S.3 E.5: “A Child of God and a Black Man”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Director of the Gustavus Center for Inclusive Excellence Tom Flunker.
Posted on August 31st, 2020 by

Thomas Flunker, Director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence (formerly the Diversity Center) at Gustavus, talks about his varied background and how it informs his work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Center’s role on campus, the annual Building Bridges Conference organized by Gustavus students, and his personal response to the murder of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.

Season 3, Episode 5: “A Child of God and a Black Man”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Talk of diversity and inclusion, as well as various initiatives to achieve both, are widespread in higher education today. But they have taken on new urgency in the wake of Mr. George Floyd’s recent murder by Minneapolis police and the massive protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have resulted locally, nationally and globally, along with demands to defund and even abolish police departments. All the more reason than to speak with my colleague, Thomas Flunker, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence at Gustavus, formerly known as the campus Diversity Center, about the center’s mission, his work as director, the college’s response to recent events in Minneapolis and his own response as a black man living and working in Minnesota.

With degrees in education and psychology, Tom has more than 20 years of experience in the field of education from pre-k through higher ed. He has taught in the classroom, coached athletic teams, served as athletic director of a school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, directed a charter school in Mankato, Minnesota, and served as academic advisor, intercultural center coordinator and assistant coordinator for international admissions all at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. Since 2017, he has brought this wealth of experience to bear on the work of diversity and inclusion at Gustavus. Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Thomas Flunker:

Greg, glad to be here, thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Let’s talk a little bit about you, your background, before we get to the diversity work you do, the career I keep going to call it the diversity center.

Thomas Flunker:

That’s, yup.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The D center as our students call it. Tell us a little bit about your background. I didn’t know until preparing for this podcast, for example, that you grew up in Puerto Rico.

Thomas Flunker:

Yeah. It’s a unique journey. I’m not afraid to say it. Yeah, I’m 52 years old. I was born in April 1968, just weeks after MLK was assassinated. Then, shortly, after I went into foster care shortly after that. I don’t know a lot about my biological parents other than the fact that they were both in college. I know my biological name, I know that my biological father was 6’7″, which I definitely didn’t get that part of things. The Flunker family swooped in when I was about nine months old in foster care, and they  adopted me. That’s like how things really got started for me.

My adoptive parents were in the ministry in the Midwest until I was about 4 or 4 1/2 years old, and then next thing you know is we’re grabbing the family at that time and we moved to Mexico for about a year or half a year, so that they could learn Spanish at the Institute at one of the institutes. Then after that half year, we ended up moving to Puerto Rico. Basically, from age 5 until I return to the states for high school, my childhood was in Puerto Rico.

Greg Kaster:

What part of Mexico did your parents go to? What part of Puerto Rico [inaudible 00:03:53]?

Thomas Flunker:

In Mexico, we were in Saltillo, Mexico during that time period. Then, when we moved to Puerto Rico, I grew up on the south side of the island, so the city’s name is Guayama. Those are experiences. I don’t have family in Puerto Rico anymore, all my siblings are in the states and my parents, when I started college, they moved to Brazil, so they’ve actually been in Brazil since ’87.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Thomas Flunker:

Yeah, ’87. All of my childhood friends for the most part, all of us are still in contact with each other through the wonderful medium of social media.

Greg Kaster:

You’re right. I remember, I’ve never been to Puerto Rico. I want to go. My brother’s been on one of the family members, but I love Mexico. I still love Mexico. It’s where I went as an undergraduate. I was in central Mexico, Cholula near Puebla and we traveled around and I did that as an undergraduate, so one day I’ll get to Puerto Rico too.

Thomas Flunker:

I love Cholula.

Greg Kaster:

You already been there? Yeah.

Thomas Flunker:

Oh yeah, yup.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I was at the University of the Americas, for a time.

Thomas Flunker:

Okay. Okay.

Greg Kaster:

Do you get to Brazil now and then too to see your parent?

Thomas Flunker:

No. To be honest with you, my parents are at a point now where they’re being retired. They actually return to the states every year. My mother is actually, they purchased one of my uncle’s homes before he passed away and then remodeled it and then when he passed away they took ownership of it. My mother, actually, my mother spends about half of the year here in the states. Half the year she’s in Brazil, half the year she’s here in the states. I think part of it is a fact that now with all the grandkids all over the place, that’s one reason, but since I have dual citizenship, this is one of the things that they do. My father only comes back for about three months out of the year, and then they head back together.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good, you see one another without you having to travel.

Thomas Flunker:

Correct, correct, yup.

Greg Kaster:

When you return from Puerto Rico, I think you said for high school, was that in Minnesota?

Thomas Flunker:

Nope, in Nebraska.

Greg Kaster:

In Nebraska.

Thomas Flunker:

My dad gave … I have an older brother. There are two of us in the family out of their five siblings or used to be six but there’s five or so, I have five siblings, three brothers and two sisters. One of them is older than I am, I’m the second oldest in the family. Being older, he came back, he was coming back to the states and my dad gave him a list of high schools to choose from that actually had dormitories. We chose one in Nebraska because prior to moving out of the country, we actually lived in Kansas for a few years. It was enough for my brother to remember that part of the Midwest, so he chose Nebraska. Then, we all just followed along.

Greg Kaster:

You’re a Midwesterner like me. I grew up in the burbs of Chicago, and my mom was a farm girl down in just three daughters, no sons down in what we call downstate Illinois.

Thomas Flunker:

Okay.

Greg Kaster:

I thought I was a Midwesterner. I still think of myself as a Midwesterner, but I remember when I first came to Gustavus when I would say I’m from Chicago, to some people I might as well said I was from Mars.

Thomas Flunker:

Yup, yup.

Greg Kaster:

I remember thinking, maybe I’m not from the Midwest or not the Midwest I thought I was from. In any case, that’s also an interesting, interesting background. Now, maybe tell us a little bit about Center for Inclusive Excellence, what its mission is at Gustavus, and also a bit about what you do as director.

Thomas Flunker:

I’ll be totally honest with you, all of that stuff leading up to this is important for me because it brings a very unique perspective. Having spent a lot of time in the Midwest, even during high school, I would go home during breaks and stuff, and fully move back until I started to go to college, and then once college is here then I stayed. I incorporate all those years in the way I process things. I tell people, “Yeah, I’ve spent plenty of time in larger inner cities whether it’s Omaha, Nebraska, Milwaukee, places like that.”

But I also have experiences working on ranches and working on farms, I’ve driven combines. When I have conversations with different populations, I think it helps me when it comes to understanding perspectives, which I think is really important. As I’m thinking about programming, as I’m thinking about how I can best serve students, and be as inclusive as possible, but also understanding a lot of where they’re coming from. I think if you think about the fact that we just, at the beginning of this year, went through the process of changing the name, there’s two portions to that.

One of them is our goal is to make our campus as inclusive as it possibly can. The fact that it says inclusive excellence means we’re trying to reach the highest standard of that. We’ve gotten to that point now at Gustavus where we’ve opened the doors to the world, and so our demographics and populations are changing at Gustavus. But because of those varied backgrounds and understandings about not only each other but also about identities and the journey that everybody’s on, we felt it was necessary to move from that original purpose when it was still a D center or the diversity center, that original mindset to where we’re heading now, which is to branch out in terms of making sure that our programming and our offerings and our support goes much broader.

It’s not just for specific populations. We want to make sure that we are helping all the populations that we have in our campus have a better understanding of what it means to be inclusive, what it means to be equitable. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, which is kind of what the diversity center was at the beginning little more than it is now.

In terms of programming when, my assistant director, Janet Jennings is an alum of Gustavus, which to me was extremely important, because she not only had been doing the work in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion prior to my arrival when she was still a  student, but I consider her to be a connector. She not only knows students and then looks to get to know students at a much deeper level than I can in my position, but she also knows professors. When it comes to being a support system and a resource for our students at Gustavus, to me, that’s crucial, is to have somebody who actually has gone through it, have been through it, and can actually do a much better job of directing students in terms of who can help them in these particular areas or whatever their needs are better than I can.

That’s one component of the Center for Inclusive Excellence that is extremely important to us is, making sure that we are as knowledgeable about who we have in our campus in terms of not just students but also in terms of who the professors and staff members are who have a vested interest in supporting all the various populations that we have in our campus, and so that’s huge.

Greg Kaster:

Janet is terrific. You may know, she was in one of my classes some years ago. She’s from California originally, I think, is that right?

Thomas Flunker:

Correct, yup.

Greg Kaster:

African-American woman, just so much fun having her in class, bright and committed. You mentioned the change, the name change, and actually, and you talked about a bit about inclusion, I wonder if you could say more about, I think language matters,  and so if you could say more about what that word means, and perhaps in comparison to a contrast with the word diversity.

Thomas Flunker:

I say and this has been something that was a work in progress, because what we were battling for the longest time is when you have a large population of students who don’t really understand what the mission is in terms of diversity and inclusion, what does that mean, because we have a lot of students or maybe you could consider them to be more traditional Gustavus, I have a long history of sending family members from within their family, extended family, but really don’t have a whole lot of understanding in terms of  other populations, other cultures, and so when they hear the word diversity, there are specific connotations or mindsets that go along with that.

What we were finding is that for people who didn’t have that type of understanding and background, and that included some of our ambassadors on campus, student tour guides, for instance. We’d have students and staff and our own student employees working in the Diversity center at that time, and we’d have a tour come by and you would hear stuff like, “This is a diversity center but you don’t have to be diverse to go in there,” which what … basically, that’s code for you don’t have to be black or you don’t have to be queer or you don’t have to be … it was very pointed in that format.

No matter how many times we tried to help to correct that mindset, because once you say that phrase or once you say that statement, anything that comes out of your mouth after that doesn’t really going to help us.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Thomas Flunker:

We got to a point that instead of constantly trying to combat that every single year, if you change the name then that’s not a statement then coming out of your mouth anymore, because nobody walks by the center now and says, “This is a center for inclusive excellence, you don’t have to be inclusive to go in there.” It helps to change the narrative, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Thomas Flunker:

You really have to think about now what is it that you’re going to say about it. That was probably one of the biggest reasons for that change. The second thing was, when the center started, it really was to be a home base on campus for predominantly African-American students who were coming in from either where Janet’s from out in the LA area or from the South, who had started to come to Gustavus for one reason or another. I know that there were individuals in Gustavus’ past who basically were very intentional about recruiting.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah. In the 1960s, under President Edgar Carlson, we’re quite intentional to recruit in Mississippi and other places that’s exactly right.

Thomas Flunker:

Yup. At that time, that was the rationale for having the center, the Diversity center, is to make sure that there was a place that the students at that time who identified as African-American mostly would have a place that they could just, it’s a place where they knew that if they were in there, they were with other individuals who understood the way they thought, the way they talk, and they would just be a respite. Now, we haven’t changed that component of it. We still want it to be a place that you can walk in and we’ve called it everything from a safe space to a brave space to … but it’s a place where when you walk in there you know that you can take a breath and just recharge before continuing on the journey of navigating Gustavus, which, for a lot of our students, is not the easiest thing to do. It’s not necessarily the academic side of things, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Thomas Flunker:

I think you alluded to this earlier.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Thomas Flunker:

Those are probably the two biggest reasons for that name change is, to change the narrative, first of all, for those who just have a hard time really looking into it and being intentional about thinking about what you say, as well as getting out of that original mindset that it’s just a space for African-American students and that’s it. If you walk by, you will see individuals from all walks of life and backgrounds and identities and orientations in there.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, which is one of the things I know speaking for other faculties, what I love about that, about center and knowing some of the students who worked there or hangout there or visit there that really is inclusive in the best senses of that word. What about, you just mentioned how it can be challenging for some of our students who don’t come from the standard or typical Gustavus background, white students from Minnesota or the upper Midwest. Could you say a little bit about the demographics of Gustavus in terms of students who are not white Minnesotans, Lutherans, some of the challenges those students face but also hopefully some of the rewards they reap from Gustavus.

Thomas Flunker:

I think, and it’s interesting because the more challenges that a lot of students, and this isn’t across-the-board for everybody, this is just like the world around us, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. One of things that I’ve seen, there is all these unintentional consequences and rewards that take place. I’ll give you this is an example. Because we live in a world with not just disparities in terms of race and things, but there’s also other components that fall under diversity, equity, inclusion. I think we’re at a point now where you’re talking about, right now we’re battling the anti-racism. That’s been a long-standing thing, and that’s why it’s come to this.

But if you think of the last few years, just in my time at Gustavus, you’re also dealing with what some of our students are dealing with in terms of dreamers, backup. Even if they’re not students who are undocumented, they’re still facing the discrimination just because they may have a Latinx background rate. You have that and then you’re dealing with indigenous populations, and even though we don’t have a lot of indigenous students at our campus, there is enough of a connection by our students because of the aspects of the land and how we haven’t been as intentional often about talking about not just in terms of the indigenous populations themselves, but also all the things that go along with that. Their livelihood, the food, land, pollution, not just air but water, and things.

The environmental component of things, environmental justice and whatnot, are a big part of our students as well. You have all these different interests because of constant battling this that our students are facing, and so because of the knowledge that if you’re standing by yourself and you’re trying to get something accomplished, it tends not to work as well as when you have a lot of people who understand in some way, shape or form what you’re fighting for. We have gotten to that point now where our student organizations on campus are each other’s biggest allies. They show up for each other at each other’s events. Latinext night and the activities that they have. We’re starting to see other student orgs, whether it’s [among 00:24:31] student organizations or whether it’s the international organization or PASO or OLAS.

All of these groups are … they’re backing each other because they understand they have some similar goals, even though it’s not exactly the same. There are those … there is strength in numbers, and I think, right now, we’re actually seeing the benefits of that because there’s a lot more discussion, dialogue, coordination when it comes to anything from making statements, to demands, and that’s powerful.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all terrific. I am sorry, go ahead.

Thomas Flunker:

I started with the positive side of it. But the reason why that is the case is because you can’t open the doors to the world and then just assume that all these individuals not only understand the culture of the campus but also how to navigate and the assumptions that are placed on them to know how to navigate Gustavus and be okay with all the things that have been placed traditionally for decades. That’s a tough one because there’s so much that goes into that. Janet and I have, because we’re the only two full-time staff members in the center, we … There’s a reason why I wanted Janet in this position. I don’t micromanage because I don’t really need to. Yeah, there’s growing and learning, but even at my age, I’m doing that.

But we don’t always work, we’ll support each other as well as we can, but there are so many things that are going on that we try to divide and conquer to the best as we can, because there’s just all these populations that need resources and support, and that’s why we reach out to individuals on campus to support and help us with this because we can’t do it ourselves, all by ourselves. But, for instance, she focuses on you diversity leadership council, whereas I focus on building bridges. She’ll work on women of color summit and I’ll focus my attention on the first generation students on campus, because there’s just so much that has to be addressed on our campus that really. hasn’t really reached a level of understanding yet that the institution has said, “You know what? This is a priority, and we need to take care of this.”

It’s getting better. I shared with people that on average in the last few years, our campus has, and it may seem like a small number but when you really think about it, when you have anywhere from 275 to 325 first generation students on your campus and there is no intentional programming for them, first generation students have been trying to navigate colleges for a long time, this isn’t new. Our goals are to not only bring this stuff to light and push for change so that there is more intentionality behind it, more discussion behind it, more of an understanding of what this really means.

Greg Kaster:

What about, you mentioned building bridges, and some listeners might think you’re speaking metaphorically, but that really is a signature event of Gustavus. Could you just say a little bit about that, what that event involves?

Thomas Flunker:

Yup, yup. We actually just celebrated, and this is a conference that has been in our campus for a couple decades, and we just celebrated the 25th anniversary of this conference, and this is a student-led conference. I serve as one of the staff advisors and Siri Erickson, one of our campus chaplains, and then also special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion. It’s really actually wonderful that both of us serve as advisors for this group because we also need to work together on campus endeavors period institutionally.

We advise this group, but these are students who they put a lot of time and effort into picking specific areas that need to be addressed. It could be anything from, these past years was climate and they did it in a slightly different way. They did it in connection to how it affects human populations and the suffering that it can cause in a wide variety of ways. They’re talking about it from a vantage point of or a perspective of social justice and how it affects society and people.

In past years, they’ve talked about immigration. This is so what this conference entails, it’s an all-day conference. Typically, it has at least two keynote speakers who are very, very prominent in these areas or in their fields that addresses, bring them to campus for the day to not only do their keynote addresses but then also do breakout sessions as well. Then, during the course of the day, you also have opportunities for smaller workshops and sessions that people can go through to experience what is that what I’m talk about, the life, the action pieces. It’s not just listening to people talk, but then you also have opportunities to actually experience in a much smaller format what a lot of this entails.

If you’re talking about immigration and how it affects humans, then you’re going in to an action piece and you can see all of the various components that go into this and maybe you had not even thought of before, so it’s a very powerful, powerful day to be honest with you, especially when … like this past year was a really good example of when the students put the kind of time and effort that they have into it. You can’t walk away from that day not having some part of you change.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. Part of my favorite events of the year, you know more about this than I do obviously, but just talking to some of the students involved, the amount of creative work and collaboration that goes into it among the students is phenomenal. I think, as you’re suggesting, it’s really, it’s social justice education and also social justice action. It’s in that tradition of the college. I’d never heard of Gustavus when I was applying to teach there then I soon learned two famous historians had gone to Gustavus, I knew them, and it’s okay. One of the things that attracted me to the place is that tradition of justice coming out of the Swedish-Lutheran history of the place. I’m grateful for you taking the time to tell us about that conference, which I think sometimes is overshadowed by, understandably, the Nobel conference in the fall and May day in the spring.

What about, you mentioned a while ago the anti-racism work on campus, and that you’re right, that of course precedes the murder of Mr. Floyd by a police here in Minneapolis on May 25, coincidentally, the day the first episode of this podcast, Learning it for Life at Gustavus was released with my colleague, Pam Connors, of Comm Studies, who was speaking about her work on civic engagement, civic dialogue, learning to speak with one another. But what about the work by the campus since Mr. Floyd’s death? What are some of the things that Gustavus as an institution has done or also your own center?

Thomas Flunker:

I guess in terms of the center, it’s a challenging time right now for us, because we’re also in the midst of all this COVID stuff, and so just navigating what our endeavors are going to be like as we move into the fall is still very much up in the air. We do know and when I say we, I’m talking about Janet and myself, we do know that things are going to be different when we get back, not only in terms of how we approach our activities. I think I forgot to mention this before. One of the things that Janet and I said when we started, because I literally became the … I got the permanent position in April of ’17, and then she graduated and literally within a few months, she was the assistant director. We really are only about half a year apart in terms of working together.

One of things that we decided to do was there were so many things that were being replicated on campus, and when you replicate stuff it takes away from opportunities of being able to do stuff that maybe hasn’t been started yet or should be receiving more intentionality. We already have been focused on uplifting and doing better in so many different areas without replicating things that maybe our student organizations are already doing, or even within the classroom, but we do know that with all of this stuff coming to a head going into next year, we’re not exactly sure what any of this is going to look like.

For us as a center, we know that we’ll be there for our students, we know that the conversations are probably going to be a little bit different, I’d say quite a bit different. We know that we’re going to have to offer as much support while being flexible because we just don’t know what it’s going to entail. What will facilities look like, how many people be on campus, all those things. But on a bigger scale however, what we’re finding is that many of the things that pockets and individuals on campus have been trying to bring up for years, suddenly there was this massive wake-up point that took place as a result of Lloyd’s murder.

Gustavus has always been somewhat reactionary in how they approach stuff and it’s like, something bad happens and then all of a sudden we respond to that. What people is our students, various staff members, faculty have been trying to say for years is, let’s better prepare ourselves by doing the work ahead of time. This happened now and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, you know what? We should have been doing this.” I can’t tell you how many times since this all went down I’ve had people say, “You know all that stuff that you shared with us in the last few years that we didn’t do anything about? Could you re-share that with us?”

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Everything you’re saying is so true. I think it’s true in a lot of institutions about the reactive nature and also your point about replication. Actually, I’m glad to hear that you’re trying to avoid that because I think that is a problem. Again, maybe on any college campus, but that reactive piece is something we really need to work on. Here I am, a white guy, I’m 66 years old, and I remember, I think I was preparing for a podcast episode or maybe I just finished recording along, and then I saw online the news of Mr. Floyd’s murder. My reaction was just intense anger, cursing out loud. On so many levels, I was angry about it. What were you thinking or feeling as you absorb that news?

Thomas Flunker:

I think how I have taken in things like this over the course of the years, I’m kind of a … I don’t know how to explain. I’m reserved even though I’m not. A lot of times when people-

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:40:19] reserved, I would say that’s fair enough.

Thomas Flunker:

When people first meet me, they actually … I can come across as being very shy. What people don’t understand is that that’s not the case at all. I’m one of those people who have learned, and there are several things that my adoptive father has taught me and you can ask my siblings, which only one other ones adopted that, in all honestly, I am more like my adoptive father than they are in terms of how I process stuff, how I respond to things. I think, however, because I really … I didn’t study in great detail diversity and the generational aspects of each population and understanding the nuances of things. That’s not what my pursuits were. I’m the kind of person who looks into how can we find ways to do better for and by people, period. Okay.

Then over the course of time, because of the various populations that I have interacted with and I serve, I started digging deeper and I started digging deeper, and that’s when a lot of these disparities and a lot of these socio-economic problems and the discriminatory systems in place, that’s when all these things started to really come to head. It was actually after I was done with my stint in Milwaukee as a inner city  principal that a lot of the stuff really started to resonate. The more that it was starting to resonate, the more that I was looking into who I am as a person and then going through the history of things that have happened to me over the course of the years, and then recognizing, “Oh! That’s what that was.”

You get to a circumstance like this, and this year and people can hate the media for whatever reason, but you get to a point where it’s like, “Okay, another black individual just got killed. Okay, here’s another one, here’s another one,” it’s like, then when you start looking into those circumstances and everything from how it went down to the excuses that come up or made afterwards to the comparisons to circumstances that are very similar but in the flipside, you get to a point at where you’re like, “Are you kidding me?” That’s in a very nice way to put it.

It’s beyond me. I can’t. While I’m not … I was talking with other colleagues of mine over the last couple of weeks about the fact that I’m not the type of activist that’s going to go out and do regular protests and things, that’s not how I operate. I operate in ways that’s like, I want to know what I can do to help get to the bottom of this stuff by working with you directly or whatever the case may be, and putting together programming and stuff, that’s how I’ve done things.

But when this went down and then everything that followed up with that, I’m sorry, it flipped a switch in me. It flipped a switch of me, I’ve been much more vocal in my posts and things. I’m still very thoughtful about how I word stuff because I also know that there’s a lot of ignorance out there and a lot of people who just don’t have an understanding of this at all. I can’t sit quietly, or what may look like quietly, and not say anything. Not only does it affects me personally as a black man, understanding that over the course of my years of life I have experienced all this stuff except for I’m still alive, that’s probably the biggest difference, but I also have children, I have three boys who I have to think about when it comes to this. I also work with young people who I care deeply about and I have to say this, they’re the ones why I got into education.

There are people out there that have no understanding of this, and I’m like other individuals because like I said this is not one-size-fits-all, I’m like other individuals who will not and I don’t blame them. I feel because of the perspectives that I have in my upbringing and just the uniqueness of my background that I have to be able to engage with people and help them understand why the way they’re thinking about this is either wrong or just helping them to understand better what this is really about, because for people who haven’t experienced any of the stuff in their life, and obviously the education part has been absent for ever, I have a responsibility to help as many people to understand this whether they’re black or their white or they’re … it doesn’t matter who it is. If you know me and you ask me, I’m going to help you to understand this as much as I can.

But I’m also … because I have experienced a lot of this for so long, if your goal is to continue to fight me on this then we’re done. I don’t have the mental capacity to do that at this time.

Greg Kaster:

You’re helping me understand a lot and including the anger I felt, listening you, realizing the anger that day, that moment I learned what happened. It wasn’t just the anger about the event, but it was anger that, as you said, unbelievable that here we go again, wondering are people ever going to learn from history. We historians sometimes say or people sometimes say, learn from the study of the past, learn from the past. I’m not so sure anymore that we learn. I hope so. But learning is a part of overcoming, as you’re suggesting, learning and understanding. what about, you mentioned, we didn’t really talk about this earlier, are your adoptive parents white?

Thomas Flunker:

Yes they are, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Was that particularly odd, difficult or not in Minnesota? Or it was mostly in Puerto Rico, I guess, when you’re a teenager.

Thomas Flunker:

Correct.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You didn’t have much experience with mixed-race family or mixed color family in the state or did you?

Thomas Flunker:

Not in the states. That’s not really … I didn’t really think about it, obviously, when we are still living here because at that time I was four or five years old, so that’s pre all of that. Moving to Puerto Rico, the vast majority of my friends and my acquaintances were Puerto Rican.

Greg Kaster:

A non-issue.

Thomas Flunker:

There was other things that I was battling at that time, but there were things that did happen to me that I didn’t quite understand at that time. Then, when I came back to the states for school, I still wasn’t navigating life in terms of identity as a black man. Here’s I have to, I guess, I should backtrack a little bit. My parents, like I said, my dad is a retired pastor minister, and give me one second Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Thomas Flunker:

Tyler, you’re eavesdropping, please be quiet.

Greg Kaster:

You’re podcasting and parenting.

Thomas Flunker:

I got a gamer next to me over here. Anyway, I’m sorry about that.

Greg Kaster:

No, no, no.

Thomas Flunker:

The way our entire, my siblings were raised, we were raised to think of ourselves as children of God. Basically, no matter what circumstance you are in you let your light shine. That’s the mindset that we were raised. We weren’t raised to think of ourselves as being black or being white or being, that’s not our goal here. Your goal is because you are this, how you walk, how you talk, how you interact with others, you do it in such a way that basically let your light shine at all times.

We’re all … we grew up with that kind of mindset. Yeah, we’re human, we all make mistakes and things, but the types of ways that I have interacted over the course of years, even when bad stuff has happened to me is still being as respectful about who I am and things as I possibly can be because there’s a higher purpose. But ultimately, you’re a human being and when you’re navigating people who are either by default because this is the way that they are raised or intentionally doing things to harm others and this falls under that, I also have a responsibility to fight for my fellow humans. In this particular case, I happen to be and I also happen to identify as a black man, and so not only am I fighting for those who I serve, but I’m also fighting for myself and my family.

How I go about stuff isn’t going to change and there are things being angry and righteous anger, and fighting against injustices and things, that’s not a bad thing because you’re fighting against really evil. I’m not always going to see eye to eye with how everything goes down, and what people, how people respond to this, but I’m also not going to fight against it because of the fact, unless it’s doing more harm. If it’s doing more harm then absolutely, I’m going to speak up about it. Right now, I’m battling against people who they don’t get what’s going on. They’ll see riots and then their focus is on that and I’m like, “You are missing the point.”

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Thomas Flunker:

You are missing the point. Then also as a psychologist, I can also go into but I’m not going to, I’m going to tell you the reason why the way you’re going about it is faulty because you are missing the point of what’s going on here, and this didn’t just start.

Greg Kaster:

Right. There’s a history here, a long history, including in Minnesota. I wish we could continue. This has been so interesting. It’s been fun to talk to you. I think this is the longest conversation we’ve had. Usually, we’re both so busy, where we say hello or see each other in events, but this has really been interesting, Tom. You’re doing an important work for Gustavus, we all appreciate it. You’re right, we don’t know what the fall will bring in terms of the pandemic and heaven knows what else. Thank you so much for taking the time. Here’s to some righteous anger, and social justice and inclusion.

Thomas Flunker:

I guess my final comment is when it comes to Gustavus, I’ll be honest with you. One of the things that I think, if people haven’t realized this yet, I alluded to our students earlier and our students aren’t alone in this, we also faculty and staff who back our students in this because of how they are, but our students are very …  they have observed, and they don’t sit by silently either. I think, right now, the reason why there is movement at Gustavus, I don’t think it would be happening at this level if our students had not basically said this is enough, and step forth and said, “Here are things that need to change,” and then if you send a response then they’ll respond to that and say, “Okay, now prove to us and show us how this is going to be done. Don’t give us anecdotes about what it’s going to look like. Tell us exactly what you are going to do to fight this.”

I think that is one of the things that gives me energy because I know that our students especially are not going to let us sleep on this. They want to see change, they want to see this anti-racism in effect, and they want concrete ways for it to take place. I have to be really proud of our students for how they go about this.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. You’re reminding me that you were born in 1968, I just finished teaching a course on that year, and at the end of it, maybe a week or so after it ended, I received an email from a white student in the course, a brand new history major who basically said in effect what you just said. Speaking for himself but by extension of other Gustavus students, and he had just participated in one of the protests up here after Mr. Floyd’s murder, I think that’s a good note to end on, the activism of our students and our student holding not only the police but all of us, their professors, all of us at Gustavus accountable.

Thomas Flunker:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Great to talk with you, take good care. Hopefully, we’ll see each other in person on campus in the fall.

Thomas Flunker:

Likewise, take care of yourself as well.

Greg Kaster:

All right. Thanks a lot, Tom. Buh-bye.

Thomas Flunker:

Buh-bye.

 

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Leave a Reply