October 30, 2020

Still Breathing

David Bowers

John Lewis. Ernst Valery. India Solomon. Blaise Hare.

This essay is an affirmation of life and the conviction to fight for justice and opportunity for all. It is an attempt to reframe to the enemies of justice and opportunity for all the phrase “I Can’t Breathe”. Still breathing.

Many people who read this piece will know the name John Lewis. The third child of Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis grew to become an icon of the Civil Rights movement and a seventeen term Congressman. Literally until his final days he was working for justice. While battling cancer he was a sitting Congressman that was engaged in various ways in the work to improve life in the United States for all people. As long as he was still breathing, he was still working to advance the cause of justice, much like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did until her final days. And a Wakanda forever, H.U. forever shout out to recently departed Chadwick Boseman working until his end.

Some that read this piece will know the name Ernst Valery. Ernst is a successful real estate developer that does work in various cities. While speaking to him recently I was inspired. Inspired that in the midst of so much pain and despair and uncertainty in the nation – Ernst is working hard to create new affordable homeownership and rental opportunities for low-and moderate-income people. In addition, Ernst is also working to incorporate an intentional approach to supporting new, young Black developers with access to training, professional mentorship and capital. On a call reviewing his ideas – I was struck by Ernst’s vision, his plan and his passion. He was goal and action oriented. Still breathing.

Most of you that read this will not know the name Blaise Hare. My colleague Ashley and her husband Greg were blessed to have young Blaise be born safely this year during the coronavirus pandemic. On nearly every Zoom call I’m on with Ashley, young Blaise is in the picture. In his mother’s arms, often seemingly watching attentively as his mother listens in, or navigates documents on the shared screen. At the end of most calls I’ll ask “And what does the intern think? Blaise – any comment?” Blaise’s presence, along with the occasional appearance of another “intern” - young Amos Sorrel (youngest son of our colleague Jessica) – is a visual reminder that life goes on…often in spite of humanity’s best efforts to destroy itself. Still breathing.

The latest string of killings and shootings of Black Americans, especially those at the hand of the government, has stoked feelings of anger, despair, exhaustion, frustration and fear among many in our nation. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor dead. And for what? Jacob Blake shot in the back by police and paralyzed. And for what?

“I Can’t Breathe.” The words uttered repeatedly by Eric Garner on July 17, 2014 as he was killed by New York City police. “I Can’t Breathe”. The words uttered repeatedly by George Floyd on May 25, 2020 as he was killed by Minneapolis police. “I Can’t Breathe” has come to represent for many the embodiment of anti-Black racism and oppression and violence at its worst extreme in America. They are literally killing us. We literally cannot breathe. The system grounded in the belief of white superiority and the subjugation, dehumanization, exploitation and murder of Black people in America continues in 2020. Want to know what that looks like? Look at the video of what police did to Eric Garner. Look at the video of what police did to George Floyd. Look at the video of what police did to Jacob Blake. Then look at the video of what police did NOT do to Kyle Rittenhouse as he walks by police with his AR-15 style rifle AFTER having just shot three people, two of whom died. WE CAN’T BREATHE!

So much talk is taking place these days in board rooms and legislative halls, family kitchens and on cable news, on social media platforms and in the locker rooms of professional athletes. What can be done? What must be done? What will be done? Many of us at Enterprise are wrestling weekly to answer these questions and plot a course for our companies to bring even more impactful interventions to communities across the nation while working to ground our internal and external work in racial equity. For many people at companies and organizations and communities across America – the frustration and fear is that the initial scramble after incidents, when the bright lights of coverage fades, focus on meaningful change will give way to the routines of life and the drudgery of the struggle.

What happens after the flame burns brightest?

When actual policies must be created and implemented supporting the hiring, retention, promotion and development of Black people at all levels of a company – from the administrative staff to the C-Suite? When actual systems must be put in place to provide real access to meaningful amounts and types of capital that will be relevant in helping Black owned businesses and developers thrive and create wealth and opportunities? When actual laws must be written and debated and voted on and enacted to deter police brutality? When active efforts of voter suppression needs to be checked and the silence and inaction is maddening?

And yet.

I am affirming “STILL BREATHING”. When someone asks how I’m doing I’m affirming that I still have what the Bible refers to from the Hebrew the “ruah” – breath…the breath of life…the breath of God”. And as long as I am STILL BREATHING, I have the ability…nea – the responsibility, to live affirming life and fighting for justice and opportunity for all.

India Solomon is a name most people will not know. She was a former colleague at Enterprise that recently left to pursue an opportunity working for a for-profit developer. She would be one of the few that looked like her. In the midst of all the turmoil in the nation and talk of racial equity, I asked her of her goals and plans. She said she was going to “make my noise”. It was a simple yet profound declaration by a young Black woman that she was going to place her stake in the ground for justice and opportunity. Through her actions and words, she would seek to make a way not only for herself but for others. Making her noise. She’ll be stirring good trouble Mr. Lewis. Still breathing.

The lyrics to The Impressions song “Keep on Pushing” capture the spirit of it: “I've got to keep on pushing, I can't stop now. Move up a little higher, Someway, somehow. 'Cause I've got my strength, And it don't make sense. Not to keep on pushing.”

For those that tell us we can’t afford to make sure all people have healthy, safe and affordable housing in thriving communities. Budgets are too tight. Not concerned about impending evictions. Still breathing.

For those that would tell us issues of systemic racism are not at play in repeated instances of police brutality against Blacks and that entrenched political power will prevent change. Still breathing. For those who tell us there are not enough qualified Black candidates. Still Breathing. For those that tell us “but this is how we’ve always done it”. Still Breathing (see an example of a new effort by The Black Idea Coalition to confront this thinking).

Like Congressman Lewis we are all challenged to work for justice as long as we are still breathing. To pass laws, to challenge unjust norms, to speak against the arrogance of those who claim to have all the answers and against the apathy of those who claim there are no answers. Ernst and India and young Blaise and Amos represent three generations of new laborers for justice and equity in housing, wealth, health, education or whatever field they endeavor to pursue. Ernst’s sharp plans and passion, India’s conviction, Blaise’s rapt attention and Amos’ calling in his name give me hope and a charge to keep working.

Hey – to all you who peddle in hate and lies and oppression and killing and exploitation and exclusion. Guess what player – WE’RE STILL BREATHING!

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