New York. It is the first sculpture of a contemporary African-American Woman to be commissioned by a municipality in the United States. She has created many other monumental works including “Walter ‘Doc’ Hurley” the first contemporary public artwork of an African-American in the state of Connecticut. Also she created “Liberté,” a 24 inch bronze sculpture created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and was exhibited at the new Freedom Rides Museum inaugural exhibition in Montgomery.
Moving the narrative forward isn’t just up to people like Yvette, Donna, and Vinnie. It’s up to all of us. We need to make sure we pass this along to the next generation. Parents need to ask themselves: How do I educate my children about this? How do I make them part of the solution?
We’ve got to be open to having conversations that are awkward and embarrassing. If we spend all our time worrying that we’ll say something wrong, we’ll never have the chance to learn.
Let me ask you this: Whose story would you like to share? Who has inspired you? What are you doing to make sure this next generation is growing up in a truly egalitarian society?
Leave a message for me in the comments. Let’s make sure this conversation keeps going.