'It’s difficult to step out, but in the end, you’re going to be a stronger person.'
Heather McGhee received a rather unusual call from a self-proclaimed racist when she appeared on C-SPAN in August 2016.
McGhee is the president of Demos, a public policy organization that advocates for social change. As a black public figure, she's no stranger to receiving retorts from racially prejudiced individuals. However, the experience she had with the caller on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" was altogether different.
McGhee on "Washington Journal." All photos provided by Starbucks.
After the caller announced himself as someone who is prejudiced, McGhee braced herself for a rant but was surprised to hear a simple ask instead.
"What can I do to change?" asked the caller, Garry Civitello. "You know, to be a better American?"
He said he thought he was getting good information from the news but would often see minorities portrayed in a negative way. He genuinely wanted advice from McGhee on how to alter his viewpoint.
McGhee was surprised by Civitello's question, but eager to help.
It was no doubt refreshing, given the escalating social and racial discord ignited by the impending presidential election, to come across someone eager to close the disparity gap. So McGhee offered him some places to start off the top of her head.
"Get to know black families. Turn off the news at night. Read about the history of the African-American community in this country. Foster conversation in your family and in your neighborhood."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. statue.
Little did she know that Civitello would follow each and every suggestion she made to the letter.
He began opening up to the people of color in his community. It wasn't easy on the outset — the first few conversations were a bit awkward, but it was a start. He went to the black history section in his local bookstore and invested in a small stack of books. Slowly but surely, he began to get to the root of his prejudice.
Everyday, he continues to push through the misconceptions that used to blind him.
"I’m not proud, but I’m not going to be ashamed because I’m working on being different," Civitello says.
Since their on-air meeting, and because of his determination, McGhee and Civitello have formed an unlikely friendship.
Civitello and McGhee in Civitello's home.
They spoke on the phone a number of times and visited each other in their respective cities. They have talked through racial issues Civitello is having trouble with, and McGhee has tried to lead him toward the best course of action. His continued desire to grow inspires her to keep the conversation going.
McGhee hopes their connection will help other Americans see what positive things can happen when you step outside of your comfort zone and confront your prejudices head-on.
"There is something that connects us beyond our differences," McGhee explains.
Their experience is not the ultimate antidote to racism, but it's a pretty good step in the right direction.
Civitello meeting his neighbors.
The fact that their initial encounter was viewed over 8 million times shows there's at least a common interest in the idea of changing these prejudices to which so many people hold fast. If just a small percentage of those viewers go out and attempt to break through racial barriers, progress will have been made.
"It’s difficult to step out, but in the end, you’re going to be a stronger person," Civitello explains. "You get all that just from shaking somebody’s hand."
Learn more about Civitello and McGhee's friendship here: