In this series, ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt poses three questions to the guest columnist, and the guest columnist selects one to reflect on. This week, Justin Amos, Business Manager with Fleet Management, City of Charlotte, goes off script to write about events in recent weeks.
I will be honest. I had a complete “Let me ask” draft ready to send to Kent last Friday evening. My first draft actually followed his directions and was a 500- word piece on what’s surprised me about transitioning from a large local government budget office to an operational focused position within the City of Charlotte’s Fleet Management. With some Tar Heel state trivia, Michael Jordan references and a few public service jokes, it was perfectly adequate.
However, that draft does not represent my current reality or headspace. The recent events in our country have tested the positivity core that has always been a part of my natural soul. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all work, think and operate. I am a social person by nature, and I love interacting with citizens (most of the time), neighborhood groups, fleet technicians, vendors, even city/county managers. Everyone has something to say, something to add to the collective conversation that is powerful, you just need to take the time, energy and investment to find it. And then last Monday happened.
The public demonstrations, protests, and anger that resulted from the tragically unjust death of George Floyd on the evening of Monday, May 25th seems to be a turning point in our society. It has started a new conversation on race, equity, and the societal divides within our country. The anger, exposed frustration, and centuries of broken promises boiled over to reveal a tired story of an unbalanced society that has not yet lived up to its original ideals.
Yes, I am a white male who benefits from unearned privilege. Yes, I have lived in North Carolina my entire life and I deeply love my state, with all its shortcomings and failures. I was raised to accept people for who they are, to empathize with those around me and I have tried to be a friend to each person in my life, to be someone that listens first in order to understand somebody’s perspective before I speak.
I also do not believe I am naïve, and I have listened carefully when my African-American friends share their stories of their own American experience, stories that have been very different from my own, having never been pulled over and threatened while driving, jogging, or many of the other things white Americans take for granted every day. It is not an easy story to experience and I have tried to internalize their feelings and reactions, to better understand my innate prejudice and to call it out when I see it. And that is not an easy thing for me, because deep down, I am a people pleaser who wants others to get along. But difficult times call for people to change, to challenge themselves, to get out of their comfort zones.
On a recent NYT’s “The Daily” podcast, Audra D.S. Burch, a national enterprise correspondent, expressed her emotions of reporting on this story over the weekend. She described a surreal feeling of watching a police precinct burning down in Minneapolis. Working in local government, we are taught early on to be a source of moderation, to listen to all sides and try to understand different points of view. I count many police officers and command staff as friends who work tirelessly to make their community a better place, who work long hours, attend community meetings, and mentor kids on their days off in an attempt to bridge the gap that exists between communities of color and the police. But, on that night in Minneapolis, this precinct, which should be a symbol of protection, was burned to ground. experiencing a situation where anger, despair and distrust leads to the destruction of a police station, a symbol of protection, and yet it has not served that purpose for a large portion of society, burning to the ground was something that she reported is hard to put into words.
So, what’s different now? It would be hard to put finger on it but feels like a turning point, a point where no one knows what’s on the other side. Decades of entrenched disparity, inequity, a months long pandemic that has affected communities of color more than other parts of our society, and the visceral videos of tragedy, are showing us where we have fallen so very short.
During the podcast, Ms. Burch raised this thought: we deserve better and more honest conversations. I agree, we need to be honest with each other. We, as Americans, as citizens, as human beings, need to be allowed to feel what is going on–Black America, white America, Latino America, as Americans, we need and should all sit with this for a moment. We need to decide what this means. Before we fall back into our normal silos, our fall back positions, our normal cable news or social media channels, we just need to stop and listen to each other. We need to sit with it, reflect, just sit still to allow for deep introspection as to who we want to be as Americans in the coming years.
As the saying goes, Love doesn’t see color, hate does. Hatred has no heart, but love does. I believe in the goodness of people. I have seen people come together, from every corner of Charlotte to overcome tragedy and accomplish great things, to positively impact the lives of its citizens. As public servants we are looked to lead organizations that respond to crisis, to stand up and lead. To be a source of light in an otherwise dark time. We are charged to be the change that others talk about. To change values, hiring practices and goals in our organizations to reflect the society in which they serve, to actively listen when programs are not working, to work tirelessly to better understand the challenges of our communities. We are called to remove our blinders, not lose faith in each other, or lose sight of why we choose to work in public service. To never lose faith in each other, to remove our blinders, or lose sight of why we chose to be in public service. We want to make a difference, to make our community better than it was when we started, to be a force for good.
And what better time than now, in these dark days—to stand and be the example to set for others to follow. Because, in the end, we are on this earth for a short period of time. If we do not hold ourselves responsible, if we are not empathetic, if we are not willing to change deep seated habits then nothing changes, and we are fated to cycle through the same tragic mistakes that cost lives and deepens the gaps of mistrust between government and the communities it serves. In the end, we will continue to fail to live up to our self-evident American creed, which hasn’t yet been achieved: that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.