An Open Letter


Meme Kelly

MFA, Playwriting Fellow, University of California


When she asked me to be her best friend, I knew that we were the change Martin Luther King had dreamed about: A little white girl with blond hair, soft blue eyes, and a soft smile wanting to be the best friend of the skinny, tall brown, skinned girl with long legs and shoulder length hair.

I said yes to Chris’ invitation, and our teacher, Mrs. White, said that it was okay for us to move our blue desks to face each other by the window.  We were at Martin Luther King Elementary in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was 1969.  My mother was working on her Ph.D. in education at the University of Michigan.  The country, both black and white Americans, were dedicated to diversity and moving our nation forward, past the painful history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Although to us 5th graders, all that mattered was that we liked each other. Chris was very sensitive and very smart. Her family resembled the Brady Bunch.  I had a feeling of warmth on my first sleep over at Chris’ house.  The morning after, I awoke to lots of bright smiles greeting me. Their Saint Bernard, that used to jump through the front door glass panes sometimes when the mailman came, snuggled up to me and nearly knocked me off of my skinny legs.

As a kid, I didn’t realize that what we were doing – a black and a white child being best friends – was novel or new and that it only happened in certain places with certain people.  At nine, Martin Luther King’s speech didn’t ring in my head.  Inclusion  was just a fact of life.

My family lived in University housing, and there were Indian, African, European Whites, Hispanic, and Muslim families there, along with every other nationality and culture under the sun.  We car-pooled in a VW bus to school. We listened to John Lennon and the Beatles.  We had birthday parties together and rode our bicycles all over Ann Arbor.  Sometimes we fought and our families fought, but it was never about race or singling anyone out as being less than. We were just all different. We liked it that way. We all felt that we belonged.

You can imagine my surprise when I went on Martin Luther King Elementary’s website a few days ago and didn’t find one African American teacher, nor did I see but a hand full of African American students. I quickly emailed the Superintendent, and she promptly answered my email. She referred me to the district’s diversity plan. They are aware that there’s a problem. They are working to increase the number of African American teachers, she said. They are doing great things in some areas, and they understand that more can be done. We communicated with civility in a compassionate manner. There was no name calling.  I felt that she cared about my concerns. The principal emailed me too. Ann Arbor is a great town with great leaders.

Yet, I am still shocked, that nearly fifty years after Chris asked me to be her best friend, that people of color continue to have to fight to be treated fairly and to be accepted in America. The leadership in the last fifty years did not move the country forward as it should have.  Why the ball was dropped can be debated until the end of time, but I’m not interested in futile conversations.  What matters now is that we all roll up our sleeves and pick up the baton.

Leadership at established institutions and organizations must lead the cause of making sure that all Americans feel included regardless of their color. People of color must be engaged to develop solutions, implement inclusion programs, and make sure they’re not just talking about the problem but making sure that change occurs.  People of color can no longer be considered “other:” Less human, less desirable, and less capable. Universities must take a stand.  School Districts must take a stand.  Fortune 500 companies must take a stand.  Hollywood – studios, agents, the Oscars, and the Emmys – must take a stand. We must all do our part to make sure that we all feel acknowledged, included, valued, and supported. We all want to know that we matter and that we belong.

Diversity births innovation of form, ideas, things, and institutions, so says the Webster dictionary. This is a truth. To exclude on the basis of the color of one’s skin and/or culture is dangerous.  It leads to ominous, violent things:  Japanese being hauled off to concentration camps. Jewish people being killed.  Muslim temples being burned.  Black men being lynched.  Hispanics being told to cross back over the border.  Unarmed African Americans being killed at alarming rates.  It is dangerous to exclude.

As the Beatles sang in 1969, we must all come together and demand that inclusive policies are in place in all of our institutions. Businesses, universities, government agencies, and institutions must have actionable diverse plans in place that are reviewed yearly for effectiveness. And when a problem arises, we must sit down at the table together and talk to each other. We can work it out and move the country forward.

You, too, reading this post must do your part.  Stop and look around the room in which you inhabit.  Check the hierarchy of your place of work or study to determine what inclusion action plan is in place. Question it. Talk to leaders in the organization.

I have looked around the room in which I inhabit. I’m a MFA Playwriting Fellow at the University of California, which has a great ranking as far as diversity goes.  But as the Chancellor noted in his email announcing an up-coming Diversity Summit, there is still room to grow. I love California and the UC System, having graduated from UCLA. I love the diversity in my state, although there is so much room to grow to make sure that all California citizens feel that they belong in the room, that we are included, and that our ideas are valued and respected.

If there are no African Americans, Hispanics, Asian, Arabic, and other people of color in the room that you inhabit, then there’s a problem. If they’re in the room, but don’t feel supported, valued, and safe to voice their opinions, there is a problem.  And it’s not, necessarily, the problem of the Person of Color unless, of course, the person of color is in a leadership position and not doing their part to bring other people of color into the organization. That’s another conversation that I will address in another Open Letter.  Blacks, especially those in Hollywood in high places, shouldn’t complain if they don’t anything to help other Blacks.

Another area that must be addressed is the erasure of African American history and the fact that the Immigration Department only asks those applying for Citizenship one question about our history in this country. Who is Martin Luther King?  This is not enough. Many immigrants come from racially homogenous countries, and they have no information about African Americans except for what they see on TV, which is more reason to have diverse stories coming out of Hollywood.  Immigrants must be taught to respect African Americans and acknowledge our difficult history in America.

We must all do our part to make sure we all feel included in our schools, institutions, and places of work.  We all matter, and we must all be represented, at all levels, in all of America’s institutions.  For America to be healthy, strong, and progressive, it must be committed to inclusion and making sure that everyone feels that they belong and are valued regardless of the color of their skin. Let’s make America a great country that includes all.


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