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"A Renewed Sense of Purpose,"

by Olatunde Johnson October-December 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

We woke up on Wednesday November 9 to a world that seemed profoundly changed. Like many of you, the results shook my core belief that a campaign reliant on the rhetoric of exclusion and resentment could not prevail. The devastation extends further than a lost election or a change in policy direction. Rather the deeper fear is that we are facing an existential threat to values such as human dignity and fairness, and to the very foundations of our constitutional democracy.

That morning, I faced my students, future lawyers. The majority of them were in total despair. I was tempted to say something immediately uplifting. But that would have belied my own emotions. I was not feeling particularly hopeful. And I could have only given false assurances. Even in New York City where I live, we are in the midst of an apparent spike in bias crimes, the effects, I believe, of recklessly un-bottling hate. I could only urge my students to bravely build out from the love and values that define them.

As individuals and leaders of organizations, we ultimately cannot allow ourselves the luxury of hope or despair. Our fear has been stoked, and we have to stay vigilant. And yet, there is a new urgency to our work of building racial, social and economic inclusion; a new imperative for integration, which has always been central to PRRAC’s mission. We are pushed to rethink how we do our work. We have understood integration as necessary to provide equality in access to resources, a key step towards full participation and social inclusion. More than ever, we must also emphasize the collective societal benefits, including the critical role of racial and economic integration to building the empathy and understanding vital to sustaining our democracy. In this new uncertain world, I believe we’ll need to be nimble and creative. We have to strengthen old partnerships, find new allies, and build up from state and local successes.

As we renew our purpose, we all have our favorite quotes. We speak of an arc that bends towards justice. We remind ourselves to organize, not mourn. My favorite is from James Baldwin, writing in The Fire Next Time. At “the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion,” Baldwin imagines a different future. He writes: “I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”

Olatunde Johnson is Jerome B. Sherman Professor of Law and Vice-Dean for Intellectual Life at Columbia Law School and PRRAC’s Board Chair.

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