Charlie Davis

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” – Philippians 2:3-4

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from a longtime friend. He wanted to get together to discuss a very important topic, stating: “It has to do with the future of our Y.” Of course, I jumped at the chance to get together with him, especially with respect to the future of the Y. (Of note, I have had very few face-to-face meetings these past 16 weeks, but he insisted and I agreed. Interestingly, I felt uncomfortable having such a meeting, which is a recognition of the impact the virus has had on me, and probably the entire population.) Though I do not see him regularly, we have stayed in touch. I mentored him when he was 18, and I know his father, who has been an icon in the African American community for many years.

As soon as we sat down, he immediately asked a very direct question: “So, what are you going to do?” I was not expecting that question, but I assumed he was referring to reopening the branches (he is a regular attendee, and has been for many years). I began to share that once the governor gives the green light, we are prepared to open our branches – but he interrupted me, so I paused. I then asked him to clarify his question. He asked: “How many senior leaders in our Y are African American?” That definitely changed the conversation. Throughout our meeting, he reiterated how our Y did not represent the community. He told me that the Black community did not see the Y as a place where they were welcome. For over an hour, we discussed how critical it was for our Y to step up and make the necessary changes to be relevant in our community. He told me the community wanted to see the old Charlie – the authentic Charlie. His parting statement was: “The eyes of the community are on you, Charlie, and the window of change is closing.”

I have been aware of the gaps in our organization for quite some time, but instead of placing this issue at the top of the agenda, I let other issues get in the way. That will change, not because of the conversation with my longtime friend, but because it is absolutely critical it does change. The social climate has not been a call to action for change for just our Y, CEOs around the country are being challenged as well. If we are truly an organization that contends it serves “all,” we must fulfill that promise. The CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle has taken radical steps to become an “authentic” organization. She is reviewing every job vacancy to understand where the breakdown is within her Y. She and her board of directors have made the decision to invest $1 million into the creation of an Equity Innovation Center, a collaborative engine designed to seek innovative ways to solve intractable problems around inequity, intolerance, and exclusion. Seattle has expressed a desire to collaborate, and there is power in two Ys coming together to lean in hard on this very important issue. Serving all, and delivering on that promise, is something we will deliver upon.

Last week, African American CEOs in the YMCA Movement hosted a town hall entitled, “Unlearning Systemic Racism.” I thought it was excellent – an authentic effort to address the very real problem in the Movement. Not only has it has aroused a lot of raw emotions from staff within the Movement, it has also provoked a call to action for Ys to make change. As I listened to the speakers during the town hall, I reflected upon my own experiences within our Y – ones that depict the racism that exists in our Y, and the lack of change that has occurred over many years.

Thirty-seven years ago, when we first opened the Tacoma Center YMCA, I met a member who came in on Sunday evenings with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation group. The group was 98% African American, and he used to tell me it felt like they “got to go to the country club on Sunday nights.” It was something that has stayed with me since, and I am still friends with that member. He loves the Y, but he says it still feels like it is going to the country club because, as he points out, there are very few members of color. He also cautions me that if this trend continues, the Y is in danger of becoming irrelevant. He has contacted me a few times over these past few weeks, reminding me that this is my time to promote change, but the window is closing – the time is now.

On numerous occasions these past few weeks, I have been contacted by leaders from the Black community, urging me to lead change within our Y. In almost every interaction, I was urged to return to a time when I was “authentically leading at Tacoma Center,” a time when Phil Carter started the Late Nite program. They pointed to our leadership within the community at that time to our commitment to change, which directly impacted the Black community. I will always remember when Late Nite first started and how we collaborated with so many groups to address the gang violence, but more importantly, to provide alternatives for Black youth that would propel them forward in their lives. I watched Phil work tirelessly to help youth improve themselves, recruiting volunteers from the UPS Law School to mentor them. He also recruited businesses to offer jobs to the youth during the summer months, and secured food from local restaurants to provide meals to those who attended Late Nite. Every Friday and Saturday night for 12 years, Phil worked to help lift up kids and help them believe in themselves. He never tired breathing life into them, even though they could not see it in themselves.

There were so many great aspects to the Late Nite program. On many occasions, Phil took kids to Camp Seymour for an overnight experience. For many of them, it was their first time crossing the Narrows Bridge. He created many events for the youth – talent shows, dances, dunk contests, and the like. The events were always special. They typically included prizes and an opportunity for a youth to shine in front of his or her peers, doing something positive. He was determined to broaden their horizons so they could see a better life for themselves. I remember one event in particular – it was a basketball tournament on a Friday night. Teams from all over the city attended; it was packed. Toward the end of the night, the director of the Lakewood Late Nite program left, and within moments of his departure, a brawl broke out. It was bedlam. Phil and I were in the middle of it, separating teens and taking hits from many of them. Within moments, the police showed up and order was restored. I could not find Phil right away, but soon found him in the back of a police car in handcuffs. I immediately went to the officer to let him know Phil was on staff. He apologized and released him. When all the kids were gone, Phil and I sat in the office and talked about what happened that night. I could not let go that he ended up in the back of a police car. I kept thinking it was the result of the color of his skin, but Phil would never go there – he always rose above it. He kept his focus on helping kids and the community. He was determined to cross the race barrier, and he challenged everyone around him to do the same.

I have worked with Phil for 35 years. Like we did that night, we were often side by side in serving the community. We had a blast doing it. I remember doing the Sweat for Safe Streets workout together. We were raising awareness for the Safe Streets initiative, but it was always about inspiring people and having the time of our lives doing it. We were on top of steel tables, in the downtown convention center, going all out for three hours, enjoying every minute with 300 of our closest friends. It seemed like Phil and I were always doing something like that, always giving everything we had to lift up people; that was – and still is – quintessential Phil. He created the YMCA Track Meet for people who wanted to compete and have fun. Phil convinced people of all levels to try it, to challenge and stretch themselves, and to achieve beyond what they thought they could. It was exhilarating to witness what people were able to do, and to watch their faces when they realized what they just did. Phil created opportunities for people to reach new heights in their lives and to believe in themselves. Phil never tired of breathing life into people; he encapsulated the axiom: believe and you shall achieve. This is who Phil Carter is. This is how he has led his life. This is how he impacted the Y.

During this shutdown, Phil Carter has decided to retire from the Y. I know he is at peace with his decision, but I am struggling with it. He has so much more to give, but he wants to discover it in another way. So much of my Y experience has been wrapped up in my friendship with Phil. We shared it all together. He has always been a source of inspiration for me. He was always able to see the good in anything that ever happened, even if it was difficult for me to see it that way. I know I am a better person for knowing Phil, and that our Y is a better place for what he gave to it.

Phil did not want any fanfare, but I would love it if you would share a memory or a story about him, because I would like to gather them. I have a ton, and I will write them down so I have them forever.

Phil Carter, come on, let’s do it!!!