Lauren Y. Casteel – Keynote, MLK Business Awards Luncheon
We Must Keep on Stepping
The following is Lauren’s keynote speech delivered on 1/18/19 at the MLK Business Awards Luncheon in Denver.
Civil rights is in my DNA. I am privileged through birth into a family that had access to education and a passion for change.
I lived in Jim Crow Atlanta until I was 7, before moving to New York as my father, Whitney Moore Young, Jr., served as executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 until 1971.
He was considered one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph – though, Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, and many other prominent women ought to be included in this revolutionary group.
The beauty of this movement was the recognition that together, using different tools and strategies and relationships, they had collective impact.
I was 10 when when the photo of Marion Anderson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and my father was taken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Imagine, for just a moment, the view before them as they look toward the Washington Memorial. Imagine the power of the throngs of Americans gathered against all odds for a single nonviolent purpose of equity and social justice.
Marching is a movement, not THE movement
For years, I’ve participated in the Martin Luther King Day Marade and the Womxn’s March. Marching is an important movement, but it is not THE movement. We must continue to do as my father spoke of on those same steps at the Lincoln Memorial some 56 years ago.
In the words of my father, we must:
“…march from a present feeling of hopelessness, despair, and frustration to renewed faith and confidence due to tangible programs and visible changes made possible by walking together: to the PTA meetings, to the libraries, to the decision-making meetings, to the schools and colleges, to the adult education centers for all age groups, and to the voter registration booths.
The hour is late. The gap is widening. The rumbling of the drums of discontent, resounding throughout this land, are heard in all parts of the world.”
Substance over symbols
My father’s words seem almost eerie today. Daddy often took me to visit Urban League programs and partners such as street academies, Head Start, corporate headquarters, UNCF, and Freedom National Bank. He believed that black power was green power tied to educational and economic mobility. I guess it’s no surprise that I lead the only statewide community foundation in Colorado focused on the advancement and acceleration of economic opportunity for women and their families.
He also offered sage guidance. When I filled my wardrobe with dashikis, he smiled and asked me what I had achieved. When my Afro was much larger and less grey than it is today, he would ask me what was in my head and not on it. The point was that I was to NEVER confuse symbols for substance. When we are inundated with hashtags, it’s important to remember.
A lifelong pursuit of civil rights sealed through two events
While these experiences and insights indelibly paved my lifelong pursuit of civil rights, there were two events that sealed it forever: First, when I was 16, the summer of 1970, I spent three weeks with a small group of American students in Czechoslovakia during the Russian occupation. Military tanks literally marshaled my understanding of the fragility of global democracy and peace.
We left Czechoslovakia for Yugoslavia. I was injured while hiking and stayed at our hostel to eat in the dining hall. The director invited me to sit with others at his table and helped me down the hill to my room. I – a young, American, black girl on crutches – naively felt safe. Later, he used a master key and tried to rape me. My crutches became weapons and screams brought rescue. Then, in a room of officials of some sort – I shared my story through translators and tears. When I was done, they told me to sign a paper I couldn’t read – for purposes I didn’t understand.
Handed a pen with women in bathing suits on it, I signed my 16-year-old name. The bathing suits fell off – revealing nude women. Men laughed. Safety shattered. This is not a new #METOO survivor story. In fact, for the most vulnerable women it’s METHREE, four, and five.
What’s relevant here are the lessons I learned. Empathy for anyone who is traumatized and trapped by poverty, violence, history, or powerlessness. Compassion for persons vulnerable not only because of race, but also because of religion, ability, age, country of origin, zip code, gender, (including trans and non-binary), sexual orientation, or any background or identity. Seeking to understand the injustices of those who find themselves in any circumstance, be it a criminal justice, immigration, health, financial, or education system, where they don’t understand the language or the rules and have no access or advocate.
The second event – or series of events. At 17, my father and grandfather died the same week, and then my first love since middle school, died when we were 18. I silenced my pain, sank into my wounded soul, and flunked out of a top college at 20 by avoiding ALL classes second semester of my junior year. I became invisible, and I sought to distance and detach myself from my reality by moving across the country to Colorado.
Potential poised to be lost
I stand here today because a Colorado village of love – an inclusive family of diverse women and men, friends, and colleagues – who saw me for both the color of my skin and the content of my character. They extended support, opportunity, and unconditional belief until I believed in myself and found my voice. There are so many in our community who remain invisible – teetering on the margins – with potential poised to be lost for many reasons, who should have the same love, respect, and validation.
In these times, we need to strengthen these bonds of family and re-commit ourselves across communities as diligent servants of the common good.
The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, a unique nonpartisan community foundation, is focused on lifting opportunity for half of our state’s population, who intersect with every background and identity imaginable.
We apply a laser focus on strengthening our state through commitment to women and their families, and we dedicate our trusted legacy, diverse voices, knowledge, and statewide networks to creating more pathways to equality and economic security until every woman thrives and Colorado rises.
The path is not always clear
The path today is not always clear. We need sustained community vigilance and investment to remove the persistent barriers that prevent the most vulnerable and invisible women from thriving. A report that The Women’s Foundation funded in 2018 told us, that still, large numbers of rural women and nearly nine out of ten single mothers of color with a young child have income that is inadequate to cover their basic needs. This cannot remain our truth.
Together, we must rally urgency and resources to build a bigger movement with linked arms, hopeful hearts, and undaunted spirits. The time is now for warriors slashing at hate, for philanthropists generating care and giving, for humanity uniting our individual parts to create a stronger, mutually supportive and courageous country.
What can you do as individuals to have collective impact to honor “the dream” 365 days a year.
- Review your business behaviors, policies, and practices through an equity, power, accessibility, implicit bias, and privilege lens.
- Build inclusive social and professional relationships and partnerships that lead to an open culture of trust and learning.
- Understand the continuum of success and march steadily from one end to the other, leaving no one behind.
We must never turn away from the disheartening, disproportionate representation of the lives of women, children, and people of color as discouraging data points.
And we must also never forget all of our assets and opportunities as business owners, youth, donors, corporate CEOs, nonprofit leaders, faith community, public servants, neighborhood activists, college students, elected officials, technology geeks, elders, parents, and resilient innovators of social change.
Doing good in quiet and effective ways
The substantive cracks in our communities call us all to action. Early in these remarks, I mentioned a number of names. Some are national icons, heroes, or sheroes. However, among us every day are many who consistently show up in the world to do good in quiet and effective ways.
At my father’s grave site, there is a lovely wooden bench beneath a shade tree next to a low stone wall. And, on that wall, is a bronze plaque with another quote by my father, which has guided my life. With apologies for its lack of gender neutrality, it reads:
“Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reigns, all are unequal.”
Progress comes from ensuring everyone can enjoy a real chance for unalienable American rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lifting every voice to sing harmonies of hope to overcome a cacophony of dissonance. We are the home of the brave.
Dr. King said, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
What image better represents America’s “mountains’ majesty” than the great Rocky Mountains?
We cannot languish in the past. Claim the power and energy of that symbolic imagery and translate it into majestic and substantive movement forward to inspire the future as a living legacy of all of those who stood or sat, spoke or listened, wept or cheered, on the steps, behind the steps, and in front of the steps, as well as those who keep on stepping.