The Long View: Showing Up Consistently for “Justice for All”

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“Democracy prevailed.” – These words spoken on Inauguration Day by our new president, Joe Biden, offered us hope. Indeed, January 20th was a great day for those of us who are hoping for change. President Biden, Vice President Harris and three former presidents filled their eloquent messages with the power of hope.

They also left us with a warning and a plea. They reminded us that change is hard; our challenges ahead are enormous and complex. We were asked to do a few things: to embrace unity as a shared goal and purpose, to be decent, to respect and listen to one another and admit we are and have been an imperfect union and we can do better.

Today, a little less than a week after Inauguration Day, I find myself wondering how long can we commit each day to work for justice and accept the discomfort and uncertainty that goes with deeper, long-term change. This is “cathedral time” work – work that will require guiding principles and persistence that will need to continue for generations.

What looked like real change when Martin Luther King Jr. was alive has been diluted by 40 years of resistance to change and power sharing in America.  Keaton Shenk, a reader from Virginia, shared excerpts from an article by John Paul Lederach, Senior Fellow at Humanity United and Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, in a recent On Being Project newsletter.

Lederach suggests we pay attention to three guiding pillars that are believed to have sustained King and others in the fight for racial justice. The three pillars are 1) Don’t wait for slow incremental change; advocate and act for justice now. King warned against the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and advocated for the “fierce urgency of now.” 2) Persist – this is hard work and involves “hewing out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Lederach reminds us that sustained hope requires patience and persistence precisely because, as King observed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, even as it bends toward justice;” and 3) Unwavering commitment to nonviolence and our ultimate interdependence. Lederach observes that in King’s day, as now, grave, outrageous inequality persisted. Yet ultimately, Dr King summed up our need for each other in his I Have A Dream speech with the handful of words: “We cannot walk alone.” 

As we ponder what are our individual and collective actions to move the arc of justice forward, these pillars offer guidance based on experience from a different but similar era.

Grizel Ubarry, a friend and professional colleague of Puerto Rican descent who lives in Northern Jersey, is an economic and community development consultant, activist and sits on several foundation boards. She shared her reflections – frustrations and hopes – about the pace and commitment to working for change. I share these reflections to remind our white readers who are frustrated to consider the frustration of people of color in America.

“I find the struggle for racial justice in America painful most of the time, and at times, depressing. Having worked in the community and economic development field for over forty years, I have seen the cycles of progress and repressive opposition from every sector of American life. More recently, resistance comes from all levels of government in addition to the private sector. I have seen foundations and corporations take on the needs of communities of color mostly in cycles, a bit trendy, and then disappear again.

“So, from my lens, what we need is a consistent commitment by all leaders in all sectors to work every day for racial justice. This requires a level of self-awareness about race and racism and its economics, starting with our nation’s history. Growing up, I did not learn about structural racism in high school and very little in college. I found it helpful to read White Fragility…Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. (See my review of her book at my website

“DiAngelo’s careful and perceptive analysis of both the history of racism and its relationship to power gets at why it is essential to understand our history.  With that understanding, we can begin to dismantle structural racism and work toward equal justice through self-awareness and a desire for change. Our ability to co-exist with each other demands that we not be complicit or silent but invested in being part of a change. That change needs to be aligned with the changing demographics and fueled by our desire to live in a society that benefits everyone. Martin Luther King said it best: ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’”

Listening to interviews with our inspired youthful poet laureate Amanda Gordon and California’s new and first Latino Senator, Alex Padilla, reminded me that people of color are held to a different standard than white people and always pay a higher price for change. It is tempting for me, as a white man, to want some time off or to agree with others who think this isn’t our work to do. But I remind myself of Grizel Ubarry’s plea that all of us, particularly white people who have benefitted from a system stacked in our favor, ask ourselves daily: what is our work to do today to advance unity, mutual respect and equality?  

What sustains you or gets in the way of your taking actions small or big that advance our stated ideals of liberty and justice for all? What might you do today to advance our desire for a “more perfect union?”

Thanks for following Critical Conversations. Share your reflections at the bottom of the post or by email to [email protected]


  1. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you, Tom. Yes, we need lifelong commitment from white folks like me. I’m curious to hear shortly how President Biden will prioritize racial equity and keep it in front of all of us over the next four years.

    • Tom Adams

      Yes I agree Shirin. Our national leadership or lack of it is important as we have seen the past four years. And we are each called to act. Thanks for continuing to help us stay focused on ‘what is mine to do?’ Tom

  2. Darlene Tucker

    Sr Joan chittister had a recent article on how we are all called to speak up, even when uncomfortable. (See her article in NCR). Too often we don’t want to make waves and let things be said…

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Darlene, I will look for the article. Yes our desire for comfort and to avoid disagreements can become collusion with what becomes an unjust or unloving place or world. Thanks for the reminder. Tom

  3. sally mac

    I’ve been reading Jon Meacham’s book on John Lewis. It’s references to courage, making “good trouble”and the Beloved Community are refreshing reminders.
    Amanda Gorman and Alex Padilla are new voices worth hearing!

    • Tom Adams

      Another friend mentioned that book as inspiring. He read it while traveling south to visit some of the places where John Lewis and others took their stand for civil rights. Yes , we need many new voices and much individual and collective courage to make good trouble that leads to a more just world. Peace, Tom