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The BRIDGE BUILDER



Derek McSween

After working in Afghanistan, Derek McSween returned home and joined Port St. Lucie Toastmasters where he discovered help with decompressing. JOHN BIONDO PHOTO

BY ELLEN GILLETTE

Derek McSween has been building bridges a long time. Raised in a poor neighborhood, he built bridges between the predominantly white students and fellow black students throughout school. Later, he trained minority business owners to succeed with the big boys. Until recently, he built bridges between Afghan workers and himself, between East and West. Today, he’s building bridges in Port St. Lucie.

Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut boarding/prep school whose alumni includes JFK, was not immediately welcoming, although he became friends for life with several students. “There were only six of us black guys,” McSween says. Elementary school and junior high in Flushing, Queens, with their 90 percent Jewish populations, had prepared him for holding his own — he was voted class president at both schools.

After graduating from the University of Rochester with an English degree, McSween worked for Bovis Lend Lease, managing projects worth millions. As director of diversity for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, his goal was to award at least 10 percent of the contracts to minority- or female-owned companies. Instead, 33 percent was awarded.

“Small companies had great tradesmen, but didn’t know how to run businesses,” he says. In response to this need, he started DCM, a training company. For his efforts in improving diversity within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ building program, the Charlotte Business Journal named him one of 10 area diversity catalysts in 2004.

That job led to an incredible opportunity — overseeing the demobilization of a U.S. military base in Kabul, Afghanistan. At first, he was terrified. “My main concern was, am I safe?” McSween says. After several months, he was able to communicate his concern to the Afghan workers. “They told me I was as safe as they were … which meant, not entirely.”

During the two years of the project, McSween’s bridge-building skills were invaluable. As he visited Kabul homes, “the walls came down,” he says. “We discussed religion and everything else, our similarities, our differences. They’d only seen American black men in the military, and I didn’t fit their stereotypes of civilians: gangsters, rappers, basketball players. ‘You’re nothing like we thought,’ they said. And I admitted my own stereotypes. I’d thought they were all terrorists.”

As he got to know the men, he recognized an opportunity for mentoring. “They were smart, but they didn’t know how to function in a business meeting,” he says. “I’d started a Toastmasters club back in Charlotte; now I used public speaking from a business etiquette standpoint.” He watched the men’s confidence soar.

McSween’s schedule put him in Afghanistan for three weeks at a stretch, punctuated by a few days in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — a 1,000 miles away in distance and a world away in terms of living conditions. “With all the skyscrapers and limos, I knew the sheiks hadn’t done the work,” he says. “I asked around and found laborers from the Far East and Russia living in very poor conditions. A real dichotomy exists there: the rich and famous and the folks living 10 to a room.”

It was McSween’s privilege to rub shoulders with both groups. Earning a handsome wage, experiencing none of the racism he sometimes witnessed in the U.S., building important bridges … life was good.

However, during a 30-day leave for rest and recreation, life took a dramatic turn. While visiting his brother and mother in Port St. Lucie, his dog died. Two weeks later, his brother died. His mother was 91 at the time; if McSween returned to Dubai, she’d be alone.

“I’d been living in a war zone,” he says, “(with) the constant threat of suicide bombs, gunshots, beggars and the war-wounded everywhere. I was worn down. Usually, I could count on my R&Rs to de-stress, but this time, the stress never ended, has never ended. Everything happened at once.”

McSween became his mother’s caregiver, working at Home Depot until recently, when he took a job with Parabel Inc. to build prototype hydroponic farms locally. He’ll also be involved in teaching other countries how to do the same.

It has been public speaking, however, that has best served him as a decompression tool. He joined Port St. Lucie Toastmasters, which meets weekly at Keiser University. When a fellow Toastmaster encouraged him to videotape his speeches, Dialogues with Derek was born. McSween tackles current events, race relations, divisiveness and other matters close to his heart on his Dialogues Facebook page and through his videos. He also welcomes personal speaking engagements to any and all groups.

“Not every bridge should be built,” McSween says. “You want to make sure there’s not a cliff waiting for you on the other side. But I believe that 99 percent of our problems stem from ineffective communication.”

Encouraging and facilitating dialogue between people of different religions, races, even age groups, McSween sees himself as an adventurous teacher. With no children of his own, his desire is to give what he has and what he has learned to his community. To the world.



DEREK CARL McSWEEN

Age: 58
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Program manager, speaker, trainer, Parabel Inc. construction manager
Family: A 93-year-old mother
Education: The Choate School; University of Rochester
Hobby: Public speaking
Who inspires me: “Barack Obama, for his perseverance and for overcoming obstacles.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “For four years, I was a morning radio show host for a jazz program.”