This morning, I went to an informal meeting my son’s elementary school principal set up inviting parents’ thoughts about the achievement gap between middle-class white students and students of color/English language learners/lower income students.
It couldn’t have come at a better moment for me. The social and political upheaval of these past weeks has found me creeping along the edge of despair. The gulf between those who see injustice deeply embedded in our society and those who see our racial and class crises as manufactured feels wider than ever. As someone in that first group, and as much as the nationwide mass protests encouraged me, I’ve been searching for to do next. A stay-at-home dad of young children, I can’t picture myself literally putting my body on the line. I have also started to wonder how we can move beyond confrontation—necessary as confrontation sometimes is—to build a conversation that moves us forward.
So I felt better seeing the principal–the white, male, child of a police officer—demonstrate such a strong desire to discover what needs to change for underachieving students do better and so that the school culture expands to include their families more effectively.
His felt like the response I think we all should be making: First, recognize that something fundamental isn’t working; second ask what needs to change so that we can work with each other to build a better community? This act requires, of course, that we each look beyond ourselves and our perspectives. That’s a struggle when I see harmful elements in other perspective, but the only alternative means somehow imposing our will on others. I don’t see that as a viable option, especially when no clear dominant perspective exists.
How do we break this kind of impasse? How do we open ourselves with the kind of action that my son’s principal initiated?
After this morning’s meeting, through an odd series of Twitter comments and responses, I found my way to this interview. It reminded me that, for all the racial, political, and economic dimensions of the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, the roots of this crisis are spiritual.
I don’t mean religious. People of ostensibly the same religious faiths occupy various positions on the fractures that have radiated outward across the country. No, by “spiritual,” I mean that solutions depend on committing ourselves to a whole larger than the truths that we each cling to, even if we can’t yet imagine what that whole would look like. I mean a sense that our opponents occupy a necessary place in the larger community. I mean working to clarify not only the “misguided” views our opponents hold but our own views as well.
Speaking for myself, I know that moving toward that more expansive perspective will involve an act of faith. Right now, when I read online comments or see expressions contrary to mine, I have difficulty imagining a productive conversation with the people who have presented them. But I don’t know how we get anywhere without that conversation. To envision something besides, on the one hand, those people silenced, or, on the other hand, throwing up my hands and retreating inside my own safe circle, I have to find a way to believe—or even pretend to believe—that my opponents possess some piece of the truth that I need. And I’m never going to get that essential piece unless I listen.
Something in me needs to change and move me beyond the place I now inhabit. That means humility; that means vulnerability; that means giving up a sense of my views as absolutely correct. At the same time, it doesn’t mean compromise for its own sake, or just going along because this tension feel uncomfortable. That’s work of the heart rather than work of the head. That’s spiritual work.