As I filmed short videos a few weeks ago for remote Memorial Day ceremonies, I talked about how I hoped we would look back at this Memorial Day, which came while we were in the grip of a pandemic, and see it as the time when elected officials put politics aside, and as a time when all of us came together as a Nation and truly honored those that had paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
After filming those videos, those messages of hope, I heard the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell, tell a former President he “should’ve kept his mouth shut,” and was “classless.” President Trump tweeted that Mitt Romney, a United States Senator, former Governor of Massachusetts, and former Republican presidential nominee, was a “LOSER!” And, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, called President Trump, “morbidly obese,” knowing it would bother him.
So much for the hope that our elected leaders would look to bring us together. Rather, our politics remain petty, personal, and partisan.
Last Monday we saw a police officer kill George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on a busy street in an American city.
Yet in the tragedy there was hope again, as the action of that police officer was quickly, rightfully, and universally condemned. And, in the heartbreak of hearing a dying man call for his mother, there was hope America would finally confront its systemic, implicit, and explicit racism.
It is now a week later, and the streets of America are on fire. Politicians at the federal level who we look to for leadership, have not put politics aside, but rather have used them to further stoke the flames of division. As they blame one side and the other, it appears small groups from the fringes on each side rip open our societal seams of despair, promoting violence over peaceful protest, and hate over hope.
Thinking back over the week, for a moment I felt like a damn guileless, hopeless fool for expressing that we could come together.
But thankfully on Friday, the moment passed. In times like these, when I am pulled by hurtful images that burn across our screens, I look wherever I can for signs that there is more good than bad in our country. And thankfully, the signs always come, and they always come from and point in the same direction – the young people of today. While many malign them, and others dismiss them, I am filled with confidence that if my generation and those just before and after can get us through this moment, the young will move us far beyond the moment. They will bring the change some in our society and some among our present “leaders” have willfully resisted and ignored.
You see, I work with young people at the State House every day, and they never cease to amaze me with their intelligence and commitment. And, I have three sons, who are aware, learning and thinking, and looking beyond themselves. I have seen the community service work of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; the wide-eyed optimism of Student Government Day representatives at the State House; the willingness of future public health leaders to step forward and address substance use in our society; special needs students sharing their stories of overcoming challenges; young, disciplined athletes learning and teaching the lessons of teamwork; and, student projects at science fairs, where the seeds of tomorrow’s great discoveries are being sown.
And today, a day when Massachusetts leads the Nation with full implementation of a comprehensive tobacco control law, I am so honored to have stood with the students of the Holbrook Middle/High School Civics Club and other students from all across the Commonwealth, as they stood for their generation, taking on and defeating the tobacco industry.
Where I draw my greatest hope, especially needed now, is from two distinct yet quite similar memories. One is of students from the Clifford Marshall Elementary School in Quincy, seated in the bleachers of a gymnasium. The other is of young people from the Germantown Neighborhood Center in Quincy, celebrating Martin Luther King Day. In my mind’s eye today, the young people are of all races and religions, laughing, joking, playing together, and growing together, not as white, black, or brown children, but just as children, wonderfully unware or knowingly unconcerned at their young age that they are nothing other than friends, oblivious to the differences that adults choose to exploit.
So, I remain hopeful that we will get through this moment of unrest. We must. The challenge, however, will be to ensure that once we are through it, we do not forget what caused the moment. That we learn, and ensure that it never happens again.
To do this, first at home and among our friends and acquaintances we must engage in the difficult and uncomfortable conversations about what we are seeing on the streets of our cities, candidly talking about root and systemic causes. We must challenge each other and the bias affirming algorithms of social media.
In our communities, we must educate, inform, and create environments where, from tough conversations, we raise awareness and form friendships that transcend economic, racial, and religious differences. And, we must not fear speaking out and pushing back on jokes, quips, and statements that reinforce both implicit and explicit biases, wrongly stereotype, or in any way condone or promote racism or prejudice of any sort.
At the state level, we must continue efforts to ensure that our criminal justice system provides the same justice to all. In law enforcement, hiring standards must identify and address implicit racial biases, officers should be empowered to report abuses by other officers, and rather than the increased militarization of departments, more focus should be on community engagement and partnerships. We must fund the Student Opportunity Act so that all students have the same access to the same, high quality education, and we must guarantee equal access to affordable health care and housing.
Washington desperately needs change as well. We must change the three most powerful elected “leaders” who just days ago were referring to others as classless, losers, and morbidly obese, who have shown they are not capable of treating this as anything but a moment to survive, to be exploited for partisan political gain. As a people we have condemned the action of the police officer who killed George Floyd, now as citizens we must denounce the Democrat and Republican leaders who are more focused on the next election than on addressing the many problems that threaten our democracy. In the next election, we must vote.
Finally, we must bring all the youth of this country together, at a time and to a place where they come to recognize the educational, economic, and social disparities among them, and work together to overcome them while learning to embrace and celebrate their great diversities of talent, race and religion. We must bring the young together, so that later they will stand together against those who seek to divide them and this Nation. There are programs across the country that embrace and encourage young people with community service, it is now time for a nationwide program.
To those who say we cannot afford to do what so clearly needs to be done, our answer has to be that we are again seeing the cost of ignoring the longstanding issues of inequalities.
To my generation, let us come together and demand change. Let us commit to leaving an intact, hopeful country to the next generations, trusting they will move us forward, closer to fulfilling the promise of a free and just Nation – for all.