Humility, honor and truth in the name of justice
June 8, 2020 – My granddaughter Selam’s eleventh birthday and her first rally.
I told her the night before that I was going to attend the Evergreen Coalition for Racial Justice rally, and she asked to come along. On the way, we talked about what to expect. Selam knows about Black Lives Matter; she is reading, for the third time, “A Good Kind of Trouble,” by Lisa Moore Ramee.
We arrived at the Park n’ Ride, and in deference to COVID-19, donned our masks,
Selam’s with “Black Lives Matter” hand-painted in pink. She grabbed her sign, and we headed over to Center for the Arts Evergreen, where they had set up a table with construction paper hearts and Sharpies, so participants could write messages. I wrote, “Justice, Respect, Love.” Selam wrote, "BLM."
Then we taped our hearts to the exterior wall of the Art Center. Selam asked if she could read the other postings. We spent several minutes in silence as we read paper hearts inscribed with words of love, inspiration, hope, and yes, frustration; hearts with names of murder victims.
The main speaker at the rally was Chris Burroughs, a 2016 Evergreen High School graduate, who spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds reading the names of people of color killed by law enforcement officers as the several hundred participants (overwhelmingly white in our suburban foothills community) knelt silently on the grass.
Then Burroughs talked about the racism he had experienced as a biracial youth in Evergreen. “When this is over, Evergreen will be my hometown, but it is no longer my home because a home is somewhere you feel safe, honored and heard, and I have witnessed too much to believe those promises still stand here,” he said.
His words broke my heart. I wondered, Why has nothing changed? In 1989, when my kids were enrolled at Evergreen High, there was racial injustice. Three black students withdrew from the school after being subjected to racial slurs, graffiti and blackballing. A black teacher asked for a transfer after receiving a threatening, unsigned letter. These ugly events drew media attention and community outrage. As a result, we formed a mountain-area schools diversity council that evolved into the Jeffco Schools Diversity Council. New school district policies, teacher trainings, diversity days and establishment of the district’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team, among other efforts, followed. Yet 30 years later, a student of color still doesn’t feel welcome or safe in our schools.
Selam and I left the rally in a quiet mood. We talked about the sadness as well as the hope represented by the large turnout. I silently worried about what Selam will face in the years ahead. I thought, Is this the tipping point? Can I dare to expect that her world will have less racism than mine? And what can I do to help create that change?
As I reflected later, three middot (soul traits) rose to the top of my mind: humility, honor and truth.
Humility – Despite all my diversity training and efforts, I acknowledge that I will never fully appreciate how my white privilege makes my day-to-day life so different from the lives of people of color. I can, and will be an ally, especially to my grandchildren, adopted from Ethiopia and China. Yet I cannot completely grasp the impact of race on their lives. I CAN pursue a journey of lifelong learning to raise my awareness and inform my actions. I pledge to keep reading books, magazines and news articles; watching documentaries; and listening to live and recorded speakers to enhance my knowledge of systemic racism.
Honor – We used to talk about racial “tolerance.” I never liked that expression because to me it connotes something I have to put up with, like too many beets on a green salad. I prefer to talk about inclusion, honor and respect. A key Mussar (Jewish ethics) principle is bearing the burden of the other – putting oneself in the other person’s shoes to express honor and compassion while recognizing we can never completely understand what the other person is feeling and experiencing. I pledge to seek out opportunities to bear witness and honor the experiences of others.
Truth – Chris Burroughs spoke his painful truth. He did not sugarcoat the challenges of growing up in a privileged white community. I value his truth-telling and appreciate that he trusted the crowd to listen and acknowledge it. I pledge to learn from him to respectfully seek and hear the truth of others without defensiveness or judgment.
Pledges of humility, honor, truth. Three birthday gifts for my beloved Selam.