I learned as a young black person, growing up poor and in the foster care system, that it is really hard to stay hopeful when you are disappointed time and again by those who are supposed to protect you.
Reflecting back on August 2014, I had just completed my first year as CEO of United Way in St. Louis when Michael Brown was killed. I was heartbroken by that event and disappointed by our inability as a country and region to grasp the enormity of the issues at the heart of the people’s outrage. At the time, our governor instituted a blue ribbon committee to “…study the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.”
The commission outlined that, “Change requires different choices, different decisions, and different actions. Change requires new effort, new relationships, new habits. Change requires letting go of the known and wading through the unfamiliar found in the dark of the unknown.” It served as a national declaration and suggested a way forward.
Here we are today, almost six years later, and little has changed. As a nation, we chose to not accept that declaration. We chose not to change. We chose not do what is right by our most marginalized citizens. In the midst of tremendous national assets, this is our greatest liability.
In my life time, I have now seen at least three deaths or brutal assaults by law enforcement in this country that have sparked widespread anger, protests and despair. The first was the beating of Rodney King in 1991, the second was the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 and the third, the murder of George Floyd that is currently playing out. This doesn’t even take into account the senseless, unnecessary deaths of other unarmed blacks that did not create the groundswell we are now seeing.
What I witnessed each time was the precipitating event, the outrage of people, followed by a study, then a desire to get back to business as usual. Most rational people question the sensibility in destroying property. But rationality in moments like these is not the driving force. The driving force is despair. The driving force is depression. When, as a marginalized person, you are oppressed for so long, when you are promised change and it never comes, despair and depression set in. In that moment there is no rationality. In that moment, there are no threats, military or beyond, that would compel you to do anything other than what you are doing——acting out in anger and despair.
What we see playing out in our streets is the people’s response to continued stress, continued pressure and a loss of hope. I know there are many who don’t share this view, but I caution them not to dismiss the way people feel or singularly focus on the violent aftermath at the expense of the injustice that precipitated it.
If we examine our national balance sheet, where do we find equity? For generations we have chosen not to see the humanity of all people. We have failed to consistently advance policies that promote justice. We have failed to address, in any serious way, the systems that continue to produce economic deserts and the means for upward mobility. The way forward is through shared power, through policies that promote justice and through inclusive economic prosperity. These all demand accountability from systems and the people who build them. This is the only way that we will engender confidence and resuscitate the heartbeat of this country. This is the only way we will replace despair with hope.
I am an eternal optimist. I still believe in this country. But I am frustrated by the lack of leadership and vision. I am frustrated that we keep doing and saying the same things while expecting different outcomes. I am frustrated that we have not yet realized the interconnectedness of our destinies.
We, the people, have a responsibility to speak up. We must let our voices be heard and use our personal purchasing power for good. We must vote in local, state and national elections to ensure our collective best interests are being represented. We must align ourselves with companies that share our values. We must nuance our questions and protest and not be seduced by promises that come without mutual accountabilities.
As a country, we must be willing to examine the condition of our heart, which dictates the quality and quantity of our investment into reforms that will shift our nation’s balance sheet and create more equity across many of our most important domains, those that will create a more competitive America—justice, education, economic and health. If we are willing to “let go of the known and wade through the unfamiliar found in the dark of the unknown,” we can move forward. This is how we protect the people and our historical standing as the world’s greatest country.
Let’s speak up. Let’s show up. Let’s act…Now.