We are living through a defining moment. We must run toward it and seize it.
No one could be blamed for feeling overwhelmed in light of a global pandemic that has revealed an unprepared public health care system, a fragile economy and racial, health and economic disparities.
No one could be blamed for feeling anguished and outraged by the horrific killing of George Floyd and the racism that has been exposed in our broken criminal justice system.
No one could be blamed for feeling distraught by the lawlessness of some who have subverted the just cause of thousands of peaceful protesters and the brutality of some police against some of those peaceful protesters.
But yes, one could be blamed for cynically believing that we are too late, the obstacles are too daunting, there is no path forward, and we cannot make significant change.
The civil rights movement and fight for social justice have taught us that constructive action and meaningful progress cannot happen without optimism. As Bryan Stevenson noted, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
We’ve seen protesters of all races on a scale not seen in decades and striking examples of law enforcement officers marching alongside protesters and taking a knee in support of their cause. We’ve seen more cities and states addressing and tackling police reform and accountability than any comparable period in history. We’ve seen renewed bipartisan and corporate support for fighting racial injustice.
We must face the brutal reality that there is still much work to be done to achieve equal justice, but if we are really serious about taking concrete action and making positive change, it starts with believing that we can.
We know George Floyd’s death is not an isolated tragedy. When I served as Ohio attorney general, we worked hard on criminal justice reform in the aftermath of the beating of Rodney King by L.A. police officers who were acquitted. But sadly, things got worse, not better. Tamir Rice tops a tragic list that is far too long. Their deaths remind us that laws too often continue to be enforced and applied differently depending upon the color of one’s skin.
We also know that while individual racist acts must be condemned and punished, these acts of racism are part of a larger system of racism that’s embedded in our culture and institutions.
So what’s our role in being part of the solution?
Somewhere along the way, the effort to improve race relations dropped from our community’s overarching agenda. While organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League and Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio play a vital role in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, we also need a forum where leaders from business, education, labor, civic and religious organizations meet regularly to talk about race and work to improve race relations in Greater Cleveland.
In 1981, community leaders formed the Greater Cleveland Roundtable. I had the privilege of serving on the Roundtable for many years, and I witnessed the power of regular conversations between races, cultures and generations. It’s time to bring the roundtable back.
Talking about race, even when it is uncomfortable to do so, is necessary for progress. While conversation alone will not be enough, skipping the conversation ignores the human element of this systemic crisis. Likewise, declaring that one is not racist is not the same as engaging in work that is antiracist. Words and actions are both necessary and must be in sync.
Those of us who have not lived the experience of racism that defines the lives of so many must dedicate ourselves to using the privilege of our life experiences to bring about change. We must pledge to examine our own conscious and unconscious biases and how we can better stand in solidarity and alliance with communities of color and the disenfranchised.
Every city goes through challenging times and unexpected crises, all of which tear at a city’s soul. Working with cities throughout the country looking for ways to economically succeed and listening to the concerns of citizens in neighborhood town halls when I served on the Cleveland Community Police Commission, I’ve found a common thread.
That thread is trust. When a city establishes a strong foundation of trust among its leaders and with its citizens, it can withstand those forces trying to tear it apart.
We must find new, creative ways for citizens and police, and black, brown and white Clevelanders to walk in each other’s shoes. If we begin to better understand and respect our common humanity, we will better understand why we need each other. Allyship is a lifelong process of building relationships based on conversation, trust and accountability.
That bond of trust constantly will be tested and strained, but if forged the right way, change occurs and progress is made.
Change happens at the speed of trust.
Lee Fisher is dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He was a charter member of the Cleveland Community Police Commission. He is the former Ohio attorney general, lt. governor, director of the Ohio Department of Development, chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, state representative and state senator.