Colleen Holmes: Let's see people as they really are

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PITTSFIELD — I am a black woman, the daughter of a black man, wife of a black man, and mother of black sons. I am other things, including president and CEO of 18 Degrees, a social services agency that promotes the well-being and strength of children, adults, and families to build better communities. I mention the other things last because they are not necessarily the deciding factor in how people see me. The registering of my race unmistakably washes across some faces in the white spaces of board rooms, and country clubs; on certain streets, in certain stores, and when I attend events at the Berkshires' great cultural institutions.

It's not something I dwell on. How others see me isn't more important than how I see myself. My work requires me to transcend race and all the "isms" so that I can be an effective champion for our mission. That's why I am writing today.

Today I need to champion those little ones in our childcare centers, those budding musicians in our Kids 4 Harmony program, and those teens and young adults in our foster families, mentoring programs, and more, trying to make their way in a country that sees them as black first and race as a license to devalue their lives. Today I need to hold hands with their parents, guardians, foster parents, grandparents, mentors, teachers, neighbors, and coaches who are afraid for them, in the same way that I carry the ever-present fear as to whether they or my own sons will become the next victims, the next George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbury.

I've come close. Thirty years ago, it was my husband who was slammed face-down on the sidewalk by police officers as he ran through the rain in gym clothes trying not to get soaked on his way home. This black executive with an MBA and the man whom friends, families and colleagues immediately look to for help needed nothing more than being black to be held down on concrete in the street.

Such blatant attacks on personal safety stay with you. To this day, we remind our sons not to have their hoodies up in certain places. As if that precaution would protect them any more than being honors graduates of their colleges, and the kind of young men who hold doors open for others and never missed a family gathering. The randomness of it all means you live never knowing when you might be next. My sons had to think twice about directives to wear masks in public. Which is more life-threatening, coronavirus exposure or being perceived as a threatening black man?

In this pandemic, we see people hurting everywhere whether from illness, losing a loved one, unemployment, or a ruined senior year. The slogan says "we're all in this together". Are we?

We're all worrying about COVID-19, but many of us are still waiting on the day when it won't be normal for another black life to be taken by someone who had no right, and a law enforcement and judiciary system that persistently and insistently finds no wrong. At 18 Degrees we see our work as being to bring new beginnings to light. We believe in the promise and potential of our young ones, and in the capacity we all have to grow and make better choices. So I'll keep joining with those of all races who shoulder the responsibility and privilege of getting to know and see people for who they really are, valuing their substance over their circumstances, and working for opportunities for as many people as we can touch to shine so that the light of our world spreads ever more warm and wide.

But today, I can't help crying.

Colleen Holmes is president and CEO, 18 Degrees. The Board of Directors of 18 Degrees stands with our CEO, Colleen Holmes, to speak her truth and to present the truth of many, to further our agency's work of social justice for all we serve and live with in community.

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