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Opinion: Why is race so difficult to discuss?

A Wider Lens

Posted online

Throughout this summer’s six Economic Growth Survey forums, workforce development was a consistent concern, and an underlying issue was diversity, primarily ethnic diversity, or lack thereof in our community and workforce. In general, young professionals who we want to recruit to our community and businesses seek and select diverse places. Their options are varied and they are no longer intrinsically tied to home to the extent my generation was and certainly not to the degree of the preceding generations. They can and will go anywhere that fulfills their ideal concept of place.

At the forum on workforce development, during a town hall session moderated by television personality Jeff Houghton and Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson, Houghton made the statement that the topic of race is difficult to discuss. A voice from the middle of the room boomed, “Why?” I leaned over to see the confident face of Mary Ann Rojas, who I am thankful has made Springfield her home as a strong voice for workforce development and people of color. Her question went largely unanswered. “I don’t know why. It just is,” didn’t seem like a thoughtful enough response.

Since that forum I have reflected often on her question and my past to arrive at my answer.

I crave the ethnic diversity of my youth as a student at Fairbanks Elementary, which was rich with people of color and immigrants or at least more so than our overall community. What I didn’t know at the time, Springfield Public Schools had only been integrated for 20 years which meant some of my classmates’ parents and grandparents were most certainly graduates of Lincoln High School, which was an all-black school until 1955. They may have even been related to one of the men murdered by a public mob in the 1906 lynchings in town.

The related conversations around my childhood dinner table were stories of historical triumph, advances, and the figures paramount to emancipation and civil rights. I suspect the conversations around my black classmates’ dinner table were personal stories, family stories, not a history lesson.

Several years ago at SBJ, we had an opportunity to interview and offer a position to a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. This was a milestone for our small publication. She was originally from Kansas City and an African American. Although it was her first visit to Springfield, we learned it was not her first introduction to our community. Our reputation, no matter how dated we perceive it to be, preceded us. In short, she was afraid and her family was afraid for her. I remember asking her if she felt safe in our company and if she felt safe during her two-day stay. She did, but it was not enough. She declined our job offer. My co-workers and I could not make her comfortable enough. And that made me uncomfortable for her.

So, as to my why, the conversation of racial diversity is uncomfortable for me because I have questions and no answers. Diversity is not something we can fake or create overnight. However, I am confident that if I ask the questions and am open to having the difficult conversations, I will be no more uncomfortable than those people of color who have been historically uncomfortable here.

Surely, I can get comfortable being uncomfortable. Can you?

Mar’Ellen Felin is CEO of sbjLive, a video media outlet and spin-off of Springfield Business Journal. She can be reached at mfelin@sbj.net.

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