At the top of my inbox yesterday morning was an email with the subject line “I have a heavy heart.” It was from my colleague, Mike White, who holds a full-time contract role with OEN to support entrepreneurs and help build a thriving startup community in the Mid-Willamette Valley. Mike emailed his professional community on Sunday night in response to the nationwide uprisings expressing rage at the systemic racism that has led to so many deaths, including that of George Floyd.
Mike’s email was deeply courageous in that it was personal. With his permission, here’s an excerpt from Mike’s message:
One thing you may not know about me is that I’m black. I’ve always been a black man in white America, but my experience has been different than that of my black family members and friends. My genetic and/or phenotypic characteristics pass me as a white man everywhere I go. There’s no doubt I have experienced different levels of success because I’m white.
Growing up, I went to a 99% white school district in one the wealthiest zip codes in Oregon. Quite different than when I lived in an all black household on 10th in Killingsworth where I walked to MLK Elementary School every day. Two completely different cultures.
The socio-economic difference was so recognizable at a young age, I concluded that I was ‘poor’ in 3rd grade. While I got the opportunity to play three sports growing up, my brother stayed in Portland where he joined the streets in grade school and got lost in the foster care and juvenile system. While I got the opportunity to graduate high school and pursue the great American Dream of going to college, my brother gets shot in the head from gang violence….lucky son of a b$#! survived! While I try to push my career farther and attend graduate school, my brother tries to change his life and makes one last mistake that gets him 10 federal years in prison. During this same period of time, I made mistakes, but I got to hide behind the ‘white boy’ culture. My freedom has been different from my brother’s freedom due to racial, political and socio-economic division.
Mike went on to talk about entrepreneurship and how he believes the work he’s doing to foster it offers hope and the potential for real change on the ground – creating opportunity, building wealth, connecting our communities. I think he’s right, and it motivates me to do this work too. But we also know the issues are many, they are complex and interconnected, they can be painful and violent, and most of us haven’t developed the skills necessary to engage them (or maybe even to face them), yet.
So we’re hitting pause on our regularly scheduled programming (with one notable exception, details below) at OEN for a moment so we can offer our full attention to the conversations about race happening at every level right now. One of the skills we know we need to develop is our ability and willingness to listen when our colleagues like Mike take a risk and speak up.
There will be much more work to do. Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to be involved.
Wishing you well,
OEN President & Executive Director
PS: Promoting *business as usual* feels wrong right now. BUT, Pregame is a Black-owned business and we want our partnership with them to be part of the solution. Join us here: https://www.pregamehq.com/oen.