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Zebra Sisters

She said/She said: ‘Zebra Sisters’ Mary Mitchell, Leslie Baldacci on new podcast

Leslie Baldacci (left) and Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell have a new podcast, the "Zebra Sisters." | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Leslie is a rebel.

I try to follow the rules.

When we met 25 years ago in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom, it was not pretty.

I don’t know what she thought when our black editor assigned me, the newbie, a window seat. But she was not shy about slapping down her seniority card.

I took her as just another white woman exercising white privilege.

RELATED: New Sun-Times podcast ‘Zebra Sisters’ tackles race relations with candor, humor

Journalism was my second career. And, by the time I landed at the Sun-Times, I had met plenty of white women like her.

Mary Mitchell, who with Leslie Baldacci has a new podcast, the “Zebra Sisters.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Let’s see, on my first job, there was the white girl in the mailroom who actually thought black people were dark-skinned because they didn’t bathe.

On my second job, there was the white girl who had to consent to working with a black girl before I was hired. That tidbit came out after we got into a tussle over the thermostat.

On my last secretarial job, there was the white girl who was crying in the bathroom because she said her boss was treating her like a “N—–.”

So by the time I got to the power struggle over the window seat, I knew what the outcome would be.

But, over time, I discovered Leslie wasn’t a white woman at all. She looked Caucasian. But underneath that white skin was a soul sister.

I couldn’t imagine going to an all-white church and getting into the service.

Leslie didn’t just visit black churches; she joined in with the call-and-response.

I was surprised to learn that her daughters’ nanny was black because she talked about the woman like she was a part of her family.

Leslie was so immersed in black arts and culture that she would be telling me about the art fairs, cultural exhibits and other events targeting African Americans.

And you know how work colleagues tend to hold back, separating work friendships from personal friendships?

Leslie wasn’t like that with me. At one of the lowest moments in my life, she pressed the key in my hand to her private chill spot so I could get away by myself.

She taught me how to enjoy simple things, like lying around a beach until the sun disappears and how to eat hot apple pie with my fingers because it is just too delicious to wait until I got home.

In time, I stopped seeing Leslie as a white girl and started seeing her as a friend.

But we didn’t sit around debating whether the latest controversy dividing the city was racist.

The most Leslie would say when some insane racial incident popped up in the news was: “That’s just bull-s—.” And then she would go and write some kickass story about the injustice.

As someone who was taught to play by the rules, the discrimination I’ve experienced in my own life and witnessed in the lives of others has been so intolerable that, throughout my career, I’ve been on a never-ending quest for answers.

Watching Leslie live out loud has shown me that this can’t be a one-way street.

No matter how much time passes between our chats, we could always come together over shared values: our families, our children, our community and, as Leslie puts it, “our rich internal lives.”

We have managed to cross these racial boundaries despite living in one of the most segregated cities in America.

At this time in our lives — when the gains of the civil rights movement seem to be slipping away —we believe that developing real relationships across racial lines is one way of improving race relations.

The “Zebra Sisters” podcast is an adventure that promises to take us — and you — to a safe place to begin.

Click here to subscribe to “Zebra Sisters”


BALDACCI: Common ground helped us get past difference of race

When Mary and I met 25 years ago, the first thing we did was get into a power struggle: Which of us would win the newsroom desk with the river view?

Leslie Baldacci of the “Zebra Sisters.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

What was in play was:

• Pecking order within an organization.

• Strong women proving themselves.

• Entitlement.

Seniority in an organization and strong women are obvious aspects of any workplace. That part about entitlement? As a white woman, that’s where it gets interesting for me.

Mary and I had common ground. We were working at the same craft, both raising children. Later, we would deal with teenagers and caring for our aging parents. Our original dogs have come and gone.

But through it all, there is no getting around the fundamental difference that Mary is black and I am white — and how that shapes our experiences and perspectives, who we are, who we wish to become and how we move through the world. Once Mary and I opened that door, it never shut.

In a friendship across decades, we have discovered that just about everything deserves a look through the lens of race and privilege. We’ve grown comfortable with these conversations. That took time. We enjoy these conversations, challenge each other and laugh out loud. That takes longer.

Stuff we talk about: relationships, cultural stereotypes, love and marriage, families, politics, pop culture, fashion, hair, faith, aging. How some experiences are different depending on whether you are black or white, a man or a woman, while others are universal.

I can have these conversations because Mary is inclusive and generous. She has been my teacher, gaining me entree to places I would not have gone as a white Chicagoan. Stepping at Mr. Ricky’s on Roosevelt Road. Seeing Parliament Funkadelic with Mary and the rest of the Duncan sisters in Grant Park.

Mary’s Afrocentrism helped reveal to me the beauty, strength, joy and resilience of Chicago’s African American community. The politics and relationships. The role of the church. The distrust of institutions, especially police, things our city needs to fix.

Our conversations helped prepare me to be a teacher of African American students when I left the paper to work in the Chicago Public Schools. After six years in the classroom, in a school community that became my extended family, I found myself with overlapping high school and college tuitions. I left for money, and It broke my heart. I returned to the Sun-Times for two years. Mary found me crying in the bathroom one morning at the end of that run.

“Is it your dad?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s the first day of school, and I’m here.”

“Well,” she replied, sassy as ever, “I guess you better get back to school.”

Six weeks later, thanks to her advice, I was back in CPS as a mentor for beginning teachers. Over the years, I worked with more than 100 new teachers and their students.

It has been said education is our new civil rights movement. That means every child, regardless of Zip code, deserves an effective teacher. To all the teachers demonstrating commitment and lifting up our learners, our city and our nation, thank you. Mary would stop me at this point and accuse me of going off on a “dissertation.”

In addition to reeling me in, Mary surprises me. When I apologized for the Dwight Yoakam CD on one of our getaways to Michigan, she revealed that she loves country music. Decades after we bonded over Earth Wind & Fire’s “Love’s Holiday,” I find this out! Dwight took us all the way to the apple orchard and back. Mary remembers the apple pie. I remember “Fast as You” — and that I got the river view.

We will continue to surprise each other as we engage in these conversations. And we invite you to join us. Send us your questions at zebrasisters@suntimes.com or call the Zebra Hotline at: (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).

Click here or go to iTunes to subscribe to the “Zebra Sisters” podcast. The first four episodes are now available on iTunes. And look for a new episode of the podcast every Saturday.