John Coburn is a Loveland Resident, a lifelong educator, and a founding member of the Loveland Diversity Advisory Board.
by John Coburn
In 1954 my father-in-law Everett enlisted in the US. Army stationed in Alaska. The base was a rugged area far removed from big cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, or his hometown of St. Louis. Everett quickly found himself the odd man out; it became clear the men in the company were not accepting of Black folks. Fortunately, he was blessed with the gift of gab, enabling him to hold his own without fear of repercussion.
Everett met a young man in his platoon named Ken. Ken, being Jewish and from New York, also struggled with the new environment and described Alaska as “living in a foreign land.” Friendly and outgoing, Everett became like a brother to Ken. Eventually the two forged a friendship with Ken dubbing his new pal “Duke.” While Ken and Duke were an unlikely duo–it seemed incredulous that a Jewish man and a Black man could become friends and work together– the truth was Everett knew no strangers, and he never left anyone behind.
Everett’s strong sense of family instilled in him the importance of acceptance toward all people, regardless of their differences. As such, he helped Ken fit in with the rest of the company by reinforcing to Ken that he was special. By helping Ken to develop a sense of self-worth and demonstrating that he was a crucial member of the team, Duke enabled Ken to develop a sense of belonging. That was a favor Ken never forgot and after the tour in Alaska ended, Everett and Ken remained lifelong friends. Over the next 60 years, they continued to stay in touch via yearly phone calls. When Everett died in 2020, Ken remembered his friend’s kindness, stating he would never have made it out of basic training without his friend Duke.
By the 1970s, Everett was named the first Black employee at the St. Louis Corvette plant, working in security for General Motors. (Technically, he was the second Black employee, but GM didn’t know this; Everett’s cousin Bob who got him the job was the first, but Bob passed as white.)
The interview process was brutal and Everett was openly mocked for having taken college courses at the local business school. While cruel and demeaning, unfortunately the interview was only a small glimpse of what was to come.
GM was a toxic workplace during those days and fellow workers desperately tried to get Everett fired or intimidate him into quitting by placing nooses and tools in his locker. If you possessed company materials, you were subject to disciplinary action so those would be planted as well. Employees would drive to his home and sit in front of his house during the day, Everett recognizing the cars because of his position in security. He would come home after work crying tears of frustration. This pernicious behavior was against everything he believed and stood for. He’d initially believed his vivacious personality coupled with his gift of unconditional acceptance and love for others would help him navigate life’s challenges. He was starting to think it would not. Fortunately, his wife supported and encouraged him to continue to push forward. Eventually, Everett was the first black foreman at GM, receiving Quality awards for the work.
In the years since, I’ve taken Everett’s experiences to heart and they’ve shaped the way I live and the way I approach my career as an educator. At one point, I accepted a job in the city next to my hometown as an assistant principal. The principal was indifferent to the idea of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and its impact on the school environment. It was obvious: both the school environment and the surrounding community were incredibly toxic. Students that were deemed different were overly disciplined and behind academically. It was clear no one felt a sense of belonging or importance, not the students in the school or the members of the community surrounding it. And with no leader to inspire these feelings, things would only continue to get worse.
With the help of another teacher, I instituted plans to help students academically. I continued my work with students and parents providing social-emotional support while addressing underlying social-emotional needs. I started an ACT Prep program to help improve the students’ college acceptance.
In the spring, the community experienced a mass shooting that killed local government officials and police officers because of a community conflict. Those students that felt a sense of belonging began to seek social and emotional support. Despite the community upheaval, many students followed the academic plan and graduated with their classmates. The community has started to heal, and many community members have made it their mission to speak up and be more inclusive of others in their community.
I share these stories about my father-in-law’s and my experiences to illustrate that everyone wants to belong. The need for belonging is an innate sense of the human condition. If we cannot develop relationships and feel a sense of acceptance, we become isolated, withdrawn, and want to quit. A feeling of belonging, and having people around you who foster that feeling, is an essential component to success.
That said, because of Covid-19 and social injustice, many students don’t have that sense of belonging. They may feel excluded at school or in society in general. This, as we’ve seen, is neither conducive to a healthy self-esteem or academic success. The question is, how can we help our students feel like they belong?
Taking inspiration from Everett, as I have done, has been instrumental. We can ask ourselves:
As teachers, are we accepting of students and not hypercritical? Everett welcomed all people. He did not put people down, and he was not overly judgmental. No matter what others said, he never judged anyone.
As educators, do we allow students the opportunity to restart? Everett always gave everyone a fresh start. Once his nephew forged his signature on a document, and he received free service on his car. Everett forgave him.
Are we empathetic toward students? Everett displayed grace toward people even when people were unkind to him.
Finally, is our climate and culture inclusive, accepting, and inviting? It was not until the final years of working at GM that Everett felt a sense of belonging. Toward the end of life, Everett developed dementia. He recalled the names of most of his family and not much else. However, he remembered in detail his experiences at GM.
Though it has only recently been given a formal title, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a concept that has always been important. And while there will always be outliers like Everett who persevere despite the odds, there are far more Kens, who need the camaraderie and encouragement of others to succeed. As educators, caregivers, and members of the community, we are uniquely poised to provide this encouragement and well-crafted DEI programming is the most impactful way to do it. It need not be a political or divisive issue–the fact is that when everyone feels they belong, everyone wins.
Regardless, I’ll continue to advocate for DEI not only because I’ve seen that it works, but also because I know that Everett wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
This Guest Column by John Coburn is presented by Loveland Magazine in collaboration with the Loveland Diversity Advisory Board. Contact them if you’ve a story to share.