Move Beyond Sadness to Proximity, Engagement and Action

June 2nd, 2020

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Editor’s note: This is a letter that Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO and president of DreamBox Learning, wrote to her team. She agreed to share it with us.

What you do every day at DreamBox Learning matters. The effort to help unlock learning potential in all kids no matter where they live or who they are promises generational progress and a more tolerant and peaceful society. Yet, recent events are a stark reminder that having an education and working hard in your professional and civic lives do not guarantee personal security, let alone a slice of the American Dream.

In the wake of the tragic, criminal and unnecessary loss of George Floyd’s life (one more victim on a long and appalling list of people of color who have been killed at the hands of police) and the social unrest it has inspired, I have received an amazing number of caring and thoughtful notes from family, friends, colleagues and, yes, mere strangers who offer their compassion, support and determination to do more.

From Allies I hear: “I am appalled and want to help but don’t know what to do”; “I cannot believe this happened again in America”; “Again?!? I understand the outrage and unrest because nothing else has resulted in meaningful impact and progress”; “I’m a parent and I don’t know how to explain this to my children”; “I’m embarrassed when my kids ask me what we can do to help and I don’t know what to say”; “I want you to know I am with you and want to be more than a mere ally for racial justice in America.”

Do something, anything that aligns to your authentic leadership voice and desires to make this world better for all and future generations, including your own progeny.

One thoughtful person, seeking to move beyond sadness to proximity, engagement and action sent me this note inspired by readings from author Rachel Cargle:

As a white person, I can only imagine the deep and distinct pain that must be endured by Black Americans…How will we address the recent examples of systemic, institutional racism that pervades the structures that govern and rule our citizenry with our employees and with our clients and learning community partners? I ask because I care deeply about the people I work with at DreamBox Learning and the people we serve. I ask because it is not enough to feel sad, to be shocked, or to disregard the way black lives are being discarded across the country.

From People Of Color, I hear different things: “I’m terrified to let my teenage son go outside and hang out with his friends”; “Social distancing is not new to my nephew because he’s known for a long time that to venture out alone in the ‘wrong place’ as an African American male is asking for trouble—there are places we should not feel free to walk, jog, shop, be—without putting ourselves at risk for being killed”; “I’m weary of the fight and don’t see the purpose in continuing to fight when there is no consequence for blatant racism even if it results in murder—even at the hands of the police—that is videotaped for all to see.”

I also hear “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace”; “If getting an education and working hard still won’t protect an innocent Black man jogging through a white neighborhood, what do we tell our children?” That person sent me this affecting video.

Perhaps in 2020 that leadership doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is a burden that is too much for any one person to bear. Perhaps this struggle requires uncomfortable proximity to “the other” so that with proximity we can deepen understanding and ultimately empathize with those whom we do not know, as Bryan Stevenson has said.

What I am not hearing is a shared belief that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” What I am not hearing is the voice and legacy of Martin Luther King urging white moderates to emerge from their silence to join efforts to establish a more just society that will benefit everyone, not just people of color.

It is impossible for me to separate myself from recent events, especially because I believe improving access to quality education is one of the most important investments we can make in all human beings to improve life outcomes for all kids. We often say at DreamBox Learning that we believe all kids deserve a high quality and personalized learning experience to unlock their learning and life potential.

We all must also accept, however, that access to education is necessary but insufficient to create a just society.

So many of you have reached out to ask me what you can do and what we can do together to make things better. I don’t have answers for you, but I invite you to lean into one of our company values: constantly learning so that you can familiarize yourself with any holes in your formal education about our shared American history:

  • Have an authentic conversation leveraging one of our company values, benevolent friction, with someone who has a different racial background and ask them how recent events are impacting them. Share your story. Engage in courageous conversations about the things weighing on your heart.

Onward and upwards as we link our hearts and arms to work for a better tomorrow.

  • Read MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

  • Listen to Duke University’s Scene on Radio Podcast to understand what white privilege is. Assume it’s there and recognize that if you are white that you are a beneficiary from birth.

  • Listen to The 1619 Project Podcast to learn a more thorough history of slavery in America so you can better understand its impact and legacy.

  • Do something, anything that aligns to your authentic leadership voice and desires to make this world better for all and future generations, including your own progeny. Do something that results in moving the needle on racial justice and something that combats bigotry, misogyny and intolerance of any kind. Do something to make kids proud and more hopeful about the world we are leaving them.

I’ll leave you with an op-ed posted in the Los Angeles Times. Its author is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA star, former center for the LA Lakers, jazz historian and civil rights leader.