I spent this week with a group of people committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in their organizations. We chose to use the March on Washington in 1963 as a case study for building diverse networks to effect culture change. We got out of the classroom and explored the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.
Afterwards, we talked about the emotional experience of the museum. There was a mixture of sorrow, anger, and cynicism after walking for hours amongst the horrific images of enslavement, lynchings, and torture of innocent children.
Why on earth would anyone see the need to make slave shackles for an infant? How could two men brutally murder a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till, in cold blood, because he whistled at a white woman? How could somebody plant a bomb in a church, murdering four little girls, just days after Martin Luther King delivered a speech sharing his dream that children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character? How can we possibly justify the alarming rate at which unarmed African Americans are killed by the police?
It’s crushing to be exposed to the seemingly unending cruelty of humans against other humans.
Yet our discussion was not all shrouded in dark thoughts. The participants in my class also shared intense pride, hope, and resolve. We talked about how powerful it was to bear witness to the strength and resilience of people who, in spite of the most monstrous treatment, created strong and thriving communities. They kept (and keep) moving forward, fighting against the immoral treatment that they and their kin had been victim to for generations.
And we all felt a sense of community in that space, realizing that we are the next generation to continue the fight and to honor those who came before us.
I realized how strongly our emotions can impact not only our outlook but our approach to community building. Those who choose to build their communities from a place of fear or anger not only distance themselves from learning about others, but can dehumanize those they deem as the “other” to such an extreme that they feel justified in committing horrific acts against innocent individuals.
Those who choose to build their communities from a place of joy and hope open themselves up to the abundance of what humanity offers. They gain knowledge, they create bonds across differences, they honor the stories that every person brings. They build bridges, and ultimately everyone ends up better off.
Written on the stone that holds the statue of Martin Luther King Jr at the MLK Memorial are the words, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” These words were part of Dr. King’s speech on August 28, 1963, when hundreds of thousands of human beings of all races, genders, colors, and creeds, marched together with the common vision that all humans deserve to be treated with the same amount of dignity. The Memorial and the museum are not only symbols of our country’s history. They are symbols of the ideals that Dr. King embraced: justice, democracy, love, and hope.
Of late, I’ve found it far easier to slip into a perspective of anger and despair. I admit that I have spent a fair bit of time reinforcing my anger and despair within my existing community, talking with those who share my perspective, and we feed off each other. It takes a great deal more effort to come from a perspective of love and hope. It means I have to open myself up to a broader community of people who don’t always share my views, to acknowledge and validate the humanity of those who are often 180 degrees from me in terms of ideologies and values.
It’s quite possible that they will not extend the same courtesy to me. Coming from a place of love and hope means I accept that reality, and keep the door of my heart open for them.
Martin Luther King said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” What would the world be like if we all could embrace the ideals of Dr. King and the millions of people throughout our nation’s history who have marched for freedom and equality? If we could all choose to set aside our anger, fear, and distrust and stretch our arms out to one another as brothers and sisters? Will we as a human community ever evolve, or are we doomed to continue repeating the same atrocities against one another in the generations to come?
I don’t know.
But my path, and the path to which I will guide my children, will always be one of justice, democracy, love, and hope.