This post was written by Emily Smith, Inclusion Manager for the Grand Rapids Chamber, in recognition of Black History Month.
During Black History Month, we honor the courage and resilience of so many Black and African American leaders, known and unknown, who have vocalized their pain, protested injustice, fought, and toiled for an equal seat at the table – from Harriett Tubman, Barack Obama and Frederick Douglas to Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris. These leaders and generations of Black Americans have paved the way for present and future Black American leaders on the path toward justice, equity, and inclusion.
Black History is every American’s history – we all share in this history and all have a duty to learn from the past to make a better future. History teaches us about the past. Accurate history serves as a curriculum for us to be thrilled and heartbroken, amazed, and angry, inspired, and ashamed. History teaches us of the great feats of man and machine and teaches us of the great failings of man and machine. History teaches us about important figures, leaders, and activists whose actions and words challenged folks in their time to see injustices, to understand their collective pain, to recognize systemic racism, to demand better, and inspire us to walk ever closer to equity, peace and justice in our time. What we glean from the lessons of history and how we use them to grow and improve depends on us and our choices. If anything, this past year has shone a spotlight on how difficult, important, and continuous this moral walk is, for in the words of Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Reflecting on the historic moment on January 20, 2021, when Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the first Black and Indian American female Vice President of the United States of America, I celebrate those trailblazers and the leaders before her who helped make this historic day possible. It was very fitting that Amanda Gorman, the brilliant, young, and incredibly talented US Poet Laureate inspired every generation as she lifted her hopeful voice to honor our imperfect democracy and to champion equity in her famous “The Hill We Climb” inaugural poem. Her voice reflects and embodies the voices of many Black Americans before her and motivates us all to continually work to fulfill the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “…that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Let us all keep marching forward toward that dream.
While I cannot relate to the lived experiences, challenges, and heartache of my Black and African American friends and neighbors, I can do everything possible to learn, unlearn, and understand their version of our shared history and their stories of what it is like to be Black in America. The story of the Black experience in America is a history steeped in injustice, oppression, and inequality, yet is also one of immense strength in the face of adversity, a deep sense of community, and profoundly hopeful faith. Due to the events of this past year, I have been dedicated to educating myself through reading many books, blogs, and articles and hearing the stories of my Black friends, and local and national leaders. I encourage and challenge my fellow non-BIPOC Americans to do the same. At the Chamber, I am humbled and thrilled to work under the direction of Ken James, our Director of Inclusion as we work to continue and expand our offerings in the DEI space, and I look forward to bringing my Cultural Intelligence training to the team. In principle and practice, the Grand Rapids Chamber believes in the value and power of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our work as the DEI team is focused on using DEI initiatives to help fulfill the Chamber’s mission of creating a thriving and prosperous West Michigan for all. While not perfect and still humbly learning, I am committed to walking on the journey toward that more perfect union, for all.