Ubuntu: “I am what I am because we are.”
Walter and I worked together, on and off, for twenty-five years, offering diversity and leadership training. He was an expert in both areas. Corporate hierarchies are hard places, sometimes, but everywhere we went, people fell in love with Walter. He lived “Ubuntu” – spreading love and community. When I was with him a few weeks ago, he told me that the work we’d done together gave meaning to his life and that I’d made a space for him to shine. I say the same thing about him.
When I met Walter for the first time, we’d been paired up in a predictable way for old school diversity training—black man, white woman. We met to plan how to facilitate a rather punishing diversity program we’d been asked to lead. In those days, companies were misguided enough to think you could actually bring people together by getting them to share publicly how they oppressed each other. I took a risk and told this man I’d only just met that I thought this was a terrible approach to building community. Walter immediately agreed. So we rebelled. We threw out the design we’d been hired to do in favor of something different. We decided that instead of pointing out people’s mistakes and prejudices, we’d build communities of inclusion. We did this across all industries, and watched, with pride, as people joined us in laughing, loving, and caring deeply about each other as fellow human beings.
Walter fueled our work with his extraordinary ability to see and appreciate people. Just being in the room with him made people want to join us. Many facilitators who worked with Walter have written notes to the family, praising his gifts as a storyteller. It was through our love of stories and sketches that we reached people and loved each other.
I’m not a religious person, but my dear friend Walter was. I know that if there’s a heaven, it’s shining more brightly today. I imagine that when I get there, Walter will be at the gate laughing with St. Peter and cajoling him to let me in. He’ll say, “You see Brigid, I told you!” When I see him, he’ll be smiling his bright smile, greeting me as the brother I longed for, loved, lost, and found again.
Some of our colleagues and clients may be learning about Walter’s death for the first time here. He died after a valiant struggle with melanoma, his apartment filled with people who loved him. If you knew Walter, you know it couldn’t have happened any other way.