Editor’s note: This commentary is being produced as a part of Elevate 2021, which aims to share the voices of new writers on important civic issues.

Keith Tatum

The aftershocks from the seismic events of 2020 continue to reverberate this year for Americans of all walks of life. Although we appear to be finally mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been less successful at bridging the divides that have emerged in the process.

Like most Kansans, my family has been tested by the changing dynamics of remote public education, not celebrating holidays with loved ones and saying goodbye to people we lost to the pandemic. We wrestled with translating the protest images and actions we saw on television into dialogue our children and grandchildren could better understand. We experienced the pain of losing good friends simply because they chose to embrace a specific political perspective.

As a husband, father, grandfather, community leader and Kansan of color, I felt compelled to seek answers to these ongoing trials of bridging our divides, not just for my benefit but for the good of my family and my community. Surely there were others seeking solutions to these same issues? Perhaps I could find contemporaries seeking to overcome these same grinding and debilitating social ills.

To be certain, times of great crisis are opportunities for great leadership. The guiding competencies of the Kansas Leadership Center include taking the temperature, speaking to loss, working across factions and inspiring a collective purpose. Utilizing these competencies as guideposts – in addition to such characteristics as resilience, compassion and the sustainability of hope –  I began to reach out to leaders in my own community who are laboring to address these challenges. If I could locate and communicate with some of them, I might be able to use what I’d learned to impact my day-to-day world.

As a member of the Black community in Kansas, I was acutely affected by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans in 2020. Their pain was my pain, and my heart broke for them alongside the hearts of their friends and loved ones. Added to these societal tragedies was an election year that found Americans more politically polarized than perhaps ever before. The temperature on both issues became red hot and remains so. To that end, I realized making progress on both the racial unrest and political division required clear purposes amid uncertainty. I decided to reach out to leaders on both sides of these challenges to understand the broader perspectives.

I picked up the phone to contact Ron Gish, a retired lieutenant with the Topeka Police Department. I’d never met Gish but knew he was also a member of a local law enforcement advocacy group called Blue Shield and would likely be able to provide me with a police officer’s perspective. Gish says Blue Shield originally came together as a community group to protest the City Council’s ban on no-knock warrants. He says violent crime is up in Topeka and money is being distributed away from local police in a time when people just want to be protected. He’s frustrated with law enforcement being “turned into monsters” when police officers risk their lives every day.

He encouraged residents to volunteer for programs that broaden an understanding of police procedures. “It’s unfair to use a broad brush to paint all of us,” he tells me. Ron also made no excuse for the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. “Topeka cops weren’t there, but we are often treated as if we were,” he replies. “There’s no one who wants to get rid of a bad cop more than a good cop.” There was an abundance of resilience in his statements. How then could I use this information to make informed decisions about how we engage one another to rebuild our community in 2021?

The other person I called on this journey of discovery was Glenda DuBoise. Glenda is the executive director of the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice. Her organization’s role is to build community and build relationships.

“Systemic racism is real,” says Glenda, “but we need to look for productive ways to address, heal, and unite these issues in our community.” Her goal is to bring people together in peace, often through prayer. DuBoise touted her organization’s role in successfully engaging the Police Department in constructive dialogue. She says residents should acknowledge the experiences of loss and then look at ways to support their community in moving forward. I took this as sage advice containing both hope and compassion, since there may be no other viable method to cool the temperature and restore our sense of community.

Putting what I’ve discovered from Ron Gish and Glenda DuBoise into a meaningful whole is complex and daunting, but necessary and vital for our community to flourish. Even as my investigation concludes, my quest continues. The task now shifts to synthesizing viable answers from the ideas I’ve learned. How do I as an ordinary citizen continue to make sense of pervasive issues moving forward? I will close with my own takeaways from this productive journey, hopeful that readers will also share in these insights.

Setting Aside my Biases

We all have them. Glenda states the importance of building relationships, and mitigating my biases is a crucial piece of it. The challenge for me now is to know my triggers and be intentional about working around them. For example, keeping an open mind when someone talks to me about cancel culture. Even on emotional issues, I’ve learned to make it a priority to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Seeking to Understand

Glenda discusses the importance of acknowledging loss. This cannot be accomplished without first seeking to understand. Thankfully, my family has been spared the ravages of COVID-19, but that also means we have a responsibility to recognize the experiences of those less fortunate. This is true especially of those holding a different perspective than mine. I am strengthening this virtue by trying to find points of commonality, practicing empathy and being willing to listen to opposing views to recognize shared values.

Making Myself Available

Ron encourages volunteering for things outside of one’s routine. Though sometimes uncomfortable, that means reaching outside my own sphere of influence to invest in others. For example, I recently helped lead a winter clothing drive through a local nonprofit benefiting residents in need. By becoming available, I’m in a better position for continuing to volunteer for local organizations promoting unity and common ground, or for sending care packages to those hit hardest by COVID-19.

Taking Care of Myself

Lastly, amid these trying times, I need to prioritize staying healthy, both physically and emotionally. That means exercising regularly, eating well, maintaining hydration, getting plenty of sleep and staying connected with friends and loved ones. These activities promote resilience, and resilience is key in sustaining long-term change for me, my family and the community around me.

The spring Journal cover is a syringe shooting confetti

A version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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