If you want a heart-to-heart conversation with La Toshia Burrell, be prepared.
Do some reading and some reflection prior to sipping coffee with her.
Then once you sit down, get ready to be mindfully present and to be challenged in ways you may not have encountered prior to that.
Here’s the good news: Don’t expect La Toshia, a professional woman, a leader in diversity efforts, a guest councilwoman and single mom of a 3-year-old boy, to worry too much about your inner comfort.
If she’s taken the time — and the emotional toll of revisiting her pain — what you owe her is not just a sympathetic ear.
Heartfelt understanding would do among strangers, acquaintances perhaps, when it comes to having a candid talk about racial justice in 2020.
For most of her life, La Toshia says, and for the duration of the lives of the community she represents, there has not been a meaningful conversation.
From her perspective, it has been more of a monologue, an oppressive one, which has denied Black people a voice, dismissed their presence and devalued their contributions and experiences.
A Fort Dodge native, La Toshia has had 35 years to think about what it feels like to grow up in a predominantly white community as a biracial kid.
“I am privileged in so many ways,” she said.
She lists the fact that she is light skinned and educated — she holds a master’s degree in exercise science from the University of Northern Iowa — and works as the executive assistant to Mike Byl, the president of The Accel Group, Waverly’s home-grown insurance agency, which now has offices in Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Coralville and Des Moines.
“If I can accept that I am privileged, if I can acknowledge my privilege as a Black woman while simultaneously being prejudiced and discriminated against throughout my life, it’s hard to see why people get offended by acknowledging their own white privilege,” she said.
Had it not been for the actions of others, like Richard and Mildred Loving, for instance, whose marriage in 1958, in defiance of Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriages, led to a June 12, 1967, landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court, ruling the ban unconstitutional, her parents, Julie and Craig Burrell, would not have been able to get married.
“Without them, without banning the ban on interracial marriages, I wouldn’t be alive today,” she said. “My mom is white and my dad is Black and I have been learning a lot more lately about what they have had to endure. I have so much respect for them; without them, I would not be alive. It’s heartbreaking.”
“It’s very powerful to see the growth, but also heartbreaking to see what it took to get where we are today and what it will take to get where we need to be.”
Where society needs to be today is now the focus of La Toshia’s civic engagement.
To do her own part, she has put herself forward in an initiative she co-launched with Waverly’s Jean Schenkewitz, called “Embrace: Celebrating Diversity in the Cedar Valley.” The idea emerged out of a strategic planning meeting in the city in 2018, which highlighted diversity and inclusion, as well as childcare, as priorities.
Since then, Embrace hosted its first outdoor event, with approximately 350 in attendance, despite a cold rainy day, with representation of a wide variety of diverse activities, engagement and talent.
That first success energized the women to hold other educational events for kids and adults, mostly centered around racial diversity. They donated children’s books to local schools, hosted an adult book club and an international trivia night in partnership with the Waverly Public Library, and perhaps most meaningfully, opened up a safe space for conversations amongst community members.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic, which caused massive disruption in lives and living, also canceled the upcoming second annual outdoor Embrace event, but the leaders moved their efforts online, initiating a series of posts on the group’s Facebook page on the occasion of Juneteenth (#EmbraceJuneteenth2020), which has been celebrated since June 19, 1865.
“It was to help educate and celebrate an important date in history, the freeing of all those still enslaved, through proper channels of communication that took place two years after the original Emancipation Proclamation,” La Toshia said of the online posts.
Additionally, recent anti-racism demonstrations and assemblies all over the world have uplifted not just La Toshia and Jean, the original founders, but also a number of citizens who have reached out to learn what they can do to help with healing racial divides on the local level.
In fact, three local events, in response to the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, have provided a public forum for some area residents to speak up against racism. The first was a small peaceful gathering at the Bremer County Courthouse on June 7. As the news spread, a much larger assembly followed on Sunday, June 14, with families, young kids and a handful of Wartburg students. The third gathering — a publicized anti-racism silent vigil, sponsored by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church featuring Wartburg Track and Field Coach Marcus Newsom — brought hundreds to the park to hear his impassioned message for justice and share his experiences as a Black man, a father of biracial children, a son and a veteran.
La Toshia attended the courthouse assemblies and the prayer vigil at Kohlmann Park, as she believes taking a public stance against injustice is part of her duty as a biracial child herself, as a mother of one, as a colleague in the workplace and as a resident of Waverly, where diversity is mentioned as part of the town’s goals, but where moving beyond words has been slow.
“It was a beautiful thing to see the community gathering to listen to Coach Newsom, and to hear his experiences as a Black man in this community,” La Toshia said. “The silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds was very powerful; that’s how long the officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. This many community members together shows that Waverly is willing to support and listen.
“Although I do believe this community has a long way to go, there needs to be a community-wide initiative to provide proper educational resources and training, safe spaces and protection, fair practices and measures — a wonderful opportunity for leadership to take action that benefits the community members.”
Joining forces with like-thinkers would be essential for the initiatives to take root, grow and make a tangible impact, La Toshia believes.
“We need to come together, collectively, in some sort of diverse committee, which includes minorities, students, city council representation, business leaders, and white community members,” she said. “So many of us in town are spinning our wheels trying to do profound work to fight racism with minimal support or funding, we are working in silos, but the work that needs to be done is not gaining the traction that it deserves.”
To La Toshia, who has lived and worked in a metropolitan area like Chicago, living in Waverly has been an adjustment.
She returned to town in 2018 for a job at Wartburg College, as the Assistant Director of Group Fitness and Personal Training at The W, and an adjunct professor for Health and Fitness Studies.
Her alma mater was a place where she felt safe, she knew this from her college years there, but like many students, she had not really explored Waverly.
“Waverly is very friendly, but I don’t know that it is very welcoming,” she said.
This is how she sees the distinction:
“You can be friendly and nice, and maybe even kind, but outside of that… It’s like tolerance,” she said. “Allowing unfamiliarity and discomfort to keep someone like me at an arm’s length. Close, but not too close, and call it good. In two years, I have been invited to very few homes or play dates. I’m a single Black mom, and hardly anybody is trying to really get to know me or my son.”
The events of the past few weeks, with their intense focus on racial justice, she is quick to admit, have been different, at least at the level of engagement.
“I have experienced a positive outreach from community members, people that I have considered acquaintances from a distance, it’s been very interesting to see the play invites, to meeting up and having coffee, or instant messages online,” La Toshia said. “And I feel like it’s a double-edged sword — I am grateful and appreciative, and at the same time, it causes some pain from hesitancy, from questions on the intentions behind that.
“I don’t know how to explain it without hurting everyone’s feelings. However, despite the hesitancy on my end, those opportunities have opened up beautiful conversations allowing for me to voice my truth and create a connection of learning and some understanding to occur — gaining perspective so their conversations and ways of thinking are more advanced; it’s just unfortunate these precious moments haven’t happened sooner.”
“It took something like this to get an invite. Similar metaphor — for the Civil Rights movement and for social justices to occur — it’s costing additional Black lives lost for a national outcry to occur.”
As a guest council member for the month of June, La Toshia feels she has learned a lot about local governance, but her very presence and voice — even though the guest person is a non-voting member — added a valuable perspective to the discussions on the council.
Reflecting on her service, she is urging the council to make diversity one of its priorities and to spearhead an initiative that it would support verbally as well as financially.
At the June 22 study session, La Toshia, Jean and Libby Fry, tried to do just that — by overviewing the mission and accomplishments of “Embrace” and reinforcing the importance of having proper city council support.
“We feel as if we were left in the dark,” La Toshia said, referring to the council’s reaction. “We plan to follow up with an extensive report including the many initiatives that came out of the 2018 strategic-planning committee from Waverly community members who collectively agreed that diversity — including economic infrastructure, socio-economic disparities and opportunities, safety provisions for all community members, mental health and wellness resources — should be offered, as well as events to educate and support diverse communities.”
La Toshia added that the goal was by 2023 to create a city in which welcoming and celebrating diversity and inclusion were the reality.
“Currently, we are not even acknowledging it from our council leadership,” she said.
Asked what kind of Waverly she would like her 3-year-old son, Jordan, to grow up in, she did not miss a beat.
“In a diverse and welcoming community,” she said. “A community that not only embraces diversity but understands it, teaches it in its entirety, and celebrates our differences rather than judge them because they are unfamiliar.”
“Diversity is such a broad term — there needs to be an understanding of what the reality is when it comes to racial diversity — without first acknowledging that reality, how can I trust the police officer to protect my son, how can I trust a teacher to properly care and teach my son, how can I trust a friend with my son if they don’t first understand or worse — believe, the gruesome realities of discrimination, prejudice, and hatred.”
Acknowledging the reality she has come to know, La Toshia explained systemic racism thusly:
“Every adult white person knows of the dispositions of people of color in our country,” she said. “I guarantee if given the choice to change the color of your skin, and be black, while entering a bank for a loan, or getting pulled over by the police, or receiving medical care, or shopping in a store, you would not want to change your skin color despite all of its beauty. Systemic racism is so deeply woven that it’s still unbelievable to me, the magnitude in which it’s survived.”
“We pray and do nothing. We see and do nothing. Generally speaking, our white communities and leaders have been complicit for far too long. And that’s where it’s so hard to accept — we are at the minimum of valuing human life and relationships, ‘Be kind to your neighbor,’ the same thing we all learned in elementary school. That’s where we are in 2020.
“Our white ancestors made history very complicated for present-day Americans to understand the reality of one very simple concept:
“Treat each other like you want to be treated or even better yet, ‘liberty and justice for all.’
“More importantly the fact that racism is built off a lie that was human-created for the benefit of those who created it. Our country as a whole is soft-minded and insecure to the realities of white conditioning, white supremacy, white privilege, and false prophecies evolving around racism. We have been denied and dismissed of our true American history for far too long, and likely because it paints a very horrific and ugly image of the white persons, and I’m not just talking about enslavement of Black people. This continues during and well past Jim Crow Laws all the way to present day and that includes other ethnic minorities and people of color.”
La Toshia considers it part of her humanity to be a voice for herself and others.
“Part of my duty as a proud educated Black woman, is to speak out and have those conversations,” she said. “But others too, have a responsibility to educate themselves.
“Without the white voice and support, we will be having the same conversations, some 50-plus years from now and for as much as I can make a difference, open up hearts and open up minds, it’s much easier for white people to hear it from their white peers. Because at some point, racism, ignorance, and idly standing by in silence is no longer acceptable.
“To be anti-racist is to be intolerant of hate. To not be silent or silence Black lives, experiences, stories, names. We have too many amazing resources, organizations, and leaders with expertise on this matter at our disposal to help guide individuals, companies, communities, governmental structures to allow for real change. What we don’t have is collective courage and a willingness to do the dirty work, on behalf of others, to get there.
“As much as I think I am making an impact, I know that without that white person, paying it forward, having tough conversations and being bold and grounded in their footing with another white person(s), this momentum will end. This will take time and people need to embrace the fact that this fight, although a hefty feat, needs to remain at full speed with the gas pedal to the floor. We’re talking over 400 years of oppression.
“I am surrounded by a white community that the majority is learning or seeing this hatred for the first time — I feel at many times I’m talking to a brick wall or living in a Twilight Zone when people are not willing to listen and accept the painful truths of our country let alone from my own experiences — thus all it does is reignite my pain and frustration. It takes on an emotional and mental toll each and every day.”
She urged open for conversation to listen, learn and re-educate themselves with factual information.
“I refuse to convince someone that my life matters because of their racism and close minded views — matching my conversation with oppression and ignorance, or dismissing my pain — I have no interest in entertaining that, nor should I have to,” she said. “It is a time for the white community to unlearn, relearn, to listen and to act in support of Black lives. In order for all lives to matter, Black lives must matter first.”