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Reflecting on Charleston: The sands have shifted, but we choose to push forward

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A horse drawn carriage carried the casket of the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME Church, past the Confederate flag and onto the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia on Wednesday.

It was dark during Monday morning’s thunderstorm as I turned off the radio, folded up the paper and headed off to work. The news I read and heard, like the rest of the news over the weekend, was about the horrible killings in the church in Charleston.

I tried to stay focused on our work at Generation Next because we have plenty on our plate as we implement a battle plan to close the unacceptable achievement and opportunity gaps that leave far too many kids of color behind. I also knew the work I left on Friday would be cast in a different light now because, once again, from Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston, the sands have shifted in the most complex conversation you can have in America. Race always matters; it matters more now.

Emanuel AME: a rallying site and sanctuary

I wanted to think about the future, but it was impossible not to think about history. In Charleston, a city where the majority of slaves first came to the United States, Emanuel AME Church was started by a slave who was later executed for fighting for his freedom. That church has been a rallying site and sanctuary, for civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and for many others who might never be well known but who put their lives on the line for justice.

History includes Joe Riley, my mentor and hero, who has been the mayor of Charleston for the past four decades. In 2000 Joe led a courageous march to protest flying the confederate flag over the state Capitol even though his life was threatened. When I spoke at an event honoring Joe two months ago he told me his final goal before leaving office was to begin building a civil rights museum that would honor those slaves who came to his city in chains, and honestly tell the city’s complex racial history. Now that history will include an unimaginable act of racial violence during a prayer service inside a storied church.

As I thought about how history mattered in understanding what happened in Charleston, I also knew it mattered in the work we are doing at Generation Next. I would like to think that our work could be totally about the future, about setting a course for young people who would be going into a different, better world. I know better, and recognize it is impossible to solve the issues in front of us without understanding the underbelly of the past. That includes the legacy of generations raised in slavery, of Native children whose grandparents were sent to boarding schools, and the history of immigrants’ mixed reception to this country. The classrooms and the community centers where we do our work are about the future, but we can’t fully understand the issues in front of us without grounding ourselves in the past that still impacts our children today.

Redemption and forgiveness

Charleston also had me thinking a lot about redemption and forgiveness. How could those members of the church, having witnessed this horror, and lost those who they loved, find the strength in the middle of their grieving to actually tell the shooter they forgave him? The members of that church are, indeed, remarkable but I would have been even more surprised by it if I had not seen that same power of spirit in Minneapolis.

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
R.T. Rybak

During my time as mayor, as we wrestled with so many serious impacts of gun violence, I got to know Mary Johnson-Roy, who in 2005 went to a jail to confront Oshea Israel, who had killed her son. Somehow Mary found the capacity to not only forgive Israel, but as time went on, developed a relationship with him and, today, refers to him as her “spiritual son.”

It is my hope, and expectation, that the need for redemption and forgiveness in our work at Generation Next will never be nearly as great as it is in Charleston or for people like Mary Johnson-Roy. But we need the inspiration from those heroic examples to power us as we try to address challenges that are deep-seated and involve inequities that have been here for decades. Redemption and forgiveness does not mean forgetting; history still matters. It does mean the complex, difficult conversations we have about race and education have to be based on finding assets in every part of our population. It means every person willing to come to the table knows the others will look past awkwardness, and even mistakes, to see their sincerity.

No magical solutions

During the time I wrote this, the thunderstorm passed, the dark skies went away and we had two spectacular summer days. That would be a great metaphor to end on a hopeful note. I’m not going there. Not even close. Anyone who thinks that racial challenges in America, and the gaps in our schools, will be magically solved like the sky suddenly clearing, is sadly mistaken. If these past six months have taught us anything — careening from one incident to another — it is that race isn’t easy, and solutions aren’t simple.

Race can also be overwhelming, and a hideous incident like the Charleston shooting, or issues as complex as the achievement and opportunity gaps, can seem too big to take on. It’s a lot easier to tune out or give up.

The hint of optimism I will give is that a year and a half into this work I can say our community is absolutely not giving up. There is little drama in screening 3-year-oldsunifying reading strategies and developing early warning signs to prevent students from dropping out; we go there because the consensus emerged that these were the first levers to move that could have the most impact. And we know we have much more work to come. Collective impact means a series of tangible actions taken by scores of people that add up to the changes we need.

We can see all of that jeopardized by a hideous act in that historic church. We could decide that the rock is just too heavy to push up the hill.

We choose to push.

R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minneapolis from 2002 to 2013, is the executive director of Generation Next. A version of this commentary originally appeared on the organization’s blog.

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