What if we all just asked

The need to belong. We all long for it.

I was not sure I belonged, or could simply run that far, then he just asked. I have learned over the years, that we all run further when we run together.

It was a hot summer evening at a swim meet where our daughters were competing, my friend and neighbor Brian Brown asked if I would be interested in training with him and some other guys for the Richmond Half Marathon in the fall of 2014. At that time I just started running while Brian was taking on triathlons. He encouraged me, wanted me to run with them, and knew that for my first race ever I could get to that finish line. That time we ran together each week built self-confidence, and in turn, fueled more running than I ever dreamed of accomplishing. I even grew to enjoy it, and for that, I will always think back to that evening. Thank you Brian for asking, and reassuring me that I belonged.

The neighborhood 2014 RVA Half Marathon Training Crew after crossing the finish line

As part of my quest to bring us all together, I thought it would be good for all our souls to hear Brian’s story and the importance of belonging; it is not as easy as it sounds and it’s actually incredibly hard work. It is not the same as simply fitting in, showing up, signing up, or crossing the aisle.

“Belonging, is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.” – Brene Brown

We are living in a time when true belonging is becoming rarer and more desperately needed, and I know Brian’s story and insights will reinforce that it takes a special act of courage to experience true belonging.

Minding the Dividing Line

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa

His grandfather spent his life a step above being a slave, as a sharecropper in the tobacco fields. For a reminder from the history books, a sharecropper is a person who lives and grows crops on land owned by someone else, paying the rent by giving the owner a share of the crops. After the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), many former slaves became sharecroppers. Because they were obliged to give up huge amounts of their crops, many led harsh lives of poverty.

Talking to Brian about his grandfather, parents, and upbringing, brought a source of strength as they instilled a strong work ethic and mindset in him. Born in Prince Georges County, Maryland (DC Suburb), Janice Brown, his Mom, was a phone operator (remember those?!) with the federal government, and Richard Brown, his Dad, a mechanic; they divorced when he was four and Brian was raised by his Mom. However, his Dad was always a constant presence in his life. In middle school, Brian and his Mom moved to Richmond, VA where he attended Mosby Middle School and Armstrong High School. The places where he lived were just above the projects, some had no running water.

I had one of these too Brian

A younger Brian, and how his Mom and Dad picture him

Though he felt his family protected him from racism, he certainly experienced it.

Where? At the dividing line.

During his high school years, Brian and his classmates at Armstrong High School knew where it was, all they had to do was travel up Route 360. Armstrong sits at the intersection of Interstate 64 and Route 360, which runs from Richmond to the Northeast through the Northern Neck of Virginia. Go past the Hanover County line, it was known as shotguns and pickup trucks. When venturing past it, he would get asked “What are you doing up here?” A simple road game for high school football was an uncomfortable event, as the ‘caste system’ between whites and blacks was real. He not only experienced it in high school, but it was also evident during his college years with all the subcultures at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Brian did not go past that dividing line (geographic or racial) unless he had to, and what it gave him was a feeling of not being equal, that he did not belong.

Brian with his Mom and Dad, Janice and Richard Brown

Hard Moments and Courageous Love

“When you have endure the worse situations, you build the courage and confidence to cope with any other situations.” — Lailah Gifty Akita

It was a chance meeting at the VCU Student Commons, and soon after Brian found where he belonged, and it had nothing to do with geography. Loving and caring are an anchor that stabilizes uncertainty during those hard times. And that is with his wife Regina, and daughter Brianna. They met as students at VCU, and their strong friendship just kept growing. I have had the privilege to be in the same neighborhood with them as we watched each other’s families change and grow.

Regina is of mixed race, her mother white and her father black. Her parents were married in the 60’s when interracial dating was generally frowned upon. Initially, their relationship was not accepted by their parents but Regina being born brought the families closer together. Sadly, Regina’s father died in a car accident shortly before her 3rd birthday. Regina and her mom moved to Virginia to live close to her father’s sister and because it was a good midpoint between her mom’s family in New Jersey and her dad’s family in South Carolina. They faced several incidences of racism. When they moved to a predominantly black neighborhood in downtown Newport News, her mother received messages to let her know that she was not welcome. They stayed anyway, joined her uncle’s all black church and became immersed in the community despite the challenges that came with being biracial.

A proud Dad, with his wife Regina and daughter Brianna at her High School Graduation

For his daughter Brianna, now a Freshman at Virginia Tech, she knew she was protected by her parents. They conveyed to her that life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% of how you deal with it. She was active in school, a star on the varsity volleyball team, and has wonderful friendships. Brian and I can relate as Dads of daughters, and how we are so protective of them, we know there they add another dimension to our soul; softens and adds tenderness and at the same time makes it more valiant and protective.

Brianna enjoying the scooter just as her Dad did

Snapshots in time: Game, Set, Match…Dad and Brianna sharing a moment at one of her Volleyball Matches, he captures a moment before she goes out the door, and at the Father/Daughter Dance

When he shared that Brianna and a good friend of hers, who was a white male, were spending a lot of time together, and that the other Dad told him not to see her, I could feel the protective anger, yet sad confusion that overcame him and how he had to explain it to his daughter. When he should not have to! As I have more of these conversations I become more convinced how often it is the adults who have racial myopic issues.

The Past has yet to Pass

“Honor belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation, and even defeat.” – Nelson Mandela

As a child, he knew of another dividing line not to cross, and that was not being able to go south of Richmond into Chester, Virginia as the KKK was quite active.

Though we all no doubt learn from the bad and good of our pasts, I still scratch my head as to why we won’t leave it there. Talking with Brian about race and race relations only reinforced it. Can you imagine living in a neighborhood at present and because of your skin color some friends of yours are asked how much you charge to cut grass? He has been called the ‘n’ word and heard it being used and often he is at the end of angry reactions when riding his bicycle. He was pulled over by a police officer in his car for what he deemed was ‘swerving’ (twice), and when riding his bike he constantly has to think about the route he takes. Pickup trucks will at times come intentionally close, and he will need to pull over and stop.

“If you want to run fast go alone, if you want to run far bring a friend” – Brian with some fast friends

All I am left to think after trying to comprehend this is: seriously?

Yet, it does not unnerve Brian, the times I have been with him and witnessing his involvement with his family and in our community, he will not allow others’ actions to have power over him.

We talked about Black Lives Matter and the impact it has had over the last few years. Brian shared that though he agrees wholeheartedly with the message, the methods leave much to desire. Riots generally result in a ‘group people and divide’ strategy which only makes situations, events, and communication worse. He feels the movement has been infiltrated with mobs and lacks the leadership needed to communicate a coherent and effective message that will be heard and appeals to all, as was done during the Civil Rights era.

Crossing the Dividing Line

“Character, not circumstances, makes the man.” – Booker T. Washington

Brian and his family now live in an area that he would be wary to cross during his high school years, in Hanover County, Virginia. He shared that there are still parts where he would not live and does not feel welcome, however it has improved over time. Now, we can walk (or run) to each other’s homes. As we talked, I was reminded how important it is for each of us to value each interaction we have and that we have to be conscious of them. How we communicate matters. Brian is always eager to give you his shirt off his back and make you feel that you belong. And I think the reason is that his circumstances led him to believe he did not belong, and rather than shut people out, he flipped the script with humility and confidence, and let them in.

In addition to the Richmond Half Marathon in 2014, one of the experiences we both shared as Dads was through a program at the YMCA called Indian Princesses (Y-Princesses) where Dads and Daughters have incredible weekend camping trips within our tribes. I know for my daughters, both fondly remember those times and I can remember vividly my youngest daughter, Zoe, telling me she wanted to do Indian Princesses forever. Trust me, we go back there in our treasure of memories often.

Some of the Shawnee Tribe on a Longhouse Weekend with Indian Princesses Program

For Brian, he shared it was the best experience as a Dad which also allowed for a more integrated experience with others unlike himself. It opened up a new world for him and his daughter Brianna, including just the mere fact they were camping. And he was one of the only two black people there; he did not mind in the least. It also prompted Brianna and Regina’s involvement with Camp Hope, which is a faith-based organization that serves vulnerable and underprivileged children who would otherwise never have an opportunity to experience summer camp, to see outside their circumstances and remind them they are loved like crazy and were created for a good purpose.

As for our community in Hanover County, Virginia, it has been the best for Brian, Regina, and Brianna. He sees neighbors and the friends they have made truly engage and care for one another. There is an instinctive intention about getting to know each other, which is healthy. And after all the years of not feeling equal, he now certainly does and his view of white people has changed, as he is more empowered, accepted, and self-confident.

It Ain’t So Hard to Do if You Know How

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” – Maya Angelou

So why did you start riding bikes so much, Brian? It was because he was asked. One of his friends at work, Scott Lodder, (who was white) rode to work each day. He asked Brian to ride with him and they committed to each other to do so.

He asked as Brian did with me. To let me know that I belong.

Find that common ground, and go spend time there. We all can do it. When we talked about what brings people together, for him it is being active and sports. It serves as the great equalizer and confidence builder. His daughter played volleyball and swam throughout her school years with lifetime friendships in which to look forward. We both know the running community brings people from all backgrounds together and experienced firsthand the heart-pounding thrill that it encompasses.

Brian with some of his work colleagues, spending time on common ground

So, why can’t it be this way all the time?

I think it is important for all of us to recognize that these issues don’t go away on their own. Just as the past has yet to pass, it is never dead and it takes a lot to deal with, cope, and work through. For us all to be on the same side for racial equality, we don’t do that by self-segregating, rather by forging an interdependence with one another as we all have to engage or progress will stall and/or not be made at all.

I read an insightful interview on this subject with Misty Copeland, who became the first black ballerina named as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre in 2015.

She said that her awakening to racism came she was about five, accompanying her parents on a business trip to the historic Chamberlin hotel in Old Point Comfort, Virginia. While they were attending a function, she was put in the care of a black babysitter who, when she took her downstairs to the restaurant for dinner, wasn’t allowed inside. She showed the waiter what she could have off the menu, then retreated to a discreet corner of the lobby where she could keep an eye on her. She shares that she will never forget sitting alone in that huge, fancy dining room not understanding why her babysitter was kept out. She never saw this before and was so upset.

She stayed awake so she could ask her mom about it.

She brilliantly said to her: “All human beings are equal in God’s eyes,” she said, “and things are changing in this country.”

Her Mom couldn’t have imagined that an Irish Catholic (John F. Kennedy) like herself would be elected president in a couple of years, let alone an African-American (Barack Obama) 48 years after that.

Her message is that things have changed—a lot—but not always for everyone and not always enough. We still struggle.

Yet, let us keep in mind, and what too often gets lost, is that human beings are far more alike than they are different. A mother in the Kalahari weeps for a sick child the same way a mother weeps in Finland. A Chinese father’s pride in his son is no different than an Italian father’s pride in his. Underneath the cosmetic differences, our hearts are the same. It is culture more than race that divides us, and cultures can be understood and differences celebrated. There is really only one race, the one we all belong to equally. So let’s keep talking, and sharing. It’s gotten us this far, which is a long way from that dining room in Old Point Comfort.

Or experiences growing up in Richmond, Virginia.

It is amazing what can happen when you simply ask, who knows, you may get along. My experiences growing up in Asia and since have taught me that we have more in common than not. Having these heart-driven conversations and sharing these stories I hope lifts us all to a higher plane to remind that we all #bleedasone.

Being a kid of the ’80s (of course I listened to The Doobie Brothers), I wanted to leave us all with this. Music certainly inspires and connects all of us, and nothing like singing from the same sheet of music, no matter where we are as we cross more invisible dividing lines.

(Credit: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. The primary focus is to record and film musicians performing in their natural environments and combine their talents and cultural power in innovative videos we call Songs Around The World.)

Thank you Brian for sharing your story with us, and reminding us that we all can belong and be who we are, and to find that common ground, just ask.

Taking some time to share and learn, we ditched the scooters and walked

All of us, we can be takin’ it to the streets.

2 thoughts on “What if we all just asked

  1. Phyllis Douglas September 25, 2021 / 12:27 pm

    One of the best heartwarming stories I have ever read. I may be somewhat bias, Brian is my nephew. I would like people to know Brian is one of the best people I have ever know. Not just because we are related but because of the article expressed. I feel because of the Brain’s , his wife and daughter of the world we got a chance to make it as a society. We have a chance, let’s not Blow it. Thanks

    Like

    • Ed Deiss September 28, 2021 / 5:19 pm

      Thank you, Phyllis, and it has been a pleasure to get to know Brian and share his story to encourage us all. You should be very proud of your nephew, and I echo your sentiments. It is truly a better world with people like Brian and his family in it, and being as we live close by, what a bonus!

      Like

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