Leading while Black in Yellow Springs
- Published: August 5, 2020
Facing Race: This is third in a series on the impacts of racism in Yellow Springs and local anti-racist efforts and approaches.
Other articles in this series
Steve McQueen was elected to the Yellow Springs school board in 2017. He’s currently the board’s only Black member — a distinction he sees as both significant and not.
It’s significant partly because he was elected to the position in a majority-white town, which to McQueen means that white residents wanted to see him, a Black man, in the role. That distinguishes Yellow Springs, even at this late date, from some surrounding communities, he believes. But at the same time, “being Black” can be an overly determined or fraught role.
“I’m representing everyone who shares the same skin color,” he reflected, not just of his school board service, but his participation more generally in public life. That representation is not sought, but rather imposed or assumed within a culture that centuries ago created the concept of race and made it a determining feature of life for Black Americans, McQueen explained.
“It’s annoying, but I grew up knowing that,” he said of the expectation that he “represent his race.”
To McQueen, race is a construct, and so “representing his race” is, in a sense, an absurd or impossible project. At the same time, it’s an everyday reality, and one he accepts for that reason. If by being himself, he is representing his race — so be it.
Another local Black leader, Village Council member Kevin Stokes, shares some, but not all, of those views. He recalled an early awareness that TV coverage of topics such as poverty and welfare exclusively featured images of Black people, counter to the reality that many people of all races are poor, and many rely on welfare. But the images on the TV screen were “of Black faces only.” To Stokes, that was one way society “taught that Black people are lesser people.”
“That’s the lie told,” he said. “In America, white everything is better than Black everything.”
By high school — and maybe, less consciously, far earlier — he was aware of, as he put it, “my responsibility to represent my race and culture — to humanize my race and culture” to those who might hold negative or hostile views of Black people, or lack experience in relating to Black Americans.
It’s a responsibility Stokes said he’s willing to embrace, one partly imposed and partly coming from within. He feels good about who he is, he said, and as a born-again Christian, he is filled with love for, and a desire to serve, his fellow human beings.
“I want you to see my color. What you do with it is up to you,” he said.
These are two examples of the complex and individual dynamics of being a Black person, and especially a Black leader, in a majority-white society. In this week’s article, the third in the News’ current series, “Facing Race,” we take a closer look at the interplay of race and representation in the village, based on interviews with six Black villagers in elected and other leadership roles locally. What is it like to be a Black leader — to “lead while Black” in Yellow Springs? What are the barriers? What are the pressures and challenges, and what are the opportunities?
No lack of leaders
Yellow Springs has never lacked for Black leaders. From the first formerly enslaved person, Jeff Williams, to serve on Village Council in the 1880s, to James McKee, one of the nation’s first Black police chiefs of a predominantly white town, to decades of Black Council members and school board members, a Black mayor, school leaders and community activists down to the present day, public life here has been shaped and guided by African American leaders.
Gerry Simms is one of those leaders. A local resident since 1972, Simms served two terms on the Yellow Springs school board and two on Village Council, as well as making a run for mayor in 2017, among other community contributions. In his experience, Black villagers have been consistently involved in local government.
“I always felt that Black residents were represented on school board and Council,” he said.
A retired budget analyst at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Simms said Black villagers stepped into leadership roles during the 1960s and beyond in part because many were employed in positions of responsibility at the base and “applied that leadership to the village.”
Such involvement in public life is vital to keeping Black villagers’ interests and concerns heard and addressed, he added.
“It’s important to always have a voice and not be in the back seat,” he said.
While Yellow Springs native and school leader John Gudgel agrees Black leaders have played key roles in Yellow Springs, he’s witnessed a decline in representation from the 1970s, when, for a time, most major leadership positions in the Village were filled by Black residents.
“It’s pale in comparison with the 1970s,” he said, referring to a broad swath of leadership positions in local government, nonprofits and businesses.
According to Gudgel, that decline tracks — but isn’t entirely explained by — the decline in the Black population in Yellow Springs, from a high of almost 30% in 1970 to around 12% today.
Part of the problem, as Gudgel sees it, is the small pool of Black residents who are invited — typically by white community leaders — to join boards or commissions locally.
“It seems the same names are always floated,” he said.
Kineta Sanford, who moved to the village in 2017 and was appointed in late 2018 to Village Council, completing the final year of Council member Judith Hempfling’s term, echoed that observation.
“The same people are tapped for positions,” she said.
Yet among the village’s 400 or so Black residents, there are surely others who might be interested in a chance for community leadership, Sanford pointed out.
“And if nobody is interested — you have to ask why,” she added.
‘The only one’
When Sanford served on Council, she was not the lone Black voice, serving alongside Stokes. But in other situations, such as at area nonprofit network meetings, Sanford, who works for Home, Inc., said she has been the only person of color in the group, or one of just a few.
That position can be isolating, uncomfortable and burdensome, she said.
“I don’t like to — people don’t like to — be the only one,” she said.
Sanford described a double bind that being “the only one” often entails. On the one hand, issues related to race and diversity are automatically assigned by whites to the person of color to solve or “fix,” she said. It’s like that one person “is responsible for taking care of all the issues we’ve created over the years,” she added.
But on the other hand, the input of a single individual, however grounded in lived experiences and a grasp of others’ similar experiences, may be discounted on just that basis — as the story of one.
She encountered a version of this during her year on Council. Excited to amplify the voices of younger, more diverse residents — residents like herself, a Black woman in her twenties — she felt somewhat stymied in bringing a new set of experiences and views to Council’s attention during discussions of local housing costs and village affordability.
Sharing the stories of friends unable to live in Yellow Springs because of the cost of living here or those who could afford the village, but opted for a more diverse community, Sanford said her input tended to be dismissed as “just stories,” lacking the weight of data.
Yet such stories illuminated the social, economic and generational inequities that are making Yellow Springs as a whole whiter, richer and older than it used to be, she said.
“As a liberal white town, there’s a desire to avoid the conversation of inequality,” she observed.
And as a Black person in a majority-white community, it’s difficult to push that conversation — even as whites assume you should be carrying its weight.
As a result of recent experiences, Sanford has decided to decline participation in groups or situations that involve her being the only person of color, or to ask how the group can be expanded to become more diverse.
“It’s not a healthy situation to ask Black people to be in it alone,” she said.
She believes that reaching out to numerous people of color to participate in a given group, not just one or two, is essential. And she further believes that white people should be willing not just to expand the group’s diversity — but, at times, step aside.
One question for white participants might be “who do you know who’s a person of color who can take your place?” she offered. “That’s the more difficult thing,” she acknowledged. “Power is hard to give up.”
Gudgel, in his varied roles as a high school principal, school leader and coach, said he has often felt extra and unwarranted scrutiny connected to being the sole Black leader in a given situation.
“At times, I felt like I had to prove myself that much more … because I was watched that much more closely,” he said.
Over the years, he has also experienced a casual or reflexive devaluing of his leadership, communicated in comments such as, “Your kids are so athletic,” referring to the students he was coaching in track, or “Yellow Springs has exceptionally smart kids.” These comments minimize his role as a coach and educator, he pointed out, and, in some cases, also diminish the learned skills and hard work of students.
Sanford said she sees subtle, and sometimes unsubtle, resistance to Black leadership in Yellow Springs. While white villagers are willing, even eager, to be represented by Black leaders on a national level, they are less so when the leadership touches their everyday lives.
“We like progressivism on a national scale, but reject it locally,” she said, adding that such dynamics are well documented in liberal, majority-white communities around the country.
Range of experiences
Yet, where whites are willing and able to listen to the input of Black leaders, the results can be positive.
WYSO senior producer Basim Blunt, creator of youth voices program Dayton Youth Radio, described a recent instance of advocating for the rerun of a Dayton Youth Radio segment involving a 16-year-old Black youth in the region who had been stopped four times by police. It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some white staff members felt the piece was “really a bummer for listeners” at that time.
But Blunt, the sole Black member of the radio station’s core staff, pressed his point. “The pandemic doesn’t care if you’re Black. If you’ve got Black skin, you still have to deal with the police, your family still may not be making as much income,” he said, citing instances of race-based inequities that endure, pandemic or no pandemic.
The team had a “really good discussion,” and the segment aired, with strong positive feedback from listeners.
“That’s why I love our WYSO family,” Blunt said, adding that he feels his views consistently matter to colleagues.
Both Stokes and Simms reported overall positive experiences of representing the community on Council.
Stokes ran for the position in 2017 partly on a platform of “optics” — stressing the symbolic importance of having Black representation on Council, as well as other areas of public life. For most of his term, he’s been the only Black member. But this fact doesn’t mean he represents Black villagers “more” than white villagers, he said.
“I want to serve every individual in the village,” he said, adding that he sees that commitment as part of Council’s charge, as well as reflective of his own outgoing, people-centric personality.
Yet Stokes also recognizes that his very presence might “change the conversation,” bringing more diversity of perspective and experience than otherwise would exist. And that’s extremely beneficial, he said.
“I believe a room full of people where everyone looks alike keeps the same conversation going — the status quo. Introduce differences, and the conversation changes,” he said.
Stokes is passionate about the need for, and efficacy of, implicit bias training, which early in his term he helped bring to all Village staff, Council and police. To those skeptical that such training truly shifts people’s perspectives and behavior, he said he believes making biases more conscious is a prerequisite to cultivating a meditation-like awareness of what’s in our minds — but doesn’t have to determine our actions.
“It’s okay that bias exists, but it’s not okay that it persists,” he said.
Of his two terms on Council, Simms said he felt he had a good working relationship with white colleagues, and didn’t feel separated from them because of race.
“It was never racial. It was just what’s best for the total community,” Simms said.
Yet it’s also the case that Simms ran for his previous position on the local school board, serving in the late 1980s and early 1990s, specifically because of an instance of blatant racism at the schools involving his elder daughter. A school official called to complain that her Afro was “disruptive,” and requested that her hair style be changed. The family declined to do so — Simms recalled that his wife’s response was, “Hell, no” — and he decided then to seek a school board seat, running some years later.
“It was a surprise to us. We had heard how liberal Yellow Springs was,” he recalled of the incident, which happened in the mid-1970s.
While current school board member McQueen brings to the five-member board a honed sensitivity to racial dynamics because he is Black, he also strongly believes that race itself is constructed or created. Race is “real” only in the way money is real, he said. American society is constructed around it, and so it has reality, but it is not, in itself, something that actually exists, he explained.
“We’ve never seen a society without it,” he said. “So at this point, it’s real.”
Perhaps as a result of that core belief, McQueen said he is careful not to leap to judgment about incidents that seem to be “racial” because they involve a conflict or tension between Black and white individuals. Sometimes race is the driving factor, sometimes it’s not, he said. As the only Black member of the school board, McQueen — perhaps paradoxically — keeps an open mind about issues assumed by white colleagues or the community at large to hinge on race.
He is likewise cautious about assuming that issues happening nationally automatically play out in similar ways, or at all, on a local level.
“I look at things as they come. I don’t like to make national issues local,” he said, countering a tendency he sees in Yellow Springs.
McQueen said he loves Yellow Springs, having moved here in 2003 to attend Antioch College. The village is more attuned to racial issues than other communities in his experience — and sometimes over-attuned. As one example, McQueen cited a recent diversity training at the local schools that was, literally, “Black and white.” By focusing exclusively on racism, the training did a disservice to students who have a broader range of identity issues they’re grappling with, particularly around sexual identity, McQueen believes.
Whereas labeling an issue “Black” is often a way to dismiss it elsewhere, such a label can make it “more important” in Yellow Springs — even if the issue at hand is potentially more nuanced or multi-faceted, he said.
Because “Black issues” were so long ignored precisely for their connection to Black people, it’s a “hard thing” for people, including Black people, to detach from the label, he acknowledged.
Race is an “absurd” concept that is also profoundly complex and needs historical study and context, according to McQueen.
“We need to talk about race, period,” he said. “It’s always talked about after some incident that harmed someone.”
Being the ‘spokesperson’
Gudgel agrees with the need to talk about race not just sometimes but “365 days a year,” the founding premise of the local group The 365 Project, which he co-leads.
xPartly because of that involvement, and partly because of his role as a former principal and longtime school leader, Gudgel is often asked by white villagers — including the all-white staff of this newspaper — to address issues of concern to Black residents. Being the de facto “spokesperson” on race locally has good and bad aspects, he said.
On the good side, he recognizes that people feel he’s informed and insightful. But on the bad side, he may be subtly pressured into, or construed as, speaking for all Black villagers — when he can only really speak for himself.
“John is just one Black person with his own opinion,” he said. Being asked to deliver more than that is “a difficult dance,” he added.
Gudgel acknowledged that some Black villagers are unwilling to speak out about experiences of racism in the village because of “fear of public reprisals.” For example, those who rent may be wary of retaliation from landlords, while those with children in local schools may fear angering teachers or peers’ parents. Some who have spoken out report having experienced such consequences, so the fear isn’t just theoretical, Gudgel added.
Yet there’s another reason why a single individual, or a handful of individuals, is often asked to weigh in for 400 Black residents. That reason is the scant to nonexistent representation of Black villagers in some local institutions.
This is true of the Yellow Springs News, which has never had a Black editor and has had, briefly, just one Black reporter in memory, as well as a couple of Black columnists, including longtime staff member Pat Matthews (who started working at the News in the 1940s) and Bomani Moyenda currently.
The News’ lack of a Black reporter has long been a “sore point” for Black residents, according to Gudgel.
As a community newspaper, the News speaks of, from and for the community, yet its reporting staff doesn’t reflect the community it’s covering, Gudgel pointed out.
“It’s hard to be a voice from the community when you’re missing out on a segment of that community,” he said.
Discussing the same dynamic, Sanford, who applied for and was offered a reporting position at the News in 2018, but ultimately chose to work elsewhere, emphasized the need for institutions like the News to “affirmatively market” their openings. It’s not enough to just hope to get Black applicants — you have to actively seek them out, she said.
Yet that, too, could be described as a “difficult dance,” especially if undertaken superficially, or with a spirit of tokenism.
Blunt recounted that he had been asked to join local boards because “the organization needed some color.” Sometimes openly stated, sometimes implied, the invitation is less than appealing, he said.
“It’s pretty racist,” he said, adding that Yellow Springs overall has been receptive in meaningful ways to his, and his family’s, presence and contributions.
McQueen offered a slightly different view of what he called the “double-edged sword” of being asked to step into a leadership role as a Black person. You can drive yourself crazy asking, “Was it on my own merits?” he reflected. Or you can step outside the dynamics and get to work, as local Black leaders do.
“If tokenism got me there, I’ll take it,” McQueen said, with a laugh. “I’m not going to do nothing with this position — I’m going to help.”