May 2021

Opinion: A year after George Floyd’s murder, change starts with new way of thinking

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Guest Columnist, Stephanie Hightower, President and CEO of the Columbus Urban League
May 27, 2021

The public presentations by the candidates for Columbus Police Chief reminded me of a lesson about change that I first learned as a world-class athlete.

Change isn’t necessarily acting differently in the short term. Genuine, enduring change starts by reprogramming your thoughts. Your actions follow.

I discovered this truth shaving microseconds off my time as an Olympic hurdler.

A segway tour pauses in front of a mural supporting racial equality painted on the side of the Sheraton Hotel Columbus on Capital Square.
Adjustments determine whether you win a gold, silver or bronze medal, or nothing at all. But to reposition my acceleration between hurdles, I had to first reframe my thinking by imagining, believing and repeatedly reminding myself how this novel approach should feel.

This nation ended the outward hostilities of civil war 156 years ago. Ostensibly, the North’s victory meant that formerly enslaved Black people could finally fully participate in a free democracy.

But even the blood, sweat and tears of more than 2.75 million soldiers ultimately weren’t enough to give Black people equal status. Even a president willing to send troops South during Reconstruction wasn’t enough — just like it wasn’t enough nearly a century later when another president dispatched federal troops so a Black man could enroll in the University of Mississippi.

Sadly, our country’s history consistently reinforces this truth: Until and unless we change the way we think and collectively commit ourselves to a new paradigm, progress will stall, old battles will be re-fought and divisiveness will undermine us.

That’s one of many reasons why we need to know and reflect on our history. A new documentary on the burning of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” airs this weekend.

What stands out is not only the depths of this tragedy during which an estimated 300 people were killed by a frenzied white mob, but also that many current residents and our history books don’t know what happened. The truth was buried alongside the bodies.

How can we think differently if we don’t know the truth in the first place?

Further, this is personal. The need for new policing policies emerged as a dominant theme during the police chief interviews — as it should.

But it’s not just police officers who should challenge their assumptions.

Don’t let guilt, blame, shame or the biggest obstacles of all, denial and rationalization, stop you from examining how you think.

Reach out to a Black neighbor, coworker or friend and ask them to share with you their thoughts on racial inequities, their experience with racism and how it made them feel. Mental shifts start with empathy.

Over the last year, many people demonstrated a willingness to grow and learn. Leaders at the Columbus Partnership took an active and vocal position to support voting rights.

Top city and county officials dedicated resources to building resiliency among all communities. Black leaders set aside personal agendas to forge a new reform coalition and a more holistic approach to serving families.

Let’s follow their lead.

My athletic career and my life are richer and more rewarding because I committed to thinking differently.

My hope for the next year is that we all embrace a mind shift that leads us to a more inclusive, rewarding and just society and economy.

Stephanie Hightower was a collegiate track star at The Ohio State University (OSU). Shown in a black and white file photo taken Jan. 31, 1979. Hurdles … hurdler … Columbus Dispatch photo by Mike Munden . (possibly ran in the paper 2/2/79).

Stephanie Hightower is president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League. The former Ohio State University hurdler and four-time U.S. champion qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but was prevented from completing due to a U.S. boycott.

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