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Better than we found it

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 17, 2002

This is a column I've wanted to write for at least eight years, but I didn't like the ending.

If you're a black man in America with any sense of where you came from and where you stand in the still-evolving struggle for equality of opportunity, you have a simple responsibility to those who preceded you and those who will come after you:

Leave the parts of the world you touch better than you found them.

Fail that, and it doesn't matter what your net worth is. It doesn't matter what kind of car you can afford, or how many awards you win. If you don't recognize your obligation to advance the very struggle that put you in position, then you are a failure, a condemnable failure, an ingrate and a disgrace to your parents and the generations that preceded them. You should be haunted daily by the bloodied, battered, lynched, dog-bitten, water-hosed bodies you step over on your way up the career ladder.

You should lose sleep, experience self-loathing and frequent nausea.

For at least eight years now, I have experienced some of those symptoms.

Last week, I started to feel better.

Last week, Dr. Karen Dunlap became the first black member of the board of directors at Times Publishing Co., a corporation I'm duty-bound to leave better than I found it.

Her appointment significantly improves the Times' position from which to recruit minority talent -- a task it needs to accomplish -- and provide better service to its entire community. Karen is a universally respected journalist and administrator.

But there's another aspect of this appointment that doesn't show up in credentials or on a resume. On the surface, this effect of the appointment may seem to be merely symbolic, but the results are anything but abstractions. A newly hired editor once said that "seeing an Elijah Gosier" at the newspaper influenced her decision to accept a position here. She is black, and it was important for her to see a black face with high visibility and a platform from which to be heard.

Sadly, we are still at a stage in our social development where our visceral reaction to race can comfort us or cause us unease. We assume that at some level the person who shares the same race as we do has also shared some of its unique experiences and viewed the world from its unique perspectives. We feel that at some point, a common thread runs through us, that at some eventual level within ourselves, we can understand each other.

Across racial lines, we seek that level of understanding by stepping outside ourselves.

That's what hatched the seed of an idea eight years ago, when a group of black Times employees first suggested that a black member be appointed to the board.

That's also where the smiles on black employees' faces came from when they learned of the appointment. That's where the bounce in the strides came from. There is a new confidence now that they won't have to yell their ideas and concerns at the boardroom door and hope one of the white men and women inside hears them. Now they will have someone inside the room discussing them.

Dunlap's appointment stirred many emotions and reactions, many of them tempered by conflict and contradiction. Many of them were apparent when I called Peggy Peterman and Carolyn Douse, two recently retired Times employees who were among the group of black staffers who pushed the company to add a black board member eight years ago.

The appointment is without question an occasion for celebration -- but like a fourth-quarter touchdown when you're trailing by 10 points. It's late in the game, and there's still plenty of work to be done before the score is even. It is, however, a major and necessary step in the right direction. Company chairman Andy Barnes acknowledges that many more still need to be made and assures they will be.

There was also a convoluted feeling of gratitude. I and current and former employees couldn't be more pleased with Dunlap's appointment, but how do you say thank you to someone for finally doing the right thing, for acting in the company's best interest?

Congratulations also seemed appropriate, but to whom and for what? The board gained a great asset in Dunlap, she gained an awesome responsibility, and every employee will reap dividends for it. Congratulations, all around.

Such is the confusing nature of this place in history. Each step forward indicts the past. Each eventual gain asks, "Why not sooner?"

We are long past the point where a first black anything is cause for celebration. But we are not at a point where we can stop insisting upon such breakthroughs.

We don't want to marginalize Dunlap's stellar accomplishments by seeing her as the black woman on the board, but we cannot ignore that she feeds our hopes largely because she is a black woman on the board.

The inarguable truth is that Andy Barnes and Times Publishing Co. have made a major step that was long overdue. They have chosen a woman who deserves to be on the board because her credentials and life's work leave her with few equals. She has a strong sense of self and a voice that commands listeners. She is also black. Dunlap's influence at the top level will trickle down and make this a better company far into its future.

I feel much better now.

We all should.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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