If Not Us, Who?

After witnessing the civil unrest in Charlotte after the shooting death of an African American man by a police officer, and then hearing the news that in Chicago they will hire up to 1,000 new police officers due to an unprecedented increase in murders and violence, I felt compelled to provide a perspective.

But with a wealth of expertise at the Alliance, I have asked Undraye Howard, vice president of the Alliance's Center on Leadership, and Jennifer Jones, director of child and family systems innovation, to offer their perspectives as well.

We will post Undraye's comments Sept. 27 and Jennifer's comments Sept. 28.

The events last week in Charlotte are showing us once again through both civil unrest and peaceful demonstration that within many of our neighbors of color lies a sense of the anger and hopelessness for themselves and their families.

I am well aware it seems naïve, but I do continue to wonder: How can it be in a country as blessed as this one that we cannot come together? That we cannot love one another for our unique humanity, see one another for our shared value, and understand that each of us has hopes, dreams, aspirations, and potential?

I believe America’s social sector, i.e. the nonprofit health and human service organizations I have the honor to represent as president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, must stand up and lead more forcefully. We must help others to recognize the complexity of the challenge we face and understand that all of the simple and technical solutions in the world will not solve this complex and wicked problem. We must demonstrate systems leadership at a time when we may be the only sector that can do that effectively. Because, if not us, who?

We need to confront the fact that this nation has never truly healed from the horrors of slavery and the distorted belief system we had about African Americans and their humanity. If Abraham Lincoln had lived and we had gone through reconstruction as he had planned, we would have taken a great step forward in healing and mutual respect for one another. However, while reconstruction alone would not have been the only answer in ridding us of the racial inequities we have to confront today, it does lead me to believe that today we need to engage with deep intentionality in a national process of reconciliation that begins at the community level.

We will forever be perplexed by this disturbing circumstances if we continue to make the fundamental attribution error. That is that too many among us continue to believe that people are to blame for their problems, and if they would just change their lives, they could have a better life. What is lost is the understanding that the systems and structures that surround us are not within our individual control, yet have great influence on our ability to reach our fullest potential. This is where community comes in, and our sense of reciprocity and accountability to each other as neighbors must be in balance. Of course, I believe in personal responsibility, hard work, the support of a loving family, and sacrifices. But the cold truth is that none of us have achieved anything on our own.

Consider two children. One is African American and lives on the south side of Chicago and the other is one of my three white grandchildren living in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Envision each attempting to climb up a ladder representing their personal climb to reach their fullest potential. My grandchild, born with white privilege is climbing a ladder that is strong and structurally sound. The child of color from Chicago is climbing a ladder that has broken and missing rungs, making it virtually impossible to get to the top of the ladder.

The ladder rungs represent what we understand to be the social determinants of health that I contend are the social determinants of each of our lives. These social determinants represent the environmental context within which people live their lives and they are things that are outside of a person’s control. They are created by policy, laws, societal norms, regulations, and fiscal decisions made by others that either create environments that support us or create environments of toxic stress that science now tells us literally affects our physical and neurological development.

Obviously, two major determinants are poverty and racism. But they also include access to a quality education, safe and affordable housing, transportation, jobs, nutritious and affordable food, quality healthcare, and safety are just a few of the social determinants of your health and mine. The bottom line is that my white grandchild has access to all of these by virtue of his zip code, but the child on the south side of Chicago does not.

Yet, America is blessed with a social sector of community-based organizations that more than ever need to see themselves and be seen as more than providers of programs and services under contract with government. Each organization was established to be a transformative agent of change within the communities it serves. They are organizations that see every person’s potential and strengths, and understand that their paramount responsibility is to advocacy—whether for the individual child, family, community, state, or the nation—in all matters that advance equity. Equity means that all people have equal access and opportunity in their lives! I ask that our network model the very best of our sector by making sure that we are truly practicing what we believe.

I ask that we work across sectors to get underneath root causes, and we bring communities together in dialogue, understanding, healing, and systemic change.

We must call out with conviction the fundamental attribution error that exists in far too many neighborhoods. And we must push ourselves to get back to our roots of understanding that it is through the way we provide our programs and services, our partnerships, innovative spirits, and through our paramount responsibility to advocacy that our goal at the end of the day as the social sector is to ultimately achieve equity in America.

When achieved, it will simply mean that all people by virtue of breathing air in this great nation regardless of zip code, income, or race has equal access and opportunity in their lives. This is not a dream but rather a reality within our reach.

If not us, who?

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