November 2016

Stephanie Hightower commentary: Let’s tear down community’s walls of division

This piece appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on Nov. 19

Given the tenor and tone of this past presidential election, which showcased the deep divide in our nation, some of us simply need to check our conscience: How do we now effectively advocate for inner city communities?

This is not about party politics or rigid ideologies. As the first woman president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Urban League, our city’s oldest and most successful family advocate, we steadfastly adhere to bipartisan principles.

Our mission is to overcome poverty, stabilize families and achieve economic mobility for all. We can’t allow other issues to obscure our objectives or diminish our ability to serve the nearly 7,000 people we touch every year.

And yet, I struggle with some significant worries. When we cannot connect or relate, the chasm between us incubates stereotypes and, worse, indifference. I’ve learned these lessons throughout my life. Whether traveling the world as a representative of the USA Track & Field Association or meeting with my neighbors on the Near East side, people are always more likely to objectify and misunderstand that which is foreign to them. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

It was in this spirit of sharing that our organization dedicated its annual Empowerment Day luncheon to racism. Just a few weeks ago, we heard from a panel of experts about the realities and impacts of systemic racism on criminal justice, homelessness and economic mobility. Some key points included:

  • More African American adults are under correctional control today than there were slaves before the Civil War.
  • While African Americans comprise 22 percent of the population of Franklin County, they represent 73 percent of those served in our homeless shelters.
  • A black woman is three times more likely to be evicted than a white woman.
  • In two years, the percentage of black women in Columbus earning more than $15/hour dropped from 67 percent to 58 percent.

You see, it’s often what we don’t say about racism that should concern us. I’m not sure that President-elect Donald Trump has yet acquired a firsthand understanding of these issues. His tendency to simplify the complex and display leadership with bombast, rather than diplomacy, amplifies my concern.

That said, I am heartened by his call for unity, and I will echo it as well. Our American family mighty be fractured and fragmented, but we still are a family. Let’s come together, share the stories and moments that shape our lives and create a shared agenda. We can all agree that our future depends on our ability to embrace change, to let go of the failed policies of the past, and to foster the innovation and collaboration that makes the stuff of true genius.

Columbus has a unique opportunity to lead. The Community Shelter Board, guided by Michelle Heritage, in conjunction with the Columbus Urban League and other organizations, has joined the Center for Social Innovation’s 10-city project on racism and homelessness. Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) relies on data analysis, training and focused conversations to craft a specific plan that will overcome the bigotry that contributes to why thousands of our families are forced to the streets every year.

We launch this critical community conversation on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at the King Arts Complex, starting at 4:30 p.m. (See for more information.)

We have reached a historic crossroads. We can choose. Will we retreat, hiding behind barricades of disrespect and mistrust, plotting against opinions we neither “get” nor agree with? Will we stand still and watch in self-made helplessness as decisions are reached without our voice? Or will we step out, step up and speak up, demonstrating genuine desire to break down walls and build up all people collectively?

I return again to the wisdom of King, who said the ultimate measure of each of us lies not in where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy. Let’s stand together. In ColumbUS, success starts with all of US.

Stephanie Hightower is president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League

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