Deidre DeJear

Martin Luther King, Jr. Week of Service Keynote - Jan. 18, 2021

Deidre DeJear
January 18, 2021— Grand View University
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Good morning everyone. I’m gonna ease this mask off – thank you so much, for that lovely introduction. And I appreciate you for not reading the long format bio, because today is not about me but today is about each and every one of us who are in this space. And I’d like to thank all of our students, who have played an integral process in making today happen. Magnifying the importance of why we are here and living true to who Dr. King is. We cannot thank you enough for your courage and your dedication – even when you have other priorities that you could be prioritizing right now. So we appreciate you. I also appreciate Grandview University today. President, Mr. Henning, thank you so much for welcoming me here. And Alex, wherever you are, thank you for the invitation. And to my friend Rob Barron, thank you so much for the work that you're doing in your office.

I always like coming to Grandview – I used to spend a great deal of time coming here for basketball. As a basketball coach right up the road at East High School, and so we come here during the summer to participate in all of the tournaments and things along those lines that were going on. And it's always a good time to be right here in your community, to embrace the people that exist in your community.

Again, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak here, today, on such an important day. When I was growing up in Mississippi – which is where I’m from – on this day, everyone would be outside for the annual MLK day parade. And, I’ve always been a fan of parades because parades are an opportunity to just people watch. you get to see all types of people infused into one space celebrating, and getting excited, and what was so unique about MLK day – which was different from our fourth of July parade –was that everyone came self-identifying as who they were. You know they weren't wearing the red, white, and blue they were wearing a shirt with their team on it or their school on it or their organization all there to celebrate and uplift who Dr. King was. And so when I came to Iowa to go to Drake, right up the road, in 2004 I got an opportunity to intern at Bankers Trust. And at Bankers Trust they always inspired us to think outside of the box and to challenge the status quo as interns. And so, here I was approaching MLK day – I was working in the marketing department – and I was creating this flyer to put on all of the banks – all of the branches – in Des Moines for Bankers Trust to let everyone know that we were going to be closed in observance. But I was like why do we just have to be closed? Why don't we have a parade – like that's the only good way to celebrate Dr. King is a parade. So I marched down to HR, and I spoke with Miss Sharon Gatti Hannah – who's also a southern transplant from Tennessee – and I said ‘Miss Sharon, we have got to have a parade. Like I don't understand why we don't have a parade in this state, in this community – what can we do about it?’ And she looked at me, with all sincerity, and she said, ‘Deidre, it's too cold. It's too cold.’ – And she's right cause today it's 28 degrees outside, and who wants to be in a 28 degree parade.

Needless to say, here we are inside warm and celebrating a person often confused as a savior. But he was simply a man. A man who was committed to doing the right thing. A man who was committed to seeing America’s promise, come to life, right in front of us, for all people. Dr. King, at his core, was no different from many of us – because he was a human being. Today’s conversation is on protecting humanity, and embracing its potential. I am no historian – as there might be some in the room – but I am a firm believer that if we are to be writers, and participants of our future, we must be readers and studies of our past. And 2020, as was stated earlier, was a heck of a year for us. We experienced loss, heartache, loneliness, and above all the things that we experienced that made us uncomfortable, the number one was, change. And while 2020 was challenging it gave us great vision.

Needless to say, I’m going to go a little bit farther back than 2020. It was the 1800s, a gentleman by the name of Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman, was sent here with another gentleman to study America’s prison system. And in the process of studying America’s prison system, Tocqueville decided he was going to use that time to understand America – because here we are just coming off of being under rule. As a colony. And this man who abided by the principles of colonialism wanted to understand America and its democracy. So he used this trip to study the prison industry – I’m not going to go into why he wanted to study or the French wanted him to study the prison system – but he used that time to really captivate the importance of what was going on in America holistically. And he wrote a book that ended up being two sections, two volumes – we gave him plenty of content, I can tell you that. And one of the things that he says in this book – through the lens of a Frenchman – is that nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn, how to use, than freedom. We are at a point in time in our lives when we, are able, to protect humanity more. So than she's ever needed protection before, outside of the last time our ancestors and our lineage were in the same seat that we sit in, in this moment. What I am saying is that, where we are right now in history, is where we have been before. And I’m asking all of you all today, as we go through this discussion, what will be the difference?

There’s a phrase that I’ve recently learned – and I want to be able to use it in every speech – and it says ‘We affirm the worth of all people. No’s dignity, or humanity, is subject to debate. We affirm the worth of all people no one's dignity, or humanity, is subject to debate. Where does that come from?

Grandview University. On the Website of Grandview University, right now, you can go and find that quote; that to me really defines where we are right now. I don't know about you but sometimes I feel like I am in a love triangle with the American dream. You’ve got – and all of us know what a good love triangle is right? you got a girl and you got a guy who wants the girl for his own purposes and to do what he may with her; and you've got the other guy who's like I want you to be the best that you can be and I want to be a part of your life so that I can be a part of you being the best that you could be; and then you've got this girl who's juggling the two weighing the pros and cons. you've got America juggling the two, analyzing the pros and cons right now. And you've got folks in our world that don't believe that humanity should be uplifted. That believe only a certain section of humanity that should be uplifted. But what happens in that love triangle – something has to give. And that's where we are right now – something has to give, for all of us.

Tocqueville also said, ‘everybody fills, the evil. But no one has the courage, or energy, to seek the cure.’ I’m a little bit more optimistic, than Tocqueville. We all see the evil, but I don't believe that we don't have the courage. I don't believe that we don't have the energy. But what I do believe, is that we have been relying on ourselves as individuals to overcome the challenges of centuries. And what I am here to suggest to you today, is that we relinquish the burden as individuals, and we accentuate and acknowledge the value that each and every one of us has collectively. Has anybody ever played the game Jenga? Good old-fashioned American game, Jenga. The object of Jenga, is to test the strength of a structure, with as few pieces as possible. So over the course of the game it's like ‘all right let me take one piece out – oh it's still standing. Let me take another piece out – oh it's still standing’ – until the structure falls. Right before the structure falls – think about the last time you play Jenga – right before that structure falls that is where we were in March of 2020. Fragmented as a community. Some people were investing time, some people weren't and the moment in which that structure fell – for you – is what happened to us in March of 2020.

We saw America face its own self for the first time. Its own strength. Nobody else was competing with America but America. And we fell. We saw how much we could stretch. We saw how much we could take. And we fell. But if we think about the beginning structure of what Jenga looks like, it's strong. It’s not much that can move it, because everything is connected and intertwined. At its core, the conversation that we're having today, as I said earlier, is about humanity. And when we think about, Dr. King, and the core of his ancestral genetics – what he looked like, his gender – at the core of everything he was an ordinary human being. He had no superpowers. He was not an avenger fighting off evil, he simply had his faith in God, and his passion to serve mankind. His desire to fulfill his purpose to the best of his ability. In his crusade for civil rights, Dr. King, like so many others in the civil rights movement, believed in people. And he, advocated for people, just as others did during that time. Some of that advocacy looked like marching; some of it looked like protesting; some of it looked like writing policies while others convened communities. Needless to say people rolled up their sleeves for the sake of their children's future – and the sake of their community's existence. They were the latest version, of people who had long endured trials of oppression and violence, for nearly four centuries. You see, Americans, have always had a history of fighting justice. African American, have had a history of fighting for justice, even before we were a country. For too long people of color have been commodities in our communities. We think about the commoditization of slavery, mass incarceration, our failing education systems from k-12, the growing dependency on social services. Our people have been commoditized. African Americans have long endured, whether it be through policies or social biases.

And if there has been any saving grace that saving grace has been through the humility of individuals who refuse to settle for the status quo. those who believe in the promise – the promise that all men, all women, transgender, cisgendered, non-binary – everyone – is created equal; and that we're all equipped with the same DNA, to operate as humans. We are enduring a lot right now in our country. But again I want to remind you, we've been here before. Our fight for justice is nothing new. Folks are still asking for voting rights, just like they were 60 years ago. Folks are still asking for quality education, just like they were 60 years ago. Folks are still asking for white supremacy and racism to be dismantled, just like they were 60 years ago. Women are still asking for equal pay for equal work. Just like we were. 60 years ago. But I ask you the question are we comfortable with this? Do we believe that because it's happened in our past that there is no brighter future, for our children, to live and operate? And the same feelings of disgust, the same burdens that we carry, the same challenges that we think – would we wish that upon our future?

Our communities are equipped to overcome any challenge. I am a firm believer in that. But needless to say, just because a car is working – just because it's riding – doesn't mean that when you pop up the hood it's looking like it needs to. What I’m trying to say is that just because a system works for some doesn't give it credence to exist, when it could be working for all. In his final years MLK elevated a poor people's campaign. And out of the poor people's campaign came the economic bill of rights. And in the economic bill of rights, he had five tenants. The first one meaningful job at a living wage. Sound familiar?

In 1959 the Black poverty rate was no more than 55 percent. In 1959 more than 55 percent of Black Americans were impoverished in. 1959 over 55 percent of Blacks could not make ends meet. They couldn't afford to put food on their tables and provide for their families. Now here we are, in 2021 – in my county, this county – Polk County – an African American family's median household income is 30,000 dollars less than all of Polk County.

Let’s zoom in a little bit, because this wage challenge that we see, crosses all races. Whites per capita, in this county, make 31,559 dollars. Now let's put that into perspective. Call it 30,000 dollars – average costs of child care, 10,000 dollars. This is annual right, so let's take that 10,000 dollars off. Then they say you should only spend about a third of your income on rent, or housing, so let's take another 10,000 dollars off. So we're left with about 10,000 dollars for a white person in Polk County to do with what they may. To respond to emergencies; to put food on the table. To get tires on a car; to pay for transportation; to get a bus pass. All of the obligations that each and every one of us incur on a daily basis. How do we expect that person to live? Then we look at our Latinx population per capita in this county – 17,995 dollars. What do you expect for that individual, to do with 17,995 dollars? And still sustain themselves and their families. Sending their kids to school with empty bellies. Working day in and day out. God forbid if they're working overnight; not able to spend time with their families. Then we look at the Black community 15,769 dollars per capita in this county.

We’ve been here before. The second thing on the economic bill of rights, the second tenant: secure adequate income for all those who are unable to find or do a job. Median earnings for Iowans with disabilities – 20,519 dollars. And we know that the cost for an individual with disabilities to survive are astronomically higher than those without disabilities. 19.7% – 19.7% is the poverty rate, amongst folks with disabilities. That’s more than double that of people without disabilities in this state. 9.1% – 9.1% is the unemployment rate – or at least it was in 2019. We know that after last year unemployment rates were astronomically impacted because of COVID – but just look at that 2019 number. 9.1%, three times the unemployment rate, of the entire state at the time.

We’ve been here before. The third tenet was access to land. When we look at our farmers today, they receive an average on 14.6% for every dollar consumers spend on food. Now while we value the land, it seems to me that our economy doesn't value the work that they put into their land. Bankruptcies are on the rise for farmers. In June of 2020, chapter 12 bankruptcies, in this country, were nearly 600 –representing 8% of a rise from June of 2020 to June of 2019. And nearly a third of those bankruptcies, are happening in the Midwest.

The fourth tenant that Dr. King asked for in the economic bill of rights was access to capital. In my county Blacks are two times more likely to be denied for a loan. Two times more likely to be denied for a loan. Much of this data that I’m sharing with you today comes from the one economy report that was delivered by the director’s council, which is an organization local here to Des Moines. And when this group saw, the … extreme disparity, related to access to capital, that raised a serious alarm.

Now we can look at our state locally, but we can also look at national numbers related to our small businesses. just last year, 5% of Black businesses in this country – less than 5% – of Black businesses in this country, received. A PPP loan this PPP loan was created as a response of the pandemic. We all heard the challenging stories that small businesses were having, trying to keep their employees paid; trying to keep their employees healthy; and still trying to provide for the clients that they serve – and, provide for themselves and their own families. And so the government stepped in and said ‘okay we're going to help our small businesses’ – but the government, did not consider the whole picture.

They created guidelines and principles that weeded out nearly 90%of Black businesses just with one stipulation. ‘If we're gonna give you money,’ the government said at this time, ‘you've got to have employees.’ now imagine, if someone were in the room, at the moment in which they were putting together this program, that said, ‘hmm, if we create this stipulation, you realize it's going to carve out an entire community of people – infringing on their access to receive these dollars, that their taxpayer dollars have contributed towards.’ but it wasn't until after the fact. It wasn't until after the fact, and luckily our government course corrected but the by the time that it did, the damages were already done, and typically what happens in our country, when we see the damages, we then flock to just address the damages. We flock to address the damages, we address them and then we move on. But that's what gets us back to having the problem. Because we never addressed the problem. The fifth tenant. The fifth tenant, on the economic bill of rights: the ability for ordinary people to play a truly significant role in government. In a couple of days, we are going to make history. Senator Kamala Harris, who I’m not sure but by now she might have resigned from her senate role, will become the first woman of Asian descent, the first African American, and the first woman to be the vice president of the United States of America. A woman who had no blueprint. A woman who isn't a superhero, but simply a human. Who graduated from a historically Black college and university; a woman who worked her way up through public service, to be where she is today.

A woman who was vowed that she has been the first of so many things but refuses to be the last. Now while we celebrate that, and uplift that, despite our party identity – it is a signal of progress. Needless to say, when we look at our state, we could use a little bit more access to people running for office. Not just people who are politically inclined but regular, everyday folks who advocated from March of 2020 on. Who had passions and desires to see their community change. Up until last year we had no Latinx representation at the Iowa House and Senate. We can do better than that.

We can do better than that – we have young people who are excited and motivated to infuse value and interest into our systems. Do we create spaces to invite them in, on our boards, on our commissions, in our non-profits? They are a part of our future. They are a part of the fabric of everything that this country means. Have we created a space for them? If we haven't we must. Think about the spaces that you're engaged in. now I also say, on the flip side, to our young people there is so much that we can learn. I guess I’m not technically young anymore – but there are so much in general that we can learn from our elders. Whether we agree with everything that they do or not, there's so much that we can learn. When we flocked to Dr. King; when we flocked to John Lewis; when we flocked to Elijah Cummings, Coretta Scott King – all of these people who were monumental folks stapled in our history, they were imperfect people just as we stand and sit here today.

But their imperfection was a part of their journey, and what gave them hope, was us. People they had never met, people they had never seen. Their desire to truly see America’s promise come to fruition. And when we think about that fifth tenet, of the economic bill of rights, although it's political in nature it has everything to do with the future of our economy in each and every person having equal access. There’s this notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. But we all know we have people in our community that have holes in their boats. Or no boats at all. And so while we're trucking along whether it's with a motor or ore, what are we willing to do for those folks who are sinking? Who are barely making it? Every morning waking up trying to make patches on there on their boat. What are we willing to do and invest in, to ensure that they have equal footing and they're a part of our rising tide?

All those things that Dr. King fought for, in the economic bill of rights – and there were others – are challenges that we're facing today. Challenges that we're seeking to resolve, today.

Y’all heard the book “It's Okay That You're Not Okay” – and that's a true statement. It is okay, that you're not okay – as an individual – but what's not okay, is that we're not okay as a country. Because when our country isn't okay, we're not okay. We’re all closely aligned, and connected, as if our country is a vessel feeding into us. And the only way we resolve our challenges, the only way we resolve our challenges, and maximize our potential is when we are in lockstep together. We can talk about revolutions all day long – but let's talk about a resolution. A resolution that requires us to break down the components of our problems; to understand the components of our challenges, so that we can truly resolve them. So it becomes less about what the problem looks like and more about what the problems made of.

One of the things that Tocqueville said, when he was looking at, this time, he was looking at the challenges that African Americans and Native Americans were experiencing. He saw the poverty and the illusion of freedom that was granted to these individuals – and he felt sorry for them. … And I’m quoting him, quote, “the only guarantee of liberty, is for everyone to combine forces.” in 1831, 190 years ago, this Frenchman, sails to America to study the prison industry, and instead, begins to write solutions to the problems that America has written. “The only guarantee of liberty, is for everyone to combine forces” – he didn't say Native Americans and Blacks combined forces. He said everyone, combined forces. This is what Dr. King calls the ‘table of brotherhood.’ so how do we do this together? because each and every one of us – like that Jenga game, it's made out of wood; it's strong in its own right, it's powerful in its own right, but collectively, it's indestructible. Just like we are. So how do we do this together? I’ve got four things that I’m gonna wrap up on. So we have some directives, some characteristics that we can connect to and hopefully use to check ourselves to ensure we're adding value. The first one is humble.

I want you to have some humbleness, in your tool shed. We all have egos, right? We’ve all got them – big ones, little ones. But here's the thing about egos: my ego, was never meant to meet yours. Your ego, was never meant to meet mine. They empower us as individuals. Humbleness, humility, allows us to identify when we lack expertise. When we're in a problem-solving situation, that humility allows us to understand it's not about us and us alone, but it's about resolving the problem that's ahead of us. It allows us to enhance our ability, to truly solve the problem – without an ego.

The second tenet is an equity lens. Have an equity lens in your toolbox. We should be able to look at all sides of an issue. All sides of an issue – the micro and the macro. Grandview says, on that website – you all say, on that website – planning should be rooted in data, stories, and the historical experience, and the lives of our community as much as possible. That defines our equity lens. Being able to see who we are for what we are – whether it be negative or positive.

Another tool to have in your toolbox, is a collaborative spirit. Working in a collaborative spirit helps us to not only understand who we are, but it allows us to understand who others are as we work together. Because again we cannot conquer these monumental challenges on our own. Sometimes as organizations and entities we try to be the hero, we try to be all things to all people. We were never equipped to do that. We were simply equipped to play our part, and to accomplish our role.

The last – tool, that I’d like everybody to have in their tool shed, is a tool of engagement. As problem solvers it's really important for us to understand the communities we serve; the communities we live in; the communities we invest our time; in the communities that we work for. And when we understand these communities, we truly understand the problem. Remember I talked about earlier, breaking down the problem, to understand its components. People are centered in that process. Not dollars, not the bottom line. Not a sales report, but people. And I believe if we can harness these tenants and keep them at bay, as we think about creating solutions in our community, it delineates the fear.

It gives us trust in ourselves and in our communities and our ability to do the work together. It moves us to rather than to flock to convention and convenience, to think outside of the box. Cause let's be honest, some of us, we're good at popping outside of the box. You know, just going a little bit over, checking everything out – but then we might go back. The moment the problem gets hits home for us; the moment we have a challenging conversation with a colleague; the moment somebody disagrees with us – we want to retreat back to the box. And our voice becomes even fainter and even fainter and even fainter, until we disappear. To the point where it doesn't matter that we were there in the beginning. Because we took a back seat, in light of the challenge that we saw. Challenges are inevitable y'all.

Even in the midst of problem solving, nothing about overcoming everything that we see here in front of us today, and the things that we'll hear later on tonight, on the news, is easy to overcome. There’s this notion that hard work guarantees nothing – but without it we don't stand a chance. This is a quote that I’ve been using since I learned it from a coach in basketball in 2012. And we have to remind ourselves of that. To not be averse to challenges – I understand that our k-12 system has not really done its due diligence in helping us to learn how to problem solve. But it's okay. It’s innately in us, to problem solve,

Six days into the New Year, a group of people, claiming they were fighting for freedom, sought out to defile the walls of freedom. And the electeds who represent it. They were determined. I like to think I’m a determined individual – I like to think that I won't let anything stop me, from achieving what I’m trying to achieve, when I believe its right. however the difference between me and those individuals who sought harm is that no matter how determined I may be – whether it be good determination or bad determination – no matter how determined I may be, the inequalities that exist in our system say that if I had stood on those capital steps, determined to get to Mitch McConnell’s office, I would not have had that journey without being stopped. Even if I had had a meeting, on both of our calendars. Six days into this New Year – a new year that folks were hoping was a page turner from 2020 – was simply a continuation of our nation's challenges around overcoming the challenge. Cause that's where we are right now. We have seen these challenges over, and over, and over again. Will we interrupt the cycle? I dare to say we will. I think we will. What’s the difference? You.

Each and every one of you all are the difference, you heard that quote by Gandhi: “be the change you wish to see in the world.” if we are to be writers and participants of our future, we must be readers and studiers of our past. each and every one of you all in your own industries and your own families and in your own communities, have an opportunity, to look at the past – to better inform how you will resolve the challenges you see. That’s how I came to the determination that intergenerational leadership was imperative.

It was imperative to have young people and middle age folks and our aging communities align, working in tandem – still representing the diversity in the ethnicity, the ethnic diversity that we see but also ensuring the diversity in age was a priority. because when I look at folks like John Lewis and MLK, who fought feverishly for the voting rights act of 1965 to ensure that all people had equal access to the ballot box; that no one would be threatened if they chose to vote; that no one would have to pay a tax if they wanted to vote; that no one would wake up, to a cross burning in their yard because they exercised their right to vote – that fight meant something. Yet in 2013 that fight was gutted by our Supreme Court. And why? Why was it gutted by our Supreme Court? Because of the lack of intergenerational interest in voting rights

Because we did not have an individual coming right after John Lewis to say ‘I’m going to continue to carry this torch for you.’ Coretta King says this – and I am summarizing it – the fight for justice is fought at every generation.

Just because an organization grows doesn't mean that there is no need for a human resources department. Just because Grandview is getting it right and ensuring that diversity and inclusion is the utmost priority doesn't mean we ever get rid of Rob Barron's position. Because the fight for justice is fought at every generation. So if you've heard anything from me today, it is that each and every one of you all are capable of being a part of the change. If you've heard anything else from me today, it is that we do this together. And if you heard anything else from me today it is that we continue the fight, no matter what.

In 2009, I was here, in this auditorium, for the Miss Black Iowa competition. Don’t y'all tell nobody I’m a pageant girl? And I sat right there center stage. Everything was dark, I could not see the red chairs – I don't even remember if they were red. All the spotlights were on me. my talent for the competition was playing the piano and singing. Now, have you all ever heard me sing? No – cause I haven't done it in public since; I hadn't done it in public before that either. But I was – and still am – this wild person who sees the challenge, sees a task, and just tries at it. So here I am, never having performed in person singing; I played the piano as a kid, so I done recitals, was familiar with that – but any anybody play the piano and sing? It’s a complicated task. It’s like jumping rope and hula hooping at the same time. And so I sat there, and not only did I set on a task to sing and play the piano, of all songs of all artists, to revere, decided to do a Whitney Houston song. And so, here I was, in the middle, getting ready to play and sing “You Were Loved” by Whitney Houston.

sat there, all eyes on me, all lights on me – and my little brother, I can't remember how old he was – probably like nine – and him and my mom had come up to see the pageant. And I froze. I was just back there, playing on the baby grand, getting everything together like the song – I had all the notes, I had all the chords, everything was good. JD Hooper, a jazz artist who passed away a few years ago, was training me – everything was fine y'all, I was gonna get this done. But I froze. At the moment that everything was ahead of me, and it was in my control to move forward, I froze. Had to have been like a long minute of uncomfortable silence, I haven't watched it yet, this 2009. Long minute of uncomfortable silence, and my little brother says, “go Deidre, go.”

A few simple words, from a little kid. who didn't get everything that got me to that space; who didn't get all of the complexities of playing the piano and singing, all at the same time. But he believed in me.

It took somebody else, to encourage me, to perform. So I’m here today to tell y'all, go Grandview, go. You have what it takes. You have everything in you. I went on to play that song. I didn't win because I went over time. It’s an automatic disqualification. But the next year, I won; and I became miss Black Iowa USA. And went on to nationals in DC and placed in the top ten. And had I have stopped and walked away – cause I thought about it. Like girl, what is going on? I’m just looking down, oh shoot – do you play another son? You just get up and do spoken word? What do you do – all these thoughts going through my head and “go Deidre, go” is the only thing that made me go. Thank you all for being the change. Thank you for advancing the mission on behalf of people like you, and others you don't know. It means the world to change, because I know we can do it, together. Appreciate your time.

DeJear, D. [Grand View University]. (2021, January 18) Martin Luther King, Jr. Week of Service Keynote Address by Deidre DeJear [] Retrieved on April 15, 2022 from