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“Acknowledge the wrong doings and the past and current failures of the system.” With Jamaal May

Acknowledge the wrong doings and the past and current failures of the system. For example, when racism is brought up today or people talk about dismantling the system, many times you hear the rebuttal that ‘we aren’t our ancestors,’ or ‘racism doesn’t still exist today.’ At that point we fail to recognize or acknowledge the impact […]

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Acknowledge the wrong doings and the past and current failures of the system. For example, when racism is brought up today or people talk about dismantling the system, many times you hear the rebuttal that ‘we aren’t our ancestors,’ or ‘racism doesn’t still exist today.’ At that point we fail to recognize or acknowledge the impact that 400 years of slavery still has on society today.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Jamaal May.

Jamaal May, a native of Locust Grove, Georgia, and former student-athlete football player at Georgia State University, currently serves as the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Albert Wilson Foundation (AWF). The Foundation is co-founded by best friend and former college teammate, Miami Dolphins WR Albert Wilson it strives to enrich the lives of children in foster care (Wilson, too, came up through the foster care system). It works to change the destiny of foster children and break the cycle of abuse, neglect and abandonment. With an average of 40–60% of foster youth identifying as Black or Hispanic, in July, the Foundation expanded its mission to also serve as a voice and an agent of change dedicated to raising awareness for social justice and racial inequalities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born in Memphis, TN, and moved to Metro Atlanta when I was 3. I lived in a metro suburb, which was a pretty diverse area, but at the time was mainly Hispanic and Black. It wasn’t a rough neighborhood or anything, but it was a starter community for my family. My family and I lived there until I was in 3rd grade, and then we moved to another suburb further south in the metro area, Locust Grove. Before we moved, all of my classmates looked like me, but I remember coming home from my first day of school at Locust Grove Elementary School and telling my parents I had never seen so many white people in my life. I was the only Black boy in my class, and there were only 3 Black students total in his class. It is the type of town where everyone knows everyone, grew up together and had family in the area.

My mom is an educator, and my dad is a minister. Education was always very important in my house. My mom keeps a sign in her classroom that an original is always better than a copy. She was intentional about me being around positive examples of men whether at church or in the community, and my dad emphasized being a leader at all times. My dad and I to this day continue to say it’s always the right time to do the right thing. I also have 2 older sisters who I’ve learned a lot from. It was instilled in my sisters and I to always stand firm in our convictions. We saw this first-hand while watching my dad walk away from a great job with the Federal Bureau to pursue ministry full time. He believed that was his calling. He saw where work needed to be done, and through Faith, actively pursued it. I believe this is partly why I believe so strongly in entrepreneurship and where I’ve developed my resilience and work ethic. Overall the ‘tough love’ (as I like to call it) that I grew up with, along with the principles and lessons passed down from my parents and older siblings, have played a great role in shaping who I am and drove me to fight for the causes I stand behind today.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham. This book is significant because my dad is from Birmingham and I had visited the area so much that I could relate to the places where certain things were referenced in the book. I learned more history about the Civil Rights era and it was significant for me to read about things that happened at places I had been to. I first read this book in 5th grade and I remember the images it put in my mind and was able to see things so clearly from my experiences visiting the area. I couldn’t put the book down; I couldn’t wait to finish it. It resonated so much with me because it hit so close to home. I felt like there was a part of me that was in that book, especially with my dad growing up there and taking me to see some of the places that I read about in the book. I talked to people and family who remembered when certain things happened or being scared to do things due to their race. This was also when I first started learning about Jim Crow laws, segregation and desegregation of schools and the book really encouraged me to take advantage and ask questions to learn from people who had experienced these things firsthand.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I have 2:

“Life’s obstacles wouldn’t be called hurdles if there wasn’t a way to get over them” — this is relevant to me as an athlete. When you think about a track runner or hurdler, at a young age the hurdles are at a certain height and they get higher and higher the older you get. As you continue to go through life, the hurdles and obstacles may get higher and harder, but with each hurdle you make it over you’re preparing and getting better so you can get over the next hurdle. Each lesson we learn in life prepares us to go through and get over the next hurdle we face in life.

“The same shade tree that you plant today, you’ll never cool under” — I keep that in mind because you can put so much effort and time into something and never see the fruits of your labor. And perhaps certain things may not be for me to see — it may be for my kids or other people to benefit from the work and seeds that I planted today. Same with life’s work and being a servant; people have been fighting a fight for equality for long before me and possibly way after me, but the important thing is that the fight continues.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership and leaders as people who know how to get things done and know how to win. Positive leaders know how to effectively communicate on both ends by both listening and talking. There are plenty of people who lead, who aren’t effective leaders. Effective leaders have the mental fortitude to acknowledge what they excel at and acknowledge their short-comings. Effective leaders can relate to those whom they are leading because they can communicate how they got there and the process it took to get to that point. Leadership is being able to get things done, effectively communicate and be honest and transparent with where you are and who you are. If a leader can’t acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers then they can’t be a solid leader.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Proper planning prevents poor performance. As an athlete, there were times that I remember going into a game on Saturday and knowing that I, or the team, was not prepared to put the best product out on the field. The same concept applies in business. Whether I’m meeting with people who are strategic partners, potential donors for fundraising support, grant writers, etc., I take time to prepare and do some research. It’s important to know who the key players are, what these companies do, and value the time of the individuals I’m meeting with so that we have a productive meeting. I like to have a game plan for everything. I revert things back to football often. In football, you have an entire playbook, but you don’t use every play in every game. However, you still practice all of the plays, so when it’s time to run something new and reach back into your playbook, you’re ready because you’ve practiced it. In business, each company or meeting is going to be different, but through preparation, I strive to always be ready for different opportunities as they arise.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

These same things that have been going on for years, but 2020 put us in a position where life came to a pause or slowed down dramatically due to the pandemic. Systemic racism may not be overt or in your face, but it’s something that Black people in America experience daily. I think that COVID is the boiling point because it forced people to see and hear the cries of the oppressed. While everyone was stuck inside or working from home, they weren’t rushing to get to the next thing, and it forced people to actually see and process these things that are going on. Racism isn’t new, it’s just being recorded. These things have been going on for years, but now we see these images and videos time and time again, and see situations where justice hasn’t been served. Now, add in COVID-19, which disproportionately affects Black and brown communities, where people are losing jobs, struggling to make ends meet and feeling like their voices aren’t being heard — to go home and see another Black man murdered on tape — it’s exhausting. It puts people in a position where they have to relive traumatic experiences. Then, for Black people to be asked to come up with solutions for how to fix racism when Black people didn’t create racism is baffling. It’s a lot to process in the midst of trying to take care of your family during a pandemic, your mental health and then you have to be bothered with trying to educate your neighbors about the Black experience…it’s like a constant poking to where people are exhausted and need a release. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many of the protests and rioting or hearing these conversations take place — there are so many raw emotions right now. People are tired of not being heard or being intentionally ignored.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Prior to stepping into my role full time as the Executive Director of AWF I served as the Student-Athlete Development Coordinator at Oregon State University. During this time, I was also the Chapter advisor for the Iota Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and program advisor for our student-led program “Real Talk.” Real Talk is a program established to create a space for minority students to have a safe space to discuss experiences unique to them in life as well as on-campus at a predominantly white institution (PWI). We discussed hot topics that students felt were prevalent on a bi-weekly basis. I am a firm believer that if you have a greater understanding of your teammates’ experience and where they come from not only can you become a better ally; but also, a better teammate. It was great to see student-athletes come together to not only discuss sensitive topics but work towards developing solutions to educate and change things within their sport, athletic department, campus and the community. The program quickly evolved from the perception of “just a Black thing” to a social and educational forum with like-minded individuals eager to learn and create change.

As the Chapter advisor on campus we had a great opportunity to help bring a chapter back to campus that had been absent for almost 10 years. I took pride in this opportunity because I knew how significant it was to have the presence of another Black organization on campus. This process fostered many great relationships between athletics and the campus as a whole. More so, it strengthened the network within the Greek community through representation and the value of having different perspectives. Most campus leadership positions are held by students from Greek organizations so this opportunity empowered young men and created an avenue for them to pursue and secure leadership positions, as well.

At AWF we strive to seek and create opportunities for foster youth as well as youth in underserved communities. We believe it is vital for those in leadership positions to be a direct reflection of the populations they serve. Representation matters! Our D&I initiatives intentionally drive and impact who we partner with. This goes beyond race — meaning we believe it is best to work with individuals who have real experiences with foster care, rather than those with little to no experience in the space but yet make decisions for and on behalf of our youth. We want to challenge companies and organizations not to limit their involvement in social justice and equality to just a monetary donation, but to be reflected through diverse leadership, professional/career development pipelines for minorities and women to advance to executive positions, a corporate diversity supplier program to support and buy from vendors who are run by women and minorities and a transparent approach to D&I.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

To start it is important to not limit diversity to one thing. We see all too often for example an all-white male executive team will add a white woman to the board and now they consider themselves diverse. That is an inaccurate definition and reflection of diversity. In addition to that, it is important for executive teams to not only be diverse but also be inclusive. There is a saying that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” Inclusion is being invited to partake, or help plan the dance. You have people who pick the music, who pick the DJ, the setup, the venue, the food. True inclusion isn’t just showing up and dancing, but having a say in what happens at the dance. In the height of what is going on in our society it is not enough to put out a statement saying we stand with the BLM movement and then to hire a Chief Diversity Officer. True D&I work cannot be effectively done by one individual. There needs to be a team and actual resources devoted to D&I work. Leadership teams need to have real conversations about what is going on and how it directly impacts their employees and their business. In order to effectively create change and propel a movement forward and not just pacify a moment, leadership teams need to be diverse across the board in all areas. They need to be inclusive, to value inclusion and be open to the different perspectives and experiences their team members bring.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Acknowledge the wrongdoings and the past and current failures of the system. For example, when racism is brought up today or people talk about dismantling the system, many times you hear the rebuttal that ‘we aren’t our ancestors,’ or ‘racism doesn’t still exist today.’ At that point, we fail to recognize or acknowledge the impact that 400 years of slavery still has on society today.
  2. Accountability. Everyone needs to be held accountable, and hold their inner circle and groups of friends accountable, as well. How can you make a difference if you don’t speak up when someone makes insensitive or racist comments or commits acts of hatred? If you see or hear these things in your circle, give those individuals information or articles to read so that they can educate themselves. Don’t always leave it up to Black and brown people to have to educate and defend themselves to others. When you see something; say something. White America needs to be accountable and stop expecting Black and brown people to educate them on issues of race. And when it’s time for action, white America can’t expect Black people to have the solution to resolve something that they didn’t create. Black and brown people didn’t create racism or systemic oppression. We can’t continue to put ownership on the oppressed community and to expect them to solve and fix oppression. The people in power, and those who put these oppressed policies in place, need to be accountable to act and step up to make the necessary changes.
  3. Overhaul the judicial system. Black and brown people should not receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts. Max incarceration is more like an extension of slavery for Black and brown individuals. When you look at the school to prison pipeline, or the system to prison pipeline, there need to be dramatic changes to over-policing in Black and brown communities. Minority youth are targeted at a young age and many times given maximum sentencing as an adult, or put into the prison system, which limits opportunities and leads to more poverty and crime. All of this could be minimized with a justice system that has equal sentencing for all, and helps break a perpetual cycle of poverty and crime for minorities.
  4. Grant fair and equal opportunity and access to both capital and fair and affordable housing. “We understand the challenges that long-term underinvestment in many black communities and cities has created: intergenerational poverty and trauma, violence, and health and educational gaps. And we’re not afraid of them,” said David Gross, Own Our Own founder and CEO. “Our model leverages private capital, and philanthropic and public sector support in partnership with community-based organizations to fill the specific areas of need in a given community. We want to help define a new normal of concentrated, sustained investment in inner-city communities, led by people who care deeply about them.” I believe in entrepreneurship, and America was built on the premise of the American Dream. But, when Black and brown people are limited access to capital, they are in turn limited to their dreams of entrepreneurship. Black and brown people shouldn’t be charged higher interest rates for starting a business and the price of homes owned by a Black family should not be appraised at a lower amount or value than those same or similar homes that were owned by white people. Banks and financial institutions play into the hands of inequality by limiting the resources and options available to Black and brown individuals, companies or businesses. The entire system needs to be overhauled to level the playing field. Here are a few quotes from a CNBC interview with Don Peebles from June 2020, which further detail these points. “If you think about what Black Lives Matters means, is it’s about life in general and the pursuit of happiness and opportunity. And African Americans are frustrated, and have been for quite some time, about the lack of economic opportunity. If you take a look at statistics for example, that the average Black household net worth in the United States is $17,000, compared to around $171,000 for whites.” “I think the issue is more immediate for those people who are in the work world now and that is access to economic opportunity through entrepreneurship; access to capital. Just to give you an alarming statistic, so there is about $73 trillion in the United States invested with asset managers. Less than 1% of them are minorities and women, so the deployment of capital from investors into businesses and start-up businesses, and the like, does not go to African Americans.” “All African Americans want a better life and they know that that pathway to a better life is through economic opportunity. And so access to capital to start the dreams of the small business, to build a business of scale, have got to start with allocation of capital.”
  5. Access to a quality education — grade school through college. “It’s unfortunate that in our country the quality of your education is determined by your zip code.” — Jalen Rose. Black and brown communities all too often don’t have access to resources, teachers, books, technology, or everything else which constitutes quality education, and it’s all based on their zip code or the neighborhoods in which they live. This sets these students up at a disadvantage to their white counterparts and puts them behind the 8-ball early in life. In turn, this forces these students to have to work twice as hard to catch up, or put the onus on themselves to find tools and resources to elevate their education levels beyond what is offered to them. Beyond that, as students prepare for college, the cost associated with college quickly eliminates a large population of students and youth who are simply not able to afford to go to school or who are forced to drown themselves in student loan debt. When they graduate, they are trying to survive on entry-level jobs, with high student loan debt, which hurts their credit, and limits access to opportunity, etc. Black and brown people have to work twice as hard just to merely survive rather than thrive. All of these things tie-in together and need to be heavily examined and reestablished to even have a chance at creating a truly equitable society.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I am optimistic, but more so, I am prayerful and truly believe in better days because I know who is in control. It is in times like this in the thick of adversity that we discover who we are and find out what we are made of. As a believer my faith is in God and I trust that He will keep us and that whatever he is trying to reveal to us in these times that we will open our hearts to receive it. Racism is real, systemic oppression is real. So, as we continue to create dialogue around social injustice around the world we have to acknowledge that none of this is new. These issues have plagued our country for centuries but yet there has only been some progress made. We are far from where we want to be and NEED to be, but we have taken steps forward. Those who are least affected by systemic oppression and social injustice should utilize their privilege in order to amplify the voices of those that have been historically silenced. Those in power need to be held accountable along with those in our communities, inner circles, etc. We must begin with the end in mind. The road will be long but if better is possible, then good is not enough. Better days are ahead.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is a great question. Many individuals come to mind including those who have passed on. However, I would like to have a private breakfast with Real Estate Developer Don Peebles. Don Peebles is Chairman and CEO of the Peebles Corporation and one of the wealthiest African American Real Estate Developers and entrepreneurs in America. I would love to pick his brain while having an in-depth conversation on his many successes, failures, and how he has overcome and continues to overcome hurdles placed in front of him as a Black developer despite having accumulated so much success and wealth. I am interested in learning directly from him about his commitment to philanthropy and political activism. More specifically, his focus on providing economic leadership to minority communities. The Peebles Corporation has developed high profile assets guided by the principles of Affirmative Development™ to help empower women and minorities and close the wealth gap. I believe this is extremely important and creates opportunities to not only have a seat at the table but allows minorities to have valued input and be key contributors. Don Peebles is a true American success story through entrepreneurship. It can be easy to forget where you came from when you reach a level of success and become somewhat removed from certain injustices because of your net worth. However, I believe Don Peebles has remained true to his values and is committed to paying it forward by helping younger individuals who look like him pursue their dreams and aspirations through entrepreneurship. Lastly, if we have the time I would love to pick his brain on Black ownership, if he still has an interest in owning a sports franchise and if he will actively pursue a greater role in politics such as the Mayor of NYC.

How can our readers follow you online?

Albert Wilson Foundation: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlbertWilsonFoundation/; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/albertwilsonfoundation/; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/albert-wilson-foundation/

Jamaal May: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jamaal.may.1; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_j.may/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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