A Personal Awareness

Back in November, 2019, which seems like years ago now, I had the honor of meeting Shola Richards at the Florida Public Library Director’s meeting in Tallahassee.  I was deeply impressed by his energy and enthusiasm for improving our work spaces and our lives.  He was funny and deeply moving at the same time. We are having him come virtually to Palm Beach in the summer to work with my library staff.  

It turns out that Shola and I have a lot of things in common.  We are both happily married to awesome women who are also our best friends.  We are both fathers, Shola to two daughters and my one daughter, all around the same age.  We are both at first reluctant, and but now enthusiastic, dog owners.  We both live in beautiful parts of the country.  We are both passionate trainers who want to change people’s lives.  Although I will admit he is much more handsome than me!   However a couple weeks ago Shola shared in his weekly email message one profound way that our lives are different.  It is something that I take for granted every day.  For him, it could be a matter of life and death. 

The title of his message was Why I’ll Never Walk Alone.

Twice a day, I walk my dog Ace around my neighborhood with one, or both, of my girls. I know that doesn’t seem noteworthy, but here’s something that I must admit:

I would be scared to death to take these walks without my girls and my dog. In fact, in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will). …

When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling.

But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). Its equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of possibly being targeted.

Reading his post had a deep impact on me.  Every day I step out my front door to walk to the mailbox, or roller blade around the block, or walk my dog without a hint of concern.  All my life I have felt comfortable walking through city streets without fear of being profiled.  I take for granted how the color of my skin gives me freedoms that others do not have.   

At the library we have a mission to connect communities, inspire thought and enrich lives.  Racism and violence are in direct opposition to it.   It is impossible to connect communities when racism and violence create barriers to trust.   It is impossible to inspire thought when racism and violence shut down understanding.   It is impossible to enrich lives when racism and violence favor some groups of people above others.  

Shola’s description of what he feels is necessary to do to stay safe on a simple walk through a peaceful community is heartbreaking.  Let us all commit to building a world where everyone feels safe walking the streets of their neighborhood and where the color of our skin does not keep us from stepping out our front door alone.  

As human beings we owe this to each other.

To learn more about Shola and his work, please visit his web site for more information and videos of him in action.

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