What Can We Do?
June 1, 2020
Dear NOVA Nighthawks,
On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote what came to be called the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He was in that city to engage in nonviolent protest because of the violence that Black residents experienced at the hands of the notoriously racist segregation-era Birmingham police, but he mentions this purpose only in passing. It is the obvious evil. The majority of his letter is a condemnation of the white voices of moderation who have, time and time again, called upon Black citizens facing discrimination, oppression, violence and hatred to “wait” for the right time to call for their rights. Dr. King observed that “this ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
I’ve thought of and reread this righteously and rightfully angry letter often over the past few days. Dr. King wrote of a wait that had, at that point, lasted more than 340 years. The murder of George Floyd has brought such pain and grief to members of our community because this tragedy is not unique; it is chillingly familiar and repeats a history of racism that must seem like it will never end. What would Dr. King write of a wait or a “broken promise” that has now stretched to almost 400 years?
Dr. King ends his letter with a powerful vision: “I hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” Yet, that hope did not come to pass soon; for too many, this wait seems to have led—once more—to never.
Like you, throughout the weekend, I watched as nonviolent protests in the tradition and spirit of Dr. King were twisted into violence and chaos and wondered: what can we do?
At NOVA, our values are clear: we have a shared commitment to providing open access and promoting equality for all who seek to improve their lives; we believe in the worth, dignity, and human potential of each individual; we recognize our responsibility to build and maintain a welcoming, caring and inclusive environment in which to learn and work. These values are a promise to our students and colleagues that they will not wait for equity in opportunity at NOVA.
We have a responsibility to our community to make this promise real. We are accountable to our students and our colleagues for creating a culture that finds its strength in diversity and opposes hatred in all its forms. We have an obligation as educators to create a learning environment that is committed to excellence and grounded in humanity and empathy.
We must act on our values with purpose and integrity, live them every single day. This is what a real community does; it embodies the “inescapable network of mutuality” that Dr. King described. This is how equality and equity are achieved and sustained. This is the only way that opportunity isn’t pushed off to that elusive “not too distant tomorrow” that never comes.
We are NOVA, and we will keep our promise because it is the right and just thing to do.
Anne M. Kress