The Lancaster Chamber strives to provide opportunity for local business and community leaders to share their insight and perspective on a variety of current topics.
This Words That Activate Change series is focused on uplifting voices in our community that encourage dialogue, cultivate transformation, offer thought-provoking ideas, and challenge all of us to be better, be stronger, and, most importantly, be advocates for systemic change within both our community and our workforce.
Our eleventh article is by Victor Rodgers. Victor serves as Associate Provost for Workforce Development at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. In this position, Mr. Rodgers oversees all departments under workforce development to include healthcare, manufacturing, public safety center, and corporate and business services. The division has been able to add innovative programs such as the S.T.E.P. Academy, Contact Tracer training, Brewing Science Certificate, and Industrial Manufacturing Technician, Emergency Medical Technician and Hospitality apprenticeships. Previously, he was the assistant director for continuing education and workforce development at Guam Community College (GCC). Prior to GCC, Victor held the position of Direct Services Director of the Mid-East Commission, where he was responsible for managing workforce investment programs in Beaufort County, NC, and Older Worker retraining programs in an additional 23 counties. Victor, a U.S. Navy veteran, also served as a manager and HR specialist focused on training and professional development activities earning a prestigious award for excellence in human resource programming. A native of New York who grew up in North Carolina, Victor earned a master’s degree in business administration and a master of arts in business communications and holds a bachelor of science in human resources management.
By Vic Rodgers, MBA, associate provost of workforce development and continuing education at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.
The world we live in today is a far cry from just six months ago. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, we all seemed to drift along in “willful ignorance.” I don’t use that phrase in a derogatory manner. It was an environment, a mindset, baked into all of our lives. White Americans have had the luxury of not knowing, because the pain, humiliation and unfairness Black Americans experience was not their life experience. Black Americans were not unaware of this condition but felt powerless to stop this continual assault on their dignity and, in some cases, their very lives. This willful ignorance allowed us to co-exist, together but separate, equal by law but unequal in the ability to truly savor the American dream.
Since the pandemic and George Floyd, America has had the comfort provided by that willful ignorance ripped away. The jarring reality that systemic racism exists – not as an event but as a never-changing barrier for millions of Black Americans – is front and center in all of our lives. We are having uncomfortable conversations that we have never had to have, and we are examining “truths” that we have known all our lives – in many cases discovering a deeper truth underlying what we thought we knew.
This is our moment, our chance, our charge to replace willful ignorance with inspired knowledge. We have a unique opportunity as we huddle in our homes and remain socially distant, to read, talk and study. We have the opportunity to learn what systemic racism is and how it has been built, layer by layer, since the first enslaved African was sold in 1619.
Many of you are learning that the end of slavery didn’t end Black oppression. You’re learning how it morphed and changed after the Civil War. You are learning how reconstruction was working in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, until White nationalists led a revolt against the elected White and Black leadership of the city. Even in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rosewood, Florida, where Black Americans had achieved a level of success and wealth, racists and resentment robbed them of their lives and property. You are learning about the false narrative of the Lost Cause, a myth created and codified to romanticize slavery and the war it caused. Many of the Confederate monuments were not raised after that civil war to honor Southern military men. Instead, they were built during the era of Jim Crow as an in-your-face reminder to Black Americans about White rule, and now we are having conversations about their place in our society.
The frustration that we all saw explode in protests throughout the nation is a culmination of hundreds of years of systemic racism. Imagine what your level of frustration would be when you have done everything that society teaches you is the road to success, and you are still the first to be pulled over by the police, the last to get a call back for a job interview and the last to be promoted. It doesn’t stop there – you still have to deal with the hate that this system has created in some.
I had the privilege of serving as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman for over 20 years. I served despite knowing that my sacrifice would never be appreciated by some because they would only be able to see the color of my skin. One of the places I was stationed during my career was at the Navy Medical Clinic in Seattle, Washington. While there, I was honored by being selected Sailor of the Year, a prestigious award recognizing excellence as a sailor and a person. I lived in a middle-class neighborhood with my wife and two small children. One day as I was leaving for work, I found that the door to my house had been spray painted with the words “go home Nigger.” I left for work and came home in my uniform every day, so the people around me knew I was in the military. However, it was not enough to outweigh the fact that I was a Black man.
I am often asked by White friends and colleagues how they can help – not just by battling their lack of knowledge but how they can play a more active role for social justice. I always have two very simple suggestions that I hope everyone reading this takes to heart:
The first is to be anti-racist. This is not just saying “I don’t agree with racist attitudes and behaviors,” but actively standing up against them. You should call it out on your social media feeds when someone promotes racism through an off-color joke or when a stereotype is used. Also, you should refuse to accept a person who is just not P.C. as a cover for racist behavior, which many do. Silence is complicity, because your silence doesn’t stop the words or behavior. I need you to be an ally who will stand for me when I’m there and when I’m not there.
The second is even simpler. At every meeting you have where decisions are made that affect the community, whether it’s a chamber of commerce meeting, a school board meeting or a meeting of soccer coaches, always ask a simple question, “How will this affect our communities of color?” I say this because often decisions are made by well-meaning people who don’t consider that because of systematic racism, many communities of color do not have the same resources as the White community. Often, there is no one in the room who looks like me and who brings that different perspective. If the answer to your question is “it doesn’t adversely affect them,” then that’s great. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then take the time to find out. Acting as an ally in that way ensures we all have an opportunity to be engaged in an equitable manner.
With that as a backdrop, I remain hopeful because as I tell my White colleagues, Black people cannot fix racism. Trust me – if we had that power, we would have done so generations ago. All across the country, from church pews to board rooms, America is coming to grips with the need for both equality and equity. The fact that we are having these uncomfortable conversations means this country is finally ready to start addressing systemic racists policies and real social justice. My hope is that we are finally ready to look at our segregated educational systems, healthcare disparities and how we hire. My hope is that during this time of change, we are finally seeing the end to “willful ignorance.”
Catch up on other articles in this series:
Stay tuned for even more perspectives this year as we hear from a variety of local business and community leaders sharing insightful commentary on our society, our community, and our workforce.