03/06/2013 10:04 am ET Updated May 17, 2013

A New, Completely Unfamiliar World

This is the winning entry for the Faculty/Staff/Administrator category of The Fetzer Institute -- Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest.

In 1968, I heard something at a conference on poverty and race in America that I continuously
reflect on and explore. At that conference, we were seeking to understand the riots that were
ripping cities apart through the '60s. At 17 years of age, it was my first trip to D.C., the biggest
city and the biggest trip I'd yet experienced. The YMCA conference opened with a presentation
by the young energetic and idealistic organizers working in the Y branch in the heart of a poor
neighborhood in D.C. And I, like the 40 other young attendees, eager, white, middle-class, were
inspired by the stories, the rhetoric, and the sense of progress as these folks made a concrete
difference for the working poor, struggling to improve their lives.

We were so inspired, in fact, that we asked for a field trip to see the work more closely and to
meet the community members who were making such dramatic, positive strides. Toward the
end of the conference, then, the organizers worked out the details, adjusted our schedule, and
arranged a bus.

We arrived, wide-eyed, excited, though our mood dampened somewhat as we walked into the Y. The lively street life, people visiting on stoops, children playing in the street, became eerily
silent and still as we walked by. We temporarily forgot those tensions as we assembled in a
large open room, warmly greeted by the social workers we had connected with so strongly a
few nights before. Moments later, however, the calm of the program was interrupted by an
insistent knock at the door. A sense of urgency grew as each of the adults in the room was
drawn into an increasingly animated conversation around and just outside the door.

Then our convention organizer and the leader of the social workers returned to us and with
an enforced sense of calm, announced that the community had decided we outsiders were not
welcome. We were to leave immediately. We were quickly instructed not to react or respond
in any way as we walked through the crowd. No matter what the community members said
or did, we were to move quickly, together, to the bus. We rose in unison, fear and our leaders'
terse advice focusing our minds, and walked out, heads down.

Though there was no taunting, we walked through a gauntlet of palpably angry people, a
viscous hostility. Afterwards, in my private room, I wrote, "Hated! Hated for the color of
my skin!" And though I burned with the injustice of that and my eyes burned with tears, my
comfort zone was porous, and I was in a new, completely unfamiliar world. I am grateful to
those community members, empowered and furiously angry, who cared enough to deliver that
surprising, scary, gritty truth through their hostile, penetrating stares. And now, some 44 years
later, I still hear and feel their thunderous honesty and courage rending my privileged isolation
and bloodless placidity.