For Don Day, social justice starts with the small things — a smile, a conversation or picking up a book.
Kindness and education are an important foundation for tackling societal issues, according to Day.
Day moved to Columbia with his wife in 1975, having graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from MU a few years before. Now having retired from his job with MU Extension, he spends much of his time getting to know as many people as he can.
When talking about his efforts to promote inclusion and understanding in the Columbia community, Day exudes humility. Asked why he was being interviewed for the Progress Awards, he said, "I'm not really sure why we're talking about me."
We talked to Don about his personal projects and social issues, both in Columbia and nationwide. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think we can do to improve social justice in Columbia? Why is it important?
One of the best ways to improve it is to get to know each other. Statewide and nationally we've had a lot of encounters with people of different races. Really, if you get acquainted about people and learn about them, you find out they have a lot of the same problems and challenges that you do, and you find out they're really great people. And so I think people that don't have any contact with people of another race really don't understand them at all.
I've been really lucky — at our church (with Broadway Christian), I helped coordinate a community garden. We have refugees from Myanmar, people from different African countries, Asians. When I see people make a remark about immigrants being a threat to our society, I just want to ... They don't understand the work efforts these people have and the contribution they make to our society.
You were nominated in part for your leadership on a book discussion project with Broadway Christian Church. Can you tell us how it began?
I felt like we should apply for a grant to support a book study on racism. We studied a book called "America's Original Sin," and by the time we got done, we had about 14 churches involved. Probably 140 to 150 people participated.
Once we got the grant, we overspent it by at least a thousand dollars buying books. I talked to our minister, and we went around and talked to a number of ministers here in the community.
One black couple that I'm friends with found out about it, and she said, "You let Catholics in that?" I said, "sure we would," and they started coming. They went through the race riots in Chicago and really had stories to tell about things that happened to them. So, the more we met people and heard their stories, the more interesting it got.
Why is it important to educate yourself on those kind of topics?
I grew up in north Missouri, where there were no black people. Even during the '60s, I was just getting out of college, so I didn't pay any attention to what was going on, and I'm ashamed of that. I was busy starting a career, and I just wasn't watching the news that much. I'm ashamed of some of the things that have been done to — I mean, you name it: Native Americans, black and Japanese people. We've not done too well.
Do you feel like you've seen Columbia improve in terms of acceptance?
I've heard talk about the Sharp End. It was an area downtown that was mainly black businesses, along where the post office is and the public housing was. Well, they came in with urban renewal and tore all that down and rebuilt it. It sounded great to improve the community by building all this, but a lot of the black businesses went under because they couldn't afford those new buildings.
The events on campus a few years ago really brought it all to the forefront. You know, it's kind of funny, I was walking across campus, and I tried to speak to everybody I met, especially black people — I wanted to reach out — and not a soul would speak to me, they just looked straight ahead.
I think that's part of how our society has gotten nowadays. If I'm driving out in the country, and I meet a car, I wave at them, and our kids would say, "who was that?" and I'd say, "I don't know." "Well why'd you wave?"
So, you know, we just don't have the interaction that maybe we once had, and that's been a really big thing for me to get to meet some of the people we've met.
What other projects are you working on?
We got another grant to support a civil rights pilgrimage, which came about as a result of the book study. We'll start out at Memphis and the civil rights museum there then go to the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. We'll go to Montgomery next. In fact, on Sunday, we'll worship in the church where the bombing took place that killed four little girls — 16th Street Baptist church. Then we go on to Birmingham. The one thing I wish we could do is go down to Selma. I guess I'll just have to go back.
One of the things we'll be asking participants as a result of that is "what do you want to do next?"