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'Dear White Friend' aims to change the way friends talk about race in Cincinnati and across the U.S.

'Relationships are going to really be all we have'
Joyce Powdrill, left, and Tom Carroll pose for a picture with copies of the book "Dear White Friend."
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 22:38:27-04

LINCOLN HEIGHTS, Ohio — Joyce Powdrill and Tom Carroll met last November when Powdrill became the village manager of Lincoln Heights.

Carroll had helped the village apply for grant money to fix up the Memorial Field Athletic Complex. And while he stays plenty busy as the village manager of nearby Silverton, Carroll offered to continue helping Powdrill however he could once she started her new job.

“For me, that was an amazing gift,” Powdrill said.

Over the past year, that gift has grown into a friendship that has helped opened doors for Powdrill at the same time it has helped open Carroll’s eyes to the sometimes subtle discrimination Powdrill faces as a Black woman.

“I can tell you there have been occasions where Tom and I have been in meetings, and I walked out of the meetings. And I’ve said, ‘OK, now Tom, what did the white people in the room just tell me?’” Powdrill said with a smile. “There is a language. There is an interface that sometimes I miss. And I think our friendship is strong enough where he can be very candid, and I can be very candid. And I can bring my authentic self to the relationship.”

Memorial Field Athletic Complex in Lincoln Heights. The photo shows a closed gate between two stone pillars with a faded sign overhead.
Memorial Field Athletic Complex in Lincoln Heights.

So when Powdrill heard about the book “Dear White Friend” by Mel Gravely, she knew immediately that she wanted two copies – one for her to read and one for Carroll.

“Tom and I have shared moments where we talk about hard stuff,” Powdrill said. “And that is one of the things I liked about Dr. Gravely’s book is that you have to be intentional about talking about hard stuff.”

Carroll was on board from the start.

“Joyce hands me something to read,” he said, “I’m going to read it.”

‘A meanness to how we had become’

The book is written as a series of letters by Gravely, who is Black, to a close white friend.

Gravely grew up in Canton, Ohio. And his parents decided that he would attend the predominantly white Lehman Junior High – an hour-long bus ride away – instead of the predominantly Black junior high that was a 15-minute walk from his home.

That’s when, in 1976, Gravely said he began feeling defined by his race and began learning how to navigate the school and understand the new white friends he was making.

He began writing the letters in late 2019 after finishing some racial equity training sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

“My head was spinning with all I had learned,” he said. “All the social unrest kept unfolding. At the same time, there’s a meanness to how we had become as a country. There’s a lack of tolerance for even a good conversation. Friends became foes because of politics and social justice and the commentary. And I began to write these letters.”

Mel Gravely sits beside a copy of his book, "Dear White Friend." Gravely has short-cropped hair, a close-trimmed beard and mustache and glasses. He's wearing a white shirt, navy sports coat and tan trousers.
Mel Gravely

Gravely had no intention to turn them into a book, he said, but then Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Georgia after being chased by three white men in a pickup truck while he was jogging.

“That was just it for me. The visualization of a white truck behind a Black man sent me back centuries, at least decades, of lynchings and things,” Gravely said. “That’s when I thought, has to be a book.”

Gravely said his experience made him “uniquely qualified” to write it.

“I’ve got a lot of good friends. I think I’ve shown myself to be a good friend to the community in general,” said Gravely, the CEO of TriVersity Construction and founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking, Ltd., a think tank focused on minority business development initiatives.

“I happen to be African American. I bring that voice, and I hope that credibility and friendship,” he said. “That’s why I thought, I’m uniquely qualified. There’s not a book out here in this lane.”

Gravely doesn’t present himself as an expert in the book, although he references other books that deal with the topics of race and systemic racism.

Instead, he approaches the letters as a business and civic leader, he said.

Living in two worlds

“I thought there was a missing voice, an accessibility, an on ramp for some of my white friends,” he said, friends who might not be ready for books more directly about anti-racism.

“I’ve been hanging out with my white friends since I was in middle school. I have watched and learned and come to understand how they engage,” he said. “And I’m asking them now to try to understand my journey a bit, too, and the journey of other African Americans.”

Powdrill, who was vice president of business development at TriVersity years ago, said that experience resonated with her.

She grew up in Over-the-Rhine as the youngest of 12 children, she said, and got the opportunity to attend The Seven Hills School.

“As I got older, I see the benefits of it,” she said. “But at that time, it forces you to kind of live in two worlds. I’m taking two buses to go to school.”

Joyce Powdrill, left, and Tom Carroll sit in Powdrill's office at Lincoln Heights.
Joyce Powdrill, left, and Tom Carroll sit in Powdrill's office at Lincoln Heights.

Gravely said he understands that his white friends don’t need to try to understand what it’s like to be Black in America to succeed. But he’s been pleased with how many people are reading his book to understand anyway.

“Imagine for a moment what it means for me -- what I have to acknowledge -- as I grieve the loss of my dream of America,” Gravely wrote. “I have worked hard. I have learned how to be with you. I have been open to new relationships and experiences based on the promise I would be equal. Yes, I have done what I was supposed to do -- go to school, stay out of trouble, etc. -- and yet it doesn’t matter enough.”

Powdrill and Carroll each read that excerpt aloud during an interview with WCPO 9.

“I thought that was a very powerful statement and analysis of his experience,” Powdrill said.

“As an American who believes in equality and believes in the American dream, I want to make sure that everybody has access to that American dream. And the reality is that’s not the case,” Carroll said. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”

Carroll was thinking about these issues long before reading Gravely’s book.

‘It’s not good enough yet’

He’s the village manager of Silverton, a community with more Black residents than white, and reports to a village council of mostly Black elected officials. Carroll has done in-depth studies of suburban poverty and has researched the history of Lincoln Heights and the factors responsible for the community’s economic struggles.

“I am going to spend the remainder of my time working to make sure we’re a better version of ourselves as a country,” he said. “Because it’s not good enough yet.”

Powdrill smiled as Carroll talked.

“I told him he was woke now,” she said with a laugh.

“Let the record show, for my daughter, I’m woke,” Carroll said with a smile. “This is how we roll.”

Reading “Dear White Friend” simply strengthened the friendship Powdrill and Carroll already have, Powdrill said, and helped them understand what they’re doing right in their friendship.

T.J. Ackermann poses for a photo at a construction site. He has white hair and glasses. He's wearing a white shirt, a yellow patterned tie and a navy, patterned jacket.
T.J. Ackermann

“That is the objective of this book,” Gravely said. “People ask me, what are you trying to accomplish? Listen, I’m just trying to infect the nation with a new way to talk about race. Because I think if we can talk about it differently, we can solve for it differently.”

There will be many more of those conversations Thursday, when the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati hosts a meet and greet with Gravely open to the public.

T.J. Ackermann said he hopes the event will raise awareness and start discussions.

“Discussions that are meaningful and perpetuated and that this isn’t an effort that’s done just to check a box or just to say we did something,” said Ackermann, president of the Home Builders Association. “That this is something that is continued on past our leadership and becomes integrated into the organization as one of its foundational principles.”

The more meaningful conversations that happen around race, Gravely said, the better.

“At the end of the day, relationships are going to really be all we have,” he said. “And solving things together is going to be all we can do.”

Joyce Powdrill, left, and Tom Carroll pose with copies of "Dear White Friend."
Joyce Powdrill, left, and Tom Carroll pose with copies of "Dear White Friend."

The Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati Meet & Greet with Mel Gravely will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 21, 2021, at Switch Lighting & Design at 312 W. Fourth St., Downtown. Register online.

More information about “Dear White Friend” is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.