Since my employment at PRA, I have visited several states in the Midwest.  I have visited Idaho, Missouri and Oklahoma to name a few.  As a lifelong New Yorker, my perspective of my county was north to south as opposed to east to west.  The most that I knew about the Midwest was that during presidential elections, most of these states were characterized as “red states” and I was somewhat skeptical how welcomed I would be as an African American.  I also thought that the Midwest was monolithic and without the diversity that so characterizes the Northeast.  I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the welcomes that I have received as well as the diversity of these states.

One Sunday I arrived in Oklahoma for a consultation with the peers and the project director involved in the states Mental Health Transformation grant.  I have spent some time reflecting on how much I have grown to love and respect Midwesterners.  Cathy Cave, a consultant working with me, and I have spent some downtime talking about how our perspectives of this part of the country has changed over time.  It is a perspective that has mostly changed due to my off work-hour visits to communities and my interactions with program staff as well as cab drivers, waitresses, airport personnel, and all the other people that we meet during the course of a stay in another state.

Contrary to the very narrow perspective that I initially brought to my work, I have been welcomed and surprised by the diversity of these states, particularly in the urban areas that I typically visit.  In Oklahoma I learned about a large Vietnamese community and enjoyed the best Vietnamese meal that I have ever had.  I learned that several of the peers that we met with had seen and enjoyed the Butler, a movie about an African American Whitehouse butler and his experiences living through the civil rights era.  We talked about the movie and I wondered why I was surprised that they had seen it while I have not.  I also enjoyed a wonderful crab and shrimp boil where my server was interested in my work and recommended several restaurants in the area.  This was not the forced small talk that I often experience in the Northeast.  He seemed genuinely interested in me and the work that I do.

The friendliness of the Oklahoman prompted me to remember how much easier and less stressful life can be when we take time out to say hello and ask a person how their day has been going and really mean it.  As I headed home to New York City, I reflected on this some more and hoped that I would use the lessons learned during my treks to the Midwest.  However, I know it’s a matter of time before someone on the subway plays music so loud that I cannot hear myself think or races me to a seat on the train – It’s hard to keep this spirit but I am going to try harder this time to be mindful and keep it.

In closing, for perhaps the first time I feel like a full citizen of this country.  I have always loved this country and the freedoms that it guarantees to all of us but I have learned to love and respect my fellow citizens.  This is my country and I am grateful that no matter where I go, that I feel the part of something bigger and more important.  Thanks to all of the people that I meet during the course of my work and the downtime we have when we talk about our children, relationships, and our hopes and dreams.  Thanks for making me grow and change my perspective from north, south, east and west.  The view is wider, deeper, and more colorful.