Race Matters Spotlight: David O’Donnell

"This topic of race needs the effort of all to overcome, heal, and create a path forward that embraces us all," says the newly elected Sellersville Borough Councilperson.
David O'Donnell is a newly elected Borough Councilperson in Sellersville, PA.

Race Matters Spotlight features individuals in our community who wish to voice their opinions and perspectives regarding racial equity. By modeling how to discuss race in our society, our hope is that it will prompt us all to be more mindful and willing to have the necessary conversations regarding racism within our circles and peer groups, and normalize making those potentially awkward conversations more commonplace.

David O’Donnell is a newly elected Borough Councilperson in Sellersville, PA. He has been a leader and manager in Retail and Hospitality for 25 years. He has become a community leader since his run for the Pennridge School Board two years ago. David is a guest writer for the Bucks County Beacon. He has become a rising voice in advocating for civil rights and human decency.

When and under what circumstances did you first become aware of the concept of race?

I grew up in a suburb of New York City called Rockland County. The towns I lived in were very diverse in population, so I have always noticed the difference in skin tones. I was probably around 12 years old when I can say I truly became “aware” of the concept of race. I remember playing in a backyard football game with friends and neighborhood kids, when one of them yelled a racial slur at one of my friends that is Puerto Rican. The anger I saw from my friend over this word didn’t make sense at the time. I had dinner at his place that night and his mom explained to me what it meant and why it was so hurtful. At this age, I had heard numerous slurs for various races, some of which were said in my own home.

When did you first become aware of Anti-Racism, and what does that term mean to you?

Sadly, I don’t think I became aware of this until Facebook came about. Don’t get me wrong, I know about Anti-Racism from a historical aspect from school. Most of it came from learning about the Civil Rights movement, but social media opened the door to seeing more of what is actually happening. To me, Anti-Racism is the fight to bring decency to all types of interactions, and to fix the policies and procedures that reinforce and enable racism.

What examples of racism (overt or unintentional) have you witnessed here in Bucks County?

There’s many I can reference unfortunately, from what I have witnessed directly to what I have been made aware of from first-hand accounts. There’s two notables that I will reference. The first is the use of racial slurs, especially the “N” word in my local schools. There have been many accounts of students and parents being directly addressed using this word. There’s also been just general conversations within school and in chat rooms where these same children act empowered using this word. It shows how the cycle of hate and oppression still very much exists and how it continues to replicate. The other reference is the gaslighting and active ignorance by members of my own community. A couple years ago, I was in a group that was assembled to see a presentation by our former Superintendent regarding the progress and goals of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion group he had assembled. There were approximately 30 people that accounted for teachers, administration, school board directors, parents of students, and community members. The racial makeup of the room, unintentionally embodied the makeup of the school district, which is 86% white. The presentation was very abruptly halted for an argument that continues to anger me. Instead of absorbing, listening, and seeking to understand, some of these people challenged the very premise of the concept of the group. They could not understand the need, value, or potential that can come from various viewpoints. I recall questions like, “What is the cost?” and “What problem are we trying to solve?” They spoke about how this is causing their children (white) to feel shame. They displayed outrage over some teachers reading the book “White Fragility” over the summer. I was absolutely appalled by these community members and thought how ridiculous it was to challenge something that was designed to help our children treat and display respect, decency, and dignity, which aligns with the school district’s main goal. The anger and outrage they displayed was truly abhorrent.

What’s one thing we can do to help further the cause of racial equity locally?

Seek to Understand. I love this term that I have learned in my business realm. It sounds simple, but it is complex because it requires a profound thought and restraint of reaction – something we have lacked, especially in terms of race. We, as a community, never speak of embracing our differences, or immersing ourselves in another’s culture. We (community) tolerate. We (community) judge. I see great efforts by individuals and groups to educate and allocate resources, which is beautiful and necessary. I see activists working to change policies and keep the conversation on the front page, which is paramount in the efforts of racial equity. I feel we have not made the strides that would properly respect the efforts of those in previous generations’ fight. I feel that we allowed the basic building blocks like the Civil Rights Act of 1963 be inflated to show a feign of effort. So, I feel if we work on this concept of seek to understand, we can empower, expand, and move the needle in a positive direction. We need to create the capacity for understanding and change. When you seek to understand, it becomes more natural to be able to acknowledge the ugliness that underlines our community. We need to get beyond reactionary arguments so that we can work to build something we can all appreciate and be proud of.

What resources (books, movies, podcasts, etc.) on race and race relations have you found helpful in advancing your understanding on the topic?

Social media like Tik Tok and Youtube have enabled creators like Emmanuel Ocho to create series and content that frame the topic of race in such absorbable ways. The intellectual and emotional education has been fascinating and surreal. It has made me see racism as a multiplier to the various issues we all face. We have all faced our own trauma, but as a white male, I did not have anything to exasperate the trauma. I never thought about this until I was able to hear things in such eloquently made conversations. Movies like Hidden Figures and Something the Lord Made opened me up to the fact that school did not educate me on such important people and moments. It made me sad to think that so much gets omitted from our education. I, unfortunately, was not able to see this growing up as I always had relatable content and representation to capture my attention. I believe this content acts as a building block to creating questions and conversations. I appreciate these creators, as they have utilized mediums to help fight the whitewashing of our education. I appreciate when athletes and artists use their platforms to speak to a grander audience. This topic of race needs the effort of all to overcome, heal, and create a path forward that embraces us all.

Other Race Matters Spotlight Q&A’s:

Race Matters Spotlight: Liz K. Sheehan

Race Matters Spotlight: Reverend Michael Ruk

Race Matters Spotlight: Bursting the ‘Pennridge Bubble’

Race Matters Spotlight: Larissa (Lolly) Hopwood

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Kevin E. Leven

Kevin E. Leven is co-leader of the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition, A 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization dedicated to educating, informing, and taking action on matters of racial justice.