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Listen, Learn, Lead

Originally Published on Medium

By Rep. Chrissy Houlahan

It’s hard to breathe and feel safe now. There is a virus in the air, a pandemic. Do you feel it? Do you see it? Maybe you think it is not exactly where you are. But you know that there are hotspots in some areas most assuredly — in Minneapolis, NYC, and Atlanta. But the disease is everywhere really. We know it.

But to be clear, we are not talking about COVID-19. We are speaking of racism.

And it is our shared responsibility to name it, to address it head on. We cannot simply ignore it, choose to not track it, or not to test for it and just hope it will go away. We cannot ask that others do the work for us in confronting this scourge — do that work “somewhere else” — so that we can go on with our lives. All the while, the plague persists month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and century after century. We must all do what we know is right now, what is uncomfortable, but what we know to be the right thing to do on behalf of all of us. We must confront the virus head on. All do the work. Spend the time. Provide the resources. Stop it once and for all.

This is our shared reality and for too long, too many of us have shirked our responsibility to stand up and speak out about the stain of racism in our country. In order for real reform to take place, we must address the very system that enables bias to occur. It is there, day in and day out. For some of us, it bears no ill effect. But for others in our community, Commonwealth, and country the effect is staggering. The same institutions that are the very foundations of our country and our lives are where the greatest disparities exist — education, healthcare, housing, and yes, our systems of justice. These are undeniable truths.

Systemic racism is also the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and brown communities. Black and brown people are being diagnosed with this deadly virus and are dying at much higher rates. They are also more likely to be in front line jobs that offer no ability to “stay home and stay safe” from the virus.

I am a freshman in Congress. As a newly elected Representative, I raised my hand to serve on the committees that most closely matched my background: Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Small Business. And we got to work.

During this first term, we assembled a very talented and diverse team that I am enormously proud of — we look like our nation. In this 116th Congress, we have established a legislative record that supports increasing the minimum wage, the protection of unions, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, and for childcare and earned income tax credits. I am pleased that we have been able to support public school repair, teachers, and more Pell grants. We have fought with our votes to protect the Affordable Care Act, and to protect Medicaid and Medicare benefits. We have supported legislation that combats homelessness, and expands safe and affordable housing. And we have worked to enhance and protect access to the ballot.

In this Congress, I have led efforts to improve the recruitment and retention of more diverse teachers, with the hope that more black and brown students will be able to see themselves in their educators. I have led efforts to provide parental leave for 2.1 million public servants. I have led efforts to encourage and incentivize national service so that we see and serve each other more in the real world, and better understand one another as a consequence.

At home and in DC, I have met with community leaders and advocates on these issues many times. I have organized and convened events focused on these issues.

But it is not enough.

None of this is enough. Because black and brown people still do not have consistent and reliable access to equitable healthcare or education. They still face significant obstacles to casting a ballot — a right many of us just take for granted. They are still underrepresented in every aspect of our society. Underpaid consistently. Imprisoned disproportionately. Most alarmingly, black and brown people are still being killed and dying every single day — due to both individual and structural racism. And sometimes while in the care and at the hands of our law enforcement.

The force that binds us — our humanity — calls on us to mourn the deaths of Chester County’s own Bianca Roberson, and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so, so many others. Those responsible must be held accountable, and I recognize the unique privilege of my position in Congress to be part of that solution and necessary reform.

So, I must recommit myself to using the tools of my office to make real progress on the policies that underpin structural racism: housing and employment discrimination, educational inequity, criminal justice reform, for example. I must listen more. I must learn more. I must lead more. I must devote and dedicate my team specifically to these issues more. I must create more space to have hard conversations, publicly, more. To this I personally commit.

In a pandemic, silence is deadly. Denial is deadly. Our communities aren’t safe when people’s lives are at risk due to the color of their skin. We have the capacity and responsibility to do better as a country. We are leaders, all of us, and as a community we are strong, resilient, innovative, and caring. Let’s begin to heal by going beyond the surface and approach each other with trust. Let’s talk with one another, listen to one another, and look clearly at the history we know in order to build a future together. Let’s share our stories and find our common ground. Our collective humanity depends upon the change we create together.