‘Aggie Conversations’ Invites Open Dialogue On Race Relations
Texas A&M University former student Kenneth Robinson said it was the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer that was the impetus for “Aggie Conversations,” a podcast in which former and current students, faculty and staff discuss race relations in hopes of achieving a better understanding of the experiences and perspectives of others.
“We witnessed the killing of an unarmed black man on national TV,” said Robinson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Texas A&M in 1993 and is president and CEO of a software logistics and consulting company in Dallas. “That, along with other societal issues, had our country in a not-so-good place. I wanted to be part of a solution.”
He set out to create a forum where the Aggie community could talk about race and have tough conversations, but do so in a safe environment with no judgment.
“With the support of The Association of Former Students, we did just that,” said Robinson, who hosted the first podcast in June 2020. “Aggies would show the world how to deal with these difficult times and events.”
Robinson, who comes from a family of Aggies – including his cousin, son and daughter – said after hosting the first two weeks of the podcast, he felt the program needed a moderator.
Rodney Pennywell ’86 immediately came to mind, Robinson said, adding the two were acquainted as members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and its chapter, Pi Omicron, at Texas A&M.
After a pitch from Robinson, Pennywell, who lives in Alabama, agreed to join the show, which takes place exclusively on Zoom.
“Ken Robinson – a person with impeccable credentials – told me what he had in mind,” Pennywell said. “That was all I needed to hear.”
“Aggie Conversations” has hosted more than 100 guests to share their experiences as members of the Texas A&M community, their expertise on a variety of topics, and their perspectives on issues that touch the lives of Aggies.
“Our goal is to make the Aggie family the strongest it can be,” said Pennywell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from Texas A&M. Following an eight-year active duty stint as an Army Captain who served as an Airborne and Ranger qualified Blackhawk pilot/test pilot, he now holds a top secret government security clearance and works as an executive business strategist.
“We want to strengthen the community by creating an environment where the diversity of our ideas can be shared, shaped and formed such that we can exponentially enhance our own power,” he said.
Pennywell said he has several favorite episodes of the podcast, including one called “100 Years of Family Legacy & African-American Veterans,” featuring U.S. Army (Ret.) Lt. Col. Jermon Tillman ’95, who spoke of his experiences on campus and in the military, as well as his family’s history as enslaved people in South Carolina.
“Slavery ripped families apart,” said Tillman, whose family can trace its lineage to the former governor of South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, one of the state’s largest slaveholders. His ancestors eventually escaped to northern Florida, then to Alabama and parts of Texas, some becoming permanently separated from others. When Tillman’s great grandfather wanted to fight for the Allies in World War I, he had to fight for France. “He was not able to serve with the Americans, even though he was an American, because of segregation and discrimination,” he said.
Tillman’s testimony was impactful, Pennywell said, adding there have been several times he’s gotten emotional during the show, including when a former student described himself as a “reformed racist.”
Much can be learned from podcast, said Robinson, who has himself learned some valuable lessons.
“I’ve learned it’s therapeutic when one is simply listened to and heard,” he said. “Just because a person’s perspective is the polar-opposite of yours, it doesn’t mean they are a bad person. I’ve learned that most Aggies are great people. Even in our differences.”