“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
For two weeks now I have been trying to listen. There is so much that I do not understand, and that is my fault. I need to do better. I have to do better. So I have tried to listen.
In the title to this newsletter I state that the links I post are selected in the hopes that they may improve your running, your performance, or your perspective. That last word may seem out of place for a space that is built on improving athletic performance, but I have always linked quality performance with a commitment to searching for a wider and more empathetic perspective. When I coached high school soccer, always at small, undermanned schools, I believed the only way to build a consistently winning team was to have the boys grow to be greater than the sum of their parts. I spent time trying to get them to care as much about their teammate’s success as much as their own. Running is an individual sport, yet I look at someone like Shalane Flanagan and the Shalane Effect, and see the same dynamic at play, that being giving and caring about the success of those around you brings the best out of everyone. So is it true in our society.
This edition of the newsletter is about listening and perspective. Each of the articles adds a brush stroke to the picture of this moment we are in. They are from perspectives that are not my own and each led me to think about this moment in a slightly new way. So too do I hope they will do that for you. Let’s dig in.
For years professional athletes have spoken out against systemic racism, most notably Colin Kaepernick whose kneeling during the national anthem before and NFL game sought to bring about awareness to police brutality but also generated backlash from those who disagreed with his gesture and misinterpreted its meaning. (If you are still unsure about from where Kaepernick got the idea to kneel during the anthem, please listen to the former Green Beret who suggested it as an appropriate form of protest.) Since then other athletes have contributed their own views to the cause, often being told to stay in their lane. Lebron James was told to shut up and dribble. In this article, Michael Rosenberg asserts that athletes, many of whom spend part of their lives at the very bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole, only to then by rocketed skyward when they sign their professional contracts, are exactly the sort of people whose perspectives we need to listen to as they can speak to multiple audiences on the impact of racial and economic inequality.
Marielle Hall, was a 2016 US Olympian in the 10,000 meters. Her column is wide-ranging. Listen to what she says. To her frustration as a runner who loves her sport and profession but who knows black families are having to have conversations about not running, about not being in the wrong places lest it lead to misperceived intentions and violence. To the cruelty of that fact, as COVID-19 ravages through black communities with underlying health conditions, that running, an exercise which can prevent and reverse such chronic conditions, may not be safe. To the frustration of being an elite black athlete who feels she must tiptoe around racial issues, expressing frustration but not appearing too mad lest it send the wrong message.
“I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years.”
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” In this op-ed, NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shares his insight on why that is so. Listen to him; his frustration is evident. Jabbar explains why the video evidence of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, George Floyd’s death, and other recent recorded examples of racism have spurred the protests we have seen over the last two weeks. He acknowledges the difficulty white people must have with signs of violence, but also notes that when black families see racist acts perpetuated against their own, when their votes seem to have little impact on the structures that support racism, when their own president calls them thugs, frustration searches for and needs an outlet. He is clear that he does not condone the violence that some cities saw in their protests, but he is clear that when people are ignored long enough they will do what it takes to get their message heard.
I can’t quite remember when I first became aware of Patrick Skinner on Twitter, but I remember the story that made him someone I wanted to follow. Skinner was a CIA operations officer during the War on Terror and, feeling that “we focused on who and what we were fighting against instead of who and what we were fighting for, and in the shade of that difference, a rot grew,” he left the CIA and came home, believing that he could best fight for what he felt we should be by serving his community. He became a police officer and has tweeted about his career, and what he wants to bring to his career, ever since. In this op-ed Skinner lays out the failures within policing that have brought us to this flashpoint: the language (a war on crime), the outfitting and training of departments to act more as soldiers than as servants, and the instinct to throttle up a situation rather than to de-escalate it. He details steps he has taken in his role as an officer to break from this mold. He explains the difference between blame and responsibility and then he takes responsibility noting that he may not be at fault for the conditions that have led to this moment of tension in the country, but he is responsible to help try to fix it. When we talk publicly about the need to reform police departments, and that we need good cops to do it, this is an example of who we should look to and listen to.
I thought long and hard about posting this, not because I disagreed with its premise, but because I worried bringing a discussion about climate change into a running newsletter was too far a stretch. However, an idea from author, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, stuck with me: the time consuming nature of racism. “Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us.” Throughout the column Johnson notes the ways, large and small, that attention spent on reacting to, worrying about, and fixing racism takes time and energy and focus away from issues, hers is climate change, that are pressing and urgent; these are issues that require the collective attention and brainpower of a diverse set of problem solvers. Much of the attention around racism focuses on the acute; state violence, judicial and financial inequality. Johnson’s message looks at one of the outward ripples, though it is no less important. It is a reminder than when the television coverage of yet another killing moves on to something else, the tendrils of racism remain and extend into the offices and living rooms and kitchens of people of color all over the country. Those of us who don’t have to live that are obligated to be aware of it, to listen, to help fix.