Matthes’ diversity speech provokes many reactions

David Webber   Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 24, 2018

A national conversation on race that so many call for, yearn for, must begin with local conversations on race. Meaningful conversations require honest dialogue accepting that people talk in different styles and use different words. City Manager Mike Matthes’ speech at the Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast can contribute to local conversation about racial differences in employment and economic well-being. Alternatively, it could spark a chilling effect on attempts to further community interaction and racial understanding.

Matthes’ breakfast speech was “bashed” by Race Matters, Friends for being “culturally and racially illiterate.” The speech would have been instructive in a college classroom because it demonstrated several truths about race in America. Among these are that media images make a difference in our perceptions of other people and that government and social programs can address “perception gaps” and biases.

The reaction also demonstrates that achieving the theme of the breakfast, “Forward in Unity: Embracing our Beloved Community,” is made more difficult by subsets of the community looking for political advantage rather than helping grow the local conversation.

Matthes set up his speech reporting on Columbia’s efforts at closing the job gap by illustrating how media images affect our perceptions. He recounted that during the protest in Ferguson in August 2014, the media was criticized for using unflattering images of Michael Brown as a thug rather than as a recent high school graduate who was college bound.

In response, protestors created a social media site where they posted photos of themselves in casual street dress and in more formal professional dress to illustrate that they are the same person that can project different images to society and the media.

To illustrate the importance of a job, Matthes’ showed two sets of images of five African-Americans. To be honest, as Matthes showed casual photos of the five Americans with comments such as, “The guy in the middle looks like he could rob a bank,” I squirmed in my seat a little and thought, “What the heck, where is he going?” I noticed some of the other people in the 1,000-person audience looking more closely at the images and shifting in their chairs. Matthes then went on to display and commenting on job-related photos of the same five people. For the guy in the middle he said, “The funny thing about the guy who looked like he was gonna rob a bank — he is a banker.” With that, I exhaled and thought, “Oh, I get it — ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’” and “clothes make the man (sic)” as our parents would say. We know this to be true, but we seldom admit it so publicly, especially before a crowd of well educated, racially sensitive people who bought, or were given, tickets to the event.

Matthes then went on to discuss a city youth internship called CARE — Career Awareness Related Experience — that provides at-risk 14-20 year olds with job readiness and internships in local businesses and organizations. Matthes said that it costs about $1,500 per participant and asked that we consider contributing. I had not been aware of the program but certainly see its value in closing the racial job gaps that exists across America.

Overall, Matthes’ choice of words and examples were startling but appropriate although it made me squirm a little. Personally, I would not have said “as a white man” because I have been educated to be an academic wimp and would have used the more vague “some people.” Secondly, rather than saying “it is good to be on time and to take a bath before a job interview,” it would be more politically hygienic to say “be punctual and dress for success.” Matthes seemed to be genuine and speaking “personally” so I accept his choice of words. Too often we repeat the same old socially acceptable slogans out of fear of being blasted for being “culturally and racially illiterate.”

Columbia has two race-oriented discussion programs this spring in which I will eagerly participate. The Inclusive Excellence program is a collection of city events focusing on promoting understanding of our diverse population. The second is book study of Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” involving 12 local churches supported by a reconciliation grant from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I hope all participants will speak frankly and honestly using their own words rather than repeating rhetorical platitudes that make us feel good but seldom result in change. I hope that if I say “take a bath” rather than “dress for success” that fellow participants either say “some people find that too personal to be polite” or say “oh, I know what you mean and I will cut you some slack.” Productive, genuine conversation about racial topics require us to persevere, be understanding, and not look for reasons to be disagreeable.

 

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Melissa Carr’s retirement marks end of career for exemplary public servant

Columbia MISSOURIAN

January 9, 2018

David Webber

Melissa Carr, presently the Director of the Danial Boone Regional Library, will retire next week after 46 years of service to our libraries, 21 years as director. Mid-Missouri was fortunate to have her all these years.

Melissa is an exemplary public servant whose likes we probably will not see again — not only in public libraries, but in education, social services and across many institutions of our society. Combined with the loss of local ownership of the Tribune, the sale of MBS, and rapid turnover of University of Missouri System and MU administrators, it feels like the passing of a generational torch.

Show me a leader in higher education, health care or public corporations who is likely to serve as the head of her organizations for the next 21 years. If Melissa had been a collegiate sports coach, we would name a sports facility after her.

It was my responsibility and pleasure to serve on the Daniel Boone Regional Library Board of Trustees from 2005-2013. From that vantage point, I observed Melissa through countless committee meetings, full board meetings, public functions and personal conversations. The board of trustees consisted of 19 appointed individuals with different personalities, familiarity with a public organization, verbal skills and inclinations to use them, and level of involvement in board decisions. Melissa could relate to all of them.

I served on the evaluation, finance and strategic planning committees watching Melissa interact with staff, other board members and the public. Melissa was always prepared, focused and patient. Over the years, I have heard many board members describe and comment about her integrity, her work habits, and her knowledge of library operations, library law, property tax levies and health care insurance.

Melissa, as everyone calls her, has a sixth sense for human relations. Several times I observed her gently nudging a stubborn, obstructionist board member along toward making a group decision. In one of my early years on the board, I met privately with her suggesting she take a stronger, quicker hand similar to what I observed by many public administrators. Her response was “David, I’ve tried it that way and it works out better if we take more time and let everybody be involved.” Repeatedly I found that Melissa could always give good reasons for her decisions.

Melissa was expert at keeping in touch with four different groups of people: her staff, the mid-Missouri public, local and state public officials and the national American library network. Professional positions at the local library did not become vacant very often. Melissa has a loyal and committed staff whose skills she uses and opinion she listens to. Melissa has won awards from local groups and the American Library Association. She always comes through.

Melissa was director of the library during an era of extraordinary change. Among these were re-opening of the Columbia library, building the Ashland branch, adding satellite lockers and drop boxes around two counties, and transitioning into the information technology age with ebooks and databases rather than just good ole books.

 

In the eight years I served on the library board, the trait that I kept noticing about Melissa was her openness to change in order to improve the library. Watching Melissa figuring out how to fund the Ashland branch and dealing with individual patron concerns was rather inspiring. The Daniel Boone Regional Library is an excellent organization devoted to improving library services to a diverse and changing population. Appropriately, one of her last achievements is the merging of the Boone County library district with the city of Columbia district. Few citizens will notice this legalistic change but it will streamline library governance, making library boundaries conform to the growing Columbia metro area. Melissa could have easily kicked this issue  down the road, passing it on to a future library director.

Melissa faced, and survived, several library and family health challenges. When she became director in 1996, she not only succeeded two icons of local library service — Virginia Young and Gene Taylor — but faced several board members skeptical about her selection. A few years later a proposal to expand library facilities was defeated at the polls. Melissa led the library in taking a step back, conducting a deep survey of public preferences, and launching a strategic plan that expanded services using present resources.

About five years ago, Melissa spoke to my MU senior capstone class of students who were getting ready to graduate. A student asked what was the most important trait for new employees to develop. Melissa told them “be a team player — do your part and share the credit.” This is the best single description of Melissa’s approach.