My Story - June 5, 2020 Message
We never forget the people who invest in our lives and help shape our worldview. For me, Sam Dunlap was one of those people. Last August at staff convocation, I shared a bit with our D38 Team about who Sam was to me and his impact on my life. Especially in light of recent protests related to the untimely death of George Floyd and so many other African-Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sam and what he might say about recent events in our country.
Born in 1933, Sam was a Colorado Springs native, and grew up at a time when Jim Crow laws and Black Codes were firmly embedded into the social fabric. Like all blacks, Sam could only swim in the city pool once a week, the day before it would be cleaned. When he went to see a movie, he sat on the balcony. The laundry list of discriminatory practices and systemic racial oppression goes on and on.
As Sam shared stories with me about his experiences growing up as a young black male, he also told me about mentors in the community who reached out to connect with him. One of the mentors Sam spoke fondly of was former Colorado Springs Chief of Police, Dad Bruce. Sam saw Chief Bruce as someone who intervened in his life when he could have taken another path. Even against the backdrop of a racially divided community, Chief Bruce went beyond the color lines to see Sam as being more than just the color of his skin. As Sam grew from these experiences and many others, he eventually devoted his adult life to making a positive difference in the lives of children throughout the Colorado Springs community.
As Sam’s stature and reputation grew in the community, his kids often referred to him as Uncle Bud or “Unk.” Unk was used as a term of endearment reflecting Sam’s paternal character, full of unconditional love and concern for the care and well-being of a bunch of “knuckleheads” - just a bunch of teenage boys that may not have been given the time of day otherwise. Unk went out of his way to find kids who everyone else gave up on, to pick them up when they had no one else to turn to. I saw Unk do this in countless ways and with countless kids who came from much harder circumstances than myself.
For some reason, Unk took me under his wing in a very unique way. In many ways, I was the prototypical white kid growing up in 80’s/90’s suburbia. My mom and dad both had good jobs and took good care of us. I wasn’t lacking for anything, and yet, Unk saw something in me for which I am eternally grateful. He provided me with love, attention, and support which allowed me the benefit of a broader perspective on life.
Unk welcomed me with full arms as a member of his family. As a result, I was introduced to black life and culture in a way that most white people have never had the chance to experience. While it may have looked weird to others on the outside, I never felt out of place, or uncomfortable in this space. That’s because I was accepted by Unk and his family in a way that went beyond my skin tone, and instead, pierced right to my heart and my core. During this process, I came to realize clearly how my being white, a white male at that, afforded me automatic privilege and status that is not granted to any other member of our society.
I also came to learn how many of my black brothers and sisters were experiencing the deep wounds, pain, and endless hardships associated with actions made against them as a function of their skin color, their Blackness. I learned how there was really no way for me to completely understand what it was like to be black, and that unless I walked a good mile in a black person’s shoes, that it wasn’t fair or right for me to judge or condemn them for how I thought they should act or behave.
I share all this background because when I think about the prevalence and systematic forms of racism and violence against black people, and other marginalized cultures, I am mindful that these issues are still alive and well in our country. If Sam were here to share his insights, I think he would acknowledge how upsetting it is that while we’ve come so far, there is still such a long way to go. He would also refocus his attention immediately on figuring out how to take care of kids in need. Sam never wasted time in worrying too much about what was going on at a national level, or getting too caught up in a virtual media storm. He would figure out how to make a positive difference in a child’s life at that very moment and do just that. For Sam, it was always best to keep things simple and focus on what he could control.
So in light of all of this, what do we do exactly, and where do we go from here?
I believe that all educators, particularly white educators, must acknowledge what our white privilege affords us as members of a dominant culture in society. As white people, we have to open our eyes and realize that for individuals of color, they must work within a culture and a system that is intended to serve members of the dominant majority culture. This does not mean that white people are inherently racist, but rather, that systemic racism is real, and that white people are afforded inherent privileges that members of a minority culture are not.
It may be easy, from the safety of homes, to say this does not affect us, but the ripples of pain and anguish that result from ongoing systemic racism do indeed impact each and every one of us. We are each learning and growing in our understanding of how systemic racism impacts our relationships, our friends and family, and our own psyche. In our learning, it is imperative to acknowledge the differences among us with compassion and empathy. To our neighbors, friends, community members of color, I want to convey this: I see you and I hear you. I understand you have a different lived experience than I do, and I want to understand so that we can grow and heal together.
In D38, we are committed to actively contributing to the healing and repair that is desperately needed in our world today. At a local level, we strive to be a safe and inclusive community for each and every one of our students, to disrupt racism, and to support our community of color and all members of our community. We know that the fight against racism, oppression, and hate cannot fall by default on our community members of color. We must lead it together. We are committed to our efforts to enact anti-racism and social justice in our schools and to supporting the unique needs of our students of color, including our Black and African American students, as the too frequent victims of racism and racist acts.
I stand side by side with our community and our district to continue doing everything we can to heal and grow together. I thank you for your partnership in talking with your children often about racism. Our families of color must have these conversations on a regular basis, most likely daily. However, it is the work of all communities to work for the rejection of deep-rooted racism and harm that communities of color are experiencing.
To all of our D38 students and families, I want you to know that we stand in collective support of the beautiful and growing diversity among us. We are committed to working every single day with others to make our schools and community places for each and every member of our community to thrive and prosper. We strive to do our part to build an environment that is safe and inclusive. We sometimes fail in that mission when a student, a family or a staff member feels unseen, unheard, or unwelcome. Please know that we’ll never stop listening, learning, and working to fulfill our responsibilities to our community.
It’s been a little over a year since Sam’s passing, and not a day goes by when I don’t hear his voice, his wisdom, and reflect on so many of life’s lessons that he shared with me. As I share this story with you, I reflect all the more on how much I miss his presence, his passion, and his soul. Sam taught me that in spite of all the divisions, there are certain truths that can transcend skin color, and that together, we have more in common than what can tear us apart. I firmly believe that what’s happening today in our country provides an opportunity for a reawakening of the ideals and hopes that our country is founded upon … “with liberty and justice for all.” Let us work on better understanding our differences and take the time to learn more about ways that we can support each other and take a stand against racism.
For more on Sam’s life and legacy his obituary is linked here.