We had a hard conversation at our department meeting today. San Bernardino: What should we say to our community?
In the past we have posted thoughts and condolences for the families of the shooting victims; depending on the circumstances, we have also shared our feature story, “When Bad Things Happen.”
But bad things seem to happen so often.
Part of what was hard about our conversation was admitting how defeated we felt about having to post yet ANOTHER condolence message, even though our sadness for the families—and for our country—is sincere. Another difficulty was grappling with how powerless we feel. Promoting acceptance and peace is our mission—but we are not in a position to directly prevent this level of violence or offer promises of change to the loved ones left behind. We thought about the teachers we work with and wondered if they felt the same way.
As we were talking, the words of a beloved friend of the Southern Poverty Law Center came into our minds. Historian Taylor Branch (author of The King Years trilogy) visited our building yesterday and inspired us with his stories, reflections and encouragement for continuing the work we do.
“We live in a cynical time,” he said during our breakfast gathering, “and you hear people say that all the time. But what you almost never hear people say is ‘How did we get here?’ or ‘How are we going to get out of here?’ That’s the conversation you need to be having.”
Thinking back on Mr. Branch’s words made us realize that, as Teaching Tolerance, we do have a role to play. We don’t make policy or even influence it, but we can encourage educators to ask themselves and their students these important questions. We’ve lived through “cynical” times before: What did idealists, activists and people with vision do in those circumstances? What did they think, how did they feel and what were their strategies for staying engaged and inspired? We must find those people, learn about them and act on their example.
If we as adults who work for a social justice organization need inspiration right now, we imagine that teachers and young people in classrooms do too. Take the time to study past moments of crisis, and ask your students who or what inspires them when challenges feel insurmountable. Pin this poster to your classroom wall or schedule time for an inspiring documentary. But, most importantly, if you feel yourself or your students sinking into despair for a world that seems to be rotating wildly out of orbit, don’t be afraid to ask the question, “How are we going to get out of here?” Because if we never ask the question, we’ll never find an answer.
van der Valk is the managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.