Our Google Alerts delivered a gift yesterday: a blog post naming one of our alumni an “Unsung Baltimorean of the Week.” It’s about Gary Williams, Public Allies Maryland ’10, who seems to make a big impression on the people around him. The blog’s author, Kevin Griffin Moreno, kindly agreed to let us excerpt his post. Kevin’s blog, Unsung Baltimore, has a pretty cool mission. As Kevin puts it, “Baltimore is blessed with … residents of all races, ages, faith traditions, and economic backgrounds who commit themselves to piecing together the fragments and making our community whole. Though they don’t receive the attention, accolades, or acknowledgment they deserve, these neighbors are our region’s most vital asset.” A very Public Allies-friendly point of view! We encourage you to follow the link at the bottom to the full version of Gary’s story.
Imagine this: you’re just out of your teens, one of only a handful of African-American students at Mercyhurst, a small liberal arts college in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, 350 miles from the west Baltimore neighborhood where you were born and raised.
You’ve just been made a residential adviser for one of the dorms on campus. One of the residents under your charge is a young white male named Andrew, whose grandfather was murdered by a black man, and who consequently makes no secret of his negative attitudes toward African-Americans…including you.
If you’re like most people, that would be an extremely uncomfortable, if not downright terrifying, situation to be in. But Gary Williams is not like most people. Instead of avoiding or antagonizing Andrew, Gary saw this encounter as an opportunity to confront the young man’s prejudices — and his own.
“At first I didn’t realize that he was watching me, my friends, my reactions,” Gary recalls. “I ended up changing his notions” about African-Americans. As a result, a connection was forged between the two; the more Andrew got to know Gary, the more his opinion shifted.
“Mercyhurst had a lot of kids from the suburbs and rural areas,” Gary continues. “There was this sense there that ‘real people don’t live in cities.’ I always had this view of college that you had to have a wide worldview, but a lot of students there didn’t. For many people at Mercyhurst, Erie (which has a population of about 130,000) was the biggest thing they’d ever heard of.”
In conversation, Gary projects self-confidence, cheerfulness, and warmth. He speaks animatedly and with passion, laughs a lot, and listens attentively. These qualities doubtless went a long way toward combating the ignorance and racial bias he encountered in college. But his willingness to engage with his rural white peers also forced him to examine his own beliefs.
“Mercyhurst was a crash course in conservative white America,” he chuckles. “I didn’t know a lot about small town life – I once asked a hunter friend if he bought his deer meat from the store — and it opened my eyes to my own prejudices about small town people.”
:: To read the the full post, click here.