“Tried” Is No Longer Enough

After many sleepless nights watching and praying for the situation in Ferguson, I wrote this piece.

In too many ways, it over simplifies the situation going on in Ferguson. I had no idea how much worse the situation would get and how it would captivate the national media.  And yet (I hope) this piece points to the deeper truth. Each of us is living in working in places where “those in charge” doesn’t match up to “those who are affected”. And that gap between those “in power” and “the powerless” is to me a central source if not the source for so many issues.

If there’s one message I’d want you to read, it’s this: see what you can do in your own community. Don’t watch history get made, go make history by making things better.

Ferguson is so frustrating on so many levels.. When TALK substitutes for ACTION – then we let people say nice things but act differently. When HISTORY is a substitute for ACTION – then one gets governed by the past and not by what is needed today. When NOT KNOWING prevents ACTING ON THE KNOWLEDGE ONE HAS – then we point to all the things outside of our control. When this is about SOMEONE ELSE not OURS to solve, than we wait for some magical moment to happen.

That’s why the piece is entitled, “Tried” is No Longer Enough …

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Think of the Chief of Police of Ferguson, Missouri not as a failed cop, but as a failed leader.

To start, Chief Thomas Jackson no longer has jurisdiction over his city’s security; the Governor of Missouri has asked his state Highway Patrol captain Ronald S. Johnson to take over. This comes after a national outcry against the police response to protests in the aftermath of the shooting on Saturday of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

He failed, and his boss just replaced him. Not surprising. And frankly, to many people, a very small step of many that need to be taken to move forward.

We could view this situation through many other lenses. The venerable veterans of the Civil Rights movement will remind us that all of this has happened before, 50 years ago.

Many would argue as the Economist did back in March of this year: “America’s police have become too militarized.” Others will argue, with far too many facts to support the argument, that America is not for Black people.

The thing I kept thinking about today was how when the Police Chief was asked why his police force was nearly 100% white, he said that his department was “always trying to improve diversity in its ranks.” He claimed, “It is a constant struggle to hire and retain personnel.”

“Race relations are our top priority,” Jackson said. Yet, the fact is that only three of 53 police officers are black in a town that is predominantly African American.

So, the word that struck me was “trying”.

When leaders say they are “trying” but unable to accomplish their goal, what they are really saying is they haven’t made it a priority. They only talk about it. The issue is supposedly important, but then when it comes down to action … it remains perpetually irrelevant. And then these supposed leaders will point to factors involved, like a pipeline issue, suggesting that the problem is outside of their control.

All of this reminds me of the more mundane yet parallel topic of diversity in tech, which has been getting recent headlines. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said as they released (their lack of) diversity numbers, “I’m not satisfied”. And while I believe that our corporate leaders, as well as government leaders mean well by their words, I’m struck by how much things remain conceptual goals, not productive actions.

Because – if something is truly important to you – you do something about it.

Let’s remember that leadership is foremost about commitment. After all, leaders decide what we will, and won’t do. Leaders then act on that commitment by how they prioritize and direct a combination of time, energy, focus, and, above all, resources. So whatever this Chief’s stated priorities were, his actions didn’t include a commitment to inclusion.

Is change possible? You might believe that “getting the best talent” means being race- or color-blind. But in reality, it’s an evidence of bias to say you can’t have “the best” and also have people who are different from you. Remember, all of us are biased in some way. Research proves it. It’s only when we recognize it can we address it. None of us drift our way to better behavior. We achieve new outcomes by being intentional and deliberate.

Ferguson is a tragic example signaling why it’s so important for leaders to be intentional about building a team that is different and inclusive. We pay a price when don’t include difference, whether that is women, people of color, the LGBT community, and so on. None of us can say that having a police force that reflected Ferguson would have avoided what has happened this week. But it would certainly have altered the events that followed.

When leadership roles reflect and include the people they represent and their shared purpose, then challenges are “our” problems, not “their problems.” And this is how we get to new outcomes – by seeing something as ours to care for, ours to build, our future to create. Just look at the example already being set by Captain Johnson.

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And that’s what it’s going to take to address all the things that Ferguson represents. To see this not as a poor-side-of-town problem, or as a young black man problem, or as any other version of “their problem”… but as our problem to work with one another towards a society that works, where people thrive, and where prosperity rules. Because we’re in this together.

“Tried” is no longer enough. Actually, it never was. We need to expect more from all our leaders. Perhaps also from ourselves.

 

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As is always true for posts I do at major other publications, please add comments directly there. Many thanks — as always — for adding your voice / thoughtful comments  into this conversation. I look forward to hearing /reading yours soon.

7 Responses:

  1. Bob McInnis (@bob_mcinnis). August 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm  |  

    As always, well thought through and well said. Loved “Don’t watch history get made, go make history by making things better.”

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 26, 2014 at 12:41 pm  |  

      You’re too kind, Bob. Thanks, N

      Reply
  2. Raymond Wesley Hawn. August 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm  |  

    Racism is always used on the poor not just the black.inDallas it was the blacks who held aggression.yet it was Kuk not police that often put a damper on all the neighborhood. I do not find racism an issue…what I find are Republicans raising college tests so high in standard that only extremely wealthy have means to pass into college…not just true this is open based by congressmen against the poor.it created extreme numbers that could not attend college.look to your colleges what where once 93% American are now 6.2% ..The numbers speak.Its no longer against the black. It’s against all of us and our children.Raymond.

    Reply
  3. Steve Wright (Conches). August 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm  |  

    Thank you for this post Nilofer. It is essential that we have a diverse chorus of voices decrying the injustice happen in our streets. There is a very powerful soul searching going on right now in the Evangelical community.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/august/its-time-to-listen.html
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2014/08/19/is-it-goodbye-evangelicalism-or-we-join-you-in-your-suffering/

    I have seen this particular MLK quote in many of the posts…

    “Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned.”

    Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners asks a more pointed question. She asks if we are willing to finally give up the lie that “Black people are not fully human. In most crass terms—they are animals.” She hopes “that justice would be done for Michael Brown and that the state and the law would recognize the value of the image of god in him.” This is the most fundamental of questions that shines a new spectrum of light on the idea of “equality”.

    It is time for white America to give up the myth that racism is gone and that colorblindness is way forward. We still have two Americas.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 2, 2014 at 10:33 am  |  

      Steve –
      Forgive the delay in reply. I managed to get a slight cold in the past week and between that and intensive french learning, my brain failed to record the need to write back.

      A few days ago, I had this idea that no one cares about this issue, that those in the chorus are few. But I’m starting to circle back to that and see however many there are… there are many. We need to work together to make our voices strong. That’s to me the opportunity.

      N

      Reply
  4. Afoma Uchendu. September 2, 2014 at 9:35 am  |  

    A great piece! We experience such in different dimensions here in Africa. I totally like and agree the part – ‘When leaders say they are “trying” but unable to accomplish their goal, what they are really saying is they haven’t made it a priority’

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 2, 2014 at 10:32 am  |  

      yeah, that’s the common thing of failed leadership. It’s a global phenomena.

      Reply

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