By Susan Saldibar

Senior Living Foresight recently started a series called Conversations on Race to highlight the Black experience and explore diversity issues in senior living. Steve Moran’s second interview was with Sunyatta Amen and Jack Sterne, a biracial couple. Here are some takeaways from that interview. If you missed the first article you can read it HERE.

Sunyatta Amen is Founder and TEO of Calabash Tea & Tonic, a vegan café and a tea house based in Washington, D.C., now with three locations. Sunyatta says the goal of her organization is “to help modern people reconnect with traditional ways of healing.” She, herself is a fifth-generation herbalist, naturopathic physician. Her husband, Jack Sterne, is co-Principal of Lumenant, a provider of advanced LED and circadian lighting solutions.

The fact that Sunyatta and Jack are a bi-racial couple adds a really compelling dynamic to the conversation, exploring their experiential insights as a couple, as well as individual revelations and insight. 

Touchpoints of a Candid, Revealing, and Ultimately Hopeful Conversation

Jack grew up in South Carolina, where mixed racial couples were basically unheard of. “In high school, there were Black women I was interested in, but it just wasn’t done,” Jack says. Steve had a similar experience, having grown up in the ’60s where just seeing a mixed couple would, as he says, “take people aback”. All three acknowledged that, although things are very different today, the needle hasn’t really moved that much.

Sunyatta “grew up in a health food store”, as she puts it, the daughter of parents who ran a successful chain of health food stores in Manhattan. She describes herself as a woman “of color”; her grandmother, a Cuban who immigrated to Jamaica, was, as she says, her “original teacher of herbal medicine”. On her father’s side, multiple generations back were Black Native Americans, pre-slavery, who, through hard work and tenacity, were able to forge a successful path forward for themselves and subsequent generations. This is a fascinating story unto itself that Sunyatta describes in detail in the webinar.

Throughout the conversation, Sunyatta acknowledges that her story of racism is, in many ways, different from many other people of color. She led what she refers to as a “somewhat privileged” upbringing; private schooling, parents who were graduates of Ivy League universities, and so on. Yet, no amount of education could protect her from experiencing institutional racism and the “Black Tax” (an axiom based on the fact that Black individuals, due to racial bias, have to work much harder than their White counterparts to achieve the same goals.)

Sunyatta Always Assumes the Best in People. But Would That Work in Senior Living?

Sunyatta provided a recent example of racial bias, involving a trip to a realtor’s office to sign the rental papers on a new property (their third). Everything had been negotiated in advance; the signing was simply a formality. Not so for the signing agent, however, who proceeded to treat Sunyatta with what she characterizes as “an amazing amount of hostility.” The property was in an area that had been recently gentrified, so the signing agent made it clear that they had “to be careful who they rent to.” Apparently, Sunyatta, as a woman of color, raised his antenna. Jack, on his way, listening in to the meeting remotely, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Everything we wanted to do was met with suspicion, as though we wanted to ‘pull a fast one’ on him.’” 

When Jack (in all his whiteness) finally walked in, the verbal battering of Sunyatta came to an abrupt halt (thanks, in part, to Jack’s “verbal upbraiding”). The White component was apparently what was missing in the equation. The contract was signed. Ultimately the agent was replaced, apologies were made and the property, while hell to acquire, is now considered a “feather in the cap” of the agency, according to Sunyatta. But this kind of experience, Sunyatta says, happens all the time.

Fortunately, it doesn’t happen at Calabash Tea & Tonic, in a large part due to Sunyatta’s hiring mindset; to always assume someone will do the right thing, that they are the best. “When you operate in hospitality, assuming the best is always beneficial,” she says. “We have the conversation before they are hired. So that when a guest comes in, we already have in our minds, the best-case scenario.” 

It’s a mindset that Steve feels senior living community leadership can learn from. He related an experience, years ago, when he led a youth group in South Central L.A. Two of the girls he mentored went on to prestigious colleges. And yet, after graduating, they struggled to assimilate and move up in a more moneyed white world. “Yet you are able to create this wonderful, diverse and safe haven in your cafes,” Steve notes. “Let’s say I come to you and ask you to teach us how to do it in our communities? How do I go about that?”

All Kinds of Fabrics Are Needed to Build an American Quilt

For Sunyatta, it starts with sitting down and having conversations with staff about their assumptions and developing an understanding of who the client, in this case the resident, is. “It’s also important to understand the people of color who are doing all the heavy lifting,” Sunyatta says. “They have experience and validity in their cultures. It is more than worthwhile to learn to speak their ‘language’ as well.”

“When we talk about a moneyed environment, we’re talking about privilege; sometimes bought with money, sometimes inherited,” Sunyatta explains. “There may be, as you pointed out, a lack of exposure to that environment. So I need to be able to communicate with staff from the Caribbean or Africa or the deep south. I need to speak to each one and explain who our customers are. It takes a very frank conversation.”

Jack agrees. “The two girls you mentored didn’t ‘speak the language’. So that means senior living leaders need to learn how to speak the language. That means caring enough to sit down and have a conversation. There’s this whole concept of code-switching, where Black people talk to each other one way, and talk to white people another way; so the idea is that you need to learn to ‘talk white’ because if you ‘talk Black’ people will think you’re unintelligent.”

Sunyatta has a great analogy. “In order for everyone to build this wonderful quilt that is America we have to understand that all the fabrics are necessary and that’s what makes it beautiful or else it’s just beige and boring.”

A Misconception about Responsibility

The openness of the conversation prompted Steve to ask a tough question, one he didn’t think he’d have the nerve to ask. “I have some relatives who feel that the Black community has to take more responsibility for solving this problem. They point to the number of single-parent families and those kinds of things. They say Blacks just keep cranking out kids. 70% are homes with no father. But they don’t feel safe even being able to start that conversation. So how do you respond to that?”

Jack acknowledges that personal responsibility is important. But he points out that people need to look at the structural issues that create the situation in the first place. “When you deprive people of the ability to have inter-generational wealth for 400 years, what do you think their circumstances are going to be?

You don’t have multiple generations of college graduates, you don’t have the ability to pass down property from generation to generation,” he says. “When I hear this argument, it really gets me angry because it’s a way of deflecting responsibility for us as white folks. There are plenty of people in the Black community who are trying to lift up the Black community. But they have a higher mountain to climb.”

Sunyatta adds, “For some reason, every person of color is responsible for the entire community of color. We’re not monolithic, we don’t ‘all know each other’. Even though it [slavery] ended 150 years ago, that’s still only 2 generations. Slavery didn’t end like ‘boom it’s over, all right!’.” 

Steve wholeheartedly agrees. “We had segregation until 1963. Drinking fountains, bathrooms, busses. Those are still realities. We have hundreds of thousands of people who experienced that.”

Creating Diversity in Senior Living

They wrapped things up by taking a question from a member of the webinar audience: “Should senior living organizations put an active focus on seeking more varied backgrounds of the people they grow/advance to leadership positions so that in the future there won’t be so much white at the top, color on the frontline?”

“That’s exactly what needs to happen,” Jack says. “Just as it’s been shown that having women at the top of an organization leads to better decisions, the same has to be true of having people of color at the top. You’re making a more considered decision because you have more perspectives at the table, helping you make that decision.”

There is much, much more great conversation and insight in the video than we’ve covered here. Watch the full video. It will be one of the most worthwhile hours you’ve ever spent.