A couple of weeks ago, we were encouraged to #choosekindness as part of a national anti-bullying campaign. What strikes me is the focus on choice. We are currently in the midst of much proposed and actual change, and it has been frequently said that some of these issues are driving us apart.
I don’t believe that is true.
Most of these issues are not new. We are constantly required to deal with new and re-emerging concerns, particularly given that change is inevitable. How we choose to tackle this change is ultimately what defines us. Do we choose to deal with the inevitable messiness or do we choose to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist — in favor of business as usual and a pretend peace?
Living in a country and a community that aspires to value the rights and needs of a diverse citizenry has meant that we are in constant pursuit of a “more perfect union.” Hopefully we are learning from our mistakes and getting closer to our goals in the process. But let us not conflate strategy with achievement. Keeping the peace does not get us closer to that union. Whether we are weighing the approaches to legalized recreational marijuana, 21st-century educational needs, or policing, it is our choices that either move us closer to our goals or not.
Issues not properly dealt with in the past are re-emerging as they are apt to do. Choosing a strategy of avoidance over confrontation only kicks the can down the road for so long. Our journey toward achieving our goals will probably be messy and may get worse before it gets better. It is, after all, an experiment, and experiments are iterative, requiring continuous improvement. Staying the same is not an effective choice if we have not yet achieved our goals, but for many it may feel safer. Those seeking that safety may not realize or care that it was never safe for many of their neighbors.
So what do we do when we find ourselves at an impasse? Well, there are specific mediation practices we should be using on a regular basis, none of which include being dismissive, rude, snide, intractable, or just plain nasty. In general, it requires being in a state of curiosity — asking questions when you don’t understand, exploring the options fully, teasing out the difference between feelings and facts, and dealing directly with fellow decision-makers.
That doesn’t mean you don’t consider how you make people feel. One can be kind without being nice. If we stay focused on the results and not on feeding fears, being right or saving face, that brings us much closer to our goals.
The choices made by our leaders and the people they serve speak to our values. It will not matter what’s said if nothing changes; and it will not matter if the peace is kept by silencing the marginalized. The beloved Elijah Cummings showed us that leadership matters, voting matters, and the choices we make every day to be equitable, inclusive and kind matter.
Linda T. Francis is director of Success of All Youth, an initiative of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation. She shares her personal views which do not represent the Community Foundation.