Learning the Lessons of History Through Service: A Conversation with James B. Boles
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca, American Red Cross Volunteer
“The Red Cross is the best of us. Each person who I have met there is remarkable,” said James B. Boles, a member of the Board of Directors for the Red Cross of
the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metro Area. “Every aspect of what they do is positive. It is something that you can say, ‘I can get behind.’”
He’s not afraid to have tough conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion at the Red Cross. As part of Black History Month, when asked which historical figures inspired him, he chose Malcolm X.
Boles learned of Malcolm X’s full story after winning The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley as a prize in a student writing contest.
“There is a lot about his story that is challenging, but there is a lot of it that is very inspiring,” he said . “Focusing only on the flaws ignores many lessons.”
Boles, who leads a team of lawyers and specializes in regulatory issues for the railroad giant Union Pacific, is used to picking apart complicated stories.
Malcolm X is an Omaha native, where Boles calls home, but it’s the trajectory of his life that stuck with James.
“I grew up in the projects,” Boles said. “We were economically challenged. I saw this gentleman who goes from pretty terrible beginnings—he was a criminal and he went to jail—and discovers his religion and becomes a different person. Over time he becomes a better person. Then near the end of his life, he becomes the sort of person who everyone might admire.”
This had a profound impact on young James. He said, “There was something about his arc that told me I could do more and that I could get out of my circumstances.”
As an adult, he takes away a lesson that Malcolm X learned the hard way.
“He was angry, and he did some harm<,” Boles said “But near the end of his life, when he took the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, he saw all different kinds of people together. He was struck by how he focused on the wrong things. In his quest for racial justice and racial equity, he had miscalculated his understanding of people.”
He adds, “I think hard about my own flaws, what they mean and how I can do better.”
One of the ways he tries to do better is to serve, but service can mean even more if you are part of a community that has faced hundreds of years of systemic racism and violence.
“One of the best ways to respond to trauma is to give back in a way that is positive. It is not just about the police officer who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd. We can’t go through life feeling that is our entire social existence,” Boles said. “Giving back is a way for us to understand that there are other things out there that are positive and affirming.”
In his free time Boles volunteers—he’s a mentor for Junior high school students—as well as is a reader, baker and trombonist.
He recognizes that he has power in his leadership role at the Red Cross to build trust with historically marginalized communities.
“When trust comes, good things happen,” he said. “One of the ways that you can reach a level of trust with the African-American community, who have a negative history with the medical establishment, is for them to see faces in the Red Cross who look like them. You can more easily believe that it is a positive force. That way you can break through the barriers that have been erected in response to trauma.”
Keep the learning going
Learning about race, our linked history, and our shared future should take place throughout the whole year. The easiest way to start is the same way James inspired—reading. Boles recommends this reading list of inspirational Black authors:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois