All of us have a list of things that changed in our lives in 2020. Many of us made lists of things to “return” to in 2021 – visiting friends and relatives, travel, even eating indoors. But I suspect you have found, too, there is not a clear path back to pre-pandemic habits, lifestyles, or awareness. This realization may be in part because we have changed too. Past pleasures are not quite what we remember. But the recognition of our hopes for something else, something more, is an opening to grow and learn.
Take, for example, how to the surprise of many of our family and friends, instead of returning to Iowa for the annual Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, my husband, Mike, and I decided to undertake a different kind of journey. After spending 18 months visiting towns across Florida, we left our bikes behind and drove to Alabama for what would turn out to be an unforgettable and thought-provoking road trip.
Our journey within the 22nd state began after eight hours on the road. Along the way, big college football fans that we are ("Go Hawkeyes!"), Mike and I made stops to check out the stadiums and campuses of Florida State University, Auburn University, and the University of Alabama. Adding college town stops, while not at the top of our itinerary, was meaningful to us.
Our plans, first and foremost, were to visit the memorials, museums, sights, and monuments that Mike and I were familiar with from our learnings, newscasts, and school education growing up in the Midwest, but that were distant memories from America’s Civil Rights Era of the mid-1950s through the late 1960s.
We first visited the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, a memorial to the life of a civil rights icon and the lessons of the bus boycott that ended racial segregation in transportation. A few days later and one hour further west, we retraced steps of Freedom Fighters in Selma where we walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, long recognized as an inflection point leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Roxie Jerde standing near a bust of Rosa Parks at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
We then jutted about 100 miles north to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which brought back to life the newsreels of the 50s and 60s and linked them with today’s struggle for human rights. Across the street, we encountered the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was the site of a 1963 bombing that left four young girls dead and injured more than 20 congregation members. The marches and outrage that followed would break the long-held practices of public segregation in Birmingham.
Past recipients of the Annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, bestowed by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to recognize individuals for their service to civil and human rights causes around the world. It is the highest honor bestowed by the institute. Recipient of the 2011 award, Charlayne Hunter-Gault (pictured in the middle row, last on the right) is a local resident of Sarasota, who integrated the University of Georgia and went on to an award-winning career in journalism.
Perhaps the most moving part of our trip took place in Montgomery when we visited the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Home to The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the EJI represents a national effort to create spaces, markers, and memorials that address the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation. It was a harrowing feeling, standing near the docks where tens of thousands of people were trafficked at the height of the domestic slave trade. From a distance at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, you could see over 800 steel monuments engraved with the names of more than 4,400 victims of racial terror and lynching.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice at the Equal Justice Initiative.
A visit to The Legacy Museum takes hours and is deeply moving. While there I met with Trey Walk, Project Manager with the EJI. I shared how overwhelming the experience was, and he affirmed that my feelings were a common reaction from visitors. He left with me with these words: “Learning is action.”
I want you to know that it has taken me more than a month to try to describe, in these few short words, the impact this trip has made on me. What I thought I understood in concept I now feel, too.
Each of us as people and as entire generations must find our own way to change our culture for the better, and it starts by not just passively glimpsing but empathetically understanding past and current realities and imagining new futures.
My physical and emotional summer journey parallels our own at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County as we deepen our commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and improving the lives of all people. We believe the strength of our community is in its diversity. And together, we strive to address issues and create opportunities so all people can achieve their full potential. These aren’t just words: they are meaningful actions that ground our reason for being.
As we continue to enrich how we think and understand diversity, I’d be remiss not to mention that this commitment, on the 31st anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is also deeply tied to access and ability. In light of progress made in the realm of accessibility, I always think of my cousin Dr. Paul Krabbenhoft. When he was 13 years old, he fell out of a tree while retrieving a frisbee, an accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. He did not let his ability, however, define his aspirations and potential. Years later, he went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota Medical School and now is a Physiatrist and Spinal Cord Injury Program Medical Director in Lincoln, Nebraska. Paul is also an inductee to the National Wheelchair Softball Association (NWSA) Hall of Fame.
I share this family story because it is one part of my personal DEI journey, yet how this looks in our own lives is up to each of us to decide.
Many of you have shared you are on your own learning journey, which we all know is anything but a linear process and also never ending. I’d love to hear what you have experienced so far. (Feel free to share your thoughts in a personal message.) Know that you are taking action by learning as we strive to ensure everyone in our community can thrive and reach their full potential.
Yours in this journey alongside you,