Lessons Learned as Young Black Man

At the age of 7, in New Orleans, I remember the police driving through the neighborhood, my grandma’s house. And even though I didn’t have a clear understanding of the history of Black people and the police, I recall that people “acted different.” From those moments and observations, I developed a fear and anxiety for the police. By the time I was 10 and 11 years old, I knew that when the police drove by, it was never a positive feeling, and my friends and I had to be on our best behavior. At 12 many of my friends had run from police; and by the time I turned 15, I knew friends and family who had been arrested. I watched friends taken away, witnessed the way in which police spoke to them, harassed them. And, recently, at the age of 47, while walking to a local school track to exercise, I was profiled by two police officers and it felt like I was a young kid all over again. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was 18 years old—I kept asking myself, “Why am I afraid? I haven’t done anything.” This is how the power of racism works.

Influential People

The influence to make the right decisions started with the strong foundation my mother provided me. Her messages about life still resonate with me today. I remember her teaching me at a young age that as a Black person you could never be “even” with white folks. It didn’t matter how many degrees or how much experience you had, there was always something extra that would be required of Black folks to move ahead. I have watched these wise words play out in my personal and professional growth. My mother showed me the way and she continues to guide my understanding of the world through the frame of the total Black experience in this country.

I have always had the fortune to surround myself with intelligent, driven Black women. As a result, I have grown more professionally than I could ever have imagined. There have been special women in my life who have positively impacted my decision-making. One such individual is Marcy Bradley. She and I worked together in a previous mentoring program and when she became the Executive Director of Elevate Oregon, she asked me to join her team. While Marcy never sat down and schooled me the way my mother did, she created opportunities for me to observe the moves she made. She never told me what to do but rather encouraged me to see what she did. I watched her navigate white, male-dominated spaces with power and purpose. I recognized that as a Black woman, she was battling race and gender dynamics that I could never fully understand. A more recent influence on my growth is Markisha Webster. While I observed Marcy moving with power and purpose, I have observed Markisha moving with a strong quietness and grace. She has shown me the balance that is required to navigate white spaces—when a loud voice is required and when quieter movement speaks volumes. I have been fortunate and remain grateful for the opportunity to learn from such dynamic women.

Why This Work?

As I reflect on the experiences that have led to where I am today, I am reminded that I was always one decision away from a totally different outcome. As a Black child, middle schooler, high schooler, and adult, I was always balancing the line of success and failure. If I stayed on the line, I could fight the peer pressure. I could remain one decision away from being locked up or dead. Back in 1995, I remember being quoted as saying, “My goal is to try and help a kid in trouble, show him there’s a way out.” I was already doing the work and didn’t even know it. In fact, I believe I was born to do this work as part of God’s design for my life.

One of my first jobs at the age of 16 was working with kids through youth athletics. And while my career as a professional basketball internationally took me away from direct service with kids for a few years, ironically, following the basketball, put me right back where I needed to be. Returning home in 2000, I had the opportunity to witness my high school basketball team win the state championship. As I watched the game that night, something shifted in me. I could see the determination on the teams’ faces and a jolt of energy surged through me as I watched my former high school basketball team win the title. At this moment, I knew my future would be about mentoring Black kids. The coach asked me to speak to the senior players about the next level and preparing for college. As I spoke to these young men I could see them hanging onto every word I said. Paradoxically, I was working as a counselor in a juvenile detention center at the time—a place where hope and pride had been extinguished. I listened to the pain and trauma these young people had experienced before and during their time in detention. As I sat in that gym watching the basketball game that night, I realized that I wanted to work with kids to prevent them from ever being in such a place; I wanted to support and witness what I saw that night on those player’s faces—joy, pride, and commitment. I eventually shifted my focus to being a part of the solution, by keeping our black youth out of the system.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to come back to give back—to have interactions with kids that help to motivate and develop a plan for their success. My role in this work reminds me of how the Black Panthers provided support in Black communities in the 1960s and 1970s. While many only remember the organization for violent acts of protest, the Panthers were rooted in a foundation that focused on educating, feeding, supporting, and resourcing Black communities. This philosophy is at the heart of what I do.

I watched with pride this month as the graduating class of 2020, the class that I worked with when I first started at Elevate Oregon, was recognized in a community celebration. I remember this being the group of students whose success or challenges would tell us if what our program was offering was working. I can say with pride that all of the Elevate students who entered our program in 2016 graduated this year. Now, reflecting on the difficulty of reinventing the staff and programs for Elevate, it all seems worth it. This is what drives me to get better so I can be the best and provide the best for Black kids in my community.

What? So What? Now What?

I, like many members of the Black community, feel frustrated and tired. The mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual strain on me as a Black man is a reality. It is painful to continue watching Black people be profiled, victimized, and murdered by law enforcement across this country.

Every time I start a board meeting, I make sure to say that I am thankful and blessed to be here. I have to pinch myself and ask how did I get here? Why me?

I believe that one key fear of the white man is the educated black man. What I know for certain is that knowledge is something that can’t be stripped from Black people. And as more Black people navigate their way into traditionally white-dominated spaces, it highlights old challenges yet creates new opportunities. One of my goals is to empower the next wave of young people to be in the right places and to the question about what happens after the protests stop and the dust settles. We have marched during various points in our history as Black people. This feels like the moment when the work is shifting in tangible ways.

The WHAT of this is nothing new; Black people, and more specifically Black men, have been profiled, harassed, and killed by police since the beginning of time. Black people were forced into this country under a system of oppression and have continued to experience this oppression.

The SO WHAT rests in the new awareness that is taking place for white people. While history books, stories, and the news narrate about Black oppression, the moment white folks witnessed on media the intentional murder of a Black man at the hands of police was the wake-up moment. Now, white folks must pay attention; they can no longer be tone-deaf to the impact of racism in this country.

The NOW WHAT is that we must move forward. Black people must take this newly created platform and lead the conversation and solutions. White people, particularly those in powerful leadership roles, must use that power to create paths for the Black community. White folks must be held accountable and Black folks need to dictate what that accountability looks like. Now is not the time to be selfish; this is a time for the Black community to come together, seize a moment, and give the space for young people to take center stage. The NOW WHAT is to understand that good leadership requires being a good listener. It is time for white folks to not be silent and to simultaneously step back so that Black folks can step forward. I remain committed to supporting young Black youth to be the next generation of leaders in this country. In the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


Donell Morgan