The Desk

January 13, 2008

Pushing for Excellence

It was during a period between the end of April to early May 2007 when the incident occurred. Enroute to a destination that was not performing the duties for which it was established, I stopped at a Burger King for breakfast fare and rest. This particular Burger King is located at Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Western Avenue and it has a mural of Civil Rights Era notables and events. Among the personages represented are images of Cesar Chavez, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Dolores Huerta, and Whitney Young. Some of the events it memorializes are the March on Washington, King’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and many other significant points in time during that era.

It was interesting to reflect on the images of the people, the acts for which they are remembered, their places in history and that time period in addition to what that time meant to people of color and our United States as a whole. For one who watched as the cavalcade passed before my eyes, as one who walked and survived those tumultuous times, who stood for the life that they strove to achieve for all, it was uplifting to see the mural. But I wondered how many youth of today understand what it means and those it represents.

By then, a young boy of about ten years came into the restaurant. He began to notice the mural and it seemed safe to venture the question, “Do you know who any of those people are or what they did?” He understood that there was a Civil Rights era wherein people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, John and Robert Kennedy had roles. He only knew the history of two — King and Chavez. The reason for that was he had just learned about them in school the week before we met. And it was okay that he at least knew those two. It was a start.

Together we looked at the representation of King’s being awarded the Nobel prize. I explained the significance of the prize to him and the various categories for which people can win. But I omitted little pieces of information — some intentionally and some because I simply did not know it. I asked the boy to look up for me what must be done to become eligible for the Nobel prize, the amount of the purse, and the categories. I then gave him my business card and asked him to email me with the information.

What I wanted him to discover was that the Nobel Prize is not some remote holy grail reserved for the elite and wealthy. What I wanted him to grasp was that with the proper knowledge and focus, it is possible that one day he could vie for that award that attests to being the best in that year for that particular discipline. I wanted him to become familiar with the award in order to gain an appreciation of why it was established and where. And I wanted him to at some point in future time realize that he too can be a catalyst of change and positive energy in his community. Yet another intangible lesson would have been the importance of accuracy and precision of presentation in order to consistently be eligible for that type, that caliber of work.

It’s now eight months later and there’s been no email that delivers the information I requested. The more important thing about the request was to get the youth thinking about what that mural represents. It is supposed to inspire pride in overcoming so many bars to progress and fulfillment. It is supposed to be a reminder of an era and impetus to not allow the movement to die away. Yet, like the unsent email, the promise of that time and the march toward equality has slowed; it seems the promised day will never arrive.

How many of us remember those times and the things for which we fought in multiple ways through numerous venues? At least that boy’s teacher took the time to educate the children about some aspect of the Civil Rights Era, even if it was a mere sampling of two or three names. After all, that was their first introduction to the matter. However, that there is no education about the Civil Rights Era is a troubling matter. I have doubts about whether any of the workers at that fast food site or any adults in the community could remember as many names as the boy and I discussed, much less the events, what they were about, the progress that’s been made since.

Socially, we’ve lost sight of many things that were part of the affirmative action movement. Unfortunately, too many view it as a tool for the unqualified to gain access where they have not earned it rather than allowing them to at least stand in line for their fair shot at the target and then having their shot measured in equal balance to all others.

Once I reached my destination, I discussed the experience and the mural with one of the employees, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. My thoughts were multiple and ardent. They infected the listener.

That mural represents periods and dates in our history that need to be remembered. The essence of the representations and the strife that accompanied those histories need to be explained to each generation so that they have a sense of why it is so vitally important that they reach for the best that is within them and demonstrate that talent, that ability to those who have the power to say, “Yes.” The lessons of those days and the growth that they held needs to be continued and replicated.

The youth need to be given the sight of the upper branches where the prize resides. That view will facilitate their aspiring to climb the tree to its uppermost parts. We need to dare and risk. That mural represents so many things that are now falling into colloquialisms and quips instead of meaningful statements. The education about what is depicted and those things that could not be captured in that image need to be discussed on an ongoing basis so that there is knowledge of the circumstances. The discussions need to also cater to strategies to gain inroads in the places where it seems the doors are closed and locked. There needs to be education about how to negotiate in order to gain the keys to enter the doors. And there needs to be education about what to do once inside in order to claim and grow the prize.

That mural represents a struggle that was not about blame for exclusion but about self-driven desire and determination to achieve in spite of the obstacles. That mural represents those who did.

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