Opinion by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon
As I write this, civil rights legend and long-time U.S. Congressman John Lewis is being laid to rest. It seems fitting to honor the man who called us to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble” in a moment when we as a community are grappling with what good trouble looks like and who gets to decide.
There is a lot to love about San Luis Obispo and all of the different people that make this a place to call home. And we are a lot like every other place in America where racism has been built into our systems and ways of thinking for hundreds of years. But unlike many other cities, the relative absence of diversity here has allowed issues concerning race to be largely obscured. It has allowed for some to believe and assert that there is no racism here in San Luis Obispo—an assertion that seems worlds apart from the perspective shared by protesters and others about the experience of people of color in our community.
This juxtaposition has created the conditions for a loud and uncomfortable cry to make the unseen powerfully visible for all to see, whether we want to or not. The cry is calling us to build a common vision for “one people, one family, one house”—the “house of America” that John Lewis envisioned even while at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridgein 1965. It is going to challenge our identity as individuals and as a community. And it is this difficult work that will propel and transform us to be a place that truly welcomes and supports all who visit, work, play, worship, and live in San Luis Obispo.
To the activists:
We hear you. We are listening.
Many have supported and will continue to support your call for racial justice. Even though, as a mother and a mayor, I share the concern for your safety and the safety of other community members, and I echo the sentiments of the SLO Tribune Editorial Board that, “marching on the freeway is inherently dangerous,” my concern and curiosity about the reasons why you are willing to risk to get your message out are far more deeply rooted.
Yes, going on the freeway is dangerous, and it creates danger for others, and this needs to be taken seriously. But it’s important to recognize that it’s also dangerous to be Black in America. You are calling us to justice in ways that are going to be loud and unpredictable. Let your righteous rage be the transformational path for justice, as it has been for so many before you. So many who we now revere were treated as suspect in their time. This has always been an essential aspect of change-making.
Recognize that, despite our best efforts, the dismantling of 400 years of injustice will take time. The City of SLO has committed to concrete policies and programs so as to be part of this change. And there is so much more to do; it will take time.
Let’s have compassion for those who have put their hearts and souls into their small businesses and are struggling to keep them afloat. Let’s recognize the humanity that lies within people of every profession, even for those who work in systems that you may disagree with. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the adversary, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.
To those concerned about the protests:
Let us ask ourselves: why are our neighbors willing to risk their lives to be heard?
I hope we all recognize that we can be uncomfortable, or even can disagree with styles of protest, and still be deeply committed to creating a better world for our children. Keep in mind that the media throughout the United States has portrayed these protestors, these change agents, in negative terms, often drawing upon negative stereotypes. Let us move beyond simplistic generalizations and listen.
Let us remember that across our nation, and right here at home, it is largely young people, our children, who share our desire for a just and equitable America. This is the largest movement in history, and we are a part of it. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the enemy, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.
With so much uncertainty, so many pressures, and such intense feelings coming from so many, listening is more important than ever. Let’s continue to work together as a community to speak the truth, to seek justice, and commit to building connections with one another and strengthening our relationships and understanding through dialogue.
If you find yourself in a situation that feels unfamiliar and unnerving, here’s your first best step: listen.
If we listen, we will find that we gain understanding, insight, and most importantly, true connection to our fellow human beings.
This will be uncomfortable at times because many of us have had vastly different experiences from each other. Yet, it is in this discomfort of sitting with this diversity where our collective growth can and will happen. Many of these conversations will occur between white people, some will happen in public, some will happen at the dinner table. Let’s not turn away from this but instead ask ourselves the tough questions, ones that expand our ability to extend grace to others.
After last Tuesday’s protest, the main call has been not for justice but for punishment: punishment for the protest organizers, for police, for the county sheriff.
Let’s be more interested in transformation than punishment. Transformation for the organizers, the police, the sheriff, for all of us.
What can we become?
What can policing become?
What can the young leaders of this movement become if we offer redemption instead of incarceration?
What can the Sheriff become if we offer true understanding instead of consternation?
What can San Luis Obispo become?
This is the hard part. This is the difficult work of transformational justice. It’s more complicated than protests and takes more strength than arresting people.
What might happen if instead of dehumanizing each other we saw each other as the fully alive, flawed, and beautiful human beings that we all are?
What if we shared each other’s stories?
What if we deeply listened?
What if we created a space for people in positions of traditional power to listen to our different experiences of race and racism in this community to deeply understand that we do have racism here on the Central Coast?
What if building relationships is the best way to eradicate the racial divide?
Racial injustice and protests have made us all feel vulnerable: whether you were scared on the freeway trying to be heard, stuck on that freeway with your family inside of a car and unsure of what to do, or intending to enjoy a nice meal, while sitting outside on a random evening you were confronted with 400 years of pain and injustice instead. This is the opening, a crack in the shell of the happiest place in North America. This is where the light gets in.
Let’s let the light in San Luis Obispo.
This is the good trouble that John Lewis was talking about. Good trouble is still trouble. It isn’t passive participation, it’s action. Loving action, but action just the same.
San Luis Obispo has long been a policy and implementation leader for small-town America in the areas of public health, transportation, natural resource conservation, and climate action. I believe we can be leaders in social justice too.
If we are to truly honor John Lewis’s legacy, we must reckon with what we are willing to put on the line for that justice. We must meet across differences, have uncomfortable conversations, and build meaningful connections with people who aren’t all the same to move us towards a better world for everyone.
I am willing to do what it takes to create a community and a politics of belonging—and I hope you are too.