Power of Proximity

My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect – and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone.

My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand. – ‘My Friend’, Kahlil Gibran

“We have got to get closer to one another.”

That was the call from Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in his acceptance speech of the Independent Sector John W. Gardner Leadership Award on Friday.

Stevenson believes that the continued hate, intolerance, discrimination, misunderstanding, and conflict in our world is a result of our separation from one another.

We have to “be proximate – there is power in proximity,” says Stevenson.

With Bryan Stevenson at the Washington Hilton after receiving the Independent Sector James W. Gardner Leadership Award.

With Bryan Stevenson at the Washington Hilton after receiving the Independent Sector James W. Gardner Leadership Award.

What a time to hear this message.

Regardless of who you voted for – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or someone else – there is no denying that significant strife and hate exists in our communities. Day after day many are bearing witness to or are the direct target of outright hate. This is happening in big cities and small towns. Many now feel “safe” openly expressing their hate for people of color, people of non-Christian religions, and people of diverse backgrounds. And yes, your comments and shares on Facebook or Twitter are the same as a note left on a windshield or spray paint on the side of a school.

This visible display and act of hate hasn’t been seen in such prevalence since the 1960s.

For Stevenson, fear drives intolerance. And, fear is perpetuated by long-held and misplaced narratives. Some of these narratives are handed down to us from ancestors; others are created, shaped, and maintained by societal forces.

The Bush Foundation’s Dominick Washington artfully highlighted this truth during a lunch hosted by the Bush Foundation during the Independent Sector Conference this week.

Washington challenged the room to think about where we are from. Each of us are shaped by where we are from. We are from places, from people, from ethnicities, and from experiences. When we break down where we are from, we see the complexity of our origins. All that complexity, however, intersects with where we are.

National Museum of African American History and Cult

National Museum of African American History and Cult

We use this complexity as an excuse to separate, to put up barriers. We chose not to see the shared complexity of others who share the same space. Instead, we choose only to see the differences and maintain our distance.

We need to be more proximate.

The challenges of our world will continue if we keep our distance; if we refuse to enter places of discomfort; if we fail to bear witness to what is happening around us.

We can change the narratives of hate and hopelessness. We can fight through the “paradox of liberty” that seems to plague America.

As Stevenson said, “We are responsible.”