“Nobody likes you because you’re black.”
The words were fired from the mouth of a red-haired boy. I was merely offering comfort after relentless teasing sent him to a corner in the room, tears cascading down his freckled cheeks. My eyes slowly panned the faces in our kindergarten classroom. Could it be that none of the students liked me? Why did he call me black? My skin is a beautiful shade of brown — how could anyone dislike it or me?
Answers came when I returned home and shared what happened with my great-grandmother. How do you explain racism to a 5-year-old Black child? Grandma summarized it by telling me that some people think we are less than human because of the color of our skin. She affirmed that I was not less than anyone and had to work hard to get good grades so no one could deny me opportunities. She assured me that not all people hold those beliefs and cautioned against judging people on the way they look.
From that fateful day, my life’s work began to take shape. Education attainment, social policy, social welfare, human rights, Black empowerment and equity are through lines in nearly all of my endeavors.
My journalism career began with telling Black stories of overcoming education and economic obstacles while keeping “the struggle” front and center. A pivot brought me to a publication where I had hoped to lay down roots. The struggle morphed into articles about law firm power plays and bank acquisitions and mergers. It was hard work, not because of the content, but because I kept running into the freckled-faced child from kindergarten. He was in the mindset of the powerfully suited men who I needed as sources to do my job. Instead of revealing no one liked me because of the color of my skin, the red-headed child appeared as sources who questioned my editors about my journalistic abilities. One prominent figure attempted to have me removed because of a brief but vague write-up about a home he purchased. Mind you, it was a common practice of my publication to run these briefs on newsmakers, based on public records.
Not everyone opposed me. My editors supported me. A reliable source quickly took on a mentor role in my career and taught me an invaluable lesson one day as we sat in an exclusive, members-only Downtown club. He asked if I understood why he insisted on meeting me there every time we would get together. He fixed his gaze. Light danced in his aging eyes as he leaned closer to me. “Not too long ago, neither you nor I were allowed to meet here.” Progress takes consistent effort and time.
I didn’t stay with that publication for long. The weight was too heavy for me to continue to ascend. I returned to telling Black stories equipped with a broader perspective. I became politically active and tapped into a network of people.
Moving away from journalism, I became a communications professional working with many of the region’s top influencers. Advocating for the business community to invest in K-12 education became a passion of mine.
Eventually, I was offered an appointment to work with former Gov. Ed Rendell as executive director of his advisory commission on African American affairs. It was a thrilling time when my personal mission was truly united with my professional mission. Connecting people to resources is an amazing feeling, but playing a role in establishing the Commonwealth’s first Office of Health Equity and the renaming of the North Building of the State Capitol Building to the Secretary C. Delores Tucker Building are treasured memories.
Returning home to Pittsburgh in 2013, a year of hard work paid off when Bill Peduto became the city’s 60th mayor. He understands the importance of equity and inclusion if this region is to remain competitive and grow. While I am no longer a city employee, I continue to serve my neighbors as one of the mayor’s appointees to the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations.
The disparities between racial and ethnic groups in this region remain a gaping wound that needs to be treated and healed appropriately. Still, education remains the key.
An invitation to join a community of public charter schools further enabled me to positively support a social justice calling. Propel Schools was founded in 2003 to offer high-quality education to under-resourced families. Strong academics paired with social-emotional support services are marquees of what we offer.
Propel prepares students to be change agents while they are in school. Our students have taken the lead on bringing an issue to a class, discussing a course of action and implementing a plan of action. They have raised money for their peers in need and to support the creation of a school in a third-world country. They have raised money to support local peace efforts through an annual 5K walk. They have participated in social justice actions both in school and in the community. Ours students have also spoken to elected officials about how the Commonwealth can better support charter schools.
There is an awareness of social justice across the 4,000 students that we serve. They have become my inspiration.
– Sonya M. Toler, Senior Director for Communications and Enrollment, Propel Schools