A Conversation with Howard, a CHEER Board Member
I recently caught up with Howard Kohn, a longtime Takoma Park resident and activist. Our exchange, which has been edited lightly, is below.
How long have you been on CHEER’s board?
I was one of the founding members of the board.
You’ve done a lot of work on racial and economic equity. Would you tell us a little bit about that? Why are these issues so important to you?
As a farm kid in Michigan I was on track to go to a vocational school. Due to overcrowding, however, a few of us farm kids caught a lucky break. We were bused 25 miles to an upscale urban school. At first, we didn't feel so lucky. We were harassed, smeared with lipstick to identify us, schoolbooks ripped up, clothes torn, noses bloodied. Then it all ended when the leader of the bullies, swinging a chain, was knocked out cold by Arnold Sanchez, a son of a farm-laborer family. Arnold was our hero, and he and I became friends. But he wasn't white, and over time I came to realize he would never be accepted by the white city kids in the way I ultimately was.
After graduation I went to college while Arnold went to Vietnam and died in action.
White people have so many of these stories. Even when we are the victims of inequality and prejudice ourselves, we are usually rescued by the privilege of our whiteness. People of color usually are not.
In the CHEER community, if I can call it that, we have created noteworthy coalitions across racial and economic lines. Yet, in many cases, the inequities in our community are still very stark. I joined CHEER to open-up more opportunities and options. It's the same reason I put a lot of energy into projects like building the Takoma Park Community Center and the new Montgomery Blair [High School]. When there are more opportunities, it matters less who you are or where you came from.
Would you tell us about your involvement in promoting youth programs in Takoma Park? When did that begin?
When my wife Diana and I first moved here in 1982 we were welcomed to a boisterous summer party on Maple Avenue with music and potluck food. We felt so excited. Here was a celebration of black and white Americans together. It seemed like here in Takoma Park the civil rights movement, which we'd been part of elsewhere, had succeeded. But soon enough we realized the neighborhoods here weren't much different from the rest of America. We are just as segregated.
Of course, it's easier to achieve a level of social integration with kids, more so than with adults, and that starts with youth programs. When the chance arose, I helped start a baseball league and got involved in the soccer league. The philosophy of our leagues is that everyone gets to play regardless of whether you can pay. Go out to the local sports fields on the weekends and you will be thrilled. I always am. The diversity we like to talk about and even brag about, you will see it in action. For the kids, it's not just about the fun of playing in games with neighbors from other parts of the community. And it's not just about learning about discipline and punctuality and physical exercising and other valuable habits. It's about playing as a team with teammates. Friendships that might never have happened, they happen, sometimes long past when the playing ends. And sometimes coaches become mentors, and that's another cycle that can go on and on with benefits that will show up for years to come.
As a footnote, dozens of local activists such as CHEER founder [and Executive Director] Bruce Baker have been coaches, as well as a number of local leaders who now have influence on the national scene – Jamie Raskin, Denis McDonough, Tom Perez, Roy Austin and others.
More generally, why are volunteering and public service important?
You can make a case that public service is of benefit on a personal level and prove it in dollars and cents. The work that CHEER does improves lives in measurable ways. When people become more physically and emotionally healthy, they cost society less in social services and medical bills. Those who find better livelihoods pay more taxes, and we pay fewer. And so on. This accounting has been documented more than once.
I suppose that alone is reason enough to applaud public service, but for me it's even more personal. There is a tremendous satisfaction when you make a difference, especially when you make a difference in the lives of kids. It gives meaning to my day. It helps my well-being.
And it has made for a more well-rounded attitude in our own children. I still remember a remark our daughter made after scouting a few typical college campuses. She said, "Why are they so white?"
What are you looking forward to this year?
I'm looking forward to hugging friends again. Finally, it seems possible. I've already started hugging friends who are fully vaccinated, as Diana and I are. What worries me is that not everyone will be as comfortable and easygoing as they once were. The pandemic taught us to be fearful not only of strangers but of friends and even of family. Anyone and everyone could be an assassin simply by getting too close. It was better and safer to stay by yourself. Ending the pandemic means ending those fears, which I think will be easier said than done, but I look forward to trying.