Column by Brandon Wolak
Brandon Wolak is a PhD Student in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis in the College of Education, the President of the Educational Leadership Graduate Student Association, and a Carter Center Fellow at the University of Missouri.
In the 34 years I have been on this earth, I have lived in four different states and visited 11 countries. My computer’s hard drive is filled with a lifetime of memories from my travels. I have made new friends, visited landmarks, eaten new food, drank delicious beer and wine, and even found time to wonder off the well-worn tourist trail.
Through all these experiences, I have learned a lot about myself and the world. Most of all, I have learned the importance of humility and empathy. We humans have a lot to learn from one another. Being a life-long student — to me at least — means being a life-long traveler. I never would have guessed that I could travel extensively and meaningfully without leaving Columbia, Missouri
Taking a Journey
In spring of 2017, my adviser encouraged me to participate in Inclusive Excellence Boone County’s “Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence.” Along my “journey,” I would attend various “experiences” throughout Columbia and record my attendance in a personalized “passport.”
According to their website, the objectives of the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence are to help participants develop self-awareness of biases and the roles such biases play both personally and professionally, to learn how to create a community where all feel valued and can thrive, to recognize privilege and oppression and their twin impacts on our community, and to commit to impacting the systems which oppress others personally and professionally.
Over the course of spring and summer, I attended a variety of Passport Experiences. Some were big and celebratory; others were small and directly focused on stated objectives. At each experience, I was surprised and encouraged by the willingness for community members to celebrate and critically discuss race, gender, religion, and identity.
Although the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence is tied to the University of Missouri’s Division of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity, members of the broader Columbia community attended each experience I visited.
I met nurses, retirees, teachers, and stay-at-home parents. I also met people of diverse ages, skin colors, genders, and sexual orientations. I took note of participant demographics at each of the smaller experiences that I attended, and I was typically one of the only participants associated with the University of Missouri. At most, I was one of two or three white males present.
While I attended nine total experiences from March through August, five experiences stood out to me as particularly noteworthy.
My first experience on the journey took place on March 6, 2018. The experience was titled “Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks.”
Not knowing what to expect, I arrived at the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services building at noon and found my way back to a small meeting area. After checking in (and earning my first Passport stamp) I took a seat at one of the tables, which were arranged in a U-shape. One of the presenters greeted us and explained that we would go around the room and introduce ourselves — there were 12 of us, plus two presenters. Next, we watched a segment of the documentary titled Unnatural Causes.
This segment focused on the relatively high number of infants in the U.S. who die before their first birthday. Worse still, we learned that Black infants are nearly twice as likely to die before their first birthday, even when these babies are born to parents with high socioeconomic status. I was stunned and saddened by what I learned, but I was equally encouraged by the thoughtful, solution-oriented conversation that took place afterward.
Not all experiences were as sobering as my first. In fact, my second experience was the exact opposite. On April 4, I was fortunate to attend the Ellington’s Evening of Music and Poetry featuring Lalah Hathaway.
Before Hathaway even took the stage, Jesse Auditorium was filled to the rafters with energy from spoken word poetry and soaring bass solos. DJ Spark spun records during the intermission while the crowd partied and danced, eagerly anticipating the main act. And then… Wow! Hathaway flat-out owned the night. Hit after hit, Hathaway’s soulful voice sent chills down my spine. I remember looking around during her set and seeing everyone in the auditorium absolutely spellbound. This experience was my favorite because it brought together the entire community to celebrate our common humanity through art.
The third notable event that I attended was the Mid-Journey Mixer at Kimball Ballroom on the campus of Stephens College. Like the Ellington’s Evening of Music and Poetry, the Mid-Journey Mixer was celebratory and well-attended. I arrived to find the ballroom set up with circular banquet tables. Music played as children enjoyed a book sale and photo area. A group of teenage hip hop dancers warmed up in one corner of the event space, while a high school slam poetry team nervously rehearsed near the entrance.
By the time the event started, there were well over 100 participants. To kick off the event, Nikki McGruder welcomed the attendees and discussed the successes of the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence at the midway point. Next, Dr. Kevin McDonald, MU Vice Chancellor and UM System Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, spoke about the program’s successes, as well as the importance of improved inclusion, diversity, and equity initiatives throughout Columbia.
Following these addresses, the audience enjoyed performances from several dance teams, a slam poetry team, and a mother-son dance duet. Attendees then mingled, savored refreshments, and shared experiences. Again, I left the event feeling encouraged by seeing people from across the community come together in celebration.
The fourth experience that I attended was the Inclusive Excellence Mile. By this point in my journey, I knew what to expect: community, positivity, and celebration. The Mile Run was equal parts pep rally, athletic competition, and block party. As music pumped throughout the area around Stankowski Field on the Mizzou campus, young and old alike gathered to chat, snack, and cheer as participants ran a timed mile.
After everyone had crossed the finish line, attendees strolled around Stankowski Field and ate a catered lunch. Of all the events that I attended, this one had a decidedly collegiate feel, as there were many attendees who were clearly university students. With that said, I saw a few familiar, non-student faces from previous experiences that I had attended.
Finally, I attended a community meeting that focused on bringing together Columbia residents to discuss issues concerning access to healthful food. The experience was held at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Center, and as best as I could tell, not all attendees were participating in the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence. There were several interactive displays throughout this experience, and each display featured a presenter who asked participants to explore solutions for providing access to healthful food for all residents of the city.
Because I am not a resident — I live in Kansas City — I found myself observing more in this setting than I had in previous experiences. As I took in my surroundings and the interactions all around me, I was overcome with feelings of hope. Roughly 40 people were engaged in conversations about making their community a better, healthier place for all. The conversations were all about solutions and not just diagnosing a problem. Again, I left feeling hopeful.
During my experiences with the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence, I became a better citizen and traveler without ever leaving Columbia. My critiques for the program are the same that I have for traveling in general: seeking and enjoying celebrations, food, and music is easy, while leaving the well-worn trail in search of more challenging experiences remains difficult.
I hope that non-celebratory experiences gain greater traction in future iterations of this program. It would be a wonderful sight to see hundreds of community members contemplating the challenges of infant mortality or access to food. Nevertheless, I have hope for a brighter tomorrow. I am inspired by what I saw during my journey, and I am better for having traveled.
This post originally appeared in IDENTIFY Issue 3.