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Chicago Rotarian Xavier Ramey says the key to creating an equitable society is understanding where we’ve been

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Wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, and a blue tie held in place by a silver clasp, the young man walked onto the stage, flashed a disarming smile, and introduced himself to the 24,000 people assembled there. “My name is Xavier Ramey,” he said, “and I bring you greetings from the wonderful city of Chicago, Illinois.” A smattering of cheers followed, and then the young man launched into an oration that would be one of the most powerful, persuasive, and memorable speeches at the 2018 Rotary International Convention in Toronto — an event that, among its speakers, included Justin Trudeau, the charismatic prime minister of Canada.

Over the next quarter of an hour, Ramey alluded to the Book of Esther (“we were created for a time such as this”), quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (“we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality”), and invoked what he called “the first step in [Rotary’s] four-step process to building peace”: Is it true?

But the speech was also grounded in the personal. The words from the Old Testament, he said, could be found in “the Bible that my grandmother Eudora Ramey used to read to me.” The moral code he lived by — which emphasized the importance of “acknowledging not only other people’s pain, but where it came from” — sprang from boyhood lessons he learned from his mother, Airetta. And, as Ramey explained, his firsthand understanding of life’s inequities came from living in a city that King — who lived for several months in the same Chicago neighborhood where Ramey grew up — claimed “had deeper racism than he had ever seen in his life.”

“I grew up in intense American poverty, and in a neighborhood where I often left home fearing for my life due to the gangs and the violence there.”

Yet Ramey, now 35, relayed all this without bitterness. He had not stepped before his fellow Rotarians in Toronto to settle old scores, make political points, or employ rhetoric to incite angry passions. Instead, he wanted to send a message of reconciliation and a call for urgent action that has only become more relevant in the two-plus years since he delivered his speech.

The key to creating an equitable society in America, he said, is a recognition of the “tension” that exists between the founding ideals of the United States and the ugly realities of the country’s past, which include slavery, the slaughter of Indigenous peoples, and a system that often diminished the contributions of women and people of color. It’s “a refusal to acknowledge history,” he insisted, that hampers any opportunity to create a more just future, as does any tamping down of conversations or protests about the inequities and challenges of the present. “We live in a world that can become enraged not at injustice but at survivors who won’t stop speaking,” he told his audience.

“In a way, I was born at the starting line for peace,” Ramey said, referring to the era since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “But history has no starting line. You cannot look forward unless you know what’s behind you. Peace begins with that acknowledgment of what’s behind us, and what’s behind each of us in our own lives and our own actions.”

Xavier Ramey addresses the Rotary Convention in Toronto. “I don’t think you know what you have done by saying these things,” responded one listener, “but I thank you.”

Turning the mirror around

Take it from me: Xavier Ramey is not an easy interview, and it’s not because he’s impolite or prickly, nor is he uncooperative, distrustful, or flippant. He’s none of those things. In conversation, as he was onstage in Toronto, Ramey is illuminating, uplifting, even inspiring.

But one-on-one, he demands you take a few essential steps. To begin with, scrap everything you may think you know about one of the most crucial social issues of our day: race relations. Dismiss your worldview regarding that charged topic — and let go of the comforting but flawed narratives you may tell yourself about it.

The payoff is that Ramey may very well hold the answer for people who truly want to effect positive change in this area. Through his work at Justice Informed, the “social impact consulting firm” (his description) that he founded three years ago, Ramey is especially focused on helping companies make those changes. “We work with foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations around reenvisioning how racial and social equity can be at the center of their grantmaking,” he explains. “We also work with nonprofit boards of directors to talk about and grow their capacity to recruit.”

Ramey, however, talks about those things in unexpected ways. For instance, he says that diversifying the workplace is not about ... diversity. When a client asks how to attract more people of color to their organization, Ramey is quick to point out that that’s absolutely the wrong question to ask. If it weren’t, the answer would be simple: “Go find some people who are not white, who are not male, who are not heterosexual — people who are not part of privileged groups.” And then hire them.

Except, he adds, that never seems to work, nor does it accomplish much. “It’s naive to think that’s the strategy,” he insists. “I always give the example of a guy who wants to get married, and he’s cycling through all these dates. He’s dating different women, but every time it ends badly. His whole answer is, ‘Well, I just have to find somebody new to date, right?’”

Using the same misguided approach to create diversity in a corporate or nonprofit setting is just as likely to fail, Ramey tells his clients. Instead, as with that clueless bachelor, the fault may be not with others but with ourselves. Rather than asking someone else to stare into the mirror, he says, the solution lies in “turning the mirror around.” If corporations want to solve their diversity problems, or if countries aim to bridge social divides, they should first take a close look at the improvements they might make before singling out the flaws of others.

“There is a reason why institutions are not diverse,” Ramey says, “and it has far more to do with the fact that an entrenched infrastructure of inequity — the existing laws, policies, assumptions, and cultural norms — will override any desire for difference.” Fostering diversity, he says, demands that this be recognized. That honest and nondefensive self-appraisal is the first and essential step to addressing the challenges that confront us.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion at Rotary International

As a global network that strives to build a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change, Rotary values diversity and celebrates the contributions of people of all backgrounds, regardless of their age, ethnicity, race, color, abilities, religion, socioeconomic status, culture, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Rotary will cultivate a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture in which people from under-represented groups have greater opportunities to participate as members and leaders.

Learn more about making your Rotary club more diverse and inclusive. 

‘The violence of apathy and public policy’

In 1985, the Chicago Tribune ran an award-winning series of articles under the heading “The American Millstone.” As the newspaper explained, the stories “detailed the high incidence of welfare dependence, poverty, crime, drug addiction, school failure and teenage pregnancy” that plagued one West Side neighborhood. Those conditions had created, in Chicago and other U.S. cities, what the Tribune called a “permanent underclass.”

That Chicago neighborhood was North Lawndale. That’s where Xavier Ramey grew up and, as he explained to the audience in Toronto, that’s the mirror he gazes into as he looks back on his own life. “I grew up in intense American poverty, and in a neighborhood where I often left home fearing for my life due to the gangs and the violence there,” he said. “The odds were greatly stacked against me. My standing here before you today has always been possible; the likelihood has always been slim.”

Not surprisingly, leaders in the North Lawndale community pushed back at the Tribune series. More than 30 years later, Ramey thinks it’s important to understand the root causes that contributed to the conditions in that neighborhood. “Systemic racism was what built the ghetto that I grew up in,” he declared from the stage in Toronto. “It’s a place that I fight dearly for today. Some would tell you that it was our lack of character that built the violence in my neighborhood. But it was the violence of apathy and public policy ... that gave birth to the guns and the gangs.”

Though he had been so passionate and forth-coming on the stage, when I approached Ramey about writing a profile of him for this magazine, he let me know that, while his past is part of his present and integral to the work he does, he thought it was important I understand the personal cost of recounting that past. “Whenever you’re bringing in speakers to talk about issues of social inequity, usually they’re based in sharing personal stories,” he says. “So you bring in someone like me. I go in and tell my story. I don’t think folks understand how stressful it is to constantly rehash some of the most traumatic parts of your life. It’s exhausting. I need hours after I’m done with a 30-minute talk with one Rotary club, for instance, just to bring my energy down. You’re sitting in a space where you’re sharing with people — and you want to share — but literally, some of the questions that they ask remind you that they have never, ever studied what it means to be Black.”

Despite Ramey’s reticence, it’s possible to see the road he took out of his past. Education was a big part of it. He attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, one of Chicago’s premier public schools. Encouraged by his mother, he became a star on the city’s poetry scene, winning laurels at local and national youth poetry slams. At one of the first Louder Than a Bomb events — an annual Chicago poetry festival, sponsored by an organization called Young Chicago Authors (YCA), that now attracts thousands of participants and observers — he recited, in a tone both facetious and deadly serious, a composition about oppression and racial stereotypes. “Start your race poem like a big angry Black man,” it began, “even if you’re a woman — or not Black, like Michael Jackson.” The audience laughed loudly and then listened intently. (Today, Ramey serves on the YCA board of directors.)

Remaining in Chicago, Ramey earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at DePaul University; during his college years, he also worked long hours as a futures trader for a financial trading firm at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. After graduating, he returned to North Lawndale, taking a job as the director of development and marketing at the Young Men’s Educational Network (YMEN), which, despite its name, also nurtures young women. In the midst of the Great Recession, as he took on the role of raising what he says was “millions of dollars,” Ramey learned valuable lessons about commitment, communication, and philanthropy. “The first month I went to work there, my boss sat me down,” he recalls. “And he said, ‘Xavier, your job is not to get people to give a donation, because a donation won’t change anything. Your job is to convince them to give something so big that it changes who they are.’”

Ramey talks with Antione Brewer, the program coordinator at the Young Men’s Educational Network, the Chicago organization where Ramey began his social justice career.

After 4 ½ years at YMEN — during which he spent several months in Kenya working with a Nairobi-based NGO called the Uzima Foundation — Ramey moved on to the United Way of Metro Chicago. He then headed to the University of Chicago to lead a new initiative called Social Innovation and Philanthropy at the school’s University Community Service Center; working with and teaching students, he created several social justice programs that would help students (as the school put it at the time) “think creatively about how to address major social issues and how to start up, run, and sustain an organization whose primary mission is to serve the public.”

After three years, alarmed at the country’s widening political divisions, Ramey decided to “create a new definition for social impact consulting.” As he told the Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, the “overall goal” of his new company was “to bring a different way of thinking, but also a different type of leadership structure, into corporations, nonprofits, and foundations.” That new company would be Justice Informed.

“Our work at Justice Informed is not to make things more possible in the world. It is to make them probable.”

The insidious nature of privilege

Justice Informed conducts workshops and strategy sessions, but Ramey’s work often begins with his speaking to a group. “Most people are still making up their minds if they want to do the work of equity,” he says. “They want to spend more time listening to views on it than actually getting something accomplished.”

Invariably, the first query he gets is a revealing one: “How do we stop racism?”— which is often followed by “How do we promote more women?” or “How do we make LGBTQ people feel that they belong?” The questions are so broad and so rudimentary — volumes have been written about them — that Ramey is sometimes taken aback at the lack of nuance. “Some people say there are no bad questions,” he says. “But when your questions come at the cost of the psychological and emotional safety of someone else, who’s a presenter or a speaker or a witness to harm, then you do have a responsibility to do your homework before you start asking questions.”

He also feels a need to instill in the people with whom he consults that sense of urgency he expressed two years ago in Toronto. “Organizational leaders simply don’t want to move at the pace that’s needed for change,” he says today. “Racial progress moves at the pace of white fragility, gender progress moves at the pace of male fragility, and so on. Even our well-intentioned allies are on the fence about how fast we should all move to get along.”

The upshot is that before he can even get to helping build strategies, Ramey must engage in a certain amount of reeducation and dispelling of myths and stereotypes, and replace them with “narratives” (to use his word) that reflect starker realities that many never want to face. “Justice Informed uses words to create ideas about new narratives in the world,” he says, “and those narratives allow for certain strategies to be possible.”

Ramey challenges a host of narratives during his corporate training sessions, just as he did during our conversations. Nothing was off-limits; no topic was safe. The value of philanthropy, for example. Surely, such giving has no caveats? Well ...

Philanthropic giving is fine and has its place, he allows. “I think giving back is important. The reality of what I’ve come to know as a Black man in America is that there is a better way than just giving back. And that better way is to not take first.” That’s what he tells the organizations he works with. “Don’t focus on giving back; focus on not taking first. You can put that at the top line: Pirates can’t become philanthropists.” And as he did in Toronto, Ramey quotes Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

“We work with foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations around reenvisioning how racial and social equity can be at the center of their grantmaking.”

Likewise, he balks at the idea that talking about racism is hard. “Talking about racism is not hard — if you practice,” he says. “When you don’t practice, it shows.” But being able to practice means creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being their authentic selves and able to speak up about issues — both of which, Ramey says, can be hard, especially when people fail to understand the insidiousness of privilege.

The very nature of privilege, for example, is that you don’t have to assimilate to participate in society. “If you’re Asian in America, if you’re Middle Eastern, if you’re, let’s say, from Botswana, what is the first thing you have to do to get into a corporate job?” he asks. “You have to assimilate, meaning you have to study the people in power. Now, if you ask those people in power, they’ll say we’re all the same. But they didn’t have to study like the woman from Botswana. They didn’t have to learn another language or put their cultural clothing in a closet so they could go to dinner at a potential new boss’s house. People are closing off entire parts of their lives so that you don’t have to feel their difference.”

So how can that be changed? The key, as Ramey says in his speeches and workshops — and as he and his team build strategies for inclusion and equity across the United States — is to create a setting where people believe they will be heard and not punished for telling the truth as they see it. But to accomplish that, every assumption about relationships — in the workplace and in society — needs to be torn down and rebuilt in a more authentic way. I ask Ramey if that’s really possible. Again I seem to have asked the wrong question. “Our work at Justice Informed is not to make things more possible in the world,” he replies. “It is to make them probable.”

Which, Ramey explains, is the main reason he joined Rotary. “Rotary does a lot of good work, but I saw a century-old organization struggling under the weight of the conversations it was not willing to have and the traditions it was not willing to analyze and replace,” he says. “Rotarians have to apply The Four-Way Test to the inequities that exist in their communities and countries and around the world today. There is a reason why Rotary clubs struggle with diversity, equity, and inclusion. The new DEI statement is a place to start, but it lacks the specificity required to create enduring change for anything except gender. There is a reason why Black American Rotarians don’t stay members for long in a club. There is a reason why women had to file lawsuits to be admitted into Rotary clubs as equal members. All along the way, people insisted they be evaluated on the basis of whether they were a ‘nice person.’ Niceness and goodwill are inputs to productive conversations and meetings, but they are not strong enough to create an equitable world.

“I wanted to step in to challenge, be in community with, and provide an example of linguistic and civic rigor for the Black and Brown, LGBTQIA, and nonmale persons who need Rotary to be a place where our prosperity in any country we inhabit is probable, not just possible. We need to move beyond grants and volunteering, though that work is good. We need to move into accountable relationships, and that means that the people who need more than help — who need justice — get to define impact. That was what the hundreds of people, mostly Black and Brown people from across Africa and Asia, said to me after Toronto as I left the stadium. One elder lady told me, ‘Young man, I don’t think you know what you have done by saying these things, but I thank you.’

“That is how we prevent people like George Floyd from being killed on video. That is how companies move beyond ‘the business case for diversity’ and into real relationships with people of different backgrounds and identities. And that’s how Rotary moves powerfully and proudly into the future.”

‘We have much work to do, Rotarians’

That was the message that Ramey, a member of the Rotary Club of Maywood-Proviso in suburban Chicago, delivered in Toronto. “It was always possible for a Black man to be president of the United States,” he said then. “But until 2008, it was improbable. It has always been possible for a woman to be paid what a man is paid. But it is also, in most parts of the world, improbable.”

Those words came early in his speech, but they were met with applause. The crowd was already with Ramey as he paced the stage and held up the various truths he insisted must be seen. But he wasn’t only holding the mirror up to his audience. He stared into it himself. “I am the hope and the dream of the slave,” he proclaimed, this time echoing the poet Maya Angelou. “I repeat, standing here I am the hope and the dream of the slave. And, and I am a privileged American. I am a systematically excluded Black person in my own country, and I’m a privileged man. These are my contradictions. I accept them. I urge you all to do the same, to acknowledge it, to recognize it, to hold that tension. This is the tension for our time.”

Then came the challenge: “We have much work to do, Rotarians, in moving to the next phase of civic responsibility and global relationships. We must make the possible probable. We have a beautiful and important world to build, if we can keep it. If we can keep ourselves. If we can love. If we can be life. If we can be together. Know that the fate of our very world depends upon it. Thank you all.”

The audience roared its approval. Challenge accepted.

• This story originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

The senior writer at Chicago magazine, Bryan Smith last wrote about Montana farmer Bob Quinn for the March 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

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