(Blogger’s note: What follows is a piece of writing that is connected to a much larger piece of writing in development. For my friends and family who might be reading this, I kindly ask that you consider reading it in its entirety, even if it means doing so over several sessions due to its length. The timing of the publication of this post takes place during the ongoing protests and in the midst of the larger national conversation that is occurring in the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd. As a white male, my intention is not to “hijack” the conversation about racism and justice whatsoever. I recognize my white privilege and do not want it to diminish the voices of Black Americans and other people who suffer great injustices within our society. This post has been in development for over two weeks and incorporates ideas that have been recorded in journals in recent months and years. The decision to be patient with its completion and eventual posting was influenced by listening to the general request to let the voices of Black Americans take first priority. It felt important to note these concerns and decisions at the beginning of the post, as there will be many references to my own experiences. The intention of this essay is to encourage people to facilitate dialogue. My own personal experiences over the past twenty years are necessary for the purpose of connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and events, and not for purpose of ego. My hope is that you will be open to reading this post/essay to the end in order to see those points come together. It is not my intention to take any attention away from the real life-or-death struggles that are experienced in the face of systemic racism and injustice, but rather offer a perspective in an effort to invite others to take a closer look in the form of research in order to help foster meaningful dialogue. This post will likely be revised for clarity and articulation as needed, and will undoubtedly evolve as its placement within the larger piece of writing develops organically. It felt urgent to share now, instead of waiting for it to be shared years from now.)
Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.-Helen Keller
There’s a magnet with this poignant quote currently in a box in my storage unit. It typically lives on my refrigerator, as it has since 2011 when it was purchased after attending and participating in the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit in New York City.
The exhibition is undoubtedly one of the most important moments in my life. Although the essence of the experience was known to me beforehand, the actual experience will never be sufficiently described despite these attempts to do so. For one hour, I journeyed through an indoor replica of a New York City neighborhood. My guide was incredibly helpful and humorous. For the duration of this hour, the lights had been completely turned off within this replica of the city. The architects of the exhibit did a masterful job of making sure that no residual light would find its way anywhere into the space. This was not like closing your eyes, or even wearing a blindfold. This was the truest of darkness. My guide had a wealth of knowledge to share. Frank had been completely blind since infancy after an illness took away his vision. If you have full vision, as I do, try to imagine navigating several thousand feet of a “city” with others who were put in the same unfamiliar situation. At the conclusion of the exhibit, we were all led to a dining table in this realm of complete darkness where we sat and discussed the experience. After several minutes of dialogue, the lights began to come up gradually as the conversations continued. The world began to emerge once again, this time in a new light.
After departing the exhibition, a bench on the Highline Park became my temporary home, as I needed ample time to reflect and decompress. Before that moment, the concept of blindness was simply that, merely a concept. For a short time, I was afforded the privilege of seeing what blindness entailed. To experience empathy so deeply can be overwhelming. It was a truly profound moment. It still is. The Dialogue in the Dark experience will always be a reference source of profound learning and understanding throughout my entire life.
Several years later, I was in the city for one of my frequent concert visits. When I got off the subway car onto the platform of a station in Lower Manhattan, there were construction signs and taped off sections. A man in the distance was cursing and screaming. For anyone who has been to New York City often, this is not an uncommon sight or sound. People were keeping their distance. I probably would have done the same, too, had I not noticed a cane in his hands. It became instantly apparent that the plywood barrier blocking one of the subway exits was newly installed, and this gentleman had his familiar route cut off. As I approached him, I made sure my greeting was friendly and nonthreatening. Further curses and shouting followed. These were not directed towards me, but rather towards this moment of frustration. After explaining that there was what appeared to be new construction going on, I let this man know that I would be more than happy to offer my elbow or shoulder as a guide for him. In a matter of mere seconds, his tone shifted and a thank you was offered. I escorted him up the set of stairs on the other side of the station, helped him get his new bearings, and then walked with him to his destination two blocks away.
Had it not been for the experience years earlier, I would have never learned from Frank that offering an elbow or a shoulder to someone with a visual impairment is seen as a kind gesture. As with any situation, the offer may not be accepted, but will likely be appreciated either way. Clearly this man would have found his way without my assistance at some point in time. The offer of assistance in this situation, however, undoubtedly helped facilitate a more expeditious resolution.
For the past few years, a great deal of my attention has been focused towards several writing projects. At some point in my life, I hope to pursue the pathway towards having published works. Very few people know any of the specifics and details surrounding the projects in development. A common thread between all of these projects is centered around the idea that each and every one of us have unique experiences that shape who we are and who we might become, and that the most important of these experiences are shared between the other people we come in contact with through our daily interactions and experiences. We often know these people directly, as they might be a family member, a friend, a colleague or an acquaintance. These individuals may also be indirect contributors to our lives such as authors, activists, or other public figures. This natural process of assimilating new ideas and information from these individuals takes shape in many ways and forms. There may be moments when we are fully aware of the effects and influence of these direct and indirect interactions. Other times, they might live in the subconscious of our mind. Either way, these interactions help to shape our understanding of the world around us throughout our lives.
When I went away to college at SUNY Cortland at the age of eighteen, I was instantaneously transported to a living environment that was unlike anything that I had ever experienced before, or realistically may ever experience again in my lifetime. My first experience of communal living happened in an officially designated international residence hall. Growing up in a predominately white community did not offer the same opportunity for the types of conversations that were presented to me in the immediate surroundings of my new living environment at college. Most college freshman live with other college freshman. My first roommate was a twenty-five year old German who had already served in the military. The residents living within this hall were diverse in respect to race, nationality, religion, sexuality, ability, and age. Whitaker International Residence Hall was an incubator for discussions about race, culture, values, beliefs, and experiences. My resident assistant, Selina, had also been my orientation assistant a month earlier when I visited the college for a two-day session during the summer. At some point within the first few weeks of moving into the residence hall, Selina had walked around letting people know about an upcoming meeting of the Black Student Union and invited anyone who wished to attend to meet her in our hall. When the day of the meeting arrived, I met Selina in our common lounge and walked up the hill to the student union. The level of naiveté and innocence of an eighteen year old can be quite astounding. I can vividly remember the look on the faces of the other students who were already there, and I can remember the immediate introduction Selina offered announcing that I was there on her invitation. I can vividly remember the meeting being setup with a large circle of chairs designed to allow people the opportunity to spend their time together in conversation. I can vividly remember many of those ideas that were shared by fellow students during that hour-long meeting. I never returned to another meeting of the Black Student Union, as my eighteen-year-old brain naively thought that I did not belong. As the only white student in attendance at that meeting, it seemed that many of the conversations pertained to ideas that did not seem to directly impact me. Years later, my twenty-something year old brain was able to process that I did indeed belong there, as an ally. My young mind hadn’t fully grasped why Selina had invited me and other residents until years later. As with everything in life, one cannot go backwards in time to change decisions. We can, however, use this knowledge and these experiences to inform future decisions.
During my second year at Cortland, a group of resident hall assistants had organized a variation of the Tunnel of Oppression program, which had started several years earlier at another college. As a resident assistant myself now at that point, I was able to sign up to serve as an actor for this program. Groups of students were led through multiple dorm rooms found on an empty floor of a residence hall undergoing renovation. Each room had short vignettes depicting scenes of racism, hate, bigotry and other forms of oppression. The effectiveness of this program had, and continues to have to this day, its critics. What I can share is that my friends who experienced the program on our campus had expressed being moved by what they witnessed. The event was timed so that debriefing sessions were held with professional counselors from the college for each group. When the event had concluded, the counselors had met with the organizers and actors to share some of the thoughts that were exchanged. Without sharing their personal details, they informed us that several students had signed up to meet with a counselor for a one-on-one follow-up session to further discuss what was intentionally portrayed.
In the summer of 2001, the unique opportunity presented itself to work for the NYC Board of Education as a teaching assistant through a program called “Summer in the City” designed to allow pre-service teachers approaching their senior year of college to work with students living in the inner-city during the summer school session. The program was an immensely important experience in my professional and personal development in all of the ways that you might likely imagine. Some of the most important learning from that summer, however, came from one of my roommates. We shared a room within the old Hotel St. George that housed the program participants mere steps away from the Brooklyn Bridge. My influential roommate was a vegan. He rode his bike nearly everywhere. His regular freegan gathering sessions looking for food in dumpsters behind restaurants and markets when it got dark were unbelievably fascinating to me. My repeated refusals to accept his frequent invitations to join him is something that I regret to this day. He was knowledgeable about history and society. We had conversations about topics that most twenty year olds do not often discuss. Years later, I drew upon some of those conversations when I explored being a vegan for seven months. Nearly twenty years later, I still draw upon these conversations that took place there during the heat of summer. One conversation towards the end of our six week cohabitation focused on how fascism takes form in a modern society. My lack of knowledge was not up to par with his breadth of knowledge on the topic at our young age. In the remaining few days of the program, I am certain that my ignorance about such destructive forces in the world caused our friendship to close on a more tense note, as I was trying to argue and defend an idea and concept that I was not well versed on at that point in my life. To this day, our short-lived friendship is one that I miss and wished had been nurtured.
My final semester of college was split between student teaching in a small town in rural New York and student teaching in a primary school in London not far from Wembley Stadium. The contrasts could not have been more extreme. The classroom population in New York was comprised of a group of children who were entirely white. In stark contrast, the classroom population in London was comprised of children whose families were from six different continents and would allow any objective observer to agree that it was racially diverse and religiously diverse based on visual observations and clues. One of the most lasting memories of the London classroom experience was the way in which the children interacted. Besides the usual behavior typical of eight year olds, such as frustrations over whose leg was touching theirs while sitting on the floor spot or who took the only red crayon from the communal container when they wanted it, I did not witness noticeable tension when it came to culture, religion, or race. I am certainly not suggesting that this classroom was some form of a perfect utopian society and that biases did not exist or were never verbally expressed there ever. What I can suggest is that this classroom was unlike many classrooms in regions where racial diversity is less than common, or where cultural or racial segregation exists. The teacher who mentored me in her classroom was originally from Nigeria, and came to England at a young age. Some of the children had lived in England for many generations. Some were second generation residents. Some were first generation residents. One boy had even moved to England only four months earlier from another country. It was a privilege to assist him with his language acquisition which he was so incredibly proud of each day. (In fact, his story and a photograph of him were used as my anticipatory set during my demo lesson about concrete poetry when I was in the interview process for my current employer eighteen years ago.) The children in this London classroom were not afraid to discuss differences in a direct and matter of fact way. The curriculum in England had, and still has, religious education as one of its core components. The lessons centered around themes designed to learn about both similarities and differences between religions. The role of water in ceremonies was the main theme during my time while student teaching in this Year 2 classroom. During each of the lessons, the children were eager to share their own experiences and make connections. To this day, it brings me such joy to remember how genuinely kind and inquisitive these young people were. Fear and hate were not observable during these lessons aimed at fostering understanding and respect. The children would be roughly twenty-six years old now, and my continued hope is that they are still kind and inquisitive.
The first week of my teaching career coincided with the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. At the age of twenty-one, I was ill-equipped to facilitate the conversations about the emotions that the children so desperately needed help processing during that time, but certainly did my best. Our town had families who were directly impacted by the attack, as it is located within a reasonable commuting distance from New York City. Our school community had children and staff who lost parents, siblings, and other relatives the year before. The years that followed brought about the wars in the Middle East. I felt ill-equipped to facilitate the conversations about the emotions that the children so desperately needed help processing then, too. During these years of great uncertainty, the symbol of the flag became an ever more present constant. For those of us who are U.S. citizens, we can recite the Pledge of Allegiance instantly as soon as it begins. Aside from teachers, I suspect very few adults take part in this ritual on a regular basis. At some point during the tumultuous times of those first few years of the 2000’s, several lines from the pledge seemed quite hollow and untrue to me. “With liberty and justice for all.” There’s no specific date that stands out as a specific turning point in my mind, but my decision to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and not to recite it has lasted for well over a decade. That does not make me any less of an American, even if you may not agree with my decision. Speaking these lines became something that I could no longer bear to do, when I knew deep down that they were simply not true. Thinking critically about the injustices that abound in communities throughout our country despite what is referenced so proudly in the Pledge guided this decision. When I place my hand over my heart as the Pledge is recited, the time is used to briefly reflect and think about the hope that one day those words might actually be true at some point in my lifetime. As a good friend recently shared with me regarding the idea of saying the Pledge of Allegiance, “You do it in action, not in words.” Her wisdom continues to be a source of learning and comfort for me.
For as long as I can remember, human history has fascinated me. In elementary school, studying the First Peoples of America and being intrigued by wigwams and long houses culminated in a diorama that made me swell with pride about what I perceived as an accurate representation of a village. The twigs and clay adhered to the underside of the top of a gift box were disposed of long ago, but the image of the project remains clearly in my mind. In middle school and high school, learning about ancient civilizations sparked an imagination in me as I began trying to process and picture what the people from long ago experienced on a daily basis. During my first semester of college, an introductory anthropology course inspired me to better understand who we were as a species and as a society. To this day, human evolution, human migration, and indigenous peoples are topics that will always stop me in my tracks at a museum or in a library. Not long after college, I was somehow introduced to a book written by Spencer Wells entitled The Journey of Man. As a geneticist, he and his colleagues traveled to collect blood samples from people in more isolated locations of the planet. Summarizing years and decades of undeniably painstaking research in a few words is not meant to diminish all of the effort apparent in the data and evidence used in his scientific research. In analyzing the Y chromosome of the samples taken from men, the researchers were able to look for mutations that occurred and used this information to trace mutations across populations. Since the Y chromosome typically passes unchanged from father to son, the mutations that occasionally occur offer the required clues. Essentially, the migration of humanity out of Africa to all corners of the world is documented in the data “written” in the genes of all people alive today. Using the scientific data proved the origin of our common ancestors from Africa using the markers found in the Y chromosomes of males. Additionally, the research also concluded that a biological “Adam” and a biological “Eve” existed, though at different times, and can be seen in the DNA of every living person alive today. We all have a common ancestry. In the accompanying documentary, Spencer Wells concludes his remarks with an idea that has been most lasting in my mind and a source of important perspective whenever situations and conversations involving racism arise. “The story, carried in our blood, really is true. There’s one lesson that stands out from all the others. It’s a lesson about relationships. You and I, in fact everyone all over the world, are all literally African under the skin; brothers and sisters separated by a mere 2,000 generations. Old fashioned concepts of race are not only socially divisive, but scientifically wrong. It’s only when we’ve fully taken this on board, that we can say with any conviction that the journey our ancestors launched all those years ago is complete.”
Over a decade ago, I heard the song “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin. Upon learning that it was inspired by the speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on April 3, 1968, I decided to seek out a text of the full speech. In my research, I was able to find an audio recording of it online. I had heard clips of King’s speeches before, but had never listened to one of them in its entirety until then. In those days that followed, a character education lesson was developed centered around this speech that has since been shared with my students for many years right before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January while teaching ELA and Social Studies. Throughout those lessons, the opportunity for discussions about the Civil Rights Movement, peace, and justice naturally arose. The children had all heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before, but no student had ever expressed remembering ever listening to one of his speeches in its entirety. Some had heard clips or read excerpts from his speeches found in various picture books, just as I had done as a child, too. Americans know about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the basics of his life, but I suspect that the vast majority has never heard one of his speeches in its entirety. I know that I would not have either had it not been for the curiosity that arose after hearing a song. If you, too, are now curious, I would suggest listening to the speech given on April 3, 1968. Over the years, I have tried to process the full nature of his assassination after listening to his remarks, as he was murdered the very next day. Curiosity and context are always important to understand any situation.
Since that awareness surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, I have been driven to learn more about the events from the decades before my birth. When planning a road trip in 2017, I knew that a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the site of the Lorraine Motel where he was killed, was an absolute necessity for my growth as a life-long learner. When I was writing my reflection in 2017 after the visit for this blog, I experienced “technical difficulties” and thought that my original post had been completely lost after nearly two hours of writing. My fear of losing these immediate thoughts prompted me to frantically rewrite the post again in the moment. I remember at the time knowing that these ideas were incredibly important to record. Later that day, the first post magically reappeared, as it was somewhere in WordPress limbo out of my view for a few hours. Below are the two conclusions of the two posts written nearly three years ago. Both are shared because they each contain relevant points and ideas.
“Final Thoughts: Those who know me well know that I can carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. The visit to the National Civil Rights Museum was very moving. As someone who will never know racism or discrimination from the perspective of someone who is Black, the museum is a living example of empathy in action. Discussions about race, racism, discrimination, institutional oppression, harassment, profiling, and many other heavy topics are not something that come up in everyday casual conversations. Some of you may be thinking what the hell am I even doing writing about this here. The museum was a reminder that we as a free nation have the privilege to freely discuss tough ideas. While in the museum, a gentleman who was about my parents’ age, named Crayton, struck up a conversation with me about the exhibits in the museum. The conversation then shifted towards the world we live in today. Despite dancing around some of the points we were trying to make without fully saying our political leanings, we both agreed that these are tough times. Overall, these five or six minutes were peaceful and productive. What struck me was the fact that a sixty-year-old Black man discussing racism with a thirty-six-year-old white man in Memphis was probably a very different situation fifty years ago. If strangers can discuss tough topics with civility and empathy, why can’t we all? When I was leaving the museum, the final mural on the wall summed up the morning and is my guiding mantra in life: Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Final Thoughts: The National Civil Rights Museum is a lesson in empathy. When I planned the visit, I was well versed in many of the basics of the Civil Rights movement, despite not having been born yet. One of my college professors who was quite influential to me recounted his involvement and frightening tales during his visits to the South. For many years as an ELA teacher, I would play the final speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in its entirety to my sixth grade students. When I entered the first room of the museum, I was reading one of the displays when a gentleman came up to me to let me know how I could access some on the stories on YouTube. As we were chatting, our conversation became more in depth. Before long, I was having a conversation about the current state of our country with a stranger. Although we both danced around specifics and avoided divulging our own political leanings, it was clear that we were on similar pages. What struck me at the moment, and in greater depth later on, was the realization that our conversation would have likely been extremely different on this very spot fifty years ago. Something tells me that Crayton, a sixty-ish year-old Black man, and I, a thirty-six-year-old white man would not have been so open to discuss the challenges we are facing in such a civil and respectful manner. The museum reminded me that the events highlighted there are not far from our current time, and many of the struggles are still there. My perspective as a white person will never grasp the importance of the Civil Rights movement as someone like Crayton who was alive during this time. Despite all of this, we were able to share ideas for six or seven minutes in the middle of a museum. Given more time, I suspect that we could have shared more wishes on our hopes for the future. Traveling has afforded me the ability to learn from others and force me out of my comfort zone. A museum like the one I visited, along with the interaction with Crayton will stay with me forever. Reflecting on the experience that day, it confirms my belief that dialogue is important. If I can speak with a stranger about racism, terrible things within American history, and oppressive forces, why shouldn’t this be happening more with those in my life? The museum is preparing for the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. next year. As countless more people visit this museum from now until then, I hope that they are as equally moved by what was presented. As I was leaving, the last mural on the wall was the quote attributed to Gandhi and summed up what I was feeling. It’s also my guiding mantra. Be the change you want to see in the world.”
When I began my year of nomadic living just about one year ago, I hoped that I would be able to maintain a level of spontaneity throughout the experience. Visiting some new states was a main travel goal, but it wasn’t entirely clear precisely where I might go when I arrived in each state. While researching Alabama, I knew that visiting historical locations pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement needed to be one of those priorities. In researching possibilities, I came across information about a museum in Montgomery that was a relatively new creation. Visiting the Legacy Museum was powerful and raw. The museum was organized in a way that informed its visitors about the nature of the domestic slave trade, segregation, lynching, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern mass incarceration. Any visit to this museum must be a somber experience. With that said, there is a tremendous amount of hope in these walls, too. When I approached a large display of jars of soil that formed what appeared to be a wall serving to break up the physical space between exhibits, I became intrigued. Upon learning that these jars contained soil collected from the sites where lynchings took place across our country by the ancestors of the Black men and women murdered, my heart sank and tears flowed. Images of the lynchings on display throughout the museum were difficult to bear witness to in the moment. I knew then, from my experiences, that it was my responsibility to not look away. One cannot begin the imperative need to understand the magnitude of the conditions surrounding racism and oppression if one looks away. After the two hours of being in the museum, I drove over to the affiliated National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Finding ways to honor those who were murdered due to the color of their skin for this memorial must have been one of the most challenging of assignments. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative which created the museum and memorial, balanced the need to respect, inform, and showcase ways that its visitors can take action, and provide space for personal reflection in a masterful way. All of those individuals involved in this process have created two physical spaces of utmost importance. The work that is being done at these two sites has the potential to enlighten and empower. I urge everybody to consider visiting these two locations in Montgomery at some point in their life. In the meantime, I offer the suggestion of learning about the Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts through their website.
This January, an unexpected visit to see the musical Hadestown while in New York City occurred. Over the past few years, I have seen its various incarnations in multiple countries on its way to becoming what it is today. This visit was my last opportunity to witness live theater before the pandemic began, and is therefore all the more special. The decision to cast a diverse group of actors was incredibly important, and consistent with its run Off-Broadway, in Edmonton, in London, and now on Broadway. Institutions can, and must, model what inclusivity looks like when hiring. I am not privy to the conversations that took place behind the scenes, and that does not matter. What matters is the visual message that is apparent to those who attend the show. “Come see how the world can be.” When I first walked past the massive sign prominently displaying these words on the outside of the Walter Kerr theater, I got chills. Art is not trivial. Art serves as a bridge for people and ideas. We must never lose hope. We must be the agents of hope. We must recognize that we all have abilities within our respective lives and professions to make that possible. Hope can be defined and perceived in a multitude of ways. Our common hope is naturally entwined with the notion that treating others the way that we would like to be treated should be the foundation of any society. The conversation that is taking place across the world right now is ultimately one of hope. The organizations and businesses that I have received e-mails from in recent weeks denouncing racism and pledging to examine whether or not their own practices need adjusting and addressing are steps in the right direction. We get to shape our world, and that process must be centered around love and hope and respect and inclusivity.
Every human being is a work in progress. Learning to embrace change and new ideas will always be at the core of my own humanity. Part of the overwhelming nature of the past two weeks, after the initial shock and despair that comes from witnessing yet another person’s filmed murder, has been the sense of needing to stay informed about the current events unfolding at an intense pace. All of the new information and ideas, especially those that are deep and disturbing, require a great deal of energy to adequately ponder. The focus required to write this post has provided me with the opportunity to step back from that intense energy seen on social media and television, with the exception of the shorter periods of time that I am allotting myself to remain informed. Trusting the important process of engaging in meaningful internal dialogue is necessary and productive. As time progresses, my hope is to channel this energy and focus in other productive ways. It is my intention to better educate myself about not just the history surrounding the march towards social justice, but to seek out those authors and leaders with ideas that everyday people like me can act upon to assist with meaningful change towards the progress for social justice.
Dialogue between people, both like minded and those with opposing ideas, is critically important right now. The idea that conversations about racism being the “ultimate elephant in the room” perfectly sums up the current climate. Metaphorical elephants are just as big as literal elephants, if not bigger.
Racism exists, and must be confronted and erased with nonviolent action.
Systemic racism exists, and must be confronted and erased with nonviolent action
White supremacy exists, and must be confronted and erased with nonviolent action.
Black Lives Matter.
In the past few days more than ever, many people are learning the full context and the origins of that statement. The images of posters appearing on social media clarifying the importance of using those three specific words without modification are succinct.
Another elephant in the room is the conversation taking place about injustice and brutality in the policing system. The conversation is inherently intertwined with the conversation about race, and therefore cannot be seen as completely separate issues. The history of the origins of police departments, information about the budgets within cities and other jurisdictions, and policing policies are topics needing further research on my part to stay informed. I am not an expert on the matter, and will therefore seek out information from experts to be a better informed citizen. I have relatives who work within various law enforcement agencies, and have no doubt that they serve honorably. It is important to mention in clear and certain terms so that I am not misunderstood, I support officers who serve and protect honorably. With that said, there is no denying that the policing system is in need of massive and drastic reforms codified into laws to remove and hold accountable those who abuse their power. The repeated pattern of seeing images of physical abuse and murder captured on film contrasted with reports filed publicly that contradict what can be clearly seen are most troubling. The six minute clip of Sandra Bland’s arrest, which will be linked at the end of this post, is a primary source document that shows the severity of the situation in an unfiltered way. When I watched this clip nearly five years ago, I was filled with rage after learning that she died three days later under suspicious circumstances in a jail cell. As a teacher, I am not in any position to directly make those changes and reforms within the policing system. As an informed citizen, I know that I must continue to monitor any development so it can continue to inform me with respect to my ability to vote. Ultimately, each of us vote everyday. We vote with our actions, with our dollars, and with our words. Contacting my elected officials, choosing what businesses I make purchases from, and what I choose to write and talk about are all extensions of my vote.
For those who are members of law enforcement or who have family members who work in law enforcement, I can only imagine how challenging these conversations and criticisms are to hear at the present moment. “Defund the Police” is a provocative statement. After my initial research, I have learned that defunding the police is essentially a call to action to prioritize the rights and lives of the citizens over maintaining a status quo with a massive system plagued with problems. For example, if a system protects those who abuse their power and make decisions with racist intent, then that system is no longer appropriate and must be rebuilt. From a budgetary standpoint, tax dollars can be invested elsewhere. For example, if a police force spends a certain percentage of its time responding to mental health crisis events on a yearly basis which falls outside of law enforcement, then its budget should be revised. The police budget could be lowered to take that corresponding percentage of funds and shift that towards a mental health crisis unit team comprised of trained mental health experts who would be called in emergencies. Too many people are being killed during a mental health crisis by police officers without mental health training. Provocative statements should not alienate, but rather inspire thought-provoking research and the search for knowledge rooted in facts. That requires diligence and time, but ultimately allows one to be better informed.
My long standing belief if that the majority of the people in this world are kind and caring people. On a visit to New York City in May of 2018, I noticed two people in Penn Station who caused me to stop and swell with emotion. One of them was a police officer. Snapping a photograph without making a scene or to interfere with what was occurring felt necessary in supporting my continued efforts to document the world around me with pictures and words. This photograph, which can be found at the end of this post, exemplifies the types of primary source images we should all hope to see on the news regarding police involvement with its citizens. The unlawful and inhumane altercations that have been brought to our attention from responsible citizens with cell phones must be addressed with accountability.
We are witnessing many people confronted with situations and ideas that challenge their understanding of their world. A global pandemic and a national conversation about a call to action regarding systemic racism and oppression were not part of any of my predictions for 2020 just a few months ago. Any challenge to how one perceives the world can be disturbing and enraging. One of my college professors in the education department challenged me, and all of his students, to never forget the importance of being a learner first. We were encouraged to question everything, and be able to support our thoughts with evidence and facts. It was through this professor that I was presented a book written by Daniel Quinn, which led me to read nearly all of his works over several years. The emotions that I felt during that time almost twenty years ago were overwhelming, and I most certainly struggled to find the words to describe the funk that became my temporary reality. Change is hard. Changing a longstanding idea or belief is even harder. Turning towards ideas from my minor/concentration of psychology from college, I have since learned that those turbulent emotions were likely connected to the concept of cognitive dissonance. What occurs in someone’s mind when key foundational ideas are challenged or disrupted creates a state of confusion and disrupts their personal harmony. Resolving these unbalanced and uneasy emotions can manifest in many ways. In regards to racism and oppression, there are people who are struggling to understand the severity of the current situation. Despite progress on various fronts, there are still many minds around the world that require changing if our society will honestly represent the ideals of liberty and justice for all.
A speech that Daniel Quinn delivered in 2002 entitled “The New Renaissance” has a quote that has served as one of my guides in my motivation to become a writer and facilitator of ideas. Although the speech is mainly focused on the risks connected with the unsustainable consumption of natural resources by people, there are clear connections with the conversation taking place in our country in regards to various systems of power preventing justice for all. As the message of bringing about lasting change for social justice is coming primarily from grassroots movements, it is important to understand the power that critical thinking and dialogue fosters in our current moment. Daniel Quinn concluded his speech with these ideas: “Changing people’s minds is something each of us can do, wherever we are, whoever we are, [in] whatever kind of work we’re doing. Changing minds may not seem like a very dramatic or exciting challenge, but it’s the challenge that the human future depends on. It’s the challenge that your future depends on.”
Critical thinking and the practice of questioning everything are precious gifts. These skills can make life harder, as they take a great deal of time and mental energy to actively pursue on a daily basis with diligence. They can create unease in one’s life. They can cause strains in relationships. The reward of these efforts provides the context to better understand the world around us. They offer perspectives that we may never have thought of before. At times, it can be a lonely pursuit. In respect to the protestors seeking social justice in communities all around the world, the images of people coming together is most hopeful. When people recognize that they are not alone, that becomes a powerful moment that can inspire those who might have lost hope. There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing a historic turning point in our world. The scope of these changes is too soon to even begin to fully comprehend. The implications will be far and wide. The momentum must continue until real change towards justice and equality is not only agreed upon, but actually implemented.
Experiences allow people the ability to gain new insights and perspectives required to spark the internal dialogue that facilitates learning. My thirty-nine years of experiences have helped facilitate the assimilation of important lessons that have shaped how I approach and process life.
Having an ally is important. Being an ally is even more important.
Oppression does not live in the bubble of a college program.
Hatred is not something that lives in a museum.
Evil actions, like lynching, have not gone away simply because they are given new terms.
Knowledge is required to make informed decisions.
People of all ages can serve as sources of hope.
Actions are greater than words, but words always inspire those actions.
Every human alive is a relative of each other.
Curiosity and context are crucial in understanding any situation.
Dialogue founded in mutual respect can move minds and mountains.
Paying attention is important.
We can all be agents of hope and change.
Empathy is a beautiful force in the universe.
When one emphatically embraces empathy, it changes a person at their very core. Empathy must always be our guide. Without it, we deny our common humanity.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The comment feature has been intentionally turned off for this post. I commit to fostering dialogue with those in my life who would like to have a conversation. I promise to listen respectfully. I would in turn insist on the same reciprocity of respect.
A recent social media post from a theater director that I admire was shared openly. In it, a “living document” explaining how she intends to address racism within her productions provided her with a roadmap that will continually evolve. This inspired me to develop a similar list of actions that I plan to take as I have heard this call to action. This list is only a starting point for me, and will continue to evolve and develop:
-Spend greater time reading and researching through books, articles, and other reliable sources information pertaining to antiracism, social justice, economic justice, and police reform. (Especially those written by Black authors, when possible.)
-Financially support Black-owned businesses and organizations aimed at addressing racism and social justice with greater intention.
-Write to my elected officials when injustices or problematic practices are identified.
-Work with like-minded individuals in my life to help affect positive change for social justice and peace.
-Engage others in dialogue if they are willing to converse about “elephant in the room” topics.
In the spirit of facilitating dialogue, there are links to several videos found after several photographs connected with this post. Dozens of videos could have easily been shared here, but they have been limited to just a few. Please consider sharing your own resources with me and with others. Researching and learning are critically important actions, especially during these times of great uncertainty.
Of the resources that will be linked below, the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest in 2015 is the most urgent one to watch. It was the tipping point for me to truly become better informed about the scope of the injustices in the United States. As with the images depicted at the Legacy Museum, not looking away becomes imperative in order for people to take notice and to take action. When the details surrounding her arrest and death emerged, I did my best to process, “What law did Sandra break?” I encourage you to watch and ask yourself the same question. It was only after the audio and video was released from the police car dash cam that I began to see the magnitude of just how dire things were here in our country. Sandra Bland did nothing illegal, yet she died several days later while in custody. The video of Sandra’s arrest, much like the graphic video of George Floyd’s murder, is one specific example of why we are seeing more and more people come together in protest demanding change. The active measures that we can all take to seek out primary source evidence to guide our thinking is one of the most crucial actions that can be taken.
Killer Mike entered into my sphere of influence several years ago when he first campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016. Listening to his ideas since that time has offered me new insights from a new perspective. Killer Mike is a powerful and articulate leader. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the riots that happened in Atlanta, Killer Mike was interviewed live on television, despite not wanting to do so originally. (It saddens me immensely that as I was finishing the writing and the editing of this post, another murder of a Black American at the hands of a police officer occurred in Atlanta a few days ago. Rayshard Brooks should be alive today.)
While in my second semester in college, I took an “introduction to education” course. During that class, my professor presented the class with a video highlighting the work of Jane Elliot as a conversation starter during one session. When she appeared on my Youtube feed after being on the Tonight Show a few days ago, it surprised me. Jane has been an ally and an advocate for social justice for over fifty years. The powerful video cuts to the core of the bullshit of those holding racist views in a no-nonsense way.
Awareness about the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was given center stage a few years ago by Oprah on 60 Minutes. Bryan Stevenson & Oprah discuss the museum and memorial. (Warning: some of the images are graphic and show primary source documentation of lynchings. The conversation taking place is of utmost importance and relevance. If you are not able to watch, I would encourage you to at least listen to it.)
The idea of cognitive dissonance is described in this short video that is intended for people who are reviewing and studying for the MCAT exam. The video uses the example of a smoker learning about how smoking can cause cancer. The framework can be applied towards analyzing, through different “lenses”, how challenges towards any long-standing belief, such as racism or any “-ism,” becomes an unsettling experience for any person. Understanding this concept is critical for employing the practice of empathy.