Black schools superintendent: I am ‘a scared human being.’


Fennoy talked about his deep concerns for his son, saying that he taught him to be polite so that he would not antagonize anyone. “I want my child to survive the encounter,” he said, and he said the same thing to district students protesting George Floyd’s killing.

“To our students that are out there peacefully protesting: I need you to survive the encounter. I need you to come home,” he said.

He ended the speech with this haunting message: “I do want you to know that daily, in spite of my position, my power, my privilege, I do operate in this world as a scared human being.”

Listen to the speech. It’s worth your time.

Here’s the video, with the transcript.

Good afternoon everyone and good afternoon to the community. I felt like it was absolutely important for me to make comments today prior to the start of the board meeting in a reference to the killing of Mr. George Floyd. … Over the last two weeks as I have processed this reality, it has become clear to me that, you know, in my role as the superintendent of the 10th-largest school district in the country, there are certain responsibilities that I bear to be a catalyst for change.

But I also believe that in this moment, I, for the first time in my career, need to be fully honest around my experiences as a black man in America, especially with the reality of the duality that I possess, meaning walking in multiple worlds. To me, I am a highly accomplished, very successful young black man. My sisters do not enjoy the same privileges that I have, and so I want to just talk about the realities of who I am through my experience as a father.

And so I can tell you right now that I am hurt. I am devastated. I am scared. I am a lot of things that I really have never really articulated. But this community was first introduced to me, well, I purposely introduced myself to this community through the lens of my child, my son, Donald Edward Fennoy III, who many of you saw hold the Bible when I was sworn in after this board took a chance on me.

But what you don’t know about me — all the decisions that I live with daily as it relates to raising this young man, who’s getting bigger and bigger every single day. And I think the journey to help people understand why this is so traumatic. So being who I am, I have not always been this well-polished, suit-wearing person. I was a child like everyone else, and as a child you make mistakes and you grow up. Things happen. Unfortunately, you know, based on generational issues … I was taught to endure certain things and just push forward. But now I’m at a place where something more must happen.

Other day, Bob Hatcher, one of our amazing principals, was on a call with me, and he said, “Dr. Fennoy, the other day when you came by my house you brought your son.” … And he said, when Mr. Floyd’s situation occurred, he was talking to his children and his thought was, “How is Dr. Fennoy going to talk to his son about the killing of George Floyd?” First of all I was proud of him for even acknowledging that my conversation will be different, but let me say this.

What you don’t know is that this is a constant, constant, continuous, for the 11 years since the day he was born, worrying about him. So being a privileged man, I have taken the choice to protect my children as much as I can from the very harsh realities of this world. I bought a home considering simple facts. … Every day I asked my son to go to the mailbox, either ride his bike or I’d take him up there, and I sit in the car with him and I say, “Donald, when you go to that mailbox” — because in our neighborhood it’s at a central location, it’s not at our homes — I say: “I need you to be respectful. I need you to speak to people. I need you to open doors.”

So the vast majority of American society would say those are good things that you should teach your children. But what I never shared with him and I’m sharing for the first time, it’s not just because I want him to be polite and have pleasing behaviors that make everyone else comfortable.

Honestly it’s so that when he walks around my neighborhood by himself, someone will not call the police on him because he doesn’t look like he belongs there. People will identify him as someone who belongs in that community so that I could have some sort of peace to know that he can go ride his bike and someone would see this boy who they’ve seen repeatedly and they won’t be afraid. Because I did not want my children to grow up in the world like I did. …

I’m a big man. I’m an overweight man. And so the fact that every morning when I get up to go outside and walk, I am conscious of, “Do I wear a hoodie sweatshirt?” because it’s dark outside and I might walk up on my neighbors who are walking and they don’t recognize me and they call the police or people get scared of me because I’m 6-foot-4 and black and I don’t have my suit on. And maybe you saw the tattoo on my leg. I don’t know, but I live in constant fear of offending other people or making or triggering something in other people to call the police on me.

You know I’m not going to go into the details around the instances that I’ve been in in the course of my life. You know my mother reminds me of those things and best for another day. But today I realized something very powerful. So in this protection of my child, again, we’re all dealing with distance learning and so he’s been immersed in that world. He’s also from a different generation. When he watches television, he watches what he wants to watch. And so does was my 4-year-old daughter. So they hadn’t been paying attention to George Floyd.

So I made him do that earlier this week. And we talked right before this meeting. He was here in my office. And I said, “Donald‚ what do you think?” Because we’ve never had this conversation. And he said, “Well, the first thing I thought was, what would we do as a family if you were killed?” And what am I supposed to do with that? What am I supposed to do with that?

He also went on to talk about all the other men in our family. But here’s the thing that I found powerful about his statement. He said: “I hope people like you in power don’t abuse your power. I hope people like you in power make changes for the better.” … I began to explain to him why I’m so hard on him about being respectful. Because you know what ladies and gentlemen? You know what I want the most?

I want my child to survive the encounter. I want him to come home so that if something happens I can call the attorneys. I can call my friends at the sheriff’s office or my own chief. But even that statement alone, it’s chock-filled with so much privilege, because there’s so many other people that don’t have the opportunity to call the sheriff or contact an attorney. …

That’s what makes me feel so torn at times because … I do want my child to survive the encounter and come home. And so for me in this position of power, I have this intense obligation. And I think all of us do. And so for every parent out there — for every person who is struggling, every white person who wants to know how I fix this, how I help — I feel like I’ve taken a chance today, for the first time in my career, sharing with people publicly how I live my life outside of the image that I allow you to see.

And so I say as we move forward, that this particular district has, thanks to many of our board members, Dr. [Debra] Robinson in particular, has fought the good fight for a long time. But there comes a point where you have to start doing something. And so I’m committed as a superintendent to doing something, and we will work through that.

I just want everyone to know that there are a lot of people like me that are not okay. They’re just not. And I think I want to give people who look like me the permission to at least say that, for once in their lives, to literally have an honest conversation around your fears and your anxieties. Someone like me is always being charged with being strong for everyone. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not strong. I can’t be strong 24 hours a day, and neither can you. And so I hope that we don’t just take this as another dead black man in America and move on with our lives. …

To our students that are out there peacefully protesting: I need you to survive the encounter. I need you to come home. I will never endorse breaking laws and destroying property. But to our children — I understand we raised them to live in this utopian world where we all get along. But … I know the adults in this country have not lived up to that promise. And so I challenge all of us to figure this thing out, push, be courageous and hopefully put our children in a better position to do better than us.

And so I just appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Chairman and the entire board, for you believing in me, supporting me. But I do want you to know that daily, in spite of my position, my power, my privilege, I do operate in this world as a scared human being.”



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