Andrew Marra, Palm Beach Post
Published 6:51 p.m. ET June 12, 2020
Cities across the country followed Washington D.C.’s lead by painting “Black Lives Matter” and other words of support on city streets.
He’s the chief executive of the nation’s tenth-largest school district, supervisor of more than 22,000 employees and commander of a police force hundreds strong.
But Donald Fennoy, the first Black school superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, is also scared.
Scared for himself, he says, and scared for his 11-year-old son.
Prompted by the international outcry over the death of George Floyd – who died after a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes – Fennoy delivered an unusually personal speech last week about how he and other Black men move through the world with heightened care and worry.
“Every morning when I get up to go outside and walk, I’m conscious of ‘Do I wear a hooded sweatshirt?’ because it’s dark outside and I might walk up on my neighbors who are walking, and they don’t recognize me and they call the police,” he said.
“I live in constant fear of offending other people or triggering something in other people to call the police on me,” he said, speaking from his home during a virtual school board meeting.
As a high-ranking, professionally accomplished Black leader, Fennoy said he typically conceals such insecurities in his efforts to “be a catalyst for change.”
But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, he told board members: “I, for the first time in my career, need to be fully honest around my experiences as a Black man in America.”
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Fennoy, 44, said he always recognized the importance of teaching his son to be polite and friendly in public – not merely to ensure good manners, but to reduce the risk of a suspicious neighbor ever calling the police on him.
Taking him to pick up mail at the center of their community, Fennoy said he instructs his son to go out of his way to be friendly and courteous.
“I need you to be respectful,” he tells him. “I need you to speak with people. I need you to open doors.”
Floyd’s death put those efforts into sharp relief, he said, leading to a conversation with his son this week about the death and why he must always be congenial in their neighborhood.
“I began to explain to him why I’m so hard on him about being respectful,” he said. “Because you know what, ladies and gentlemen? You know what I want the most? I want my child to survive the encounter. I want him to come home.”
His son’s reaction to their talk, he said, was to wonder what their family would do if Fennoy were killed.
“And what am I supposed to do with that?” Fennoy said to board members, his voice breaking.
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Usually circumspect, Fennoy said he has realized the importance of declaring publicly that, despite his professional standing, “I do operate in this world as a scared human being.”
“I just want everyone to know that there are a lot of people like me that are not okay,” he said. “They’re just not. And I want to give people who look like me the permission to at least say that for once in their lives.”
The wave of outcry over Floyd’s death has left him contemplating how to use his status and influence to work for deeper changes. It’s a question he’s still grappling with, he said.
“There comes a point where you have to start doing something,” he said. “So I am committed as a superintendent to doing something, and we will work through that.”
“I hope,” he continued, “we don’t take this as another dead Black man in America and move on with our lives.”
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Follow Andrew Marra on Twitter: @AMarranara
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