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Discussion forum offers Total Airmen perspective, support

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base held the second event of its “A Blurred Line” campaign to address social justice and diversity inclusion concerns July 16.

The “Racial Disparity Summit: Listen to Understand From All Perspectives” was a no-rank, no-uniform, off-base event that offered an open discussion forum for all Airmen to have their voices heard, share their experiences, gain understanding and perspective, and support one another in the journey toward social and racial justice.

The forum was organized by Master Sgt. Jesus Gonzalez, Senior Master Sgt. Starr Williams, Master Sgt. Durell Lawton and Senior Master Sgt. Quami King.

As one of his final duties before he retired, Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Arbona, then command chief master sergeant of the 88th Air Base Wing, kicked off the morning’s discussion.

“The whole intent of this event is to educate folks,” Arbona said. “I really believe that what is happening today is fear-driven ignorance.”

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“If I may,” Arbona continued, “ignorance cannot drive out ignorance; only knowledge can do that. The only way we are going to move forward is if we educate one another and share our experiences.

“Make sure you make a conscious effort to keep that wall down,” he said. “As humans we have a desire to speak … but never underestimate the power of just listening and understanding.”

He advised the participants to keep an open mind and not be afraid of disagreeing with others.

“You’re going to disagree. Don’t love each other any less but disagree in an open and loving manner. Learn and grow,” Arbona encouraged. “Start tearing down walls and open your heart.”

Facilitators/moderators 1st Lt. Elisabeth Page-Pettiway and Tech. Sgt. Don Brown were on hand to assist with the discussion.

“‘A Blurred Line’ came about because a couple of senior NCOs saw what was happening across America,” organizer Gonzalez said. “The black community identified that there is a problem so they are making the world know that racism is a problem. So what’s next? This is what’s next: social justice and diversity inclusion. You can support this by getting educated on what that means. Find out about the other person and be considerate of their background.”

He advised the participants to take ownership, have tough conversations with one another, take action and support events like the forum.

“Another thing we’re doing after discussions like this is elevating the feedback to wing leadership so we can pull back layers, and see what programs or processes have gaps. We need to identify where people feel their work centers are not diverse enough,” Williams said.

Lawton said the campaign is about ensuring Airmen at the tactical level are building relationships while accomplishing the mission.

“We hope to have this be an enduring conversation. … We want to let senior leaders know what is on your hearts and minds so we build the most effective ways to educate and learn from each other, and ultimately, love each other,” he said.

King assured the participants that there will be many more “A Blurred Line” events.

“We think we talk, but we don’t. We think we listen, but we don’t. We need to know what is on your mind,” he said.

Many topics raised

There were a number of topics and personal experiences raised during the course of the discussion, including:

  • Targeting and violence against Airmen based on the color of their skin, including black and brown;
  • Violence against women;
  • The need for white men and women to use their voices to stand against injustice;
  • Moving beyond racist teachings by family members;
  • White privilege;
  • What racial disparity means to individuals;
  • Seeing the beauty in individual, varied skin colors;
  • Policies that allow racism to occur;
  • Persistent expectation of the obligation people of color face to educate white people about the racism;
  • Being fatigued because one is the only officer of color in the meeting and how hard that is;
  • Segregation and integration;
  • Being held to a different, hidden, higher standard as a civilian employee of color;
  • The next generation’s use of social media and how contemporary conversations about current events like racism are affected by it;
  • Worrying about black children’s safety;
  • A 60-year-old feeling like nothing is going to change during his lifetime nor his children’s;
  • First conversation about racism wasn’t until white speaker was 30 years old; he has since realized that privileged people need to use their privilege to help those people who are not privileged, speak up, admit their ignorance and ask questions;
  • The shock of seeing how cultures differ within the geographical U.S.;
  • Listen and respect each other’s opinion; raised voices can come from passion, not anger;
  • A black female colonel who is not saluted on base on a weekly basis, given the excuse that “they didn’t see her rank”; supervisors need to educate their unit members to be appropriate, check for rank and maintain military bearing at all times; she should not ever have to be concerned about having to confront somebody because they do not want to acknowledge her rank;
  • How people are described;
  • People need to feel the need to change;
  • Never say you are not a racist; we all are and it is not necessary. Instead, say, “I am addressing my anti-racist behavior;”
  • Educate your children; many books are available to help with appropriate language, such as “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” written by Dr. Robin DiAngelo (also on YouTube) will change one’s worldview

Upon conclusion of the forum, Page-Pettiway said, “This helps bridge the gap, having these conversations not only here but in your work section, at home and in your community.”

King reminded everyone to follow the initiative’s social media: Airmen Fight for Social Justice and Diversity Inclusion: https://www.facebook.com/AirmansFight2020/ and @AirmensFight2020.