Who is Dan Salerno?
Dan Salerno was born and raised in Battle Creek. He is Sicilian-German and was brought up in a Catholic household. He now attends a United Methodist Church focused on social justice. He spent eight years in his twenties and thirties living in New York City, an experience that impacted his worldview. While there he earned a master's degree in social research from Hunter College and worked for the National Coalition for the Homeless. He has traveled to Northern Ireland five times on mission trips focused on reconciliation efforts between Catholics and Protestants there. Shortly after 9/11 he returned to New York (Brooklyn) for fourteen months as part of a ministry serving inner-city kids. He now lives in Kalamazoo. He worked for a Food Bank for twenty-eight years (fund development, public relations, agency relations) but is now retired.
Excerpt from interview with Dan Salerno by Whitney Dow, 2017
Q: [00:58:04] So can you remember a situation or an experience where you were conscious of your race?
Salerno: [00:58:13] Oh, yes. Yes. One time where I was very much aware that I was a white person or that I had white skin was—I was living in New York and working for an organization that did advocacy for homeless people. A mom who was homeless had a baby. The baby died and had, I think, some—it doesn’t really matter how she died, but our organization wanted to pay for the burial costs of the little kid. The mom was hanging out in Harlem, so my boss asked me to take the money, to take it to the funeral home, which was in Harlem, to pay for the child’s funeral. So I got on the subway, and I got—I went on the subway every day, you know, to get back and forth to work, but I had never stopped in Harlem before. So this was the first time that here, I’m an adult, and I’m going uptown, getting off at, whatever, 110th Street, wherever it was. And I got off, walked up the platform, got into the street, and almost immediately, as I’m looking around—because I also wanted to know which direction I was supposed to go to find the funeral home. But even after that thought of make sure I’m walking—headed down the right direction, I was overwhelmed by the fact that it seemed to me or felt to me, my perception of that experience, was that I was the only white person on that block. And I very much just had that feeling. It was like being in a tsunami, and then you get hit by the force of the waves, you know, that forceful, and it was an emotional experience for me. That was a time when I was very much aware in the moment, “I’m not like the people that I’m around, that I’m surrounded [by] here. I’m different.”
Q: [01:00:41] And what were the emotions that you felt in that moment?
Salerno: [01:00:46] The emotional impression that hit me in that experience of being in Harlem for the first time, part of it was feeling like an outsider. Part of it was fear, you know, fear of the unknown, “I don’t know how to relate to these folks,” and fear of a new experience. Instead of— I guess I could have felt anything, but what I felt was fear, a new experience, I don’t know what—in the sense of, “I don’t know what to think, and it’s making me nervous.”
Q: [01:01:23] And that's sort of interesting, because you were working at this nonprofit, involved, obviously, with all kinds of people—
Salerno: [01:01:28] Oh, yes.
Q: [00:01:29] —and you had experience with a lot of those people. Was it that you were—that the context was so different for how you were interacting with them that was—because I’m guessing that you interacted with a lot of people of color in the context of your job all the time.
Salerno: [01:01:44] Yes.
Q: [01:01:47] Did that change how you felt when you went back? Did that experience—clearly, it stayed with you, because now this is years later, and we’re talking about it, but did it change how you interacted with people and how you felt about yourself after you left that space?
Salerno: [01:02:01] Well, after that experience in Harlem of dropping off the money to pay for the child’s funeral, I have to mention—I have to say that part of that experience involved going into that funeral home, meeting the gentleman that ran—that was the funeral director, who was black, and this guy was so welcoming, was so welcoming to me, it did a lot. His attitude and the staff’s attitude, their response towards me did a lot to bring down that feeling of apprehension. When I gave them the money, I thought, “OK, here’s—we’re paying, you know, to bury a child, and I’m—” I just thought, “OK, so you’re ready to go.” Someone—as far as I remember, it wasn’t the director, but someone on staff said, “Would you like to see the child?” And I didn’t really think about it. I said, “Sure,” so, you know, I went behind the front office area, went to where they were keeping—where the child was in the coffin, and it was—this was a baby, and the coffin was not, what—not even a foot. I mean, it was small. And seeing that little baby, that really affected me. And at that point, I wasn’t—I mean, the color thing or the race thing was gone. What I was seeing was a little human baby that was dead, and that stayed with me. And when I got—retraced my steps and got back on the subway, I wasn’t thinking like, “I’m the only white person around here.” My thought was, in a very small way, maybe I helped that child’s mom deal with something that was beyond her ability at the time, to pay a bill so that she could bury her baby.