“I was a collision of labels: African-American, blue eyes, light complexion, Polish last name and blonde tints in the crowns of my hair,” said Steve Pemberton as he led the Andover community through the story of his childhood.
Pemberton shared his perspectives on race and diversity at Monday’s All-School Meeting, drawing from his personal experiences as a mixed-race foster child, as well as from his professional experiences as the first Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens. He was the keynote speaker for Andover’s 23rd annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day.
Pemberton, whose mother was white and whose father was black, grew up as a ward of the state for most of his childhood abusive foster homes. Often treated as an outsider by both blacks and whites as a child, Pemberton described his desire for others to see beyond his appearance.
“Nobody knew what to do with me, so I went from one home to another trying to find a place to stay. At four years old, I asked the social worker, ‘Why is this so hard, why can’t I find a real home,’ and she said, ‘It’s because we don’t know whether you belong with a white family or a black family,’” said Pemberton during his ASM address.
He continued, “About the only thing I experienced [with] color at four years old was a box of crayons, so I thought she thought she was referring to the color of the house. I remember asking, ‘But why does it matter what color the house is painted? I just need a family.’ Now, all these years later, I haven’t really stopped thinking that way.”
“I didn’t want to be defined by a color, not when there were more important things at stake. But this human desire, perhaps innate to all of us, to put people in a box and define them singularly, cost me my childhood,” said Pemberton.
In his speech, Pemberton encouraged students to look beyond just the superficial characteristics of people—their race, gender, places of origin—and rather take the time to explore deeper individual stories.
“Ultimately, we should be measured not by the things we inherit, but those things we build. That is what defines us,” he said.
“Diversity should become, and I think is gradually becoming, a lot less about how people look, but rather about how they think,” he said.
Pemberton also urged students to take a step further and find common ground between their own experiences and those of others, despite differences in physical appearance.
Highlighting the role of employee diversity in the success of companies such as Walgreens, Pemberton emphasized the importance of open-mindedness.
“This changing world demands cultural flexibility. It is not a time and season for those only interested in their own views. You will have a hard time competing in a global society if you don’t have cultural flexibility and willingness to experience things that are fundamentally different from your own. What is different in your generation is that now, [this] is a requirement. It’s what’s being demanded of you,” said Pemberton.
“If you ask heads of any big corporations, they will all tell you that somewhere in their top three [priorities] for their organization, institution or business is the issue of diversity,” he continued.
Pemberton also spoke about the necessity of diversity of thought in decision-making.
“You have all probably heard the phrase ‘great minds think alike.’ You know what I think? I think one of those minds is redundant. I want difference of thoughts, difference in opinions,” said Pemberton.
Students and faculty had the opportunity to ask Pemberton questions after his speech.
Responding to a question from Head of School John Palfrey, who asked for advice on fostering diversity at Andover, Pemberton said that the ideology of forcefully teaching “bad” people to become more diverse is “fundamentally flawed.”
He added, “I think creating an environment that empowers people rather than [alienates] them to make this discovery on their own [is important]. If the only day people are talking about matters of diversity and inclusion is MLK Day, then there is a problem. It has to be incorporated into the overall language within the community.”
Darlina Liu ’13 asked Pemberton how he rose out of his situation in foster care and what about him allowed him to beat such overwhelming odds.
In response, Pemberton said, “Honestly, I don’t really know. You can’t convince me I am special. No more than the foster family could convince me that I was worthless. I simply saw wrong, and tried to right it. I just believed that if I hung in there and fought, it would change. I fought with my mind.”
“Education leveled the playing field for me. It was the single greatest driver… I knew the classroom was my domain, and you just couldn’t touch me there. You couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t smart. Even though I was very quiet, didn’t say much, it gave me that foundation that I needed.”
Pemberton also added that it was the ability of certain people to see beyond his circumstances that made not “a difference” but “the difference” in his life.
He described his encounters with a woman who would bring him books, though they did not know each other.
“The foster family never gave me books [and] I would read the same book over and over again. And one day this woman comes along… I was eight years old, [and] she saw me reading the same book over and over again. And that night, she brought me a box of books. And she would do this periodically throughout the years,” said Pemberton.
“I had maybe two or three conversations with her my entire childhood, nothing more than a hello,” he continued.
After Pemberton published his autobiography, one of his readers managed to put him in contact with the woman. “[She and her husband] are very, very humble people. When you talk about service, expecting nothing in return and changing a life, I’m thinking of her.”
In his opening remarks, Palfrey also shared his own personal history as a descendant of a slaveholder. He urged students to freely explore the discomfort and complexity of MLK Day.
“Why do I tell this story? To encourage you to think about what the legacy of Dr. King means for you, regardless of whether you bear on your shoulders the shame of being related to a slaveholder or the pride of being related to a freedom fighter,” Palfrey said.
Linda Griffith, Dean of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD), said that the assembly went even better than she had expected. She hopes that both students and faculty were able to take away a valuable lesson from the presentation.
“Many of the people we previously had [as speakers] were from academia. Teachers, professors, doctors… I initially wasn’t sure about [students’] level of engagement because we haven’t had a corporate speaker before, but I was definitely delighted with the outcome,” Griffith added.
“We hoped that we could [influence] different kinds of students, those who are compelled and moved by his personal story and those interested in the more business aspect of him,” she continued.