August 2016: Nonprofits Today

Embracing the call to ‘Lives Matter’

Bob Gorman

Bob Gorman

In September 1976 my brother, Jim, was shooting baskets with fellow members of the Morgan State University basketball team. It was “open gym” so other students were nearby shooting baskets as well.

No big deal, except for one minor detail: Jim had just shown up on campus as the first white player to receive a basketball scholarship to Baltimore’s “historically black” Morgan State.
One basket over, two Morgan State upper-classmen let their feelings be known. White privilege was rampant in America; “Another brother,” they said, deserved that scholarship instead of a middle-class Caucasian.

Jim didn’t get a chance to respond. The captain of the basketball team came over, explained in colorful language that Jim was his teammate and that was that. Then he added for good measure, “And if they did give the scholarship to another brother, it wouldn’t been either one of you cause you’re both terrible … ”

America is full of stories of interracial kindness, humor, guardianship and dependence. And these occasions mold us. Years ago I visited Ireland, where most of my DNA originated, and came away realizing one thing: I had more in common with any black American than I did with the Irish kinsmen I met in pubs and on the road that week. On the world stage, race and gender generally yield to one’s native culture.

Of course, what that native culture in America means is up for debate. As civil rights icon C.T. Vivian once said to me about race relations in America, “Oh yeah, things are getting better for black Americans. The knife used to be six inches deep in my back. Now it’s only five.”

Today we are being challenged to explain/understand our American culture, as seemingly defined by horrific videos showing citizens and cops being shot to death. And for most of us, all we can come up with is another cliché about violence begetting violence.

In Watertown, words do matter to the Rev. Jeffrey Smith, and he knows words can be heard differently because we have varied experiences with American education, justice, the economy, etc.

As the first black pastor at First Baptist Church, the Rev. Smith navigates worlds of black and white and the hot-button words that come with them. You want to march and chant? He would rather gather and embrace. Do “Black Lives Matter”? Yes. And so do the lives of Central Americans who milk cows on north country dairy farms.

When the Rev. Smith began to organize an event for July 12 to allow local residents to summon the better angels of our nature, he settled on the term “All Lives Matter” as his theme. A day later he had shortened it to “Lives Matter.”

Denotation? Seemingly not much difference. But connotation? To those who support the term “Black Lives Matter,” the counter-use of the term “All Lives Matter” connotes dismissiveness. Such as, “Of course black lives matter, because all lives matter. So grow up and move on.”

But “Lives Matter” doesn’t seem to elicit the same vibe. It’s sounds like a plea rather than a command. And it likely wasn’t lost on attendees of the event that the shortest — and perhaps most powerful — verse in the Bible is also a mere two words, “Jesus wept.” (John 11: 35)

“Lives Matter” also sums up our nonprofit community, which every day provides care to citizens regardless of the circumstances — inflicted or self-inflicted —that overwhelm them. If you want to know who the “others” are in our community, dare to volunteer at one of our mental health, substance abuse and critical needs nonprofits.

Still, we are left to wonder. Is violence in our streets a passing trend? Is it the new normal? Or, instead, are we in the midst of a modern-day remake of the Battle of the Bulge, in which the enemies of goodness have unleashed a desperate assault to prevent the world from growing closer to experiencing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

As our country continues to navigate minimum wage hikes, terrorist threats, transgender bathrooms and manufacturing job loss, the fraying of society that leads to distrust of those we do not know will grow. And clichés will abound.

Embracing the call to “Lives Matter” is one simple way to help ensure that America’s most famous words, “E Pluribus Unum” don’t also become a cliché.

Robert D. Gorman is president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York. Contact him at bgorman@unitedway-nny.org or 788-5631. His column appears every other month in NNY Business.