Amid racial injustice and COVID-19, there’s still hope America will become a better place

By Frederick Riley

A few months ago, before the whole world changed, I moved from Cincinnati to accept a new position with the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. I was excited about my new role with Weave: The Social Fabric Project.

A few weeks into the job, the world came to a halt because of COVID-19. Suddenly, I found myself leading a new team from behind a Zoom screen, alone, in an unfamiliar city, anxiously tracking the health of my family and friends.

As an African American man, my anxiety was compounded when the streets of our country begin to fill with protesters because of the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rashard Brooks. 

Now our country is dealing with two plagues: COVID-19 and racism. Both plagues disproportionately affect the African American community. As a Black man, it is disheartening to know you can play by the rules, achieve success and still be looked at as threatening by people based on stereotypes. I am suffering with the communities succumbing to COVID-19; I am walking alongside protesters who shout, “Black lives matter”; I feel what they are feeling; I live what they live.

Feeling crushed under the weight of it all, I recently lamented in a phone conversation with my mom, “I feel like the world is going to come to an end.” To which she replied, in the style of one who has seen it all, “Shut up, that’s not happening.” 

My mom bore witness to the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the young lives lost in the Vietnam War and the protests triggered by that conflict, to the civil rights clashes of that same time period. She lived — and lived through — these experiences, alongside her family members, friends and neighbors in the American South.  

What did that time feel like? “It felt like the walls around you were caving in,” she said.  

How did you get through it? “People loved a little more, hunkered down a little more, supported each other a little more,” she said.

Change started in grassroots
Julio Cortez/AP
A mural depicting Breonna Taylor. Photographed by Julio Cortez/AP

As my mom experienced it and remembers it, societal transformation didn’t come from the top and then trickle down to her neighborhood. Instead, people in her community started working together on the things plaguing them. Slowly, they started climbing up together out of a tumultuous — but transformative — period.

Fast-forward to now. Communities of color are disproportionately ravaged by COVID-19. Communities of color are also bending and breaking under the weight of decades of structural racism — our country’s “unfinished business” — which impacts not only how policing and criminal justice are meted out but also how our educational, economic and health systems function by design. 

At the same time, we know that the health and economic toll of this period will cut a wide path across America, leaving vulnerable communities of all colors and stripes in its wake. At times like this, facing multiple perceived threats, our local communities and our country as a whole may struggle mightily to secure and strengthen our “bonds of affection.” It’s natural, it’s human, to let fear divide us. It takes heart and courage to tap the deep waters that connect us.

We’re all vulnerable now

But if we can rise to this moment, if we can acknowledge that we are all vulnerable at this time, we have a nearly unprecedented opportunity to weave community in ways that leave us all stronger. It starts with committing to see our neighbors as our ourselves. To love those with whom we disagree. To respect those whom, frankly, we may not like. To embrace the simple, humanistic principles that all human lives have inherent value, and that more unites us than divides us.  

At the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project, our work aims to support the many thousands of people who are quietly living this value in their communities, seeing others fully and showing up fully for them. We want to inspire others to become weavers of a strong, inclusive social fabric.

Weave and the National Conversation Project have launched #WeavingCommunity as a social campaign, inviting Americans into honest conversation, authentic human connection and meaningful civic action in their communities. If we want a stronger, more connected America, we have to work for it. It won’t come easy in this time of pandemic and protest.

Among other actions, we are inviting people into small group video chats with neighbors to share times in their lives when they have overcome challenges. They talk about how those lessons might help them strengthen their communities in today’s challenging times. Opening up like this takes courage.

When I attended church as a kid, our pastor would always say before Communion, “You need to reexamine yourself before you take up this holy time in church!” Those words ring in my ears today.

This is a holy time, a sacred time, for our country. With so many societal issues laid bare, each of us is called to reexamine our roles, our beliefs, our values and, most important, our actions. 

I am convinced that we will rise together if we “hunkered down” — to borrow my mom’s words — on discovering what it takes to move communities forward. Hunker down on building the skills needed to be effective weavers and bridge builders in our neighborhoods. It starts with us making brave connections. As we say in our #WeavingCommunity campaign, “#LetsGoThere.”

This piece was originally published in USA Today.

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