EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
“We've got to work really hard on creating safe spaces to learn and have open conversations with people that look different. Openness promotes trust, trust enables creative solutions to problems, and that is where we will get our sustainable, competitive advantage. Trust enables our teams to produce novel solutions to tough problems. Doing that at scale is how we're going to compete and win, and that's what our adversaries can't touch. That's the thing.”
– Col. William Young
This month in recognition of Black History Month, the 53rd Wing is celebrating Black Airmen who are breaking barriers and making history in our organization, and in this article, we talked with the future commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, Col. William Young.
Col. Young was commissioned in 1991 after graduating from the United States Air Force Academy. He earned his wings from Specialized Undergraduate Navigator Training. Col. Young is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and is a 2006 graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is also a former Air Force Intern with rotations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Air Force Operations Group, and the Air Force CHECKMATE Division. Col. Young is an Instructor Electronic Warfare Officer with more than 2,400 flying hours in the EA-6B and B-52, including 240 combat hours during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. He possesses a PhD from MIT, four Masters degrees and a BS in Engineering Science from the USAF Academy. We sat down with Col Young to learn more about his life and career. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Why is Black History Month important?
Col. Young: Black History Month is so important because it provides a platform for us to have conversations we might not otherwise have. It's one thing to read about Black history, but I think it's another thing to get to understand someone’s history through their eyes and their story. As we look to become the force that we need, we must create an environment where every single Airman is able to maximize their contribution; cultural celebrations, like Black History Month, help enhance that because it allows people to draw strength and inspiration from the history and stories of all Americans.
Have you experienced discrimination or barriers?
Col. Young: I have, and I’ll give you a couple of examples because I know there are some folks who are unaware that this still occurs. At the Academy, I remember being the only personal of color nearly all of my advanced engineering courses. People would make jokes and off handed comments. I believe that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart, so if it’s coming out of your mouth, then it’s in your heart. If it’s in your heart, it’s shaping your decisions, intentionally or unintentionally, and there’s an impact on things like who gets the first shot at the most coveted positions. If some have to overcome a stereotype or false narrative, that’s a barrier and it’s real. Once I commissioned, when I was out of uniform, people often assumed I couldn’t be an officer, and certainly wasn’t a flyer because of the color of my skin. When they would realize, I’d often get the “Oh, you don’t look like an officer” or “you don’t look like (fill in the blank).” More recently, when people find out that I have my PhD, they assume I did not go to a top-tier school. When I say I went to MIT, you can sometimes see the look of shock on some people’s face. And I want to ask, “Why is that? What is it about me that that makes you think that I couldn't do that?”
How can we encourage black aviators?
Col. Young: One of the things I like to talk about is role models and mentors. I think to be a role model you have to be able to chart a tangible path for someone to follow to get to where you are. I'm excited about our Air Force and the opportunities that are being opened up to minorities, with programs like SOAR (Scholarships for Outstanding Airmen to ROTC). That’s great and I think it will pay dividends if we are able to stay the course. I also think we need to look at how to ensure adequate pilot, CSO, and ABM slots are going to Historically Black College and Universities. However, I still think role models and mentors are a key part of the equation. This is where every aviator can play a part and leverage their influence to encourage those that might look different to pursue (or at least consider) aviation. Most of the original Tuskegee Airmen have passed on. We must create the next generation.
Anything else you want to add?
Col. Young: The biggest thing is it's not about me. Nobody has to know my name, but I want them to know my story, and from the story, I want them to derive hope and inspiration that they can do it too. I want youngsters to dream about being able to fly, make amazing contributions, do some really cool things for the nation. I'm a product of mentors. Many didn't look like me, but gave me a chance. Leaders that were willing to invest a little bit more time and reach out. My story doesn’t need to be unique, and that's what's important.
But for those who don’t think that issues still exist, we've got to work really hard on creating safe spaces to learn and have open conversations with people that look different. Openness promotes trust, trust enables creative solutions to problems, and that is where we will get our sustainable, competitive advantage. Trust enables our teams to produce novel solutions to tough problems. Doing that at scale is how we're going to compete and win, and that's what our adversaries can't touch. That's the thing!