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Podcasts offer chance for discussions about race

News Photo by Julie Riddle In a screenshot of a podcast aired on Facebook, participants and friends Lenny Avery and Warren MacNeill share a frank conversation about race.

ALPENA — The camera angle isn’t great. The bland walls and plastic folding tables are unimpressive, and the two men on the screen are far from professional actors.

That’s the point, said Lenny Avery — a Black man who, along with a retired white police officer, is hosting a series of “Coffee with a Cop” podcasts to talk candidly about race.

The podcast is unscripted. It’s unguarded. It’s just a couple of guys being honest, knowing they won’t always agree — and agreeing that’s OK, as long as they’re both willing to listen, Avery said.

When George Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, protests and marches across the world — many peaceful, some violent — drew attention to the long-simmering issue of race relations and police violence in America.

Moved by the wave of race-related conversation rising around the country — which included several peaceful marches in Alpena, Alcona, and Presque Isle counties — Avery, a youth pastor active in a social service agency, wanted to have a conversation of his own, and to let others listen in.

He and his friend Warren MacNeill — a former Marine and retired police officer — met over coffee, turned on the camera of a propped-up iPhone, and started talking.

It wasn’t always an easy conversation, despite their friendship.

“We did not know we were talking for almost three hours,” Avery said of that first podcast in June, streamed live on Facebook, where it eventually received thousands of views and shares.

Committed to coming into the conversation as friends and walking away as friends, the two men wanted to open the door to talking about difficult topics, things people often think but don’t want to say.

“We wanted to show people they can have healthy conversations,” Avery said. “Even if it’s opposing views.”

One pivotal rule has guided their conversations.

“When the other person is talking, their thought is more important than yours,” the retired officer said.

That rule has made him a better listener, and has made the conversations fun, despite their heavy topics, MacNeill said. Instead of getting ready with a response, prepped to spew data to prove his point, he listens, and learns, and sees more than ever that, “we’re not enemies. We’re all in this together.”

He also proposed a scoring system for intentional conversation, in which listeners are awarded points for learning something new, or for doubting or changing their opinions.

“With this above scoring system, I, hands down and without question, was the winner in our conversation,” MacNeill said in a Facebook post after the first podcast.

In that podcast — and in a second, shorter edition that followed — as viewers watched, the two men dug deep into topics that were sometimes hard for both of them.

They evaluated the Black Lives Matter movement, and its White Lives Matter counter-movement.

They talked about influential people of color and women being excluded from classroom history books.

They discussed the difficulty of explaining to poor whites why they still enjoy privilege not available to those with a different skin color.

Northern Michigan is, in many ways, not overtly racist, but, as a Black man, he sees here an “accidental racism” that stems from ignorance, Avery said.

In the southern U.S., from which he moved to Michigan in 2014, “you know where you stood with certain people,” he said.

Here, in a population that’s 96% white, many people don’t think about the possible racial implications of what they say and do, he said.

He offered as an example the recent decision to rename the National Football League team now temporarily known as the Washington Football Team, removing the racial slur that has been its name since 1933.

“People are starting to wake up and say, ‘You know what? You’re right. This stuff isn’t acceptable,'” Avery said.

He’s been a vocal advocate for race issues, but, he said, it’s time for someone else to pick up the torch — someone who doesn’t look like him.

Today’s young people, many of whom are throwing themselves into causes and demanding change in their lifetime, are the future leaders of racial and other movements, Avery said — a prospect he finds thrilling.

The chatty pastor-turned-podcaster — who calls white just a different shade of brown — still has plenty of thoughts to share about race.

During one of the podcasts, Avery gave “a long, amazing statement, and then he stops and wants my response,” MacNeill remembered.

“It was like, ‘Yyyeah, what he just said,'” the officer laughed.

As a self-described middle-aged, middle-class, white, conservative former police officer, MacNeill feels targeted by much of the anger and frustration resulting from the death of Floyd and others like him.

“I’m the villain,” MacNeill said, “and I have no idea how I got there.”

In a career of trying to do good, MacNeill said, he wasn’t aware of systemic racism among his colleagues, or in himself.

It’s been helpful for Avery to hear that from him, MacNeill thinks.

But, the retired officer is reluctant to talk too much about his own experience.

“Everybody has heard my voice,” MacNeill said. “Not just my voice, but everybody that I represent. Maybe it’s time that I listened to somebody else’s voice.”

The conversations between the Black church leader and the white ex-cop are now available on a dedicated Facebook page. The men hope people will watch and listen to their conversations that touch on topics as wide-ranging as police preconceptions about people of color, white discomfort with being designated as a race, and the racial implications of a portrait of George Washington crossing the Delaware River.

There’s more to be discussed — much more, Avery said — and the men hope to continue the podcasts as their busy schedules allow.

They’ve asked politicians, community leaders, and police officials to appear on their podcasts, but, so far, none have agreed. A few younger people said they’d join the conversation in an upcoming podcast.

Though it won’t always be easy, the two men with different skin colors and different stories to tell will keep talking, and they hope others will, too — something they say is as simple as sitting down with a cup of coffee.

“Let our videos be a conversation starter for something in your house.” Avery said. “That’s it.”

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