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Frank Gray

Martin Luther King Day

People say what Martin Luther King Day means to them

University of Saint Francis senior Meghan Thomas reads her profile before participating in Monday's diversity simulation.

What locals learned about diversity by role-playing

Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Jennifer Berning talks to participants Monday before the start of a diversity simulation at the University of Saint Francis. Berning told them to make the experience as eye-opening as possible.

For about two hours on Monday, I became a Nigerian immigrant in Fort Wayne, and all in all, it wasn't a bad life.

But then, I had a doctorate from Yale and was making $1,200 a week teaching history at a local university, a job I had held for 24 years.

Having a Ph.D. has its privileges.

It was part of an exercise involving students and others at the University of Saint Francis, held to mark Martin Luther King's birthday, meant to remind people, or at least illustrate to them, that some people are treated differently than others.

The program, designed by the YWCA about six years ago, assigns people different roles and sends them out for a make-believe month as someone who can't speak English, or someone who is just plain poor, or someone living in comfortable circumstances.

One participant had the role as the mother in a Burmese family with $25 in assets, a husband and four children who had lived in the U.S. all of four months.

Another was a single white female on her way to college who lived with her sister and mother, who made $100,000 a year.

Others included Bosnian immigrants who didn't speak English and a Spanish woman who made about $300 a week.

The first week of the exercise, which was 15 minutes long, I played the dutiful son and went directly to the immigration office to fill out paperwork for my mother. I ended up spending about two days in jail. I didn't have a Social Security card, even though I'd been here for 24 years, and no one was very nice to me.

Once I made it to work after missing two days work, my boss, instead of threatening to fire me, asked if she could speak to immigration to smooth things over. No, I said. I'll work it out. Then I was offered extra work.

I didn't make it to the grocery that week, but being a single guy it didn't matter. Had I been a Burmese mother with no groceries, I could have lost my kids.

The next week I opened a bank account and took out a car loan, but the bank neglected to note that I had accomplished those tasks. I mentioned it to my boss. She quickly took me to the bank, took me to the front of the line and got it straightened out. I have a Ph.D., after all. Meanwhile, someone else in line was being browbeaten over their lack of funds.

The Bosnian tried to get a driver's license and ended up in jail for some reason. I don't know why. I didn't ask why, even though she was a neighbor.

The other characters in my neighborhood didn't complain about much, except for the Spanish woman who had to work weekends and complained she had no money.

I don't know what the experiences were like in the poor neighborhood in the exercise, but the people in the rich neighborhood were provided with nuts, sparkling grape juice, cheese dip and a bowl of sliced fruit with dip. They ate most of it.

A few people got arrested, mostly from the poor neighborhood. About a third were found to be undocumented. Numerous claims for assistance were deemed fraudulent and most of the people who got fired from their jobs were minorities.

The exercise ended with me eating some cherry Pop Tarts with my "neighbors" and grumbling that the bank had cheated me out of several thousand dollars, something my boss probably would have straightened out quickly had I complained, because I had a Ph.D.

In the end, players were mixed up into different groups and discussed what they learned. They talked about diversity and minorities and that.

But looking back, it just reinforced something I already knew. The bureaucracy can be soulless, and people can come to be equally soulless if they let it happen, deeming some people just not important enough to worry about.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.