Local leaders share lessons for Black History Month
GARDNER African-Americans with prominent roles in the local community took the stage at Mount Wachusett Community College on Monday to speak about their successes, challenges and belief that everyone, regardless of their differences, should be given the same opportunities.
The event was part of the college’s Tea Time Speaker series which is organized by Sharmese Gunn, a resource specialist for Gateway to College, a dual-enrollment program for students who have struggled in traditional high school settings.
“Today, we are celebrating Black History Month by celebrating the leadership of African Americans in North Central Massachusetts,” Gunn said. “African-Americans are trailblazers. … We bring such an important perspective to society. African-American history is American history.”
The event featured seven African-American panelists from the area and was moderated by Irene Hernandez, who is president of Three Pyramids Inc. and The Minority Coalition.
The college’s multipurpose room was packed for the event with students, staff and members of the public.
Hernandez began by going over the history of Africans being enslaved beginning in the 1500s, saying that created “institutional and instructional racism.”
She said even before there were Africans brought over as slaves to America, there were people of African descent who were living in the Americas, a fact that is largely unnoticed historically.
When the discussion turned to the panel, one of the focuses was discussing their road to success and the positive difference they seek to make in others’ lives.
Panelist Dana Heath said he was born in 1979 and is from Gardner. Growing up, he was surrounded by alcoholism and drug addiction in his family.
“I never had a mentor,” he said. “I didn’t even know where my food was coming from the next day.”
He now is raising his own children and has become involved in youth sports over the last several years.
He founded the Central Mass Flag Football League which he said has grown to having almost 700 local children play in last year. He also runs the Gardner Biddy Basketball program.
By coaching local youth, Heath has been able to provide to children the guidance he didn’t have as a child.
“I love watching the kids smile and have fun, be active, rather than running the streets like I was,” he said. “Playing sports, staying out of the courts; that’s what it’s all about.”
Panelist Leona Early spoke about her 30-year career at the nonprofit Montachusett Opportunity Council, an anti-poverty agency that serves 30 cities and towns in the region.
She said in current her role as vice president of community programs she is responsible for 75 percent of the programs the agency runs. By staying with the agency over the years and working hard, she was able to show the value she brings and rise to a leadership position where she provides help and advocacy for vulnerable populations.
“I want to be a voice and my job allows me to do that,” she said. “I’m here on this earth to make a difference, make a change.”
The panelists also spoke about some examples of racism and negative stereotyping they have faced over the course of their lives, with multiple panelists saying their intelligence has been doubted by others before simply because of their skin color.
Panelist Donata Martin, who is the executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, recalled that she went to a high school where she was one of the few minorities and she did quite well academically.
But when she applied for colleges, her guidance counselor submitted a very poor recommendation letter that was filled with falsities and led to colleges turning her down.
Martin said there was one school that took her side though, saying an admissions director at Boston University realized the letter couldn’t be true and made sure she was accepted there.
Now that she leads the Boys & Girls Club, Martin said, “I want to make sure the children who come to our club have the same advantages many children with money have.”
The Boys & Girls Club Martin leads also runs a program in Gardner. In addition to her role there, she serves on the board of directors for the Mount.
In general, the panelists spoke about the importance of ensuring all people, regardless of race, income level or other factors, be given an equal opportunity to succeed.
Panelists were asked about race relations and the overall issues they currently see with the country.
“We need to be able to have difficult conversations. We need to challenge the status quo,” Candace Shivers said, who is an associate professor for sociology and human services at the college.
Shivers spoke about the importance of advocacy and social activism. She said she served as the student body president while attending American International College in Springfield.
Currently, she is a leader for the union representing Mount staff and is also on the board of directors for the National Education Association which represents education professionals in Washington, D.C.
Panelist Kathy Lewis, who is president of the Tiana Angelique Notice Foundation that focuses on domestic violence and is named after her daughter who was killed by an ex-boyfriend, spoke about how discouraged she is with the political strife and inability to work together that is seen in Washington, D.C.
“I am really concerned about the climate in our nation nowadays to the point where I spend sleepless nights,” she said. “We’re in a state now in this country that we’re the disgrace of the world now.”
Lewis concluded by paraphrasing a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.
“We better learn how to get along together as brothers and sisters or we’re all going to perish together as fools,” she said.
The other panelists at the event were Angele Goss, director of the Upward Bound Math Science & North Central Mass Talent Search program at the college, and Lamont Hicks, a senior officer specialist for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the president and founder of the Future Hoops AAU basketball program headquartered in Gardner.