As we celebrate our 50 years of championing the humanities throughout the state, we’re spotlighting some of the people who’ve joined us along the way and contributed to our work with their donations, time, energy, skills and creativity. This month, we had an in-depth conversation with Gwendolyn White, who is a dedicated champion of equity and belonging, a lifelong lover of history and stories and an advocate for the arts and humanities across Pennsylvania.
She is also PA Humanities’ newest chair of the board of directors.
White was first appointed to the PA Humanities board by Governor Tom Wolf in 2017, and one of the things she loves most about her service is helping Pennsylvanians to connect and find a sense of belonging through their stories. A 39-year resident of Erie, White currently serves as Erie Insurance company’s Vice President, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and has received awards and recognition for her leadership and service to her community from the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, United Way, and Erie Arts and Culture, among others. Recently, she received the Women of Influence Award at the 13th Annual Dr. King Awards Dinner: Celebrating Women of Our Community Who Influence, Change & Impact Lives. The dinner and celebration was held to commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stood for social justice and non-violent social change. Join us as we learn more about her work and her passions, which are often one and the same.
Q: How did you get your start working in diversity, equity and inclusion?
A: I’ve been a long time advocate for diversity and inclusion at ERIE Insurance and in the community. I’ve found myself in different community organizations outside of my corporate life, and being in that space to help people connect, be a convener, and bring organizations together. I’ve always been mindful about the importance of bringing equity into everything we do. Changing how we work, how we play and how we live is a calling, and the work I’ve been involved with has found me in that space.
Q: What are some of the challenges and the rewards of the work?
A: Making sure that there is transparency in all that we’re doing, and that there is accountability and intersection. And that there’s alignment in what we do, that our actions align with our goals and with our vision and mission. And the rewarding piece is that that’s happening. We’re fostering those difficult conversations.We are leading with an equity lens, creating a space and a sense of belonging for all. We are accountable for our actions. We need to show up and speak up.
Q: I understand that you’re a big history buff and have researched your family history quite extensively. What are some of the things you’ve learned?
A: Many different things. I love research, and I’ve always loved research, but I love stories. We have eleven family lines that are open and I uncovered info from one that goes back to 1793. I uncovered in my research where one of my ancestors was freed as a slave by his owner. The journey of finding and meeting those who came before me is the most exciting piece of all of this, and being able to share with others. As a youngster, I collected information and family stories. With a couple family lines we have established reunions that have been going on for years. I was the one capturing stories, listening to stories, interviewing the older people about specific pieces of information and their life experiences.
Q: What are your goals as chair of PA Humanities’ board?
A: Because of my various roles including vice chair, the activities I’ve been involved with will expand. I’m proud to be part of an organization that does what PA Humanities does, helping people to connect, changing lives, and changing lives generationally. That’s near and dear to my heart. I’m energized by the passion and the performance of both staff and board to impact lives and drive toward our mission and vision.
Q: Can you talk more about that generational piece of it and why that’s important to you?
A: Because what we do now and what we’ve done in the past impacts how we move toward the future. It’s broader than race, when I think about creating that generational wealth. That doesn’t happen in one generation or overnight, but all those barriers that we experience and know exist impacts the lives of the people who come behind them, their children. If they can’t keep a roof over their heads, or an emergency comes up and they don’t have enough money to survive the emergency, that’s life-altering. If they don’t have enough money to live in a safe neighborhood, that’s life-altering. If they don’t have enough money to buy food, life-altering. I think the pandemic showed a lot of us about the digital divide and how our basic lives are reliant on technology and many were and are without access. When the pandemic happened and people were cut off, the impact of that was and is tremendous. And all those things impact our children, and how those children grow up to be adults. It gets a little convoluted in conversation sometimes, but that is what it’s about. The systemic racism that’s embedded in a lot of the ways we live life didn’t start with this generation. It’s generations before. And many of the things that exist are legal by design, but until we’re aware of how it impacts us all, and work toward dismantling the inequities and the systemic racism, it keeps going on generation after generation.
Q: Thanks so much, Gwen. One last question that we like to ask people when they first get involved in our PA Heart & Soul program is where would you send a visitor to your town? What do people need to see and do when they come to Erie?
A: Visit our waterfront, our bayfront. Our city is actually on Presque Isle Bay. We have a beautiful bayfront and beautiful summers. Now, we pay for them with our winters, but we have fantastic summers. A lot of activities on the bayfront and Lake Erie, with Liberty Park, Dobbins Landing, sailing on the bay and in Lake Erie, our music series, miniature golf; there are a lot of activities on the water. We have a large amusement park,Waldameer. We have the Tom Ridge Environmental Center that is internationally known. But the waterfront, Presque Isle State Park and Lake Erie are probably the highlights.