Updated: Sep 11, 2020
This week on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, I interview Charles Jackson II, leader and connector.
“I grew up in a way where I was determined that I would not allow myself to be judged by my skin color,” said Charles Jackson II about seeing George Floyd’s murder. “I wanted to present myself as a positive contributor to society, and I went out of my way to do that. And a lot of stuff that was going on in the Black community and even around me, I tried to block out."
"When I saw George Floyd and the manner in which he was killed, that was the first time in a long time that I had cried and felt such a wave of emotions, seeing somebody killed."
"Previously it was watching and reading about Emmett Till and seeing those images and hearing his mom share her story about how she decided to take those nails off the coffin and let her son be put on display. And now George Floyd. I sat there and I cried, literally, tears running down my cheeks, because of everything I tried to suppress and block out, and all of the striving I had done just to make people see a Black man in a different light and hopefully spark change...it just came down on me, and I was like, I cannot step out of my Black skin.”
Charles shared that when he went into public in his military uniform, people would open doors for him or pay for his meals. After leaving the military, he has earned widespread respect in the corporate world, his side businesses, and in his community.
“But at the end of the day, I’m walking down the street in Black skin. I cannot escape all the negative associations with being a Black man regardless of how much I tried and all the effort I put in."
And as I sat there and watched George Floyd’s incident, all of that just came out...and all the pressure and the weight I’ve been carrying...trying to be a positive contributor to society, but feeling like I had failed...hit me. And I sat there as a 37-year-old man, I was sad for him and I was sad for his family. But there was a lot of pain and regret and anguish that came out as I watched it.”
Charles grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida, 15 minutes from the beach. He lived in a rough part of town and spent a lot of time outdoors, especially playing basketball every day. Because all the neighbor kids would come to his basketball hoop, they established a sense of community connection. Charles was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college.
After earning a music scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University (a historically Black university in Daytona Beach), he lost his focus for a while and didn’t finish his criminal justice studies.
After getting married to his wife Zonnette, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 25. After 10 years of active duty, he moved to Tampa and earned his bachelor’s degree in social and criminal justice. As a child, Charles was fascinated with crime movies and wanted to become a police detective like Sherlock Holmes. He wanted to bridge the gap between the community and the police...but that began to seem like a fantasy. Now he is eight classes away from earning his master’s in divinity. At one point he wanted to return to the military to become a chaplain.
Charles has a lot of ideas about police reform based on his study of criminal justice, interest in becoming a police officer, and what he’s learned in the military and business world. When he was contemplating a career as a police officer, friends in law enforcement shared with him in confidence that some cops take the badge just so they can continue to oppress Black people.
“I would like to be one who could go in and challenge and teach...just challenge that status quo that they’ve accepted...and then just really reform from that aspect...just start with the people because at the end of the day, we all have that same heart beating in our bodies, that will allow us to have empathy for someone who doesn’t look like us and act like us,” said Charles.
“We just need to break down some of those walls and some of that ignorance that we’ve either learned...and adapted to what was taught to us...so that we can actually start the change and see people differently.”
I raised the challenge of being a Black police chief, and we talked about the conflict between Portland police and the protesters (the interview was recorded before the feds were sent in and elevated the violent assault on the protesters). He remembers being called a traitor when he went into the military, when his friends asked, “Why do you want to go fight a white man’s war?” Black police officers need support, prayers, and people around them who can guide them. (Note: The day I was publishing this podcast episode, the Black Portland Police Bureau chief we were talking about in the interview published an unbalanced op-ed in the New York Times, blaming the protesters for all the violence...even though his police force has deployed CS tear gas on peaceful protesters at least 100 times since May, and journalists and volunteer medics are among the many people gravely injured by the Portland Police and the horribly violent and unconstitutional federal goons. Gaslighting at its finest.)
Charles said, “And that’s why I think stepping outside of yourself and just seeing things from your point of view, and really trying to see the other side of the coin, is the only way we can actually have change, because that gives us the understanding.”
I asked him how he talks to his 11- and 13-year-old sons about race. Charles said he and Zonnette are talking even more frequently about these issues. They watch documentaries, listen to podcasts when they’re in the car, and are intentional about those conversations to make sure the boys have the right perception of things. These conversations are based on Charles’ belief that “Choosing sides will only further divide.”
“I don’t want to have these race and social justice conversations with my sons in a way that gets them to hate themselves.”
He’s formed these beliefs based on the way he was educated about race as a young man. His mom was more into treating everyone with love and respect. She told Charles that if he treated people kindly and let people know his character and gifts, he’d be able to shine. As a contrast, his dad had more of the “You can’t trust those bleep-bleep people you go to school with...” perspective. He told Charles not to let anyone push him around and that he needed to stand up, defend himself, and fight.
We talked about friendship and leadership. “Leadership is near and dear to me,” said Charles.
He’s taken some of the skills he learned in the military, in addition to the fact he’s been able to rise to leadership positions in every job he’s been in, and created the Relational Leadership Network. The network is a platform to share practical tips for leaders, built on the premise that healthy team and supervisor relationships will increase work productivity and boost business and the bottom line.
He and Zonnette also started You Before Me, a marriage and family practice where they provide premarital, marriage, and relationship coaching. On their website, Charles shares their story of how life got away from them and they almost got a divorce, but repaired their marriage by intentionally focusing on it and creating a strategy to reconnect with each other.
I had such a wonderful time interviewing Charles, who I first met when he interviewed me on his show about my article, “The Weapons of White Women’s Tears.” As our conversation went on, we discovered how many things we have in common—basketball, percussion, and a passion for learning and sharing.
Charles discovered me on LinkedIn and asked if I would be a guest on his show. I soon found out that he works for Jacobs, which is the company that acquired CH2M, where I worked for 28 years. He started there a week after I left that firm, so our paths hadn’t crossed.
We talked about parenting sons and how our kids have adapted during COVID. Charles takes being a father and husband very seriously, and I enjoyed hearing his insights and reflections on family relationships.
I asked Charles what he wished people understood about him. He said he is optimistic and passionate, while also he can sometimes be structured and firm.
“My heart and my passion are to build healthy relationships with people.”
“I don’t want to ever come across as someone who’s not optimistic, or who cannot sit and reason and be empathetic...sometimes I have to pause and go back and check in, because the military mindset will kick in...” When he comes home hyper-focused on order, his wife suggests he’s in marine mode and reminds him to breathe.
I asked Charles why he didn’t give one of his sons the name he shared with his father. He said as a child, he wanted to be just like his father, but when his dad cheated on his mom, he lost all respect in Charles’ eyes. He reconciled with his dad a week before he passed away, expressing his appreciation and asking for forgiveness, but he regrets he didn’t do it earlier and never called him to ask for parenting tips. He didn’t realize he hadn’t allowed him to be a father until it was too late.
We talked about instilling grit and resilience in our children, and he said that children are the greatest imitators. He tries to allow his sons to see him go through difficulties and see how he responds to them.
“The more we go through things, our resiliency level begins to rise.”
“As hard things come our way, we might take a little stumble but we don’t get knocked down as far as we would have had we not continually gone through stuff and overcome it.”
As avid readers and discoverers, Charles and I share a love of literature, history, and music. Here are some of the titles we discussed:
On the next “Three Men of Color, Redefining Fatherhood” episode I interview Ken Harge, a Black man in Connecticut who lays tile by day and is a creator and entrepreneur in his spare time. During COVID-19, he’s been writing a symphony! After a falling-out with his parents, he has become a father figure to a young man through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
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