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Our Collective 21st Century Imperative: Learning to See Ourselves in One Another

By Dr. Gail C. Christopher

Diverse children and teacher holding hands and playing

After several decades of work as a social change agent within areas that include clinical, advocacy, social program design, public sector innovation, and executive philanthropic leadership, I’ve learned some key lessons about mitigating suffering and helping this country realize its full potential as a democracy. In this blog, I will discuss some of those lessons and insights. 

One that is extremely relevant during these times is a psychological/spiritual insight about the perpetrators of violence and cruelty. Those who hurt, devalue and destroy the lives of others are operating from a seemingly endless well of perceived powerlessness, fear and desperation within themselves. The perpetrators are seldom aware of this self-perception. This is true of warmongers and others who perpetuate violence. Peacemaking efforts need to be informed by this understanding. 

We face a particularly challenging conundrum in America because violence was perpetuated against indigenous native people through the decimation of their societies; protracted, systematic violence was perpetrated against enslaved African Americans for consecutive centuries, and the associated trauma of this system is still being denied during subsequent centuries. The overdue work of moving past denial to acknowledgement and redress requires a holistic and comprehensive approach to healing that is informed by 20th and 21st Century learnings about emotional intelligence, human connections, interdependence, empathy, self-compassion and compassion. 

Another key learning for me has been the realization that our multi-racial democracy is an unprecedented experiment in governance and societal design. While informed by transcendent ideas from the enlightenment era, our nation was conceived in violence, decimation and colonization of indigenous people and enslavement of Africans. The process of facing these contradictions, understanding their consequences, and embracing the responsibility for mitigating and redressing the harms associated with protracted adherence to these practices requires our full societal engagement. 

There are many imperatives that make this work urgent; the most commonly touted imperative is our changing demographic. Most children in America today are children of color. And most children of color in America today are growing up in low-income or impoverished conditions. If America continues to not allow millions of our children to realize their full potential, we will generate concomitant economic, health and social imperatives. However, I think the ultimate imperative that should drive our collective resolve to face and redress the contradictions between our stated values and opportunity structures is a deeper spiritual imperative. We must begin to learn how to see ourselves in one another and replace the antiquated belief in a false hierarchy of human value with a 21st Century understanding of mutual reality. While many countries—both democratic and authoritarian—have attempted reconciliation or healing processes commonly referred to as Restorative Justice and/or Truth and Reconciliation processes, none have addressed centuries of embedded cruelty that characterize all systems of a society. This is why the process for this country is so daunting. It must be more than a single issue or a single solution. 

While serving as a Senior Advisor and Vice President at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, I was inspired and supported in the design of a comprehensive truth process for America: Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). The pillars of this strategy are narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law, and economy. These pillars embody the complexity and, at the same time, the clarity that is required for such comprehensive work. Each pillar acknowledges the undergirding belief in a false hierarchy of humanity serving as the scaffolding for our current society and its vast inequities in health, wealth, education outcomes and access to full democratic engagement. Communities, with the support of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and many other local, community, and family foundations, are bravely engaging in this urgently needed work. The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation has the potential to make particularly vital contributions to this expanding work because its founders embody the principles of healing, embracing human connectedness, interdependence and the courage to face and redress past harms. 

Ancestral wisdom reminds us that our responsibilities are not just to our generations, but to future generations. The beauty of the work of truth, healing, reconciliation and transformation is that it benefits both current generations and future generations who embrace the opportunity to connect more deeply while envisioning and helping to actualize a more just future. A final insight that the decades have revealed is the tremendous strength, creativity, and wellspring of resilience that are found in the hearts, minds and bodies of those who have lived with oppression. We usually hear the stories of the leaders and do not often enough learn the stories of the millions who survived, thrived and overcame the obstacles to their full humanity. It is my belief that the truth telling that will weave together an impenetrable fabric of unity in our society will come through the intimate sharing of deeply human experiences that embody our amazing levels of agency and love for one another. As human beings, we are designed to need and depend upon one another, and the full expression of our democracy requires the full expression of our humanity.

Dr. Gail C. Christopher is the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity and a former senior advisor and vice president at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation where she created America Healing, the organization’s pioneering Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort.