As part of Philanthropy Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative, President and General Counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity Devon Westhill recently sat down with radio veteran Lee Habeeb for an episode of “Our American Stories,” a syndicated radio program and podcast that highlights “ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things.” Westhill frequently champions True Diversity, an equality-based, holistic framework for embracing diversity that values each person as a unique individual and empowers charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions and help those in need.
In this discussion, Westhill tells Habeeb the story of his mother, a white woman, who raised three Black children in the South. Through her hard work and commitment to overcoming the day-to-day challenges she faced, she always kept moving forward so her family could live better.
Below are excerpts from Westhill’s story, featured on “Our American Stories”:
“For a long time I’ve been a Steve Martin fan. So I was a kid that grew up in the 80s and 90s at the height of the Steve Martin mania, I suppose. I liked the quote from Steve Martin’s film “The Jerk” where he says, ‘It was never easy for me. I was born a poor Black child.’
I liked that because it’s a funny line, because Steve Martin’s white. But for me, I like to quote because it describes a little bit of my past. I’m a very light skinned or bright skin, biracial Black man. I’ve oftentimes in my life been asked, ‘What are you?,’ and I’ve used that line. But at the same time, it does describe the way I think of myself and my upbringing, you know, poor.
I was actually born inside of the easternmost edge of Appalachia, but we didn’t stay there very long at all. My father developed a bad habit, and my mother, trying to get him away from bad elements in that area, moved us out of that area to Florida, Palatka, Florida, which was a very, very small place back then, and still somewhat small now. But certainly in an impoverished almost rural kind of area of north central Florida. The only thing that was an operation there I think at that time was a paper mill, but we didn’t stay very long.
The marriage fell apart and we went through all these sorts of terrible things that people no matter their race or where they come from, when you’re poor, you oftentimes experience these things. We experienced all of them when she was escaping her first husband, my father, and her second husband who was abusive and alcoholic. We were homeless for periods of time. We lived in a battered women’s shelter.
… We had to move into housing projects and we moved to apartment after apartment after apartment, Section 8 housing apartments. I switched schools I think almost every year until I was in fifth grade, when, I don’t know through what magic, my mother who was raising us on a high school diploma was able to purchase a house. It felt like we’d really hit the lottery.”
“I’m very lucky to have had the mother that I had and I still have. My mother was relentless. One of the things that distinguishes my mother from other people in terms of her ability to overcome adversity is the day in day out examples that she set. There was no big thing that she overcame. It was the ability to understand and to stay consistent when everything was pressing against her. She raised three poor Black kids on her own with a high school diploma. … She was mistreated many times as a result of simply being a white woman in these Black communities with Black kids. That flowed to us to some extent as well. But I only now realize just how difficult it must have been for my mother.”
“I’m really just incredibly impressed by what she was able to do by herself. She worked at a fast-food restaurant called Chicken Charlie’s in Palatka, Florida, which doesn’t exist anymore, long gone. But she’d work these long hours and … we’d have to be babysat by multiple different people throughout the day at different homes so she could just get through a double shift.
We moved to Gainesville, Florida, where she got a better job than Chicken Charlie’s, which was McDonald’s. Our lives improved when she got a job at McDonald’s in Gainesville, Florida, and moved us into housing projects in Gainesville, Florida.
She overcame. She could see the future. She had a vision for a better life for her and for us. So she was willing to take those little baby steps. She knew in the aggregate that eventually we would be better off, even if it didn’t seem like it from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year. She had a vision that eventually saw us climb, scratch and claw our way to our own house. … To having one of her children become a lawyer, be the first person to graduate from college. She saw this sort of vision that she could create situations for us even though she only had a high school diploma and was trying to do this all on her own, and did do this all on her own.
It was never going to be guaranteed that one day she would have her own house. It was not guaranteed that one day she was going to move on from working at McDonald’s to getting her college degree, which she did, to being a licensed clinical social worker … to getting a master’s degree.”
“It’s a truly exceptional and unique American experience. In the American dream, you can and should be able to advance without arbitrary barriers to optimize your own talents and interests and desires to your own idea of success. That’s why people are just clamoring to come to this country and always have. The simple connection to what you inherited or your birth, your race, your lineage is not the sort of thing that can advance you in life.
At the same time, that sort of thing is not going to hold you back so long as you possess some inner merit and value and worth. This idea that if you possess those things, the world is your oyster. This country is your oyster, the sky is the limit. You can go anywhere.”
To listen to the full episode with Westhill, please visit “Our American Stories.”