Airmen seek change through discussion and understanding

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nic Kuetemeyer
  • 121st Air Refueling Wing

In today’s world of constant connectedness, constant noise, and seemingly constant anguish, what does it take for real change to occur? What does it take to foster understanding and empathy? How can anyone start? At an Air National Guard Wing in Ohio, it starts with sitting down around a table like a family.

Almost 100 Ohio Air National Guard members of the 121st Air Refueling Wing in Columbus, Ohio took part in an open-forum format discussion about racism at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base on September 12.

The discussion was spearheaded by the Wing’s Council for Change, a newly formed group of Airmen with a focus to increase understanding and drive conversation towards positive change. The first session, held at the dining facility on base, was focused on race and racism. Airmen were invited to come and share their experiences in an environment of sharing and openness.

Chief Master Sgt. Ed Taylor, the 121st maintenance group superintendent, developed the idea for the Council for Change based on the need for a new and different solution.

“I didn’t want to do what we’ve done before,” said Taylor. “We’ve never done what we just did.”

Taylor enlisted in the Army in 1990, eventually transferring to the Air National Guard, and has been involved in diversity discussions and training before.

“I was a diversity instructor and went to Orlando and trained with the consultant they’d hired for the Guard,” he said. “We had an eight-hour course, and I did that course for about 1000 Airmen here at the 121st. What happened in the dining facility was never covered in those sessions. I was teaching or telling them how they should be, instead of talking about how we are, and not letting them get an opportunity to express how they felt.”

Taylor laid ground rules for the session to keep Airmen on task: the Airmen were to keep politics out of the discussion. He said he wasn’t sure how it would actually play out, but he was clear on what he hoped for.

“My intent was to have varying perspectives -- for Airmen to speak their truth,” he said. “When you speak your truth, it comes from your heart. You can’t get that from a canned training class; you can’t get that from a computer-based training. You have to humanize it, and that’s what we did.”

An open invitation to Airmen to discuss a challenging topic like racism comes with obvious risks, but in order to ensure that conversation happened at all, Taylor invited a handful of guests who he knew would have interesting perspectives and experiences to share. One such guest at the discussion was Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Jefferson, a First Sergeant with the 178th Ohio Air National Guard Wing and former member of the 121st ARW.

“He (Taylor) knows my background and the experiences I have and that my perspectives on things aren’t always mainstream,” Jefferson said. “He thought I would bring a unique perspective that a lot of folks might be able to relate to and help open up that conversation to kind of promote free thought.”

Jefferson said he grew up in a family with an adversarial relationship with the police. Members of his family struggled with addiction, crime and negative interactions with police officers. But after joining the military and gaining a sense of purpose, Jefferson became a police officer in the Columbus Police Department.

“That’s not a view that was shared by my family; I’ve lost family over it,” Jefferson said. “My views are extremely different now than how I was raised. The nurture was there to be one way, but the outcome has been different. There were people in the room who didn’t share my opinion, but we can still be friends and work together. They still wear this uniform, and I respect their opinion. When you shut down opinions, you just close the door on the topic. We all have different opinions, and that’s okay.”

The beginning of the 90-minute session was timid and unsure. But it didn’t take long for the Airmen to open up. Over the course of the discussion, guards were lowered, arms were uncrossed, hands shot up eagerly to share.

“If we’d have given it three hours, we probably could have taken five,” Taylor said, with a proud grin. “I was standing up there smiling. No matter who was talking, I was just smiling. You could feel the comfort rising in the room. No-one stopped talking. It was different. It was wonderful.”

The Council for Change at the 121st ARW intends to hold a continuing series of discussion sessions on race and racism. Taylor says it cannot end with a single session, a single checked box.

“If you don’t have that follow-through, then how important was it?” Taylor said. “If we as an organization are going to say ‘diversity matters’ and preach this idea as a value, how valued is it if we don’t follow up?”

It seems the Airmen who attended share the sentiment, giving overwhelmingly positive feedback about the discussion. “We needed to hear this,” “these things needed to be said” and “too bad it was only an hour and a half; I wish we had more time” were a few comments Taylor received. It’s clear the Airmen of the 121st are ready to listen to each other.

“I love this unit, I love the members,” said Taylor. We don’t all look the same but at the end of the day, we all want to serve. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re all cut from the same cloth. I want all 1300 members to speak their truth, and we all can listen for that understanding.”