Wayne is My Why
Wayne was my college teammate. We were recruited at the same time and he was the “star recruit,” not me. At 6’9” with a silky smooth jumper and soft hands, he was expected to have an immediate impact to our team. Turns out, he did not. He never materialized as a player. In fact, the young me enjoyed beating him in practice every day. Because he was supposed to be "the man," and I didn’t get the attention I thought I deserved. How naïve I was…
After we were done playing ball, and our athletic careers were officially over at the age of 21 or 22, it was only then I sat down and had a real conversation with him. As it turns out, Wayne came from a world I didn’t understand. He grew up in the projects of California with half a dozen brothers, sisters, and cousins, all living with Grandma in a two-bedroom apartment. No dad. No mom. Just Grandma and government subsidies. In that conversation he told me he could barely read, and that because he was tall they just kept pushing him through all the way to junior college, and then eventually to a D2 basketball program in the Midwest.
We talked about what was next. I had been offered a job by one of the boosters/fans to help him run his insurance company. Wayne didn’t get any calls like that. Then he told him he “Didn’t want to go home.” When I asked why he said, “Because I know I will end up in jail or shot.” That’s a world this white boy from the Midwest couldn’t comprehend. But it struck me, and stuck with me. This was my teammate. My brother. And while I was consumed with showing the coaches who the real "stud" was, he was worried about survival after being born into a life of trauma I simply couldn't understand.
A few months later, I picked up a copy of the local paper and there he was, all 6’9” of him, getting on a Greyhound bus under the headline, “HOMELESS IN HAYS.” Turns out, Wayne had stuck a piece of cardboard in the lock of the gym where we used to hoop. He was sleeping there, and one day he got caught. The solution? Buy him a one-way bus ticket to the one place he didn’t want to go: home. And it was that moment, holding that paper in my hand where I realized that yes, America is the land of opportunity, but that opportunity is not equal. Right then and there I made it a promise to myself and God to do what was within my lane to help people, lift them up where I could, and give agency to those with a different experience than me. Wayne is my "why."
He's why every team I've ever had the opportunity to lead or build has the stated goal of being 50/50 male to female AND inclusive of people of color. He's why the company I help run now is comprised precisely of our stated goal, and he's why LIFTKC is intentionally diverse. And he's why at LIFT KC we say "when we know our neighbors, we won't let them fail."
Now I'll admit, I didn't exactly know the outcome of this intentionality when I started doing it. But what I've learned is in every single occasion, it's brought the team closer together with real empathy for each other. Like the time I was attempting to give a compliment to a woman about her hair and totally blew it. A few days later she came to me to tell me she found my "compliment" worrisome. Not the comment itself exactly, but how through her experiences at other employers where her hair had been a "problem." We grew closer through that conversation, and I'm so thankful to learn from it. (Side note, I, we, all of us, will step in it again. We're human, but with empathy, we can be forgiven.)
Now, take that and compound it over and over again. The result is a single unit that together becomes a competitive advantage.
After last night's event, I had a black woman tell me that she has been exhausted for quite some time, and LIFT KC left her feeling an energy and revitalization she hasn't felt in a long time. At the same time, I had a white man tell me that although he didn't agree with everything said, the civil discourse that we can have together is exactly what we need right now. You see, when we Lead, In Focus, Together, we form a competitive advantage for our entire community, and we LIFT KC.
"Wayne is my why" has become a metaphor for me. I've tried to find him with no success. My fear is he knew his destiny. But I thank him for the lessons he taught me, and I commit to doing my part for as long as I am able.