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Diversity speaker sends powerful message
A once-lonely child, a high school dropout, a serious self-reflector, an emblem of personal growth, a critical thinker, a Harvard graduate — a product of diversity. That's Samuel Betances in a nutshell.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., to a Puerto Rican mother, who abandoned him before he knew his own birthday, and an emotionally crippled black father, Betances grew up physically and mentally battered. His eldest brother, a gang leader, died in jail.
But influencers along the way, people Betances calls "mentors," re-routed his life. Once a biracial boy in a segregated society, Betances, 67, is now a prominent communicator and diversity consultant who speaks on cultural awareness.
He aims to crumble racial walls, promote respect and show people what it means to be a diverse culture.
The self-proclaimed "diversity man" spoke Wednesday at Bremerton's Emmanuel Apostolic Church, sharing his story with an audience that by night's end was mesmerized.
"I lucked out," Betances said in a raspy, low, powerful voice. "I met people ... who pointed me in a different direction."
Now living in Chicago, Betances has worked as an advisor to the military, the federal government, presidents, churches, businesses and educators around the United States — and the world.
The mentoring he received along the way, he said, got him to where he is.
"A mentor is an older, more experienced, wiser, generous spirit who is willing to inconvenience himself or herself in the face of someone who is younger, less experienced, with fire in their belly," he explained, "and all the older person wants is the success of the younger person."
Betances recalled the Japanese-American woman with boney fingers who forced him to read, the white son of a preacher man who taught him to speak publicly, the black man who encouraged him to apply to Harvard, the wealthy, conservative Harvard professor who steered him through college, his wife, Laura, who "unscripted" him to become the husband he is and his son, who urged him to become computer-literate in 2004.
"I am a product of diversity," he said. "I want you to know that I've been blessed."
In a 90-minute story, Betances used personal experiences to deliver his thoughts on diversity.
"What is diversity? Learning the cultural competencies to get along when we have not had a history of getting along — finding common ground to become interdependent," he said.
That interdependence, the ability to co-exist and learn from one another, Betances explained, is crucial to learning — and understanding — different cultures.
"Diversity is the process that helps us to find common ground," he said. "It helps us to understand how to reject rejection."
And literature, Betances added, is a gateway toward understanding cultural differences. He suggested reading memoirs of people who have been through the worst.
"Words are voices pregnant with meaning," he said, suggesting the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning."
"Words you don't understand are bricks blocking the sunshine to understanding," he said.
Betances asked audience members to split into small groups, with people of different ethnicities, to talk about their best and worst diversity training experiences.
"If you only stick with your own kind, you can't grow. We need each other," Betances said. "Remember this; diversity is our ability to understand we need each other."
The Bremerton School District received a parent-community partnership grant from OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) to bring Betances to Bremerton. Prior to Wednesday's public appearance, Betances worked with school BSD administrators in a diversity training workshop.
Linda Jenkins, former pro tem superintendent, said diversity is a strength of the Bremerton community and it should be embraced.
"In Bremerton we believe that you can't lead what you don't know," she said. "Dialogue isn't just two people talking — it's sharing and listening to each other."