There’s a favorite story that my mother shares often about my older brother, Tom. I had an unusual childhood for many reasons, but I think our neighborhood in suburban south central Pennsylvania was perhaps the most interesting. We lived in a nearly all-Caucasian neighborhood. But to the right of us lived a mixed race couple. Across the street lived two African American families. And two homes a few houses away were also African American. My parents lived in their home for decades and saw more diversity in that small part of the block than perhaps in the entire development. We grew up not knowing that the color of someone’s skin made them different. We were more on the lookout for nose-pickers and bath avoiders and yes, we even had a pick-the-gum-off-the-sidewalk-and-chew-it neighbor. They were the ones we watched carefully.
There was a time in my brother’s youth that he was told by another child that his closest friend and our across-the-street neighbor, Dave, was Black. That afternoon, after a day of playing, Tom asked my mom what it meant when someone called someone else, “Black.” My mom looked at him oddly. When he told her the context, she sat him down on the couch and asked him if he ever noticed Dave’s skin color. Tom shook his head. He said that Dave had very nice skin. When my mom broke the news to him that Dave was African American, Tom laughed and walked away. He humored her, “Sure, Mom. Dave is Black. I must be too because he and I like all the same things and are the same kinda kids.”
I feel great pride that family values helped me, and in turn my own children, feel like respect supersedes intolerance in almost all cases (the pick-the-gum-off-the-sidewalk-and-chew-it neighbor may have pushed my limits on this value). Last week I had the privilege of hearing former president of Brown and Smith Universities, Ruth Simmons, speak in New York City at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) annual Summit of senior leaders in Advancement. Her talk was interesting, and I listened without taking a note until the moment that she gave me a word that helped me know what has been agonizing me daily for the past few years. She spoke of communities divided in spite of the fact that they have many more things in common. She called upon us to reflect on those things that we share in order to repair what has been damaged.
It is the word I have struggled with finding. It is the word that describes my desire to move to action in some way to counter the conflict in our country. I am ashamed of many things today. Elected officials offer us no hope, but instead fear, loathing, even at times, hate. Song lyrics both celebrate and outcry murder and violence. The news hunts for conflict and if ever, only briefly tells us of “repair.” Celebrities promote the most bizarre behaviors of self-absorption and disregard for others.
There is a quote from H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds – a man who knew how to terrify a nation with his words. And yet he said,
“Let your love be stronger than your hate or anger. Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend, than to break.”
I hope and pray that things will right size. That we find a way to talk about the past in a way that strengthens the present and future. That in conflict, there aren’t always winners and losers because in both, healing remains incomplete.
I ponder what my small part is, and as a consultant, I have opportunities to work with many different people in many different states. I am trying hard to supersede the ignorance that bombards us. Donald Trump profanely cries out for a wall to the south. He allies with populations bonded by hate. He stretches the truth with flagrant disregard, and we all just walk away, shaking our heads, saying, “That’s just Trump.”
On the flip side, the other day, one of my son’s young friends was speaking about how, if she could vote, she would be a supporter of Hillary Clinton. The young girl proclaimed herself to be a strident feminist. When another friend asked how she felt about the many troubled circumstances around Hillary, she replied, “Oh, it’s all ok. She apologized.” This smart, articulate young woman – my hope for the future – sitting in the back seat of my car, expressed that all wrongs are made right with just the use of two words, “I’m sorry.”
There was a time where the workplace and home were sewn together by a culture of respect. Is it not the case that we work very hard to repair conflict with those we respect? Reflecting on H. G. Wells, have we lost our interest in bending, clearly at the cost of breaking? I am working very hard in my work to be a bridge, always noticing difference of opinion and strategy and working toward compromise. I seek out the values, the ideas, the practices, the beliefs that my clients share and try to help them transcend the tensions from the past and regroup around the possible new present and future they can create together. It’s not much, but it’s my way of trying to return back to those days of my youth when my brother thought his friend had very nice skin and they were both Black. And their unconditional respect for each other ran very deep.
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