The One Word That Still Gives Me Hope for 2020

September 28, 2020

At this point, it’s clear that we’ll need a significant amount of positive energy to come out on top of 2020.  Three quarters done, and the year feels like 24/7 media coverage of a reality show about speed-dating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Still, we have to stay strong, positive and thoughtful. While the “one word” that I have in mind applies equally to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the turmoil surrounding many unmet needs for social justice that inspired me to write today.

I am going to start by talking about race. This is not something I ever expected myself to do publicly but, I must admit, that I think the path to resolution will be found only if each and every one of us is willing to go "on record" to thoughtfully share our thoughts, experiences, and biases.

First of all, personally, I personally have no complaints. I grew up in a working poor family as a “latch-key kid,” long before the term was common. My parents were divorced but loving to us kids and to each other. Money was tight, but we never suffered. All of us grew up with privilege and were able to achieve levels of success that my parents had not. 

As I watch the turmoil of 2020 continue to grow without end in sight, it occurs to me how important, how vital it is for us to start talking about the conversations we—as individuals, as friends and neighbors, as a country—have never had. The conversations we must have.

That said, I was a brownish kid in the coastal Massachusetts suburbs south of Boston—an area known locally and affectionately as the Irish Riviera. I attended Woodsdale Elementary School in my hometown of Abington for kindergarten through fifth grade, which was 1970 through early 1976. In some ways, our neighborhood would at the time have passed for a picture-perfect image of working-class America. The area was mostly Catholic, although we had a few Protestant and Jewish kids as well—I grew up enjoying a Christmas tree and a Menorah in my classroom each winter. We lived close by the school and walked to class every day. My classmates were mostly Irish, with some Italians and others thrown in, but there were no African American kids at Woodsdale then.

Hard Conversations 

Selective focus photograph of a single empty swing on a playground swingset, with the sun setting in the background. Image credit: Dan Meyers via Unsplash.
Image credit: Dan Meyers via Unsplash

It was out near the swing sets on the school playground that someone called me the N-word for the first time. This memory has always been strikingly vivid and, until recently, I’d never really thought about why. I was either 6 or 7 years old. I vividly remember the name and face of the child that called me that word but not because I had any idea of its significance—at the time, I didn’t know what it meant. It was clear, though, even if I didn’t understand why, how much he hated me when he said it. Well, kids are resilient, and I actually have no other memories of that boy. I’m thankful that I never had another encounter that hostile. But I did hear of some such altercations.

On September 12, 1974, my first day of third grade, violence broke out elsewhere in my state in response to a court order that sought to desegregate Massachusetts high schools by ordering Black students to be bused to traditionally white schools and vice versa. The violence did not involve protests at the courts or dustups among adults. Instead, school buses carrying African American children were pelted with eggs, bricks, and bottles, while police in combat gear struggled to control angry white protesters besieging the schools. It was horrifying, it was all over TV, and it was not lost on my young self that those engaging in violence were, like me, white, and that they chose to protest by attacking school buses full of Black children. In what world could that be ok? Later that same year, use of federally appropriated funds for busing became illegal, but there are some success stories that emerged from voluntary programs that started in the 1980s.

One of my daughters’ closest friends from high school in affluent Hingham, Massachusetts, where we live now, reflects one such success story, as does her older brother. For four years, we saw these kids get up hours before their classmates and take an hour-long bus ride to a suburban school where they looked different from most other students. Nevertheless, they excelled. The young man, a year ahead of his sister and my daughter, graduated with honors and a full athletic scholarship to a great university. His younger sister exceeded even those outstanding accomplishments and passed over a full boat to Harvard to take a comparable opportunity at Howard. I got to know this young lady especially well when she honored me by basing one of her most important projects on interviewing me about the work I’ve done with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), an organization she hopes to work for one day. I have many memories of their great friendship with my daughter. I remember in particular the way they all looked for their junior prom pictures, which they decided to take at our house, and I remember her sweet and kind grandmother, who raised both of these amazing young people.

I also remember that her grandmother’s car was the only car in my driveway that day with a Lyft sign in the window.

As I watch the turmoil of 2020 continue to grow without end in sight, it occurs to me how important, how vital it is for us to start talking about the conversations we—as individuals, as friends and neighbors, as a country—have never had. The conversations we must have.

Planting Seeds Instead of Plowing Under

Black and white photograph of a neon sign that says "think about things differently," with the word "differently" upside down. Image credit: Ivan Bertolazzi via Pexels.
Image credit: Ivan Bertolazzi via Pexels

Recently, I saw a fresh burst of criticism for NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick flash across several threads in my Facebook feed. Surprisingly, this did it for me. I actually got angry and could not seem to make the anger go away.  For me, what crystallized in that moment was the essence of injustice that had previously never fully landed in my psyche. Given the conflict, racial injustice, and pain and suffering that has boiled over onto our streets, how can anyone blame a man who simply used the platform he had to make a point in a respectful manner by kneeling for the national anthem at the start of his football game? How is it his fault that his protests were met with personal criticism, and sacrifice, and that society missed that opportunity for useful dialogue with the inevitable result being the frustration that has overflown onto our streets? 

I have listened to these critics carefully. Those that condemn Mr. Kaepernick are the same as those calling for the arrest of protestors, expressing glee at the mention of firehoses, shooting, and other brutal shows of force. It is clear that much of this response is not about the tactics of protest, but about the mere existence of it. Some people simply do not acknowledge the need for the dialogue or for progress that may allow healing and progress. Kneeling at football is bad. Peaceful protesting is bad. Any show of displeasure with the racial status quo in America is bad…

It seems that we all must work to create space for these conversations. But while we all have the right and obligation to make ourselves heard, it’s just as essential that we also listen. Remember that word I teased in the title? The word is de-escalation. We need to acknowledge the conflicts that are splitting our nation, but we must also find a way to have productive dialogue that brings solutions within reach. 

We need conversations about race in America that are clear, honest, open, respectful, and thorough. We need to take a hard look how we protect ourselves and our communities from crime, how we mete out justice—and how we fall short at these tasks. We need to talk about how we respond to an epidemic that has caused so much grief and economic hardship. We need to discuss what we wish to be as a nation during a presidential election year. And we must find a way to have these conversations in ways that do not inevitably lead to unresolvable conflict. But where to start?

I’m an engineer and physical scientist, not a social scientist, so I claim no special expertise, but here are my thoughts. We must all be ready to share our experiences and be equally interested in understanding the experiences of others. If you have friends of a different race or ethnicity and you’ve never listened to them share their experiences and perspectives, now might be a good time to do that. We also should resolve to spend more of our energy on the things we are for, not the things we are against. And while we should speak up when we see something that bothers us, we need to find ways to do so that strengthen our relationships, not torch them. 

We must be ready to make new friends. And we need to learn to be willing to speak about politics, race, religion, and all the intersections between—something that many in my generation were taught never to do. And, hard as it may be, we have to be willing to face the prospect of losing “friends” when we share our opinions and take a stand on issues that matter to us. 

When things get too hot, we must not look to deliver a knock-down blow. Instead, we need to step back, open our eyes (and ears) and remember that the dialogue is too important to be won or lost by one party. This simply will not work much of the time, as some are unwilling to listen and be convinced of anything that runs counter to their current preferred ideology. Instead, real communication will be about picking and choosing conversations where you perceive the opportunity for planting a seed, not for plowing a field.