We live in a microwave society. We want quick and easy and refuse to do anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.
That is how Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. sees it.
It’s a problem that prevents society from listening and making changes. It’s a problem that has polarized the country, he said.
Pitts visited Nebraska for a second time as keynote speaker at the Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition’s 36th annual workshop Sunday at Lincoln’s First United Methodist Church.
His speech, “When We Stand with Others,” brought 750 people together, filling the pews and the balcony of the church.
Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist who has written extensively about issues concerning race, politics and culture, discussed how people can better communicate and stand with those facing racism and bigotry.
In today’s political climate, having a civil exchange with someone who has a different point of view seems impossible, but it all starts with listening, he said.
Following the speech, local panelists City Councilman Bennie Shobe, ACLU Director Danielle Conrad, Nebraska Wesleyan Assistant Vice President T.J. McDowell, Cultural Specialist and Coordinator for the Lincoln Public Schools Bilingual Liaison Program Oscar Rios Pohirieth and Lincoln Police Capt. Michon Morrow reflected on how to relate Pitts' observations to problems marginalized communities face in Lincoln.
During the presentation, Pitts took a historical look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Although this speech is among one of the most known, Pitts questioned whether people truly know the meaning of King's words.
The speech talks about committing to change and an obligation to work, he said. According to Pitts, people don’t commit to make changes.
“People look at issues and say, the problems are so big and I’m so small,” he said. “What’s missing is a will to do.”
To participate in change, Pitts emphasized two steps.
Listening and doing.
Pitts discussed how important it is to listen to people who are marginalized. Whether someone is being targeted because of their religious beliefs, race, heritage or sexual orientation, listening, standing up for them and becoming an ally is crucial, he said.
“It’s not easy,” Pitts said. “We think we know, but do we really have any sense of what it’s like?”
After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, when nine blacks were killed, hundreds marched in solidarity. White people were among the protesters who chanted “Black Lives Matter."
“People who speak on behalf of the issues of other people — their voice carries a different weight,” Pitts said.
To understand the present, Pitts suggested learning about the past. To listen and understand others, you can’t expect them to simply get over something when they have been scarred, he added.
“Instead this country chooses a policy of amnesia,” Pitts said.
When describing his own childhood, panelist McDowell took Pitts’ words to heart. His past, he said, reflects his present.
One of McDowell’s early childhood memories of growing up in Lincoln is someone telling him, “The only good African-American, is a dead African-American.”
McDowell, who never met his maternal grandparents, despite living in the same city, said he grew up angry.
Shortly after 1967, when interracial marriage became legal in the United States, McDowell’s parents got married. His grandparents refused to accept it, and cut all ties.
“I don’t have the luxury to be angry and African-American,” he said.
McDowell, who is Nebraska Wesleyan alumni, said he never felt like he fit in. Today, he works with underrepresented students.
Morrow also reflected on her experience of being a woman in the police department.
The department has focused on listening to the needs of the community, Morrow said, and is making an effort to recruit minorities.
“The goal is that someday everyone can see themselves in our law enforcement,” she said.
Morrow also mentioned the racial disparities in the juveniles arrested in the United States, including the city of Lincoln.
She said the Lincoln police department has programs to address the problem.
“Our goal is to help them, and never see them in our system again,” Morrow said.
Pitts said it's important to not leave the problems of this generation for the next.
"We have the tendency to romanticize children. We expect them to grow up into better people, but they'll be just like us if we don't commit to change," he said.