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Turning From Despair to Optimism and Action

by Juan R. Olivarez

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”
– John Lewis, from a tweet, June 2018

Like many, I’m feeling despair these days due to the current traumas we’re facing — the pandemic’s health crisis, job loss and business closings, and an economic reality we haven’t faced since the Great Depression. It is also the trauma of observing the continual brutality and murder of our Black brothers and sisters. These are continuous reminders of the racism that still exists in our communities and in our country.

I’ve been disheartened by the disproportionate number of Black and brown victims associated with COVID-19, reflecting widespread racial disparities in health (The COVID Tracking Project, 2020). I’m disheartened by the number of businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) disproportionately being left out of government emergency stimulus funding (Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, 2020). I am also disheartened by the number of schools where BIPOC students are disproportionately lacking technology equipment and internet access to learn online (Auxier & Anderson, 2020).

These data illuminate the many inequities we have seen and tackled over many decades. Alarms have been sounding for a long time, but too many are not hearing the alerts. And if they are hearing the alerts, they aren’t accepting the urgency. Vast numbers of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are being left behind by our systems, many of which are rooted in systemic and structural racism. These inequities negatively affect health outcomes, educational attainment, housing stability, access to livable-wage jobs, and overall quality of life.

Alarms have been sounding for a long time, but too many are not hearing the alerts. And if they are hearing the alerts, they aren’t accepting the urgency.

Some communities have been neglected for centuries. And today, our economy is no longer working for the working class in America. Prosperity is becoming harder and harder to realize, especially for those who must endure racism in everyday life. Our democracy under these conditions is not sustainable. It is time to invest in these communities in greater ways. We know what to do, but do we have the will to change systems, structures, policies that were created without full representation? We know what it takes to create upward mobility, but do we have the will to admit that our community’s human capital is our greatest asset, and that an equity agenda must permeate throughout every sector in our communities?

I’m encouraged by the many actions I’ve seen in the past four months in many sectors, but I’m discouraged when I think about the many times everyone mobilizes after a traumatic event, and then it dissolves, as society becomes distracted by the information overload we live in.

The philanthropic sector has historically acted swiftly to assist communities during a crisis. During this current crisis, some are relaxing their guidelines, timelines, and grantee deliverables. This is appreciated, however, the bold changes required for long term advancement of our BIPOC communities should be addressed through changes in priorities, policies, decision making and structures.

Yes, we’ve been here before — quick reactions to the police brutality against African American males, to the shootings of students in schools, to the caging of Latinx immigrant children at the border, to the shootings at Mosques and Synagogues, and to the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Quick reactions are good, but they have also waned away far too quickly, without realizing the bold, and transformational changes we need to create communities that work for everyone.

I want to be as optimistic as I was 57 years ago when I heard President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963. I was in high school. I have seen positive changes since that time, but I also know that much more has to be done. We have not gone far enough to see that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are reflected in what the constitution guarantees for ALL people, “equal protection of the laws.” We have not gone far enough to confront our own biases and work toward anti-racism, from personal to structural.

The recent deaths of Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and U.S. Rep. John Lewis turned my attention to reflect on these two advocates who have fought for human rights throughout their lives. Their legacies will tell a story of resilience, tenacity, involvement, and hope. Their deaths reminded me of their stories as pursuers of justice for all, peaceful marchers, activists, and positive contributors to our country. These stories took me to a high level of optimism that we must all embrace with energy and commitment — commitment to do our part, to create progress and to not accept change just on the fringes, but at the core of the issues.

I close with another quote from John Lewis that filled me with inspiration and courage to act not only on the here and now, but to act consistently every day, every year. I hope it inspires everyone to act.

“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
– John Lewis, from his 2017 memoir, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America

Photo: Juan R. Olivarez, Ph.D.
Juan R. Olivarez, Ph.D., was named the first Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Johnson Center in 2018. Throughout his career, Olivarez has been a passionate champion for equity and inclusion. He served as president of Grand Rapids Community College from 1999 to 2008, and as president of Aquinas College, his alma mater, from 2011 to 2017. Between these two presidencies, Olivarez held the position of president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation (2008–2011), where the educational needs of the community were a top priority. Learn more about Dr. Olivarez.

References
Auxier, B., Anderson, M. (2020, March 16). As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/16/as-schools-close-due-to-the-coronavirus-some-u-s-students-face-a-digital-homework-gap/
Lewis, J. (2018, June 27). Do not get lost in a sea of despair. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/repjohnlewis/status/1011991303599607808
The COVID Tracking Project. (2020). The COVID racial data tracker. Retrieved July 31, 2020 from https://covidtracking.com/race
U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship. (2020, July 23). Capital access for minority small businesses: COVID-19 resources for an equitable and sustainable recovery. [Hearing]. https://www.sbc.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2020/7/capital-access-for-minority-small-businesses-covid-19-resources-for-an-equitable-and-sustainable-recovery

 

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