Like many of you, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past several weeks thinking about all that we are watching unfold around us; and honestly, I’m feeling the weight of it all. My general nature is to be optimistic. But the truth is, the past three weeks have been really hard.
From a daily life perspective, we’ve all been dealing with any number of things since mid-March: COVID ... our kids learning from home ... COVID ... concerns about our employment ... COVID ... remote work, which at times feels nonstop ... COVID ... thinking about when and how life will return to “normal” ... COVID.
Then there’s the unrest that has exploded in our country and city over the past few weeks. As a human being, as a citizen of this country, as a woman and as an African American, I am struggling to make good sense of the events that recently occurred in New York’s Central Park involving Christian Cooper and in Minneapolis resulting in the death of George Floyd.
I find myself thinking about Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and so many others who have suffered and died. And I find myself thinking about my young sons, my husband, my family members, my friends. I am carrying a weight of sadness for all that we’ve been experiencing in this country for centuries, and what we’re living and witnessing right now across the U.S. and in Richmond.
My heart hurts as I’ve watched peaceful protests turn to violence and as I consider the complex history that has wrought physical and psychological damage on all our communities, but especially on those communities that historically have been disadvantaged. My personal belief is that violence as an act of retaliation to injustice, including looting and rioting, is not appropriate.
But when I think about from where such strong emotion grows, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring for me, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” We all must listen to what people are trying to tell us, whether people are speaking through words or through action.
Over the past several days, some have asked me what they can or should do in this moment. Let me start by saying we should not view our response to this moment as a “to-do” list or as a set of check-the-box activities. The challenges of racism are ever-present, so the work must be ongoing; and we all must commit to doing the work for the long term.
Each year at commencement, I challenge our graduates to translate the knowledge they’ve gained and the experiences they’ve had while students in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies into service to our community. In essence, I ask them to focus on the needs and well-being of others, even knowing they long to realize their own hopes and dreams.
I believe we all share this responsibility, especially at this moment. We are beyond commencement season, but the call to all of us is incredibly strong: Our city and our country need all of us to be servant leaders. A phrase coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, a servant leader is one who focuses on the growth and well-being of individuals and communities; one who sees others and others’ needs ahead of their own.
How do we do that? The truth is we cannot see or understand others’ needs until we first see them, until we understand who they are as individuals and what their lived experiences are as human beings. This moment calls us all to live in true community — to identify at least one attribute we share and then to use that as a launchpad for authentic, difficult, ongoing, meaningful dialogue, seeking first to understand the other.
Commit to learning as much as you can about the experience of people who are not in your immediate circle, who don’t look like you, whose background is different from your own. Reflect on what you learn, asking clarifying questions to gain new perspectives. Then use your new understanding and perspective to enlighten and challenge others to do the same. I am committed to doing the sustained and hard work, and I hope others are committed in this moment to join me.
Jamelle S. Wilson is dean at the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org