By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca, American Red Cross Volunteer
After watching Hurricane Katrina tear through the Gulf Coast, causing 1,800 deaths and billions of dollars
in damage, Pierce Zanders asked himself: “How can I make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again?”
That question pushed him to go back to school and earn a degree in Emergency and Disaster Management, make risk management and insurance his career and become a board member for non-profit organizations, including with the Central Iowa Chapter of the American Red Cross.
With so few people of color in leadership roles, Zanders knows the pressure that comes with the seat.
“As a Black man you are the representative of all Black people,” said Zanders. “You are asked questions about race. And if we don’t respond, people are only left to believe what they see on TV.”
For Black History Month, when asked who inspired him, Zanders pointed to the great Sydney Poitier, a mid-century Hollywood star who opened doors for other actors of color. His autobiography, The Measure of a Man, spoke to Zanders. “Sydney Poitier was like a grandfather figure to me,” Zanders said. “His words were so profound. He didn’t say ‘Let me tell you what you should be doing.’ He said, ‘This is how you should be doing this.’ He showed me what it means to be a man.”
Poitier’s grace, intelligence and grit struck Zanders.
“Being a Black man, operating in a time when he was not respected, Sydney still survived and broke down barriers despite the circumstances,” said Zanders. He underscored the importance of not shying away from the uncomfortable moments in our history. “We can’t pretend that the last 200 years didn’t happen. We have to recognize the right, the wrong, and be willing to discuss and grow.”
At the heart of our history are important, if complex, people who helped bring about change
“It is more important than ever to talk about influential figures of color,” Zanders said. “We have to respect and celebrate everyone, and for more than just a month. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm or Malcolm X.”
Not all great people are written about in the history books. Zanders said he was heavily influenced by his father, mother and two older brothers, “They have all helped steer me to where I am today and driven me to be the man I am today.”
His father, Charles Zanders Sr., instilled many positive values in him.
“My dad served with United Way for many years. In the evening he’d come home and tell me all about it. I thought that’s just the way it was. Living to serve is important,” commented Zanders.
Not only did he volunteer, but Charles Sr. worked full time, took college classes and coached junior high wrestling.
“Kids all across the state knew who he was. Even today, when I’d run into them, their first question was ‘How’s your dad?’ He has made a mark on so many people,” remembered Zanders.
“This is my example,” he continued. “Watching him is like having the answers to life, like a cheat code. I’m so proud of him and it means a lot to me to have that.”
Zanders is a voracious reader when he isn’t spending time with his two kids, writing his first mystery novel or golfing. And, like his father and adopted grandfather figure (Poitier), Zanders is a role model—and a voice—encouraging people of color to volunteer.
“If you don’t see yourself in it, you don’t see yourself doing it”, said Zanders. “And it isn’t just about representation, but a different way of thinking. It pays to have diverse schools of thought.”
One issue he leaned into is to encourage more people of color to donate blood to help fight Sickle Cell disease, a deadly and inherited disorder that misshapes red blood cells and most commonly affects people of African descent. While there is no cure, blood transfusions help manage the painful symptoms. For many, a close blood type match is essential and is found in donors of the same race or similar ethnicity.
The dream Zanders works toward is bringing together large Black community organizations, like NAACP, Urban Dreams, Black Lives Matter and many others in a blood drive. He knows there is a lot of dark history to overcome: “This is going to take many conversations before most people feel comfortable and overcome centuries of distrust of the medical establishment.”
Just like those who he looks up to, Zanders will continue to work to help his community even if the challenges loom large.
Keep the learning going
Learning about Black excellence should take place throughout the whole year. The easiest way to start is the same way Pierce was inspired—reading. Zanders recommends this reading list:
The Measure of a Man by Sydney Poitier
A Testament of Hope by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James Jones
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
Roots by Alex Haley
The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison