What’s different this time?

I keep hearing from the media that “it feels different this time.” I was a toddler during the Civil Rights movement, so I have no comparison in my personal experience. For me, there are many reasons to see hope for real change this time, but as the name of this blog indicates, I’m a hope-seeker all the time. It’s likely what keeps me sane when I’m furious.

I’ve spent considerable time, thanks to the amazing community at First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Roxboro and Main in downtown Durham, learning and reflecting on racism fairly intently for at least 4 years. We’ve always had a strong focus on social and racial justice at First Pres, but during the last few years, we created a Racial Equity Task Force that has done a fairly deep dive into learning and processing in community what we were not taught in school. We started by reading Waking Up White by Debby Irving one summer. We watched the documentary 13th together. We held a Sunday School class to read Becoming an Anti-Racist Church. We watched the PBS documentary, Slavery by Another Name together. We read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy together and more than 40 of us watched the powerful movie version together at the theater on MLK Blvd. In another class, we read White Fragility this year. This summer, we are reading From Here to Equality by Duke’s Sandy Darrity and Kerstin Mullins, which makes the case for reparations.

Last year, I had the privilege of being in the 2019 class of Leadership NC, where we learned about the history of NC through a racial equity lens (in a subtle, yet powerful way) and how race matters in our educational, government, health and human services, economic and environmental system. It was the thread in all the challenges we learned about. It’s at the root of so many problems in our society.

Then last fall, I started a journey with my amazing colleagues at Prevent Child Abuse NC to take a deep dive into racial equity with the hope that we could begin using an explicit racial equity lens in our work — because if we focus on equity in prevention, we can have an impact on the disproportionate number of children of color in our foster care system. We started with a day of training to ground us in common language and history. Then, serendipitously, I travelled to Montgomery, AL with a small group of friends from First Pres to visit the Legacy Museum and National Lynching Memorial and other civil rights historical sites that weekend. Over and over again that weekend, I was gutted by the realization that our nation has been separating children from their families since slavery — and we continue to do so not just at the border, but in our foster care system (consider this.) We don’t have the answers, and we’ve only just begun to take a deep dive into our organizational culture to understand how white supremacy is at work, but we have a deep commitment to learning, growing and, most importantly, disrupting racist systems.

So does it “feel different” this time just because I’ve learned so much and am more aware of how deeply racist our systems are? Maybe. Maybe not.

I’ve learned a lot over more than 25 years of work in the health and human services systems in our country. It often takes something deeply painful for our systems to reform themselves. In the child welfare system, reforms rarely happen in deep and significant ways unless there has been a tragic child fatality. It is infuriating.

Societal change also is the result of multiple forces, including tragic, high profile atrocities. We finally desegregated schools after horrific bombings and passed the Civil Right Act after leaders were assassinated — after years and years of community organizing. We are in a similar place today.

And the tipping point for the organizing and tragedy is the growing awakening of the American people that we have had 4 years of overt racism and corruption leading our national policy making. And collectively, I believe the majority of us “are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as Fannie Lou Hamer famously said.

While the protests have been mostly peaceful, the anger and frustration is real. And so are the signs of hope:

  • Police reforms are passing throughout the country with amazing speed.
  • Streets are painted with “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” and even in front of the DSS office (my former employer) in Durham there is a big, yellow message that says “FUND” with an arrow pointing to it on the street. The realization that we are spending FAR more on the militarization of our police and gutting the support systems for communities is a hopeful sign.
  • Recent polls indicate that a vast majority of Americans support police reform. “82% of Americans want to ban police from using chokeholds, 83% want to ban racial profiling, and 92% want federal police to be required to wear body cameras.” That’s pretty amazing!
  • Statues of confederate “heroes” are coming down across the country, including, finally, in Raleigh and Richmond.
  • NASCAR. Whoa. Not only did they ban the confederate flag, the video of drivers supporting Bubba Wallace this week when a noose was suspected (since then the FBI has refuted the allegation), was moving.

The culture is shifting. Social change happens when people organize, the public is educated, and something tragic, like the horrific death on camera of George Floyd, happens in the public consciousness. We are witnessing history — and we have to keep up the pressure.

We have been living in a 4-year cycle of constant “breaking news” to distract us from what’s really happening. We are waking up to that. And we must stay focused on changing the systems — the laws, policies and practices — that continue to oppress and leave Black Americans behind economically. If it is to really be different this time, we have to get uncomfortable, confess our wrongs and make big, sweeping changes, including reparations. It’s time. It’s past time. It really is up to us to make sure it is different this time. And, to round out the hope, “yes, we CAN” make sure it is different this time.


Published by ncsharon

Mom, child advocate, anti-racist, fighter for justice for all.

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