When I was a child, we sometimes played a game, where we sat in a circle and slapped our hands on our crossed legs. We were walking in the woods and came across obstacles. “We can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we must go through it” with the solution altering with every new obstacle. We had to choose how we would get past each obstacle as we “hiked” and then, when we suddenly “saw” a bear and we were running away, the choices and the chanting became more fevered.
After a recent arduous retreat with community leaders of thinking about how to solve issues pervasive in the state of North Carolina, suddenly this game surfaced in my brain after nearly 45 years. During our retreat, we had seen presentations from communities about their challenges and how they were attacking them with plans. Economic development, education, high poverty, land use, health issues and unemployment – and after the presentations, the dialogue among my fellow community leaders often fell back on “who wasn’t in the room”. My head was overwhelmed with seeing committed community activists and their concern for their fellow citizens and yet, I found it difficult to comprehend the “who’s not in the room” comments.
I understand that after 50 years, I have yet to understand racism – from any side. I simply don’t understand prejudice. And I am frustrated with the inability of some people not being able to get past whatever prejudice to simply meet in the middle of the bridge and find a way to get along. Leaving our retreat, my brain hurt, my emotions were raw and I felt hopeless and lost and somehow segmented.
And then it hit me. We continue to do the same things to find solutions. We gather as community leaders and share our templates for success. We ask who is NOT represented, who has yet to be heard and we often get the exact same answers. In doing so, I believe it causes us to forget to think outside the box.
Princeville, North Carolina is the oldest African American incorporated community in the United States established by freed slaves after the Civil War. The most recent history of Princeville has had displacement of the residents due to 1999’s Hurricane Floyd and recent flooding of the Tar River. In these incidents, the Princeville residents have been frustrated with the response by state and federal agencies. In Princeville and other communities affected by natural disasters, how many times must the citizens go through the exact scenario to know that it will be months and years before they are rebuilt and whole again? We know FEMA takes forever to respond, we know the flood plains will flood again someday, we know so much and yet we haven’t asked the right questions, perhaps, to find the right answers.
In Wilson and Monroe, North Carolina, we see the same “type” of citizen say we need a plan to make things better and yet, some say that all citizens are not represented in finding the solutions.
In North Carolina, we fight about bathroom privacy for transgenders…..
And yet we live in a state of top-notch universities, with very intelligent and innovative people among us.
Why can’t our engineering and architectural students find a way to build houses that can stand above a flood plain and be strong enough to withstand floods and high winds?
Why can’t we find a way to upfit and rebuild bathrooms to allow privacy no matter the gender?
Why can’t we utilize technology to draw in underserved communities?
Why are we continuing to use differences to divide our progress and not encourage it?
As a white woman, I am more than ready to fight for inequities. I don’t know what it is like to be Jewish, or black or Latino. But if you share with me, I will listen. I cannot fight for anything to be better if I am resented BECAUSE I am a white woman. I see that as continuing prejudice. And like the people I sit with at retreats, I want my neighborhood, my community, my state to be a better place for all. I don’t want community leaders to be asking the same questions long after I am gone, because I want to be part of solutions.
We need to see our challenges as challenges of a region or of a state and work together to make an impact, a difference. We have to quit asking the same questions and meeting the same way and think differently. If we can’t get over the rock or through the rock or around the rock, could we create a balloon, build a bridge, use a tree as a catapult and be the first to blaze a new trail?
We MUST encourage creative thought.