This past week was easily the hardest week in America in my lifetime. I am, in many ways, lost in grief for our nation. I love America so much – and yet it is clear that more challenging days are ahead.
We have been through a lot over the past few months. Our lives have been turned upside down by a global pandemic no one saw coming last fall. We have battled stress and exhaustion. Communities have lost many jobs, businesses, and livelihoods. And, we have mourned the loss of friends and loved ones.
Through it all, we have rallied day in and day out to keep our focus sharp, our spirits high, our community together, and our commitment to democracy strong. Whatever challenges we have faced, however novel or formidable, we have tackled together. And as I watched our communities rise to the challenge of caring for each other in the midst of the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, I began to have cautious optimism about the future.
However, the events of the past ten days – starting with the senseless and brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, followed by the escalation of hateful rhetoric, violence and destruction, and culminating in the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital – have all but shattered my optimism. Not only did these events call up a lifetime’s worth of painful memories of horrendous discrimination and horrific acts of violence against Black Americans, they also are embedded in our country’s historical foundation and reveal the forces of racism that still permeate our institutions and culture today.
So, as I write to you now during this most uncertain hour for our country and world, I am worried and brokenhearted. And, I am angry. I’m angry that my Black friends, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens are daily subjects of indignities that I neither have or could ever experience. I am angry that they continue to pay a terrible toll for inequities and inequality in health and education. I am angry that I have to explain to my boys why their relationships to the police and to power are so different from their friends whose skin isn’t white.
I am angry that the horrible fate that befell George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others also could just as easily befall any Black person in this country – including any Black member of my own community. For Black Americans, each killing of an innocent and unarmed person furnishes yet another excruciating reminder of how the nation continues to devalue Black lives and bodies, and of the legacy of slavery and the burning real terror of white supremacy.
Make no mistake: racism exacts a terrible, dehumanizing toll on all of us. We are living in a time when the most fundamental values that guide our society are being threatened and tested as never before during most of our lifetimes. The ideals of our democracy – the integrity of our electoral and criminal justice systems; the sanctity of law; and respect for the worth of the individual – are visibly under assault by corruption, greed, and the disaffection of ordinary people who no longer believe that they have the personal agency to effect meaningful change.
Poor people and people of color bear the brunt of this damage, but for anyone to imagine that they are somehow safe from these forces is akin to ignoring warnings about, say, the dangers of a deadly virus. To put it more simply: When we avert our eyes from a horrible crime against another human being, we become complicit in a society that can disregard our own rights as well.
We are not powerless to act. As civic leaders in our communities, we actually have the power to help end 401 years of racism. From the most humble local volunteer to the largest university, local leaders are our best hope for instilling an understanding of human difference and the institutions of a participatory democracy.
The National Conference on Citizenship in particular has an important role to play. You are the leaders our communities turn to for support in times of need. You are working side by side with your neighbors to ensure every American participates in our elections, from the most local meeting race to our national races. You are on the frontlines ensuring that there is a full and complete count in the 2020 Census. You are the ones combatting and pushing back against misinformation that is so prevalent in our society.
I have spent a lot of time in the last few days thinking about my own behavior and my own role in the systems that perpetuate racism. What can I do differently? What can we do, together, differently? We can continue to work to eradicate racism in our own community. We can continue to work to ensure that being a citizen in the United States of America means justice, peace, and fairness. We must move to action that goes beyond expressing sympathy or outrage. We can look beyond the moment, and reaffirm that the struggle against racism and inequity isn’t part of our mission – it is our mission. And, we can recognize that change isn’t simply about a protest march or a petition; it can also be a community meeting, a volunteer opportunity, a community health clinic, a food cooperative, or even a Fourth of July parade.
Right now, each of us – including and especially those with power and privilege – has a responsibility to stand up against racial bias, racial hatred, and the evil of racism. We must redouble our commitment and resolve to fight racism and advance social justice for all. And,we will.
Local leaders in our communities across the country are of critical importance in changing how we think about, talk about, and address race. Together, we must continue to identify the needs around us – and share resources to address challenges we are all facing.
These are very hard times. But, what gives me hope and strength is you —thank you for everything you do to build a stronger, better America.
Amanda Gorman, the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate, recently composed the stunning poem “In This Place (An American Lyric)”. (You can read it online here, or watch a dramatic reading of it here.) The closing stanzas of the poem resonate very deeply for me:
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.
There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.
There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.
Thank you for your service – please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support from the NCoC community.
More – much more – to come.
– Nicco Mele, CEO