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Travis Airmen carve way forward for racial equality

A man in a military uniform holds a microphone while he speaks to an audience off screen.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Christopher Sterling, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, speaks during a Juneteenth event aimed at addressing racial inequalities within the United States and the Air Force June 19, 2020, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Sterling shared his experiences with racism and the lessons he learned from them. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad)

A well-dressed man holds a microphone while he addresses an audience off-screen.

Grayland Hilt, 60th Air Mobility Wing Equal Opportunity director, speaks during a Juneteenth event aimed at addressing racial inequalities within the United States and the Air Force June 19, 2020, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Hilt shared his experiences with racism and stressed the importance of promoting equality in and out of the military. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad)

A man in a military uniform sits in a theater with others in attendance while he looks on at someone off screen.

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Derek Crowder, 60th Air Mobility Wing command chief, attends a Juneteenth forum aimed at addressing racial inequalities both within the United States and Air Force June 19, 2020, at Travis Air Force Base, California. The conversation addressed instances of racial discrimination in and out of the Air Force in the interest of eliminating both conscious and unconscious discrimination. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad)

“The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice, but you have to pull it to bend; it doesn’t bend automatically.”

-Rev. Jesse Jackson

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “I go home and look at my kids and my husband every day and I almost want to cry.”

Master Sgt. Asia Cook, Cultural Consciousness Committee advisor, pauses, pans her gaze slowly over her audience—all silent—and continues.

“Because although those on base know my husband as the international powerlifter and a sweet man, he is going to leave this base—he is going to leave that gate, and he is still 5 foot 8 inches, 230 pounds of ‘Let’s just shoot him.’”

Dozens of others in attendance at the June 19 town hall, hosted by Travis’ newly-formed Cultural Consciousness Committee, expressed similar feelings of anxiety and fear through vignettes of what it’s like to be a Black person in not only America, but the Air Force, too.

The committee organized the town hall to both celebrate the abolition of slavery and discuss what work must still be done in the United States and in the Air Force to ensure a racially equitable society.

June 19, or Juneteenth, marks an important date in American history. It represents the official end to slavery in the United States when Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, then one of the most remote areas in the United States, to finally declare the slaves there were free—2 ½ years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Because of the delay in news reporting, the freed slaves lost time that could have been spent building their lives and healing from the horrors they had been subjected to, said Cook, one of the town hall’s organizers.

“Had that information been spread faster, people wouldn’t have been suffering as long,” said Cook, who officially serves as the 60th Civil Engineer Squadron dorm management superintendent. “And I think that’s kind of indicative of what’s happening right now in America – in that spreading the information and spreading the messages that need to be spread, people can start to see a way ahead.”

Finding that way ahead has been the purpose of numerous nationwide protests resulting from police-involved deaths in recent months. Most notably, George Floyd, a Minneapolis man, died after an attempted arrest when Minneapolis policemen pinned Floyd to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while he claimed he could no longer breathe.

In a study conducted by the Washington Post, Black people have accounted for 26% of the 4,728 deaths involving police since 2015 while only making up 13% of the U.S. population.

Wrongful deaths shouldn’t be the only causes to speak up about, though, Cook said.

“To the Airmen who think they’re being singled out for their race or ethnicity, I’d have to say, ‘You might be,’” Cook said. “But it doesn’t help to stay silent. Unfortunately, a lot of my generation tried to laugh through it or secretly talk about it to try to find ways around it. That’s not a burden any Airman should have when they’re entering into an organization that’s supposed to be equal across the board. If you feel that way, you have to voice it.”

Cook also added that fault often lies more with the institution than simply individuals. She used the example that Air Force regulations previously prohibited dreadlocks unless it was a part of the Airman’s religion, like Rastafarianism, or if the individual received a blessing by a Rastafarian chaplain.

 “Funny thing is, there aren’t any Rastafarian chaplains,” said Cook. “So, thankfully, the Air Force decided that made no sense and reversed it, but it was by people speaking up that helped enact that change, just like it’ll take speaking up to enact the changes we still need.”

Another of the committee’s advisors, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Covin, 60th Security Forces Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of systems and technology, noted that the disparity between speaking up and staying silent could also be a result of the Air Force’s culture.

“Coming into the Air Force, you hear a lot of people say, ‘Don’t talk about religion or race,’ but that’s not really a conducive environment to confront some of the challenges we need to address,” he said. “By leadership, supervisors and even other Airmen fostering an environment of family, we embolden people to feel safe in speaking their truth, and that’s where that positive change is going to come from.”

Covin, a supervisor himself, went on to underscore the importance of ground-level conversations with co-workers, no matter their rank.

“Amid everything that’s going on, it’s a powerful gesture to simply ask, ‘Are you doing okay,’ to each other,” he said. “Getting to know your Airmen—who they are, what life they had before the Air Force, what their first name is—that’s a good first step to not only nurture a relationship of trust, but potentially dispel the bias and preconceptions we might have, whether they be conscious or unconscious.”

Travis’ Cultural Consciousness Committee, which promised to continue similar meetings in the future, punctuated the town hall with an offer to join the group.

Covin and Cook, likewise, encouraged those in attendance to perpetuate equality in their own lives and units.

“Never feel silent—never feel as if you can never speak your truth or the reality you face,” Covin said. “And just as it’s one’s responsibility to speak up, it’s others’ responsibility to listen—not to respond, but to understand, empathize and learn.”

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