Am I committed to a lifetime of diversity work?
It’s kind of hard to imagine the events that took place in Ferguson and Baltimore, could ever happen in a small metropolitan city like Portland, Oregon. But it can. And does. In fact, it can happen anywhere in the United States. Why? Because systemic racism is everywhere, it’s embedded in our society, economy, education system, workplace and in our politics. Systemic racism also shapes our attitudes and forms biases that we have towards different groups of people. And those attitudes and biases influence our thinking, decision-making, and how we treat each other.
“This isn’t a Ferguson problem, this isn’t a Baltimore problem, this is a national problem” — JoAnn Hardesty, President of the NAACP Portland chapter
In 2015, I attended the Race, Faith & Justice In The Age of Ferguson & Baltimore panel discussion event at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon. The panelists were JoAnn Hardesty, President of the NAACP Portland chapter, Eric Knox, an Associate Pastor at Imago DeI Community in Portland, Dr. Daymond Glenn, the Vice President of Community Life at Warner Pacific College, and featured guest, Reverend Sekou — an activist, organizer and theologian. Listening to their thoughts, comments and stories about systemic racism impacted me emotionally. Though I was always in support of eliminating racism entirely, I found this whole new level of motivation and passion after attending this panel discussion. But this same panel discussion also exposes my optimism and made me question my efforts.
Systemic racism is the root of all of society’s problems and has been for a long period of time. We know the system is flawed and it can change. But to change a system, people will have to change. But are we committed to change? And if so, for how long? Change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and it can take a long time. Systemic racism has been operating for hundreds of years, if not thousands, and it will likely take at least a lifetime or two, to eliminate it.
So are we committed to a lifetime effort? Or will eventually we believe this is how it is and how it will always be; and we’ll make important but small strides forward?
I found myself thinking about these questions deeply after attending the panel discussion. Eric Knox, told a story about a woman, who was a passionate feminist advocate, but passed away and a friend described her as someone who was willing to commit to a world that she knew she would never live in. So he looks at the audience and says,
“I’m fighting for my kids and my grandkids and I’m standing on the shoulders of a grandfather who couldn’t read and write. If you’re in this to see wholesale change in your lifetime, get out of this room. It’s not going to happen. Are you willing to fight for a world that you ain’t never going to live in?”
This “world” that he was talking about is a world where systemic racism doesn’t exist. A world where white privilege doesn’t exist. A world where racism doesn’t exist. A world where young black men aren’t killed by police officers that are programmed to think that these men are threats to society. A world where there is no such thing as “white supremacy”. A world where sexism doesn’t exist. A world where homophobia doesn’t exist. A world where being “different” is acceptable. This desirable but elusive “world” doesn’t exist right now. It may not exist in the next 20–30 years, nor possibly in my lifetime.
Just how committed am I really?
This question made me re-evaluate my commitments in life. When commitments are made, we expect to see change or results from those commitments, and we expect to see those results in a matter of time. As a woman, person of color and someone who doesn’t benefit from systemic racism, am I really committed to advocate change in a system that may not change in my lifetime? I never thought deeply about how long it will take. I haven’t yet mentally prepared myself to accept the fact that it might take a lifetime to see systemic change. Is it really worth the time and effort to advocate for something I may not see the results of while I’m alive? Is it worth putting a life’s effort into advocating systemic change? What’s the point of supporting change if I don’t get to witness the positive impacts it will have on my family, friends, and society? Am I truly committed to constantly repeat myself over and over, when talking about the disparities systemic racism creates? Am I truly committed to make a lifetime effort?
My answer is yes.
It is worth a lifetime effort to do whatever I can to change a despicable system that has been in place for hundreds of years. Though it might just take hundreds of years to change it. But if this is the work you do, or want to do, whether it’s diversity and inclusion efforts, social justice or organization development, realize you’re in for the long haul. A very long haul. Consider that what motivates you now, may not motivate you in 30 years.
So ask yourself, are you in it for the long haul? Are you committed to a lifetime effort?