Benton Harbor head coach Elliot Uzelac speaks with his team after practice on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016 in Benton Harbor, Mich. (Bryan Bennett | MLive.com)

Story of Black Team’s Miracle Turnaround Provokes Myriad Feelings During a ‘Courageous Conversation’

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. – On a late fall evening in the large living room of a beautiful home overlooking Lake Michigan, 10 people, black and white, gathered to confront racism—racism in the communities around them, and, sometimes, startlingly, in themselves.

This recounting of their experience illustrates one local effort to begin the difficult but necessary work of addressing race-based inequities that are generations deep.

Like all conversations, this one meandered, with the discussion leader only rarely injecting a guiding question. Among many things, participants discussed how to respond to a racist remark. They also talked about making eye contact with people who are different, a gesture that one person said was not always welcomed or even culturally appropriate. And, as the talk flowed, one term that has become popular in recent years—white privilege—came up several times.

The 10 people held what organizers are calling a “Courageous Conversation.” It is a title intended to help people be brave enough to open up and be candid about race and racism. These discussions are an essential element in Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism (or CGR), a joint project from 2018 through 2020 by The Todman Family Foundation and Spectrum Lakeland Health, which is headquartered in St. Joseph, Mich. CGR’s main goal is to help highlight and address the big gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy between residents of the mostly poor, mostly African-American city of Benton Harbor and its environs and the white areas of Berrien County, including, just across the river, Benton Harbor’s far wealthier and mostly white neighbor, St. Joseph.

CGR also involves medical experts’ presentations to audiences of physicians, other health care professionals and the general public about how the chronic stress of racism affects the body. And during the winter of 2019 related documentary films are being shown.

But the Courageous Conversations are a chance for anyone who has been exposed to CGR to take what they have learned out into the community in a practical way and collaborate with other concerned people.

CGR creators want these conversations over the next few years to be springboards for citizens of the racially polarized communities in southwest Michigan. The hoped-for ideal is a citizen-generated action plan to reduce racial health inequities.

 

Who Came This Evening

It was the second time in three weeks the group had gathered in the same home. Three of the eight female participants were black. There were two men, both white. Ages for the entire group ranged from around 30 to early 70s, with the greatest share in their 50s and 60s. All 10 had at least undergraduate degrees, and several had advanced degrees.

This evening’s two-hour Courageous Conversation was definitely more courageous than the first. The getting-to-know-you climate of the first gathering had created enough confidence so that the participants plunged into the heart of the matter of racism at this second gathering.

 

A Fairy Tale Season

Probably the most riveting discussion of the evening was sparked when a newcomer to St. Joseph mentioned a story that had put Benton Harbor in the national spotlight a few years earlier. Recollections of the story and its impact show the differences these conversations are intended to address.

In 2015, Elliot Uzelac, a 74-year-old white man who had coached at major universities and in the pros, and most recently at St. Joseph High School across the river, came out of retirement to lead the beleaguered Benton Harbor High School football team. During that miracle fall the Tigers notched their first victory after 19 straight losses and their first winning season in 25 years. They even made the state playoffs.

People’s spirits were ignited in Benton Harbor and in neighboring communities. As the Tigers kept winning, their once sparsely attended stadium was filled with rollicking fans. Many were white. The fairy tale season ended in a fairy tale climax as “Good Morning America” paid a surprise visit to a Benton Harbor High School assembly. Forty players got an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando.

The story was media gold. Local and regional reporters doted on the team and the man at the helm. ESPN featured the team. And Sports Illustrated devoted 4,200 words to a story that looked beyond the football field to the deep troubles besetting Benton Harbor, a town with a history of industrial decline and racial hyper-segregation not unlike Uzelac’s hometown of Gary, Ind. The SI story’s headline was, tellingly: “What Benton Harbor Needed Was Elliot Uzelac.”

 

A Fundraising Wizard

At Benton Harbor, Uzelac encountered a football program that was poorly equipped. The football field’s drinking water supply was even contaminated.

Uzelac quickly turned out to be a fundraising wizard. By the time he angrily left his coaching job three years later, he was telling an interviewer donors had contributed almost $300,000 for the team. Among other things, the money bought high-quality equipment, including a top-notch weight room and new lockers for the varsity, and new furniture and carpeting for the coaches’ office. Area restaurants, other businesses, clubs and individuals rushed to donate money or supplies or offer discounts.

The gruff but grandfatherly “Coach U” discovered in this very poor town that many of his young men had trouble making practice because they needed to work at jobs or watch their younger siblings. He insisted on discipline on the field and off, including good grades. He even arranged tutors for players. His compassion for the players appeared genuine. His wife, Wendy, arranged meals for players from a cadre of white women who called themselves Tiger Moms.

Uzelac resigned in the summer of 2018 after a public falling out with the Benton Harbor school board. In an interview, he gave a withering denunciation of the board and faulted the school for shortchanging the students. He told the local newspaper he would have departed quietly, “but these kids mean too much to me. I can’t walk away and not say anything about this.”

He was leaving a school district that has been under state oversight since 2014 because of years of financial problems and persistently low scores on the state’s standardized test. The district continues to lose students each year. Administrators come and go with head-spinning rapidity.

 

What About These White Women?

The Uzelac story was first mentioned during the Courageous Conversation by Karen. (Note: All of the names used in this story are not the real names of the participants, in order to preserve the confidentiality of their comments that was promised at the outset of the discussions.)

Karen is a white woman who had retired from a hospital administrative job in Detroit about a year before and moved to St. Joseph. For decades she was one of the few white people living in her Detroit neighborhood.

Without using the term Tiger Moms, Karen recounted what a friend in St. Joseph had told her about the phenomenon of the Benton Harbor football team.

“Benton Harbor was having a good football year, and there were some mothers in St. Joe that wanted to do some good stuff for the football players, and they started making snacks or something, and then the Benton Harbor mothers got angry that the St. Joe mothers thought they knew better what the Benton Harbor kids needed.”

Karen conceded she didn’t know if the story was accurate. She said she did tell the woman it seemed like the St. Joseph moms should first have asked the Benton Harbor moms what they could do, and not assumed they could go in without asking.

Jill, a white woman, said, “I don’t think it was intentional. I think they had a good idea, but–“

Valerie, a black woman who works in health care, asked, “Is that privilege?”

“Absolutely it’s privilege!” one participant exclaimed.

Jill: “Yes, that’s what I’m saying, because they just had that tunnel vision about, ‘We’re going to go doing something good.’“

Valerie said the white St. Joseph moms probably thought it was enough that they considered it a good idea, without checking first. Others in the conversational circle agreed with this characterization.

 

‘From the Heart’

Jerry, a white man in his early 70s, said, “But I will tell you that was coming from the heart. It really was.” Jerry had come to the area in 1971 and had worked in corporate human resources, at times leading affirmative action efforts. He called the outpouring of help and emotion from St. Joseph to Benton Harbor beginning in the 2015 football season “the first kind of real reach-out to do something” he had seen in his 47 years here. But yet, he said, it got pushback.

Jacqueline, a black professor, said, “So, did anybody ever consider that maybe there had been requests for support? Could you imagine that there were parents that may have already been asking over the years—and they might get a ten-dollar gift certificate, or a certain percentage off—because their ask is not received in the same way.”

Jacqueline said discrimination might cause vendors not to be excited by requests from black parents. The impression can be left that people in Benton Harbor are not trying to do things for their youth, Jacqueline said, while others with privilege can get farther with the same requests.

“You can even be superseded as a mother by” a person of privilege, Jacqueline said.

 

White Women as ‘Saviors’

Rick, a white man in his 60s who attends a racially integrated church, said, “I remember reading stories at the time, that, I’ll be frank, it painted these white women in St. Joe as the saviors of these black kids. And national press. And it was pretty revolting. That’s the impression that was given. And Uzelac raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for athletic equipment here in St. Joe, largely, that I think a black coach of a similar background wouldn’t have been able to touch. And so, you know, the whole disparity came out loud and clear there.”

Valerie: “I had one (part-time Benton Harbor) coach come to me, offline, really in pain, saying, ‘I’ve been working with these kids for years on a shoestring. He (Uzelac) comes in. He brings in money I could never bring in.’ “And he was really in pain,” Valerie said, “because he wanted for the kids, too. It was hurt. It was more hurt that I heard in his voice.”

Jerry: “What did we learn from this, though? I’m feeling hopeless now, because I will tell you, a lot of people who had never gone to Benton Harbor football games, white people from St. Joe, we were going over there all the time. There was so much excitement. It felt like everybody’s heart was in the right place. Never white privilege.

Valerie: “I think everybody’s heart was in the right place.”

Jerry: “But we keep doing this. These communities keep pushing back at each other,” he said, smacking a fist into the palm of his other hand.

Karen: “They’re not mutually exclusive, though. Your heart in the right place and white privilege exist at the same time.”

 

Be an Ally: Work Alongside Others

Stephanie, a white woman in her early 30s, said, “I think white privilege does often put people, maybe unconsciously, into a white savior complex. Because I think it’s privilege that’s thinking, ‘Oh, those children in Benton Harbor and those families!’“

Stephanie continued: “Even if you’re coming from a place of ultimate kindness toward them, it’s (assuming) they couldn’t possibly afford to do this for their kids, so I want to go do that for them, when maybe all that was lacking was organizational structure. And you’re already coming in and making some sort of judgment. Is that even warranted? I don’t think it’s a ‘Don’t help others,’ but I think it’s trying to take this mindset of how can we help in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re just coming in.” She said it is better to be an ally and “work alongside people for their agenda.”

Rick: “And I’d say the key is, is there a relationship after all this great publicity? What kind of a relationship developed with these white moms and these black kids and the families? Or was it just a feel-good moment for this side of the river?”

“Are they still supporting the football team?” asked Brianna. “Are people still going to the football games?” Brianna is a black woman who graduated a decade ago from Benton Harbor High School and who is now a university graduate student.

Valerie noted Uzelac’s criticism of the district as he resigned.

Stephanie: “But if you really care about the kids, who cares what he said about the school district?”

Jacqueline: “And, the meals are great for the football team, but what’s the state of education?”

 

‘Community Development 101’

Valerie, referring to a comment from Jerry, said, “It’s like Community Development 101. You never go into a community without asking, ‘What can I do for you? How do I use my privilege to do something that supports your agenda?’”

Brianna, referring to the broadcast stories about the football team, said, “It made it seem like nothing good ever happened at Benton Harbor High School with the football team. And that wasn’t true, because I know, when I was there, there were moms who were making sure the kids got fed and got lunches and different things like that. … But they just made it seem like this never existed.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Brianna said. “When I watched it, they painted this picture as white people came into Benton Harbor and they’re saving our community. That’s how I took it from the media. But that was just the surface layer.” At the time she said she and her friends were wondering how many of the players were eligible for college and what their education was like.

Previous coaches at Benton Harbor, during all those losing seasons, made sure the young men got scholarships or were headed for college, Brianna said. “And that for them was bigger than just them playing football.”

Like the first conversation three weeks earlier, this one ended with all participants eager to keep meeting and talking. They set no end date. But, among other things, they did agree to orient some of their discussions around particular books and see about starting “community-read-style” discussions.

(For a look at other topics of race covered in this evening’s conversation, see the accompanying story, “Fragments from a Courageous Conversation.”)