Human beings aren’t perfect. Far from it. Yet, many spend their lives seeking perfection in others, not necessarily in themselves. When our heroes, our leaders, or even family members, fall short in the perfection category, we are sorely disappointed, and too often ready to condemn. The issues surrounding Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring are the latest in a very long list of appalling political and social misdeeds that have plagued us since before there was an “us.”
The rush to judgment reaction is to demand resignations and move on. That may work when the error was directly related to one’s employment, and had a major detrimental effect to the job or the employer. Demanding resignations for something that happened decades ago, as horrendous as the action might have been, misses the opportunity for a “teaching moment.” It’s too easy to demand a resignation, put the issue in a corner, and move on. The individual may be out of a job, and public opinion may be satisfied temporarily, but the issue still is in the corner, festering, not dead.
As appropriate investigations are proceeding for all three Virginia leaders, Governor Northam has proposed a “racial reconciliation tour” that will take him around the Commonwealth for discussions about racial inequities, the often sordid racial history of Virginia, and how to heal. I have suggested to the Governor’s office that the discussion needs to be broader and more comprehensive. One way to do that would be for Governor Northam to appoint a Reconciliation Commission, made up of members as diverse as the population of Virginia, not just black and white. The Commission could provide a neutral venue for the sometimes difficult conversations that need to happen. Simple rules, like the ones learned in kindergarten — everyone gets a turn, listen before speaking, don’t interrupt, etc. — would be in place, not to control the discussion, but to ensure that all positions would be heard. Smaller teams of Reconciliation Commission members could set up discussion meetings across the Commonwealth, giving all interested parties an opportunity to participate. The idea behind the Commission is not to get everyone to agree, but to help participants understand the perspectives of their neighbors, and quite possibly lead to policy changes, at the state or local level.
In 1998, I created a discussion group very similar to what a Reconciliation Commission might look like. My original “Dialogue on Diversity” became Kaleidoscope, and in monthly public meetings, participants discussed culture and the difficulties of acculturation in our community, race relations, police interactions, civil and human rights, multiple occupancy in neighborhoods, learning English, and a multitude of other issues. Not all the conversations were calm and quiet; sometimes voices were raised and tempers flared. As discussions continued, we discovered that our similarities were greater than our differences and, although agreement might not have been reached, everyone could leave the room with a better understanding of diverse experiences and opinions. Kaleidoscope is a small example of successful community discussions, but that format can be scaled for statewide use. Governor Northam has made a good start; let’s all get on board. We won’t find perfection, but understanding can be a virtue, too.