Words That Activate Change: Featuring Kevin Ressler

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 fourth article is by Kevin M. Ressler. Kevin is President and CEO of United Way of Lancaster County. He is married to Melissa Ressler (Executive Director of the Lancaster Downtowners) and they share two children, Acacia and Iriana. Kevin, a Lancaster native, attended and graduated Conestoga Valley from Kindergarten. He earned a B.A. in Justice, Peace, and Conflict Studies from Eastern Mennonite University and an M.Div. from Lancaster Theological Seminary. Much of the focus of his life’s work has been approaching inequity and disenfranchisement in our social systems both through street activism and board room advocacy knowing that changing persons without changing the systems ends up maintaining the same problems in the next generation. Kevin presently serves as Board Treasurer for Meals on Wheels of Lancaster, Vice-Chair for Everence Federal Credit Union; and serves at large for UPMC Lititz, Conestoga Valley Education Foundation, Partnership for Public Health, Lanco MyHome. Lastly, Kevin frequently guest preaches on Christian ethics and does consulting for institutions and individuals desiring developing personal and institutional anti-oppression practice and cultural competency.

Paying The Cost: Learning About Racism And A Call For Business To Invest In Its Eradication

By Kevin Ressler

My six-year-old daughter is petrified that her grandparents “will die from the coronavirus.” I did not attend the first weekend of George Floyd protests, odd for me who has been in the struggle as long as I can remember. I was going to go, but realized that my daughter would ask where I went, even if I didn’t take her with me. I couldn’t add to her burden the knowledge that her daddy might not come home someday because he was killed, during an innocent encounter, by the people tasked by society to keep us safe. For those of you who are parents, what is the hardest conversation you have had to have with your six-year-old?

Dear reader, I imagine many of you think that six years old is too early to talk about racism. Many of you, I imagine, think that having conversations about racism with a six-year-old could introduce concepts into their minds that taints their mind with adult issues. I imagine this because many people have told me over the years that they think we perpetuate racism by talking about it, and the best method for it to go away is to not talk about it and teach some pacifying message of everybody being the same. A wonderful sentiment; naïve, but wonderful.

When I was about six years old, my family went camping at Knoebels. One afternoon, my older brother and I went about 100 yards from our campsite to the empty playground. While we took turns running up the ladder and down the slide a child about my age came darting across the field to the slide. As he approached, my brother was on the slide and I was ascending the ladder. The kid’s hand touched the bottom of the ladder and ringing out clearly from across the field was his father’s voice, “Get off that slide! There’s a nigger on that slide!”

Time stopped for a moment. I froze. The kid froze. My brother froze in motion traveling down the hot, shiny metal slide. Then time and motion resumed but I did not. I was paralyzed. I was afraid. I didn’t want the “nigger” to sting me, or hurt me, or do whatever it is that they do. Because I had no frame of reference for that word, I thought it was perhaps some kind of insect like a stinging wasp or a biting spider. Then my brother spoke, “Kevin, we need to go.”

That was the first time I heard the N word. I can picture that kid, brown hair. Short mullet with a rat tail at the base of his neck. I can picture his parents, long-brown-haired father and curly red-haired mother. To this day, I could probably give a pretty good go of it for a sketch artist. Because that’s what happens when you experience trauma. The moment sticks with you even thirty years later. Without seeking it, that kid, my ten-year-old brother, and I all received an education in racism and who belongs and who does not.

Speaking plainly, from its founding America has been a nation only for some but definitely not all. To pretend it is sufficient to “not be racist” is to misunderstand America, past and present. Like many, but always too few, of our ancestors we must engage in conversations and actions that are “anti-racist” or we will be remembered as the first generation to move significantly backwards on social advancement.

What does that mean? It means a commitment to demanding our supply lines are equitable and ethical in addition to being economical. And as consumers being willing to pay more for products because their producers were paid more to make them. It means seeking out voices that elucidate issues for us. It means being as committed as we would be when developing and promoting a new product or initiative. It means valuing black folk enough to never seek advice without compensation, placing the burden of the solution on them, and limiting their authority. The professional ceiling for black and brown folks must be more than director of diversity and inclusion.

Our approach to these problems must be serious. I cannot tell you the amount of hours I am asked to have conversations about race for companies and churches and community groups. Everyone is always thankful, often they are quick to tell me they have no budget for this and are so glad I’m willing to give back. Let me be clear, when you ask and expect me to provide you professional consulting as an “opportunity to give back” you are not yet ready for this work. You do not understand, black people have been giving back long before they were given to. You would never go to a strategic planning firm, or a marketing agency, or any other professional resource and expect they help you improve your product or your organization for free. I may choose to give of my time, you should never expect it. Please, as you engage in this work, do not cheapen the black expertise without honorarium or just compensation or you are just asking black people to do the work of solving your problems for free.

Asking black and brown people to help white people advance racial justice conversation without compensation is like asking a marketing firm to “give back” by making your new logo for free. Or a strategic planning firm for a free SWOT analysis. And this work is around inequities for black and brown bodies! Check this, we know in the workplace that black men and women are paid less for equal work than white colleagues. Maternity leave is usually paid as a fractional percentage of salary. This means most black children, from the moment they are born, begin life with a systemic financial disadvantage.

Solving a problem that begins at inception? That means taking risks, knowing like with a new product, that the market may not immediately reward you financially. The reality? If the plantation is what got us here, we need to act in opposition. Black people need to own the objectives and direction of these initiatives and endeavors. Ultimately, white people need to do the internal work to understand how this society has stolen their innocence and the external work to repair the systemic inequities that disenfranchise black bodies from birth.

Catch up on other articles in the series:

Article 1: Diversity Education & Workforce Development by Dr. Daniel Wubah

Article 2: Celebrating Diversity & Fostering Community by Deepa Balepur 

Article 3: Beyond Pride Month: Celebrating LGBTQ Communities by Todd Snovel

The Lancaster Chamber is currently creating a diversity task force and sourcing inclusivity & anti-racism training. We are committed to making changes within our own organization to better serve everyone in Lancaster County.