In 2011, Michael Williams started his first year as a school resource officer at East High School in Akron with a mission: build relationships with students.

As groups of kids headed to class, he greeted them with a “what’s up” and often received similar responses in return.

But one day that August, a boy in a cluster of freshmen answered differently.

“I don’t talk to cops,” Galen Thompson Jr. said and kept walking.

At first, the response took Williams by surprise. But his surprise quickly grew into determination.

From that day on, Williams’ mission took on a new focus: Befriend the 15-year-old and change his perception of officers at a time when racial tensions between police and black males like Thompson were reaching new heights nationwide.

“I said, ‘Oh, challenge accepted,’ ” said Williams, a white officer. “I was just getting to know people, but he didn’t really want to get to know me.”

Background check

Williams was an officer on the Akron police force for 13 years before he became a full-time resource officer in Akron schools as part of the district’s Student Services Safety Team.

Officers on the safety team are responsible for building security and establishing relationships to create a safer environment.

He worked as a part-time student resource officer in different schools before he began working full-time at East. But Thompson — who is known to many as “Bubba” — quickly became one of Williams’ most difficult students to establish a relationship with.

Every day after their first encounter, Williams greeted Thompson in the hallway whenever he passed him, often four or five times a day.

Every day, he was completely ignored.

“I was still childish then,” Thompson recalled. “I didn’t like cops because my dad’s always been in the system.”

Thompson, now 22, said he developed a distrust of police when he was growing up because his father was in and out of jail.

At the same time, racial tensions were growing across the country.

As Thompson moved through his teen years, dashboard and body cameras became more popular on police forces, capturing instances of officers killing unarmed black men in videos that caught fire on social media.

The national Black Lives Matter movement started as a social media campaign after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, in 2012. Subsequent police shootings of unarmed black men were protested nationally by Black Lives Matter, which sparked Blue Lives Matter, a countermovement in support of police.

Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, videos of police shooting black men have become commonplace in the media.

“Some cops do some off-the-wall stuff, for real. This world is way different than it used to be,” Thompson said. “I think about it sometimes: If I ever was in that predicament, what would go wrong? That’s why I try to dodge that predicament.”

As Williams persisted with Thompson, he looked into Thompson’s background and realized why the high schooler might be avoiding police.

“That wasn’t going to deter me from making him like me,” Williams said. “I think that actually maybe made me want to work harder in making him like me.”

Throughout his freshman and sophomore year, Thompson continued to disregard Williams. The only improvement from his disdain was the occasional joke — Thompson started to call Williams a mall cop and, sometimes more specifically, Paul Blart.

Williams responded with over-the-top persistence. When he passed Thompson in the hallways, he would pull out his phone, pose beside the teen and take a selfie with him. Williams gave Thompson the nickname “BFFB” — Best Friend Forever Bubba — and called him out by that name in front of his friends.

“It got to the point where his buddies thought it was hilarious,” Williams said. “As time progressed, it almost just became a joke.”

Williams also was giving Thompson support throughout that time, attending every East football game, where Thompson played as defensive tackle and offensive guard. And whenever Thompson ran into trouble at school or got into an altercation, Williams was there to talk him through it.

“As years went by, we got cooler because he started showing me for real that life is more than what I think it is,” Thompson said.

New friends

The first time Williams saw a change in Thompson was during the homecoming dance of Thompson’s junior year, the day after East won its first football game following a two-year losing streak.

Dressed in full uniform, Williams greeted Thompson and congratulated him as he walked into the dance.

Thompson, still elated from the win, responded with a high five and a hug.

“I looked at the principal and said, ‘I think that’s my biggest accomplishment as a school resource officer,’ ” Williams said. “I got him to talk to me and give me a bro hug.”

After that, the two began having conversations beyond passing-by jokes in the hallway. By senior year, Williams’ office was filled with senior pictures of Thompson.

Williams’ support never wavered. Every year, East has a senior auction as a prom fundraiser, where people in the school bid on seniors for the right to dress them up however they want.

Williams outbid everyone and paid more than $50 to dress the 5-foot-10-inch, 270-pound Thompson up as Shrek.

When Thompson graduated high school in 2015, Williams surprised him at his graduation party after being invited by Thompson’s mom. It was the first time Thompson had ever seen the school resource officer out of uniform.

“He kept Galen out of trouble, and I really appreciate him for that,” said Yvette Fuqua, Thompson’s mom. “My son really appreciates him as well. He still talks to him now.”

After graduating, Thompson took time off school and worked odd jobs. He decided this year that he wants to go back to school. He plans to attend Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College in Minnesota in August to play football and pursue a degree in physical therapy.

Williams has since become a full-time resource officer at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Thompson said he was inspired to go back and get his degree when he started to see others around him graduating, but knowing he had people like Williams behind him for support was an even bigger push. Though he’ll be hundreds of miles away, Williams said he’ll continue supporting Thompson in one of the same ways he always has: by following his progress on the football field.

Dealing with race

Throughout their friendship, Williams realized that a person’s distrust of police usually doesn’t stem from a lack of respect — it comes from personal experience.

And Thompson realized that personal experiences and videos do not necessarily portray the way all police act.

While Fuqua never talked to her son about dealing with police when he was a child, she did try to teach him that individuals don’t always represent all people.

“[Police brutality] wasn’t talked about as much as it is now,” Fuqua said. “I always told him, though, everybody is not a bad person. It doesn’t make all of them the same.”

Thompson and Williams agree that the issue isn’t just black and white.

Thompson said he believes that police brutality can stem from racism, but it also has roots in other factors, like general abuse of power.

Williams said he doesn’t ascribe to Black Lives Matter or Police Lives Matter because he believes corruption exists on both sides. While he believes some police incidents might stem from racism, a vast majority of officers are just trying to protect the public while keeping themselves protected too, he said.

For Williams, officers forming relationships with their community, starting in schools, is the key to relieving those racial tensions.

Before he became a resource officer, Williams said he never would have thought that way. But building relationships with kids has shown him that knowing a person can actually make it easier to police them.

“We’re all trying to establish that connection with kids,” Williams said about student resource officers. “If I can take a kid like Bubba, who hated the police, and establish a relationship with him and make him realize that we’re not just robots — we’re not just uniforms that are coming to take people and lock them up — then maybe, down the road when he has an encounter with another officer, he might think, ‘Hey, let me give this guy a chance.’ ”

Thompson agrees.

“If there was more cops like that, then nobody would be worried about nothing,” Thompson said.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.

“I looked at the principal and said, ‘I think that’s my biggest accomplishment as a school resource officer.’ I got him to talk to me and give me a bro hug.”

Michael Williams

Akron police officer, on a first connection with former East High School student Galen Thompson Jr.

STOW: Evelyn Nanashe still remembers that day in 1954 when she answered a knock on the door of her Arndale Road home to find a black woman standing on her stoop.

Stow’s population — a mere third of the 34,000 living in the suburb today — was almost entirely white back then.

The exceptions were three black doctors who had built new homes on Fishcreek Road, a move only made possible because their contractor presented his white face when purchasing the land from a local farmer.

Now the mother of one of those households, Leona Farris, was introducing herself and explaining that her daughter, Betty, had become friends with Nanashe’s daughter, Tina, at Woodland Elementary.

Given the fragile era of race relations, Farris felt responsible for paving the way for the burgeoning friendship of those 6-year-olds to continue.

But Farris ended up with a special friendship of her own. She and Nanashe quickly bonded as women, as mothers, and soon as co-leaders of a new Girl Scout troop at a time when mixed-race social groups were rare.

Their husbands followed the example set by their daughters and wives, with Dr. Melvin Farris and John Nanashe performing a skit at a school PTA meeting to promote racial understanding.

Perhaps it was only fitting that 35 years later, their families would unwittingly weave together through a modern-day marriage.

Making friends

Leona Farris, a spry 100-year-old great-grandmother, pleaded for patience in trying to recall the details of meeting Nanashe on that porch stoop 64 years ago.

“At my age, some of my memory is seriously gone,” she chuckled.

Nanashe, 94 herself, smiled warmly at her friend, seated next to her at the dining table of Nanashe’s Cuyahoga Falls apartment.

“I remember,” Nanashe said.

In the retelling of the story, one emotion that rises to the surface for Nanashe is compassion for Farris, the black mother who felt she needed permission before allowing her daughter to extend a birthday party invitation to her new white friend.

“There were still a lot of people in Stow who wouldn’t have accepted them,” Nanashe said. “She said, ‘I wanted to be sure it’s all right with you if she comes to our house.’ I said that was perfectly all right with me.”

The other emotion most evident is pride in both of their daughters, tiny ambassadors prepared to teach a community a lesson.

The Farrises were the only black children in the entire district, but Tina easily stepped up to Betty when other classmates were curious but cautious.

“I was really pleased that Tina knew to make friends with her right away,” Nanashe said. “Betty told me Tina was the first person who came up to her and spoke to her at school. They remained friends their whole life.”

Once her children were settled in their new school, Leona Farris asked Nanashe who was in charge of the local Girl Scout troop, hoping to sign up Betty. She learned Stow had none.

“So we said ‘Why don’t we start one?’ ” Nanashe said. “We agreed we’d do it together.”

There was no audible rumbling in the community when they announced the effort, Nanashe said. In hindsight, she figures that’s probably because objectors simply wouldn’t have joined in the first place.

“We can’t know, but there were probably some people who didn’t join because of it,” she said.

There were a couple of moments, however, when race threatened to be a barrier.

The girls wanted to celebrate their “Fly Up” ceremony, a sort of graduation from Brownie status, at a skating rink in Kent, but the rink wasn’t open to blacks. Melvin Farris and John Nanashe solved the problem by offering to rent the rink during off hours.

Another time, the Farrises were going to host a Girl Scout event when one parent grumbled that she’d never let her daughter attend an activity in a colored home.

The women held their ground and in the end, the event was held at the Farris home and everyone was present.

Mary Helsel — one of the Nanashe children — was two years younger than Tina and loved to tag along on her older sister’s Girl Scout functions.

She recalled being surprised that there had been a fuss at the skating rink and over the event at the Farris home.

“I was shocked when I heard those things around the dinner table, that people saw differences in skin color,” said Helsel, now 67.

“I guess my parents were different, though I didn’t know that at the time,” she said.

John Nanashe spoke several languages and had been a “frogman” during World War II, snorkeling to various Pacific Islands to mingle with native populations and help them prepare for advancing Allied troops. He worked with the famed Navajo “code talkers,” later became an engineer and spent time as a Stow building inspector.

Evelyn Nanashe worked at hospitals, was a home caregiver and worked with bedridden patients at a psychiatric facility before pursuing a career in food service.

Their broad life experiences introduced them to people in all walks of life.

“People were people. They just accepted everyone,” Helsel said. “The subject [of race] had never come up in our family before.”

Part of the community

But if racial tensions were kept to a minimum as Stow welcomed its first black residents, much credit can be traced to a mother who was determined to help others accept her family’s presence.

One of Leona Farris’ daughters, Laura Farris-Daugherty, remembers listening to her mother’s explanation for being involved in so many efforts.

In addition to Girl Scouts and PTA, Leona volunteered at the school library, chaired cookie bakes and outdoor activities and stepped up when the school district needed a door-to-door head count of incoming students.

“She made a point of it because she thought if families were going to be curious about the black family who moved in with children, she was going to give them the opportunity to be somewhere where they could ask her questions, or see her be involved and participate even more than what a lot of other moms and families did,” said Farris-Daugherty, who works in the Beacon Journal’s circulation department.

Leona Farris had a bachelor’s degree in home economics from Ohio State University, a period during which she joined a successful effort to petition the university to permit black students to live in an on-campus dormitory. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Kent State University in 1970, and retired from the University of Akron’s home economics department in 1988.

Part of her motivation in earning a degree and becoming a teacher was having seen how her mother, a schoolteacher, was treated with deference for being an educated woman.

And while Leona Farris was never permitted to forget she was black — on some of those door-to-door missions for the school district, she encountered homeowners who pointed out her color in refusing her admittance — she was confident that being educated opened more doors than not.

Melvin Farris, an Akron physician, also worked actively toward acceptance in his newly adopted community.

When his children enrolled at Woodland, he, John Nanashe, and the school principal created a special program for the PTA.

A young Mary Helsel still remembers watching in fascination as the skit played out before the full crowd.

Farris and Nanashe portrayed strangers entering from the back of the room. Each step they took was accompanied by a comment — Nanashe expressing discomfort that a Negro family had moved to town, Farris talking about why he wanted his children to grow up in Stow.

With each step, Nanashe’s comments tempered and Farris’ appeal grew until they reached the front of the room.

“By the time they got to the front, they had become friends and were saying nice things about each other, like, ‘I’m really glad you came to Stow,’ and ‘I’m glad I moved my family here, too’,” Helsel said.

They shook hands to a standing ovation.

Family ties

Over the decades, the Farrises and Nanashes stayed in touch, even if it was just a card at Christmas time. The youngsters moved away, chasing their own careers and starting their own families. John Nanashe and Melvin Farris passed away. Leona Farris ended up in Copley, Evelyn Nanashe in Cuyahoga Falls.

With eight years difference in their ages, Laura Farris-Daugherty and Mary Helsel didn’t grow up together as their siblings did.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that they didn’t recognize each other when Farris-Daugherty’s fiance, Vern Daugherty, took his soon-to-be-bride to meet some family members in 1991.

Vern, who was white, took Laura to the Munroe Falls home of his nephew, Cliff Helsel. Cliff introduced Laura to his wife, Mary.

It didn’t take long for Mary to put two and two together.

“Wait, are you Lolly?” Mary asked Laura, remembering that little Farris baby she once pushed in a stroller.

Laura’s nickname revealed, the women laughed as their connection became clear.

It’s a story that seemed to have come full circle, though Evelyn Nanashe said she never really thought of it that way.

That her daughter and Leona Farris’ daughter would one day share a familial tie didn’t seem remarkable at all, Nanashe said.

Not remarkable in the same way those two 6-year-old girls saw nothing remarkable in their different skin colors way back in 1954.

“I always taught my kids, whatever is right, you do it,” Nanashe said. “If you do what’s right, you’ll never have to worry about it.”

Mary Helsel said she can condense the story of the Farrises and Nanashes using the lyrics of a Girl Scout song her sister’s troop sang at every meeting.

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.

A circle is round, it has no end. That’s how long, I will be your friend.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.

“I was really pleased that Tina knew to make friends with her right away. Betty told me Tina was the first person who came up to her and spoke to her at school. They remained friends their whole life.”

Evelyn Nanashe

One is a black man who grew up in Akron. The other is a white man who came from Missouri.

Both men are ministers. Both have a strong faith in God. But it’s their shared recognition that a racial divide persists that keeps them together.

They are Bishop Joey Johnson of the House of the Lord and the Rev. Mark Ford, executive director of Love Akron.

“We don’t recognize race as a tragedy,” Johnson says.

“Race is our cultural hurricane,” Ford says. “It is eating us alive. We are the divided states of America.”

The two men have bridged their differences and become friends with one shared belief: It is through building cross-racial relationships that we can understand one another and eliminate our prejudices.

Today the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com begins a series of stories that explore how we deal with our racial and cultural differences. Our goal is to show where we have succeeded in bridging our differences through the stories of individuals in our community.

We initiated a conversation about race following the events in August in Charlottesville, Va., by asking the question, “What does it mean to be white in America today?” More than 200 of you responded with a diversity of thoughts.

We knew the conversation about race we had started needed to continue.

But we struggled with figuring out what to do next. So we met with the two ministers.

They told us of how they have gotten to know each other as individuals rather than part of a race or class. While it may be easy to dislike a group, disliking a person is more difficult.

Johnson pointed out that we tend to set a goal of “solving” the problem of race. But the racial divide has been with us for hundreds of years — and it still is not “solved.” Yet over those years we managed as individuals to get along.

We connect by telling stories. You can create a conversation with a story.

“Stories are the most powerful ways to communicate,” Johnson says. “Stories can cross bridges.”

And that is what we are starting today and will continue over the next months — telling stories that cross bridges.

If you have a story to share that fits this narrative, let us know by emailing [email protected]. In the meantime, take a few minutes to read the first example of the stories we have found so far.

This is how we are continuing our conversation on race.

Bruce Winges is editor of the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. He may be reached at 330-996-3858, [email protected] or @BruceWingesABJ.

When Julius Payne became the first-ever African-American male manager of the Rape Crisis Center, the Akron man thought not of himself but of others who might follow in his footsteps.

“If I fail, what does that say for other black staff if they apply?” he wondered.

Director Cindy Bloom, who promoted Payne a year ago, was surprised when he recently shared these concerns — thoughts she admits never crossed her mind as a white woman.

“Never in my career did I feel that, if I fail, I will be letting down all white women,” Bloom said to him. “That’s the weight you bear. That’s huge.”

This is one of the many cultural differences that Bloom has learned from Payne, who was the Akron nonprofit’s only minority employee when she became the director in August 2015. The rest were white women.

Bloom and Payne come from very different backgrounds. Bloom, 41, hails from Diamond, a small, mostly white town in Portage County. Payne, 40, has lived in Akron all of his life.

But despite their differences, Bloom and Payne say they have built an open, honest work relationship that allows them to have frank conversations about issues of race. For the past year, the two have teamed up to try to improve diversity at the agency and train the entire 20-person staff about biases.

That process included having employees take a Harvard University survey about biases, complete an evaluation about how comfortable they were working with people different from themselves, attend diversity training sessions and participate in small discussion groups. Efforts also have been underway to increase the diversity of the staff, which now includes four African-Americans.

Bloom and Payne say the initiatives have been beneficial, helping to foster an environment in which employees can ask questions without fear of being labeled racist or sexist. Both, however, say there’s more to be done and hope these continued efforts will improve the services they provide, which include teaching young people about healthy relationships and assisting sexual assault victims in Summit and Medina counties.

“I feel like we just opened a door,” Bloom said. “It’s a start.”

“I don’t think this will ever be a finished project,” Payne agreed.

The Rape Crisis Center’s efforts reflect a growing awareness nationwide among victim-advocates — an area dominated by white females — that their staffs need to be more reflective of and sensitive to the diverse populations they serve.

Bias training

“Why do black people act so dramatic at funerals?”

Bloom shared this question, which she had previously posed to Payne, with the center’s staff during a bias training session last January.

Payne explained to the employees, as he had to Bloom, that this was a stereotype and didn’t apply to all blacks.

He noticed that one of the black employees was offended by the question and told her: “You can’t get offended right now. This is a good spot to learn.”

The initial session set the tone for a yearlong exploration of different types of biases.

Bloom and Payne asked employees to write down stereotypes they believed to be true and those that had negatively affected them.

Among the things they wrote: “Fat people are lazy,” “Muslims are terrorists,” and “Black people steal.”

The staff also completed an evaluation that probed how comfortable they were working with people who were a different race, gender, sexual orientation or age range, or were disabled or spoke a different language.

Bloom evaluated the responses and scheduled trainings for any area in which the staff fell below 75 percent.

From April until August, the center had monthly small group discussions about different topics, including racism, sexism and ageism. They attended trainings on dealing with clients who are gay or disabled.

The staff’s discussions about cultural differences continued in the workplace outside the sessions. Bloom recalled how a black female employee told her she instructed her kids early on about the proper way to respond if a police officer talked to them or pulled them over, such as putting their hands on the wheel and turning down the radio.

Bloom, who has two adult children, shared that the only thing she ever taught her children about the police was that they could go to them for help.

“That was one of those moments,” Bloom said.

Results of efforts

Employees at the center say the bias training has helped teach them about themselves, their co-workers and the people they serve.

“It gave us a common ground,” Kelli Cary, a therapy services manager said during a recent interview.

The employees said they liked how Bloom and Payne led the process together, and made it clear they were being open in their discussions with each other.

“That really set the stage for all of us,” said Jasmine Jones, a support group advocate.

Jones found a training session about people with disabilities illuminating. For the session, employees read the book Wonder, which is about a young boy with a facial deformity. The boy talks about how people look away as soon as they glance at him, rather than looking at him as they would anyone else.

“I was like, ‘Ah, I do that,’ ” Jones said.

Jones said this made her feel uncomfortable, which she figures is part of facing biases.

Reflect the community

While the Rape Crisis Center has been learning about biases, the agency also has been working on making its growing staff more reflective of the community it serves.

When Bloom took the center’s helm 2½ years ago, it had only four employees, the same as Townhall II in Portage County, the social-service agency where Bloom previously worked and that serves a smaller population.

The center sought and received additional grant funding that eventually brought the staff up to its current 20.

The center also was awarded a $1,000 Vernon Odom grant to recruit minority volunteers and staff. Bloom used these funds to reach out to places in the community, such as African-American churches, to spread the word.

“I wanted the staff to be representative,” said Bloom, who has been in the rape-crisis field since 2001. “You can’t have a well-rounded team if you don’t have other cultures represented.”

A month after she started, Bloom chose Payne to move from a part-time to a full-time position over the objections of a manager who thought this spot should go to a more experienced employee. Then, last February, she selected Payne to manage the agency’s education efforts in Summit County. He was the first African-American male manager at either the Rape Crisis Center or the Battered Women’s Shelter, two Akron agencies that are closely affiliated, and the first black manager at the center in a decade.

The center, which has a high turnover rate, at one point had six minority employees and now has four.

Bloom would like to increase this number and attract other minorities, such as Asians.

“I want to make it as easy as possible for people to come here,” she said.

The center served 3,364 clients in 2017, an all-time high. Most called the 24-hour hotline, which is anonymous. Among the clients who provided demographics last year, 27 percent were white, down from 31 percent in 2016, and 15 percent were African-American, up from 11 percent. Eight percent were another race, compared to 1 percent the previous year.

The center’s staff still remains female dominated, with only three men.

Bloom hopes to hire more men, though the majority of clients — 74 percent in 2017 — are women.

Payne thinks having men on staff is important because sexual assault doesn’t only happen to women. He acknowledged, however, that not all women feel comfortable dealing with a man. He recalls once about a year ago when he received a negative reaction from a sexual assault victim in the hospital.

“Get out!” she shouted when he came into her room.

Payne took a deep breath and said, “Oh, OK.” He highlighted a few of the services the center provides, and then said he would leave if the woman wanted.

“No, I’m OK now,” she responded, adding that the man who assaulted her was African-American.

Payne said he didn’t take the woman’s response personally.

“With that attitude, I would not be able to help her,” he said.

Making progress

Terri Heckman, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center and Battered Women’s Shelter, said the center’s efforts can serve as a model. She plans to roll them out in the next year with the Battered Women’s Shelter’s 80-person staff.

“I think what Cindy and her staff have done is not dealt with it like, ‘We are having a speaker today,’ ” said Heckman, who has been in the field for more than 30 years. “It has become part of the culture, part of who they are when they walk to the parking lot at night. They’re not afraid of it.”

The next step for the Rape Crisis Center will be a discussion in February about what was done in the past year and what should be done this year. Bloom said future efforts will include reaching out to clients and other agencies to find out how well the center’s employees are addressing diversity and what can be improved.

For now, though, Bloom and Payne point to small examples they view as progress.

Bloom recalled how a white woman talking to her and a few other center employees, including a black female, made a joke last spring about how she didn’t want to bring out her “angry black woman.” Everyone laughed, but Bloom felt bad about this later and asked Payne if she should have said something about this being offensive.

“Wouldn’t it have meant a lot if you did?” he asked.

Bloom apologized to the black female employee for not speaking up.

Payne is pleased that Bloom realized her mistake and is hopeful that she will react differently in the future. He compared this to the bystander training that he and other center employees do in local schools. During the sessions, they encourage students to take action if they see someone in need, such as a student being bullied.

“Our main thing is: Do something!” Payne told students last week at Bolich Middle School in Cuyahoga Falls.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, [email protected] and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.

Cindy Bloom

Personal: 41. Engaged. Three children and another on the way. Grew up in Diamond, an unincorporated community in Palmyra Township in Portage County. Now lives in Lake Milton.

Professional: Director of the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties. Formerly served as the violence prevention and outreach services manager for Townhall II in Portage County. Worked/volunteered with rape-crisis efforts since 2001.

Education: Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and justice studies.

One word to describe Julius Payne: “Potential.”

Favorite superhero: Wonder Woman. “I truly believe that every single one of us has a little bit of superhero inside!” (The center’s major annual fundraiser is the Walk of Heroes in which people dress as superheroes.)

One thing learned about race: “We are all very different, but given the opportunity to honestly and openly explore those differences is a chance at amazing growth as human beings.”

Advice for improving diversity: “Start by recognizing that it is natural to want to hire staff that you relate to, that look, think and act like you; then push yourself and your staff to hire people that aren’t like you. This is how you add different perspectives and grow a strong team.”

Advice for addressing biases: “Leaders must start by recognizing their own bias, and working to change themselves. It is a slow and difficult journey, but well worth it.”

Julius Payne

Personal: 40. Married. Six children. Grew up and still lives in Akron.

Professional: Education and outreach manager for the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties. Started with the agency part-time in 2014, teaching prevention classes in schools, and then full-time, instructing students at the University of Akron. Replaced his wife at the center, who moved to the Battered Women’s Shelter, where she still works, and was attracted to the job because it involved working with young people.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology/corrections.

One word to describe Cindy Bloom: “Progressive.”

Favorite superhero: Iron Man. “Everyday normal dude whose super power is his brain. Also, as ‘powerful’ as he was/is, he realized that some battles will take more than just himself, so he initiated formation of the Avengers. Real superheroes know and aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers or ability to conquer everything alone.”

One thing learned about race: “I learned that most people have questions — genuine questions — but are afraid to ask when it comes to race. I also learned that simply starting conversations isn’t enough.”

Advice for improving diversity: “I would say that before simply saying you want to, figure out why and whether it’s for a genuine reason. Beyond that, I would simply say, don’t do it just to do it. Don’t hire simply because it improves your diversity. Lastly, remember diversity goes beyond black and white.”

Advice for addressing biases: “Be open and honest, don’t pretend they don’t exist, make sure motives are genuine and don’t get discouraged because the workplace is simply a starting point in many cases and this isn’t something that will ever not exist.”

Robert A. “Bob” Dill

My generation (“Depression Babies”) was raised to believe we were blessed to be citizens of a free country where all are created equal. But my grandparents were bigoted, my parents less so, and as I matured, I began to question their attitudes. Nevertheless, I was anxious in the company of black people.

Later still and to this day, I find myself overcompensating when dealing with African-Americans. I believe this to be the case with many Caucasians.

I sincerely want my black acquaintances to know and perceive that I do not want any distinctions, other than personality and character, to divide us.

Joe Kanfer and Marcella Kanfer Rolnick

The promise of America is to be an inspiring beacon of collective human potential and the wondrous possibilities when women and men of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations and religions magnify their potential, working together for both individual and collective good.

Social scientific research finds that greater diversity of people on teams leads to greater success. Experience confirms this for our company, GOJO, as well as for our country, America.

Yet this promise is far from realized. What can each of us do in our daily lives? Seek out others and invite genuine sharing of their realities, hopes and dreams. Work together to co-create a more colorful and capable country — a future where all Americans can flourish. Use our voices and our actions to make the vision a reality.

Joe Kanfer is chair and CEO of GOJO Industries. Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is vice chair of GOJO Industries.

Brian Cresswell Sr.

As an American, I still enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities outlined in the Constitution to all citizens and, frankly, I cherish my freedom.

I am not to blame for anything other than my actions and I am not to be judged by anything other than those actions and my character.

Asking me this racial question simply fuels the divide among Americans by judging us based on race.

There’s been no privilege to being white. The privilege has been being an American and appreciating my freedoms.

Being white does not mean I am responsible for any of the hateful ideology of the KKK, the defense of slavery and secession by the South or the violence in our large metropolitan areas.

Being a white American today means that I live free, choose common sense, work hard and value my brothers and sisters in life who are like minded regardless of skin tone.

It means that those on both sides in Charlottesville who chose anger and violence over dialogue and understanding were equally wrong. It means that tearing down Confederate history may lead down a slippery slope, where one side gains momentum over the other by erasing history.

It also means that we are skewered by the left, by Democrats and by blacks as the blame for all that ills the left. Being white does not disqualify my freedom of speech and expression, nor does it diminish my opinion or experience. At some point, there must be a return to common sense, away from ignorance and toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — just not at the expense of one man over another based on color.

The Rev. Diana

L. Swoope

Freedom is the word that immediately coursed through my mind as I pondered the question under examination. To be white in America is to have the freedom to divert or dismiss the question of race altogether.

In America, race is used to define people with group characteristics, many of which are negative, and most of which do not aptly describe the individual assigned to the “group.” In effect, race diminishes individuality and establishes boundaries that result in a significant disadvantage for those in the “group.”

Freedom from the race question removes these significant boundaries and thereby grants a substantial advantage to whites in America, even to those who are financially underprivileged. It is the advantage of being an individual.

Freedom from the race question grants the privilege to presume that the assessment of one’s life and work is fully based on one’s individual competence, composure and character; that the positions and places occupied are gained primarily by personal merit and perseverance.

It allows one to prepare for life in homogenous circumstances without needing to wonder if others have access to the same, or question what creates and sustains that homogenous life, or evaluate the moral validity of that world view.

It sanctions one to assume the posture of exploring life without the burden of the negative viewpoints and stereotypes applied to those who are nonwhite.

It gives license to believe that the issue of race is not an impediment but an imagination.

Without doubt, our collective history and my personal experience clearly demonstrate that not all whites use these implicit freedoms oppressively. Yet, the very need for the question being explored suggests that far too many do, either unwittingly or unwaveringly.

There is great work to be done to move toward the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined, the day in which none are “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To get there, perhaps some additional questions need to be considered, questions that examine personal attitudes in matters of race. How has race impacted my life in helpful or hurtful ways? What can I do to learn how race impacts the life of others, whites and nonwhites alike? How does my posture toward race help or hinder the matter? What is my moral responsibility concerning race in America? What must I do right now?

These are questions for all Americans, white and nonwhite.

It may be that the authentic responses to these queries will assist in moving us beyond the question of race in America to a greater discovery: What does it mean to be human in America? Period.

The Rev. Diana L. Swoope is the senior pastor of Arlington Church of God.

Casey Scafidi

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to teach in a private high school in Cleveland. The population was about 60 percent white and 40 percent other races but primarily black. I had a homeroom of juniors (11th grade).

On the daily announcements one day, students were told of a college scholarship that was available for students of African-American descent. After announcements, a white male student asked, “Why a scholarship for blacks? What about us?”

My response without really thinking was “We get everything else.”

That response made me stop and think that so many privileges and options are just assumed by those of us who are white.

The new phrase is “white privilege,” but for myself, I know I have always just assumed the right to things that people of color have to fight for and prove themselves worthy.

It is a very unbalanced society.

Eileen Poth-Ainslie

As a white person, I am ashamed to be white, disappointed, saddened.

Diversity was finally making headway until Trump took office. Everything is out of kilter.

We love all people, but some are making a bad name for the white race.

Michelle Oyakawa

It means being a beneficiary of a system of structural racism that you as an individual did not choose or set up. This can be very confusing for a lot of people who may be poor or struggling and don’t necessarily feel “privileged.”

White privilege doesn’t mean that you have an easy life or that you don’t work for what you have, but it does mean that in situations where race matters you have an advantage.

I am half white and half Asian and I feel like I have some “white privilege” by virtue of my racial background and who I associate with. My mom and my husband are white, for instance.

I grew up in Wadsworth, a town that was 97 percent white. I honestly feel like I’m pretty white most of the time, but other people don’t always see me that way.

Ultimately, because of the way race works in America, I am not white and probably will never be white, even though I identify with a white experience at some level. People look at me and see an Asian person, often assuming that I am from another country when really I’m an all-American girl from small town Ohio whose family has been here for four generations.

So I guess the white privilege I don’t have is that people have a hard time seeing me as “American” even though I’ve lived here my whole life.

Some people seem to have a legitimately hard time understanding that I know as little about Japan as they do about Germany or whatever country from which their ancestors hailed.

I am often viewed in relation to my race. For instance, my math ability was often framed in terms of my “Asianness.”

Being white in America today means being able to be seen as unambiguously American and to be judged as an individual rather than by the color of your skin in the vast majority of situations.

C. John Grom

Being white in America today means being frustrated with the lack of black progress that was hoped for after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It means being resentful that white America is seen by so many as racist and held accountable for black outcomes.

It means that our hopes of racial reconciliation have been dashed by the emergence of white hate groups i.e., BLM and Antifa, and the responding re-emergence of real white racism.

Sierra Allen

To be white in America is to have an unfathomable amount of freedom, entitlement and alliance while never enduring the societal hindrances that are felt by “the others.”

Dylan Yellowlees

When pondering what being white in America means, I have to take the time to really think about race, which is something I rarely have to do because I was born with the privilege of being white in America.

When I enter a room, I can almost always be assured there will be someone “like me,” meaning there will be someone else white. In my 48 years, I don’t think I have been the only white person anywhere (although there were times I was in the small minority). This is something that my friends of color notice way more often than I do.

In a smaller way, I have it happen that I might be the only gay or gender nonconforming person in the room, but that is not always something someone notices right away.

Being white in America means that when I get pulled over, my biggest concern is a ticket, not if I will live through a traffic stop. It means that when I see something suspicious happening I can call the police without worrying about becoming the subject of their suspicions. It means that I tend to have better access to safe and affordable housing, because even though it’s illegal to discriminate, it still happens.

Being white in America means we all have to do better to make sure the playing field is even for everyone and take the time to think about what it means to start the race with an advantage and try to extend that to others whenever we can.

Dylan Yellowlees is founder of the LGBT Akron Arts Festival.

Daniel Williams

What does it mean to be white? It means that people forget or just refuse to acknowledge that it was our ancestors who came to these shores, often with nothing and dirt poor. They did not whine and complain and expect handouts. Instead, they went to work and persevered and created and built this country over time into a world power.

It means that now you are expected, even mandated, to “tolerate” everybody and everything else no matter how perverted or unnatural you perceive them or their actions to be.

Flip the coin, and nobody else is ever expected to tolerate for one minute your ideas, opinions or beliefs. If you dare to speak out about this, you are labeled and branded a racist or a bully — the two most overused words in the vocabulary.

It means you are constantly blamed for every unpleasant or unfortunate condition in this country or the world, regardless of overwhelming evidence disputing that.

You are not allowed to express your disillusionment and disappointment or you are either ignored or dismissed as merely being “angry.”

It means you are never given credit for the work ethics passed onto you through the generations and are supposed to support anybody who is too passive or just lazy to support themselves.

But, hey, I guess I just forget that being white gets you all the breaks and open doors of society, right?

Ahmad Deeb

When you think of an American, the image that usually comes up is a white Christian. If we begin with that premise, a discussion about race and whiteness in America is essential because it deals with a fundamental assumption: one is not truly seen as “American” if he or she is not white, which means you are not fully accepted into the American social fabric if you are not white.

This is evidenced in the discrimination that still occurs against people of color, which includes Muslims. Oddly enough, not all Muslims are people of color, even if they are assumed to be. There are many “white Muslims” who exist in the American Muslim community. They may have experienced the same white privilege of other white Americans.

In addition, there were many Muslims of color who experienced a form of privilege because of their economic prosperity. This changed after 9/11, in that any indicator of being Muslim eliminated elements of privilege that they may have had in this country. Also, those who may have experienced privilege because of their economic mobility were still not seen as part of the authentic fabric of American society because they are Muslim.

In essence, after 9/11, Islam became a “race” and is treated as so, such that those who may have been able to pass as “white” before no longer can if there are any Muslim identifiers present, such as a Muslim name, a beard, or a head scarf. Islam is viewed then as a race and subject to similar discriminatory practices as other races. What complicates this issue further is that a large portion of the American Muslim community is black, which adds a layer of discrimination that they must navigate in today’s increasingly polarized America.

In this country, I believe we are now in an active process of interrogating the authentic image of “Americanism.” In doing so, we must first recognize that the very social and cultural fabric of this country was built upon race, and that America is no stranger to religious persecution as evidenced in their discrimination against Catholics, Jews and others.

This, of course, does not equate the experience of racial discrimination and religious description; rather, it highlights that Islam has now become the “other” factor motivating discrimination in America.

Today, Muslims are increasingly subject to hate crimes and discrimination. The only way to overcome this is by reinventing the very image of “American” as to include people of all colors, ethnicities and religions as was intended from the inception of this country.

The discussion of being white in America is about privilege and identity, and who is included in this culture of privilege and identity. If you are a person of color or a Muslim in today’s America, you are not white, hence you are not truly accepted as an “American.” This not only prevents you from equal treatment through the various preconceived biases upon which you are judged, but undermines the very ideals this country was built upon.

Ahmad Deeb is director of the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent.

Ellen Staudt-Malick

Being white in America today means acceptance.

Accepting:

• That the changes happening in America are not because I am white.

I can choose to put me first and work to stunt the growth of others. I can sit on the fence and watch it go by, or I can be a shining example of support.

• There will always be some people who don’t like me because I am white. No matter how good my intent, some people will not be satisfied or befriend me until I have succumbed to a lesser me and deprived of all good things to their personal satisfaction.

• I cannot be all things to all people because I am white. I cannot support every good cause and idea that comes my way. That does not make me a racist. That does not mean I don’t believe in numerous causes. It means I give when and where I believe my personal attributes/skills are best utilized.

• I am one in the sea of many white Americans with a conscience to do good and don’t need to get in the public eye to prove it. I don’t need accolades for doing the right thing.

• White Americans will always have choices.

I can either 1.) Surround myself with like-minded people who try to inhibit change (stunting the growth of others) and live a life of bitterness or 2.) Surround myself with like-minded people with attitudes toward limitless possibilities of goodness that comes with embracing diversity and equality.

Frederica Cohen

It depends on the person who is answering the question: their race, religion and economic background.

For most white people that means opportunity taken for granted — the right to an education, a job, health care, housing, not wondering about acceptance when you travel and especially not having to think about how to respond to a simple traffic stop.

As a white person growing up, that is how I was raised; I was also taught a person of color and/or non-Christian needed to “stay in their place.”

My own perspective began to change in high school as I realized what I’d been taught just wasn’t truthful or Christian.

Everyone else was more like me than different. I discovered we all were doing the same things in the same way, we all wanted the same things for our lives.

Our differences were skin deep such as where we went to worship and how much money our parents made. These were the same differences as my white friends.

Fifty years later, the need to write this is frightening. Fifty years later, our differences are still skin deep.

Susan Lee

Being white in America means being tired. Tired of being accused of being a racist because I am proud of my heritage.

Tired of watching the news after a 10-hour workday and seeing people who don’t work demanding more.

Tired of the lack of respect for the president, the flag, the police, the military and each other but excusing the lack of respect on being victims of “white privilege.”

Tired of being passed over for new positions and promotions because “white” doesn’t fit in the “diversity model.”

Tired of apologizing for events that I did not participate in hundreds of years ago.

Tired of being the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in America.

Tired of being the only one who is told to make a change while being told that all lives matter — except mine.

I am tired that we are still having this conversation. I am tired that people are still focused on the “color of their skin and not the content of their hearts.”

I am just tired.