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Becoming his authentic self

Photo by Denise Baratta Matthew Reynolds leads a workshop on implicit bias earlier this month at Bellview Elementary School in Ashland.
Matthew Reynolds
In wide-ranging book, SOU graduate Matthew Reynolds tells of his struggles and urges people to combat racism and institutional systems

Former Rogue Valley resident Matthew Reynolds is just as comfortable conducting private workshops with community members as he is on the warm, sunny beaches of Hawaii, where he currently resides.

The diversity consultant, a Southern Oregon University graduate who trains organizations large and small, was in town earlier this month for a string of workshops ahead of the publication of his new book, “Biggest, Fullest, Brightest: Shifting the Consciousness of Humanity,” set to be released May 10.

“For me, it’s not necessarily work, because I find that what I’m doing is fulfilling another aspect of who I am and my passion — and that’s for us to see each other’s humanity more clearly and to be more humanity-led,” Reynolds said in an interview. “So, it just feels good to be here and to be able to offer what we’re offering.”

Part memoir and part textbook, Reynolds tells his story as a gay Black man hailing from central Minnesota, navigating the world feeling “less than,” before discovering the tools he needed to accept who he is and go on to succeed.

Along those lines, Reynolds also uses the book to take readers on what he calls a “guided journey into your past … to create a better future for yourself and the world around you.”

That rhetoric begins to encompass the heart of the workshops put on by Reynolds, a former local public school educator.

“Crafting Your Equity Lens,” a personal mission statement of sorts, is what Reynolds has all his workshop participants, whether they’re with Bellview Elementary or AllCare Health, create and continue to hone long after they leave the session.

Returning to the Rogue Valley repeatedly despite criticisms he has of some local schools, Reynolds said he can never completely remove his past life from his current one. That is, in fact, something he tries to impart to participants in his workshops.

“I’m a firm believer that the past is our education,” said Reynolds, who had an abusive father and struggled to fit in during college. “What happened and what I went through before, I’ve learned from those and grown from those situations; it has helped me become more authentically myself, to be able to move through the world as authentically as I can.”

Life in the Rogue Valley

Moving to Southern Oregon is one of the life events Reynolds cites in his book as what got him to where he is today.

He attended college in his home state before traveling around the U.S. for various jobs, including bartending in Seattle. But he grew “fed up” with the States and went to Amsterdam for several years before joining a theater group in Eugene.

The group performed at the Oregon Country Fair, where Reynolds learned about Ashland by speaking with a friend.

“It hit me like an epiphany to become an educator,” Reynolds said.

So he moved south and enrolled at Southern Oregon University to obtain his Master of Arts in teaching high school education, which he earned in 2007.

“When I was at SOU, that was when I started to (ask), ‘Who is the real Matthew Reynolds?’” he said.

Once Reynolds reflected on bad times in his life — from being abused by his father as a boy to experiencing bullying as someone who is gay — he resolved to mold his students into becoming “their authentic self.”

Upon graduation from SOU, Reynolds was “super jazzed” to be a classroom teacher, and to him, taking a job in a Rogue Valley school wasn’t that much different than the ones he attended in Minnesota.

Reynolds won a state award for his teaching approach and also helped build a new school in the valley. But he became disenchanted as time went on, going so far as to write in his upcoming book, “I couldn’t allow myself to be part of the U.S. education system because it is harmful to students.”

“I feel that the system at large is such a huge juggernaut in its thought process and how it wants to move forward, that when we were trying to create a new school and new scope of being, that we were hugely successful,” Reynolds said in an interview. “But this larger entity was like, ‘No, you cannot be successful.’ So, those ideas of the system that’s based more in racism and white supremacy and indoctrination, those started coming forward and started to win. They were not allowing the new idea to be fully realized.”

In 2019, Reynolds left public school teaching, leaving only a cryptic Facebook post about the ordeal.

“Before you speak poorly, talk trash, call names, vote against, (or) pray for them, ask yourself: do I really see them as another human being?” Reynolds wrote. “Have a conversation. Invite civil discourse. Love is at the core, it’s just buried underneath some bull---t at times.”

Reynolds noted that, despite the challenges he believes are present in the U.S. educational system, his students were “hugely successful.” Reynolds has kept in touch with some, officiating their weddings, in some cases.

Reynolds’ perspective

Not only is the “equity lens” a workshop participant crafts intended to be a personal mission statement, it is also a “call to action,” Reynolds said.

In order to craft an “equity lens,” however, participants must recognize the current world in which they live has its faults and is unknowingly steering people in certain directions.

“As we’ve gone through society, we’ve been socialized and indoctrinated into taking in these ideas,” Reynolds said, whether it's the definition of “success” or the idea that college is a necessity. “None of it ever talks about who you truly are and what your authentic self is. It all buys into this system of supremacy culture. … If we look at the historical facts, that’s all a construct; it’s all based on lies, half-truths and gas-lighting.”

When people “uproot these internal ideas,” it leaves a “wound” that must be filled, he said.

“I really want people to fill that wound back in … with their ‘equity lens’ — with their own personal truth,” Reynolds said, “and to build a world that isn't based on the oppression of any group of people; that is based on that fact that we are actually here, and expanding into our ‘biggest, fullest and brightest,’ because that’s what the human soul wants to do. We want to expand into more than what we are.”

Seeing through a new lens

Stick Crosby, senior director of network and health equity for AllCare Health, first heard about Reynolds while on the steering committee of Southern Oregon's Health Equity Coalition, a group that prioritizes health disparities for people of color and LGBTQ+ people, among other underrepresented populations.

AllCare Health representatives work with those same kinds of people, which is why he wanted his people to participate in workshops with Reynolds.

”By crafting your equity lens, you’re making space to acknowledge someone else ... and why they might feel a certain way and what their experience is,“ Crosby said.

For Crosby, crafting his own equity lens has been eye-opening.

“’I am crafting a world where individuals have a sense of belonging, while doing anti-racist work in my community that recognizes, rectifies and reconciles historical and contemporary injustices,’” Crosby stated.

He called his equity lens statement “nice and to the point,” and one he continues to consult with whatever project he is working on.

Ginger Eckert, assistant professor of performance in voice and speech at SOU’s Oregon Center for the Arts, has also participated in Reynolds’ workshops. Those sessions were organized after the campus community issued a call to action in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“Matthew’s name came up pretty quickly,” Eckert said.

She described Reynolds as someone who is warm and sharp, with a quick wit and joyful laugh.

“He’s somebody who I feel really is very genuinely inviting people to connect,” Eckert said.

She talked about the importance of crafting your equity lens.

“You need to have a vision for what the world can be; you need to have something that you, personally, are reaching for to make a better world,” Eckert said, “and that’s the spark that’s really alive with him (Reynolds) that I think is so brilliant.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.