In the rural Kentucky community where I was raised there was a Black public school and a white one. The Black school burned down one evening. I was in the third grade.
A few days later the students came to our school. They all sat in the back of the classroom for a long time. We were all curious. Then the school arranged us in our seats by alphabet. Now some of the Black students were at the front of the class. I remember thinking that was interesting. Later that year we had some Black teachers, then coaches, mentors, friends and more. And I remember many of those new students at the front in academics, arts, athletics, etc.
In Owensboro I have seen the same Black leadership and am thankful for every one of you. I have learned, worshipped, sung, attended, laughed, eaten and more; all at the invitation of our Black leaders.
I have seen Black leadership invite white people to difficult discussions among their community. I have seen them offer fatherless children a way out of difficulty and love no matter. I have seen them support justice not only with Black people, but all. They have reached across time to offer our community friendship. We are surrounded by these remarkable people who share a common interest in doing good, in making a difference, in having an impact in the lives of young people and all of us. They are in the souls of our community, in our churches and education, and I see them lead both with integrity and passion.
We have old, old stories together.
I have known love all my life and optimism, but many have not. Never before has the world experienced so much inequality. Around the world, there are grand disparities in how people are treated in culture and in politics, in who can access education and economic opportunity, and which groups are free to express themselves and participate in a democracy.
Our community has been at the center of this rise in goodness through generosity and caring. We rise to every philanthropic opportunity. We have that kind of wonderful old-fashioned value of doing the right thing with kind hearts. But doing justice is different.
From a philanthropic point of view, we need both generosity and justice: short-term support to care for people in need and long-term efforts to change the situations that cause this need in the first place.
We have to make the conscious decision to bend each of our acts of generosity toward justice.
And whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at starting with. For example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected on to your religious or ethnic background. We are many things becoming who we are.
We’re all put ahead or behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute depending upon where we are, who we’re seeing or what we’re required to do. But at the end of the day, the one thing we cannot argue with is our history and experiences.
Acknowledging the ways we have been gifted with opportunities and resources unavailable to others is essential to the work of justice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that while “philanthropy is commendable,” we must not “overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Those of us who are willing to position ourselves in proximity to the fiscally poor, who understand how we’re creating new narratives, who are willing to do uncomfortable things, who will endure some challenges and hardships — these are the ones, you are the ones, who will honor what it means to create a truly just community. Owensboro has justice in its soul.
How do we tilt the scales toward justice? Charity is admired. It is socially acceptable. Seeking justice is controversial. It is politically, socially and economically a huge rise to push for justice.
Owensboro’s future — and any community’s future — will be based on acceptance of diversity. Young people are demanding it, and it is not some impossible task. It just takes being intentional. And our community is the right size where each of us can make a difference.
We can build great buildings, have great organizations, imagine wonderful ideas, but in the end, people matter most; those that we have had the opportunity to love and are loved by in our families and community.
We have a long history of resilience, reacting against the headwinds of what has seemed to be impossible forces. On the surface, these forces pulling apart today are stronger than those keeping us together. When we embrace diversity and justice these forces lessen, and we create sustainability.
Resiliency can be our hardiness short-term, but sustainability is a common ideal for the long-term. We can be on a journey with transformative approaches to justice and sustainability that can truly disrupt the staggering inequality taking over our planet.
Fortunately, we are not alone. We have our greatest asset — each other.
Malcolm Bryant is founder of the Owensboro-based Malcolm Bryant Corporation.