July 16, 2015 — Time has a way of simultaneously standing still and moving at a rapid pace. When I look at my kids, I try with every fiber of my being to make time stop. But it won’t, and my heart yearns for more.
The passage of time does not heal all wounds, but it can make a start. The fierce debate in South Carolina over whether to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds created new opportunities to address a long and painful history of conflict and a longstanding cultural divide. Seeing that flag come down was a symbol of progress that left me in tears. The recent Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality also serves as a milestone for human rights and social justice.
On my most reflective days, I cannot think about my own children without remembering those who came before me. My mother is fearless yet strikingly vulnerable, and she lights up the sky with her smile. Deeply committed to social justice, she raised me to embrace fear, pain, and discomfort as guideposts for change. Just weeks after nine black churchgoers were gunned down during Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, I find her lessons for living enveloping my thoughts and seeping into my soul.
My mother grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when the American South was still brutally—and officially—segregated. She and her four siblings were the children of a prominent attorney who stayed out of the forefront of the civil rights movement and chose a quieter path to fighting injustice.
My mother once told a story about her father purchasing the deed to a house formerly occupied by a white man, who addressed my grandfather using a nasty racial slur. My grandfather didn’t always publicly challenge the segregationists he encountered throughout his life, but he acted as a change agent by breaking color barriers in private.
Known locally as the “Dean of Black Lawyers,” he mentored a generation of young of aspiring black lawyers and provided legal counsel to those who chose to become more publicly involved in the fight for civil rights. Yet he was keenly aware of the limits of his power. When my mother was a rebellious teen, her father would sternly warn her, “Whatever you do, don’t go into Mississippi. I would not be able to find you in Mississippi.”
When I think about Charleston, my grandfather’s warning runs through my veins like hot coals. Were he still alive, my grandfather would be 110 years old today. The past 100+ years have brought some horrific injustices. Racism, sexism, ageism, and a host of everyday biases are still evident throughout every institution. There is so much work yet to be done.
Yet at the same time, the past 100 years have brought us once-unimaginable changes. I am awestruck and inspired by how many people choose to forge a positive path forward out of tragedy and adversity. The forgiveness offered by the families of those murdered in Charleston is a profound recent example. I could only hope to be so courageous.
Most of us have few watershed moments in our daily lives; however, each of us has many unique opportunities to facilitate change.
My children ground me and I feel lucky to be their student; they help me build leadership skills every day, particularly humility and courage. My relationship with my spouse teaches me to accept life’s ups and downs. He and I have been married for 18 years and have had to navigate many changes in that time, including two beautiful children, two miscarriages—which is a difficult thing to write down—the recent passing from multiple myeloma of my father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, and of course our daily struggle to balance our careers with our personal and family lives. My professional background in social work, experience as a professor, and work at Catalyst are other areas where I seek to facilitate change. In these roles, I am consistently reminded that change is hard, “small wins” must be celebrated, and dialogue is key to building inclusion and dealing with the harsh realities of ongoing injustice.
Now and again, it’s important to slow down a bit and recognize that although we’re not all high-profile public leaders, we each have daily opportunities to drive change—we just need to look for them.
(In the photo above: Augustus Arvis Latting and his granddaughter, Dnika Travis.)