During this time, I have been wanting to post something but unsure what to say. One of my clients said it poignantly, “I’m exhausted at times, in rage at times, and numb at times”. So, this letter my sister wrote to her colleagues at Harvard University sums up my sentiments. I hope everyone is staying safe out there.
The last week has been hard. Discrimination, pain, and injustice followed by outrage and desperate calls for change and accountability. Peaceful protests and compassion followed by confrontations and escalating violence. All during a time when our nation has lost over 100,000 lives to COVID-19 and when uncertainty and worry persists in what is ahead for public health, our education systems, and the social safety net for millions of unemployed. The search for hope and a way forward during these turbulent times feels all the more urgent and daunting.
I wish I was writing you with answers. I wish that I could express boundless optimism and faith in all that is good. But that wouldn’t be honest. Like many of you, I am feeling hurt and anger and exhaustion. I am both bewildered by something that should be so simple—showing respect and decency to one another—and outraged by the continual, seemingly unending barrage of examples (sometimes backed by video) of the injustice suffered just for being a Black person.
So much of the discussion related to these recent events is tied up in this notion of what America is. Simply put, America—or any society or community—is what individuals make it. Yes, this country was founded on the important ideals of liberty, but we know those rights were narrowly defined by our founders to include only a subset of human beings. And though we have taken steps forward through laws and policies, it’s crucial to question whether we, as a country, have really interrogated what equality and respect for all means in practice. The injustices we have seen in recent weeks are not new, and we are only seeing a small fraction of the million little cuts that take place each and every day. It’s time to stop believing that we will be a better society without the hard work of confronting and addressing what is fundamentally wrong. This is especially the case as we try to figure out what life will be post-COVID, realizing that the return to “normal” in America is not forward progress for far too many. Going back to what was normal a few months ago would mean continuing to ignore the pernicious ways this country sanctions how certain groups—in particular, people of color—do not fully get to enjoy the freedoms and protections of our laws and institutions. During the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, Black men wore signs stating, “I am a man.” And yet, over 50 years later, “normal” still means ignoring the humanity and dignity of an individual because of his or her skin color.
So many are hurting right now, and frankly, this transcends race. We are witnessing human rights violations—the act of George Floyd calling out for his mother as his life was slipping away is a reminder of the universally human aspects of these devastating moments. To George, Ahmaud, Breonna, Chris, Tamir, Trayvon, the Charleston 9, Sandra, Philando, Eric, Freddie, and so many, many others: I pray that the deep injustices you experienced will serve as the foundation to building something so much better for all of us. Beyond the Black community, I also think about Latinx and Native American communities, who face similarly differential treatment by the legal system and who have also suffered disproportionately high mortality rates with COVID-19. And I think about members of the Asian community who have been the targets of slurs and aggression in response to the assertion that China is to blame for the pandemic, and members of Jewish communities who have faced an unthinkable resurgence in anti-Semitism in recent years. Finally, I think about the children at the U.S. border, forcibly separated from their parents in ways our government would never, ever tolerate if their skin color were lighter.
Yes, things are dark right now, and for many, they have been dark for a very long time. But even as I acknowledge that, I find myself searching for a way to somehow make things better. And so, as I often do, I throw myself into my work. I’m incredibly thankful to be a part of the HGSE community—a group of people working to make things better in the world. For over two decades, I have been bolstered by the optimism, dedication, and new ideas of every entering cohort of students, and I have learned so much from my colleagues about innovative ways to address long-standing inequities. But that’s only a start. And it’s clearly not enough. As Nicholas Johnson, the first Black valedictorian of Princeton discussed in his speech, “let us build a better normal.”
So, as we look ahead, I stand with you searching for ways to make things better. To those of you feeling pain, I send you comfort and the encouragement to lean on the HGSE Community—one that is made up of people who will provide support, camaraderie, compassion, and strength and the space to be heard. And I join the chorus of people emphasizing the importance of voting and activism, policy and research, along with the everyday principles of transparency and accountability. I also highlight the need for personal introspection and conversations within and among our own families. And I look forward to what I don’t yet know about—other creative strategies that peace-loving people will develop to help us all take positive steps towards a better future.