By Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting
One of the many benefits of volunteer work is that it can lead to meeting amazing people. As a volunteer with Colorado Youth at Risk, I’m always meeting remarkable people with an interesting story to tell. The latest person on this list is Arthur McFarlane II. Arthur is one of the mentors in my small cohort of mentor and mentees, and I’ve been nothing but impressed at his commitment to the young students in our group. During a recent conversation, I learned that Arthur is the great-grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of history’s most important and influential pioneers of the American civil rights movement. I also learned that Arthur travels the country educating students from elementary school to college on his great-grandfather’s work and legacy in the modern era. My interest was peaked. I had to find out more about Arthur’s work. Here’s what he had to say:
How did you get started educating people about your great-grandfather, W.E.B. Du Bois?
It started as presentations in my classes during high school and undergraduate. In high school it was pretty informal, in college it became a little more formal. By the time I was in graduate school people started asking me to come and speak at schools. The first major talk about my great-grandfather was for the National Meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality. From there it just took off and has grown since then.
What kind of results or impact have you experienced?
I think a lot people want to know more about my grandfather. I’ve gathered a lot of family pictures that allow me to show different aspects of his life. People want to know what kind of person he was. People come back inspired to think about an idea differently or ask a question differently. A lot of times we begin different conversations around race relations and how they were when grandpa was around compared to now—I’m really trying to bring that from then to now, and bring W.E.B. Du Bois from then to now. It’s really important to continue that conversation. People wonder how they can change things and we have those dialogues.
How are you able to connect a past generation’s message with so many age groups and people from so many different parts of the country?
When I talk to an elementary school, I rely on pictures and basic concepts like what was it like when W.E.B. Du Bois was a little kid—relating it to the things children understand. With an older audience like high school students, we address issues around race and how the laws were different, and how we’ve changed our perceptions and perspectives around race. We ask them how they can relate to somebody in the 1800s or early 1900s when black people were property, or when black people weren’t allowed to vote. We ask how would you feel if you or friends of yours were treated that way? With adult audiences, we have conversations about how we can change things and make a difference for our kids, and how do you start those conversations with people who you may not be able to really relate to. Sometimes people are just afraid to ask somebody of a different color what their experience has been like, or what the thing is that bothers them the most. So, just depending on the audience, I bring one of those messages to the table and give them a chance to ask me questions and [I] ask them what they’re interested in talking about.
How do you keep pushing forward with this message when things, either personally or on a larger scale, aren’t going well? How do you persevere?
I don’t always understand it myself. My grandfather passed this onto me early on—to move that message forward. I can only tell you there’s an inner drive around equality, justice, fairness, cultural competence and eliminating racism. There’s something internal to me that makes me want to do those kinds of things and this is just a small part of all of that work. I’ve also been really lucky to have a lot of supportive people in my life.
Do you have advice for somebody who wants to learn more or start to have these conversations?
The best advice I can give people is to let go of your own fears and be yourself. Everybody has a story to tell. Everybody has a piece of the story. It can relate to somebody regardless of race or gender or what country they came from. Whatever differences we think are out there, there’s often more we have in common than what’s different. If you take the opportunity to explore that, and ask those questions, and tell your story, you’ll find most people are willing to share their stories, too. You’ll probably find you have more in common than you thought you did. You’ll see you share interests and concerns—and that sharing process can bring people closer together and get past other differences that may be on the table.
How has your volunteer work with youth affected your presentations?
When I look at my mentee, where he comes and where he wants to go, I realize that his story isn’t all that different than mine. He and his family really want to work hard and stay together so they can make it happen. I look at my mentee’s perseverance and intelligence, and I’m amazed to be in his life. It comes back to the similarities I mentioned—if you just dig a little you’ll find so many things you have in common.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers, but most of all the world needs dreamers that do.” —Sarah Ban Breathnach.