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Facing the Past to Heal the Present

I recently got around to watching Summer of Soul, a documentary of the forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural festival that is considered the Black equivalent of Woodstock. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you do - the history, the never-before-told stories and never-before-seen footage are phenomenally captured. The footage of the event sat in the basement for 50 years, and the first time it's ever been seen publicly was when they started airing it this year.

Something happened to me as I was watching the story unfold. Listening to the themes and the struggles of the day, I was hit with this painful recognition that we are all fighting the same battles we fought back in the summer of 1969, just with new language. Over 60 years later and our struggles serve as a reminder of an open wound on our society.

In 1969, the world was consumed by the idea of landing on the moon, while people in the same country were starving and going without basic needs. Sound familiar? As our world today reaches for technological heights we couldn’t have even dreamed of 20 years ago, malnutrition, lack of access to education, and even lack of access to clean water permeates communities around us.

It's the nature of our society that we have not been able to evolve and really address bias and bigotry, poverty, hatred

It's the nature of our society that we have not been able to evolve and really address bias and bigotry, poverty, hatred - it's a self-perpetuating cycle that isn't breaking. I feel like we have one shot now at really getting it right, to course-correct this runaway train from veering so far off its track.

The last 60 or more years have seen growth in sympathy and even empathy for the marginalized among us, yet we’re still stuck in place. We’re moving in circles believing our movement is progress. But something is broken because we can not move beyond flurries of activism to evolve toward sustainable change.

What we need more of isn’t sympathy or even empathy - what we need is compassion. Sympathy is being sorry someone is in pain; empathy is feeling another’s pain. Compassion is a commitment to ending the pain.

We've gotten lost in the belief that we need to feel another’s feelings to make a difference, and while the notion and effort involved is noble, it doesn’t produce change. Instead, it becomes overwhelming as we try to take in all the suffering and injustice around us, and threatens to push us away from the very causes we care so much about.

For BIPOC individuals there is a fully felt sense of reliving the trauma of the past because the past is never truly behind us. We are aware of the daily suffering of our communities and often experience a sense of hopelessness as we witness and experience the daily indignities that continue to inflict wounds.

We cannot afford to get lost in the pursuit of latching on to the feelings of others, we need to care about them and let that compassionate approach move us.

The path to justice isn’t going to be paved by pretending our society is a fairy tale with a happy ending. Acknowledging the dark spots doesn’t have to diminish the love you may feel for your world, your history, or even your country. The beauty of love is that it can know the true stories about mistakes and tragedy and still stand strong - indeed, can it even be called love if we hide those truths? We can have a complicated relationship with something we love dearly. No human, and therefore no institution run by humans, will ever be perfect. There is no sense in pretending otherwise.

How do we form a more perfect union?

Choose hope over despair. Choose love over contempt. Own up to our mistakes. Keep promises.

There are no quick remedies to centuries' worth of disenfranchisement.

Progress takes all of us. We all have a role to play. It’s time to get off the carousel of well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective acts that the social justice movement has fostered and focus on what really drives change - the capacity of our hearts and the hearts of those around us.


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