Earlier this month, Bay Area leaders shared personal stories via Zoom during a forum on race and racism sponsored by the Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance (TVNA).
At the beginning of his career, attorney James Head – and TVNA panelist – was involved in public interest work in a rural town in southern Georgia.
He provided free help to Georgians who could not otherwise afford legal representation in routine matters before the court. Head, who is African American, walked into the courthouse that day with a white client he was representing in a divorce matter — the lawyer wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, the client in blue jeans and an open collar shirt.
“The bailiff actually asked me if I was the defendant,” recalled Head, who is now the president and CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation, which manages more than $800 million in charitable assets.
Head was joined on the panel by Jackie Bouvier Copeland, Founder of Black Philanthropy Month and founder and CEO of the WISE Fund; Harold Roundtree, president and CEO of UNCLE Credit Union; and Caretha Coleman, the former board chair for Dignity Health, one of the largest health systems in the nation.
Head talked about his organization’s shift in recent years toward a social justice focus, which he believes prepared it to quickly establish a COVID-19 Fund. This fund provides direct financial assistance to individuals and families experiencing extreme economic hardship and nonprofits that serve vulnerable communities unlikely to receive state or federal support, including undocumented immigrants and low-income seniors, among others.
As he was entering his high school years, Head’s mother made a decision to enroll her four sons in a desegregating high school in a small rural town about 40 miles south of Atlanta. Head did not want to go because his friends were going to the black high school.
“My mom decided to go because she thought we were ready to withstand what would come at us as part of the first group of black students to integrate,” Head said. “My mom caught some resistance around this from both the white community, who did not want black kids in the school, and she also caught a fair amount of flak from the black community, who accused her of feeling like her kids were too good to be in the black high school.”
As he was preparing to graduate, he told his academic counselor that he wanted to attend the University of Georgia. His counselor, who was white, discouraged him, and said he was better suited for a black college. In his junior year, Head had been accepted to an early admissions high school-college program at Morehouse College, a traditionally black college in Atlanta.
But Head opted to finish his senior year at the high school and sought acceptance to the University of Georgia, because he knew he wanted to become a lawyer.
When his mother heard about the counselor’s advice, she took time off of work and went directly to the high school to confront him and told him that her son was going to go where he wanted to go, whether he liked it or not.
“Those things for me were lessons,” Head said.
After college, he graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law.
The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others have sparked nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and fueled a national reckoning with issues of racism past and present.
“Part of it for me is the hope that this becomes a moment of inner-reflection for all of us, around issues of race and how race plays a part in what we do – not just personally in how we interact, but also in what policies are currently there,” Head said.
Livermore mayoral candidate Mony Nop, co-founder of the Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance, said he would like to see more forums discussing issues of race and inclusion. He pointed out a person of color has never served on the elected city council. Nop was born in Cambodia and eventually settled in the U.S. after fleeing the brutal Pol Pot regime with his family.
“Everything starts with engagement,” said Nop, a real estate agent and former Livermore police officer. “It’s important that we talk about these things.”
Roundtree, a resident of Pleasanton for the last 20 years, grew up in Berkeley. The fourth of five children, Roundtree credits his parents for instilling in him the importance of a strong work ethic.
His father worked for the United States Postal Service in San Francisco and his mother was a cook at UC Berkeley. He was awarded a full athletic scholarship to play football at Boise State. Boise was and still is a predominantly white city.
“I was embraced in that environment,” Roundtree said. “My mom and dad ... were terrified that I would go to school there, and what would happen to me and the like, and I can honestly tell you that I had a tremendous amount of fun and should have studied a little harder, but that’s another story.”
Roundtree returned to the Bay area and completed a bachelor of science degree in business and management at what is now California State University, East Bay. He finished his studies on a Friday and went to work the following Monday at First Interstate Bank. He has been working in the financial services field for the last 41 years.
“I was told by a lot of people, ‘Hey that is an environment you’re not going to get very far in,” he said. “There are not a lot of African Americans.’ And I simply put my head down and one foot in front of the other.”
Early in his career, he had a job where he was tasked with determining what overdrawn accounts the bank would pay. A client whose check he bounced, walked into the bank and confronted him.
“(He said), ‘You know, I remember when people like you were not allowed to clean this building. How dare you bounce my check,’” Roundtree recalled. “I replied in a goodhearted manner, I said, ‘That was then, this is now.”
Roundtree said there were unfortunate incidents like that throughout his career, but he did not allow it to wear him down – again, putting one foot in front of the other, “keeping my head down and keeping it going was the way to do it.”
While working, he attended night school at Golden Gate University where he earned his MBA.
Coleman, who facilitated the TVNA conversation, noted that, when it comes to conversations on race, she has seen a dramatic shift and heightened sense of responsibility across the community during the last year.
Last November, she gave a talk at a banquet in Silicon Valley. The audience fell silent when she brought up Silicon Valley’s problem with race.
“I decided that this was it. I could no longer stay silent, even under the potential that I would surely make a few people uncomfortable, if not angry,” said Coleman who had an African American father and Japanese mother. “So I mustered up the courage to speak my truth because the stakes were high. Not for me, but for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.”
In 1970, Coleman’s father gave “the talk” to her then-16-year-old brother.
Years later, she and her husband Ken, gave the same talk to their sons. Now they are having the same conversation with their grandsons.
“If you are ever stopped by a policeman, keep your eyes straight ahead, your hands on the wheel, and don’t argue,” Coleman recalled telling them.
Coleman said as a society, we don’t have the skills to talk about race, but we can learn.
“Part of the problem is we don’t want to believe there’s a problem, and we don’t like to talk about it. We never have. It’s uncomfortable, but necessary,” she said.
The right to a quality education, a safe place to live, the ability to work in a place that is inclusive and values one's talent and contribution, regardless of the color of one’s skin or where they come from, or what they look like, are among the issues Coleman said are important to discuss.
Coleman shared stories of being told Los Altos wasn’t ready for a black family when she and her husband Ken, a former Hewlett-Packard executive, placed an offer on a home there in the early 1980s. She recalled being tailed through Stanford University campus by a police officer and pulled over soon. He didn’t believe she could own a Mercedes and questioned the validity of the address on her license, she said.
“That’s code for driving while being black,” she said. “Fast forward, we, in this great country, are in the middle of the fight of our lives as we know it. Or as we thought it was. We have the pandemic of a deadly virus and the pandemic of racism ... The scientists and great minds will discover a vaccine; I’m sure of it. It’s just a matter of time. As it relates to the devastation of systemic and structural racism, this moment gives me pause, but also hope. But I’m worried ... we all have to be better than this. We all have to be more deliberative in our thoughts, words and actions … and if we are ... I believe we can be successful beyond measure.”