The Columbus Urban League president says we'll all have to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.

The story isn’t new. Stephanie Hightower has told it previously, and likely will again, owing to its continuing, maddening relevance. America can’t stop stumbling over race. And Hightower, like so many Black men and women, keeps feeling the pain. 

She often thinks little has changed in the past 15 years. That’s about how long it’s been since she first tried to host a sleepover for her son’s friends and basketball teammates at Columbus Academy, a private school whose students largely live in white, affluent communities. 

“I got no responses,” says Hightower, now president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League. “I was really upset. I was just heartbroken.” 

She turned to her mother, whose counsel was more blunt than sympathetic. “She said, ‘What did you expect? You live in a Black neighborhood, these people are from suburbia. Did you actually think they were going to send their kids down here to your house?’ ’’ 

Determined and competitive by nature, the 62-year-old Hightower is a former world-class hurdler and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. She isn’t accustomed to sidestepping barriers. 

“So I asked one of the parents, ‘Why aren’t you coming?’ ’’ 

Finals week was approaching, Hightower was told, so it was a busy time. 

“OK,” Hightower said. “We’ll do it after.” 

She waited and sent the invitations again. “I had to reframe it,” she says. “I basically said, ‘For those of you who are suburban folks, we live in a Black neighborhood. This is a biracial household, and my husband and I will be there. We’ll have happy hour for the parents for the first two hours when you drop your kids off.’ ” 

Hightower said she knew she had to make the other families feel comfortable in her East Side home. She bought good wine and put out a cheese tray. “I have a nice, big house. I had to let them know it was to their standards.” 

The boys were allowed to spend the night and the parents had a great time, staying longer than she expected. “Then I couldn’t get them out of my damn house,” she says. Hightower laughs at the memory, but her smile quickly fades. She doesn’t want the story to be regarded as a simple one with a happy ending. 

“That’s the kind of stuff that we have to do—that I had to do—to make my son comfortable, to make his friends’ parents comfortable. But why? White folks don’t have to do that. I had to go above and beyond.” 

As the first woman to head the Columbus Urban League, a post she has held for the past 10 years, Hightower’s job is to raise awareness and push for resources that help lead to racial equity. The goal remains elusive for the century-old organization, which fights for social, economic and educational progress in Ohio’s largest city. “Here we are 102 years later, and we’re still dealing with the same issues,” she says. “What does that say about our society?” 

Data and public-opinion surveys back her up: The poverty rate for Black residents of Franklin County is nearly 30 percent, more than twice that of whites. Recent data from Gallup and several other survey sources find that a majority of Black Americans report experiencing bias, discrimination, fewer opportunities to get ahead and ongoing confrontations with prejudice. 

Americans’ perceptions of the country's racial divide have not improved over several years, and in many ways have become more negative, Gallup found. 

But they also might feel more optimistic about the possibility of change. The protests and vast outpouring of support that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who suffocated in May beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, are unlike any in recent history. Black Lives Matter signs dot yards and hang in shop windows throughout the country. 

Giving sat down with Hightower to talk about the moment, the movement and what it means in Central Ohio. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

As you have said, calls for reform and justice are not new. Can this time be different?
I think it is different. I think this next generation of people doesn't want this to continue. When your children are coming home and saying, my Black friend got pulled over, or my daughter’s boyfriend was attacked, or my biracial grandbaby was stared at, this next generation is saying, enough is enough. 

But this is what I wrestle with: All these people who are woke now? I’m not frustrated, but I will say I’m enlightened that people I thought were a little more progressive, and really understood the work that we’re trying to do here, really didn’t understand the work after all. Or maybe it was just too painful for them to really admit that things hadn’t changed. Or they thought they had done whatever they could do. But now they have to admit that they didn’t do enough. 

As long as folks are willing to have these uncomfortable conversations with me, then we’re good. If they’re not willing to have uncomfortable conversations, then don’t call me and ask me to speak. Because at this point, I feel like I have to be that truth-teller if we’re going to move the needle in this community. That doesn’t make me popular with some people. But I’m OK with that. 

A lot of people marched this summer, a lot of people made signs, a lot of people agree that we need racial equity–on so many fronts—in this country. Many of them are white and have their BLM signs in their yards. I’m not being dismissive; I know it’s heartfelt. But are there things they can do in day-to-day life that work toward better racial equity? Things other than the big, lofty goals?
It’s really not that hard, and I hope that people don’t overthink this. Just being able to recognize and appreciate your Black co-worker matters. If you don’t understand something about them, ask. Or look at the biases you might have. Like, “She talks so loudly.” Well, that’s part of our culture. We’re not angry Black women because we talk loud. Go to one of our family reunions, and there might be a lot of people talking over each other, and that’s just the way it is. Look at things differently instead of as a negative. 

You also have to start checking people. I was married to two white men, one European and one American. One of the things that was eye-opening was the fact that he still had friends—both of them did, actually—who thought it was OK to use racial slurs in their presence even though he was married to a Black woman. My European husband had a hard time being able to say in those circles that it was inappropriate. So he would let it pass—and still let me go socialize with them, knowing. My point in sharing that is that more white folks have a duty when a neighbor or friend or colleague or relative is comfortable with using racial slurs. 

I have an 83-year-old mother who is a devout Christian, Southern Baptist. When I had a holiday party up here, I had to say to her, “There’s going to be a bunch of gay people in the house, and I need you to not say something inappropriate.” That was my responsibility to say to her that homophobic comments are not acceptable in this house. White folks have a responsibility to do that, too. 

Think about your neighborhood. Do you live around any Black people? Why is that? Did you purposely move so that you wouldn’t? How many Black people have you had over for dinner or to your parties? Or for sleepovers with your kids? 

Your hometown has been in the news since the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot to death in her apartment this year during a botched law enforcement raid. Tell me about you and Louisville. And coming to Columbus.
All of my youth wasn’t there. Dad was in the military. My first two years of high school after we moved back from Germany were at Fort Knox High School. My dad retired, then we moved to one of the suburbs outside Louisville, and that’s where I graduated from high school. 

My parents are from the Warren-Youngstown area, but they didn’t go back after he retired because at that time, girls’ sports programs in Ohio were not as integrated into high schools as they were in Kentucky. Dad made a conscious effort to stay in Louisville so that I could continue my high school career in track and field and then eventually get a scholarship, and I ended up at Ohio State. 

With the level of racism that existed in Kentucky at that time, I knew that I did not want to stay. That was a place where using the n-word or being called the n-word was common practice. But the thing that I did notice after being at Ohio State was that at least in the South, you usually know Southern racists are racist. They let you know. But in the North, it’s covert, and you don’t know. And so you don’t know where you stand. It’s a different kind of experience with racism. I don’t know what’s worse. 

That’s one of the reasons the Urban League movement was built. Folks moved from the Jim Crow South and were looking for better jobs, education, health care and housing. It was better than what they had in the South, but it was inadequate. You were packed into lower-income areas and the other side of the tracks. In this [East Side] neighborhood, because of redlining and the way they put the highway through, it just completely deteriorated and cut it off from the Downtown community. 

Bexley didn’t get a freeway cutting through its neighborhoods.
Exactly. There are reasons our neighborhoods look the way they look today, reasons our criminal justice system looks the way it looks, reasons Columbus schools look the way they look. It all speaks to why the Urban League still needs to be in existence. Now, with this pandemic, it has really uncovered all the things we have been talking about for the past 10 years I’ve been here. We just couldn’t get any traction. 

Why has it been so hard to gain traction, to get more support for addressing racial disparities? 
We’re a reminder of the stains of slavery, a reminder of the stains of the Jim Crow South, a reminder of all that is not just as it relates to Black people. And so folks are like, we’ll give you a little bit of money over here, because we know you have to exist. 

 

We’re doing the transformative work. I’m trying to say this in a very diplomatic way, because I don’t want to say anything disparaging about anyone, but there are folks and entities in this community that do great work in emergency services and one-time hits. Get you a job, get you some food, get you dressed, get you in a quick rehab program for six weeks. And that’s great and it’s needed. And so that’s where the money goes, right? But the transformative work, which is what we do, takes much longer. I’m trying to get people stabilized in their homes, I’ve got to get their credit scores up, I need jobs for them that pay a living wage. And if you’re an ex-offender, you’re going to be blocked from subsidized housing. With felony records, you cannot get a good job. 

To your point, it’s a journey. It takes a while. 

Many studies have found Columbus and Franklin County to be places with especially wide gaps in economic and childhood opportunity, with Black families suffering the worst effects of high levels of neighborhood segregation. Why does our city stand out?
It goes back to what I just mentioned. We have historical institutions that are the feel-good, immediate gratification that we pour our dollars into. That’s one thing. What also has happened, and what I’ve found in the last couple of years, is that these institutions that are being given the money don’t have the cultural responsiveness to deal with those issues. You have well-intentioned people who want to do the work, but they’re not from the neighborhoods, they don’t look like the people being served, they don’t have the same experiences. 

When folks are giving money out, they’re also not asking these institutions to disaggregate the data. When you do that, and start looking at all the outcomes for these Black people that you are supposed to serve, you will find that they weren’t servicing them or getting the outcomes that they should—or you and I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation today. 

We can’t keep doing stuff the same old way. We keep doing stuff the same old way in Columbus. The same folks get the money, the same folks are not held accountable with the money. 

What about public policy? What can people advocate for so that, after the marches end and the signs come down, accomplishments remain?
There are so many policies that need reformed. Look at the criminal justice system, look at the laws around evictions. Look at men who have back child support—at some point their arrearage turns them into a convicted felon. Then how are they going to pay? We have to look at school funding and at urban districts in a big way. 

These are things that put people at a disadvantage. 

We need to say to our lawmakers, a lot of these policies you’ve put in place for us to receive federal funds aren’t flexible. We have to look at our corporate partners. We’ve got to figure out how we put more affordable housing into this community. How can we entice developers? 

How do we build up Black-owned businesses? One thing people can do is buy Black. There are Black caterers, florists who are in just as dire straits as everyone else right now. 

I say to my colleagues, we’ve got to put back into the community, too, and not just through our faith-based institutions. Coming down here to your church on Sundays isn’t the same as having these kids see Black professionals walking around, or living next door. They need to see there’s nothing they can’t attain. 

Are you hopeful?
Yes. I have to be. Having hope and being hopeful is what keeps us going here at the Urban League. We have to be that beacon. People have to know there’s a place they can come. Doesn’t matter what they look like, where they live or what their circumstances are. We’re going to give them respect, encouragement, and yes, hope. That’s why I get up every day. Hell yes, I’m tired. But if I’m gonna be tired, I’d rather be tired for doing this.

Reprinted from Giving: A Guide to Philanthropy 2021.