Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Lisa Diaz Nash | Guest Perspectives | smdailyjournal.com
As San Mateo County returns to the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, people are thinking about the impacts on their lives and businesses. Our number one priority must be to protect our community’s health. This also is the quickest way to ensure we reopen our economy and stay reopened.
In the midst of these unprecedented times, there also is an openness to questioning basic assumptions about how we live our lives. Take the perennially “unsolvable” problem of traffic gridlock that used to be the first complaint when you asked San Mateans what they didn’t like about the city. Then COVID-19 came and, all of a sudden, you didn’t have to double the time it took you to get crosstown in the afternoon, or you found yourself saying for the 10th time, “I don’t remember the sky being so blue for years!” Those people fortunate enough to have the option to work from home cleared the roads — and the skies — for all of us. Bicycles and walking emerged as more common modes of transportation once the roads were safer. Cycling advocates and environmentalists have argued for years this is necessary if we are to slow down climate change, but it took the pandemic to speed up actual adoption. Now that people have experienced these changes, and like them, there is no going back. Companies are shifting to “work from home” models and people from all over San Mateo are advocating for expanded bike paths and pedestrian safety.
Our current questioning of basic assumptions, however, goes deeper than traffic and bike paths. Born out of the murder of George Floyd and other innocent people of color, anger against systemic racism has boiled over, with protests happening across the country and here in San Mateo. San Mateans of all backgrounds, races and political persuasions have come out to peacefully protest racial injustice and call for change.
What is different, I hope, about this moment is that it will not just be a moment of anger, but a moment of systemic change. People who live the fear and frustration of systemic racism are demanding the dismantling of the double standards by which they live. People like me, who thought of themselves as allies, are acknowledging how much we have to learn about systemic racism in our society and asking how we help to dismantle it. People who didn’t spend much time thinking about racism are beginning to grapple with real-life examples of how others cannot tap into networks of opportunity because of the color of their skin.
This is not a problem with a quick fix. There is not a technology innovation that can make systemic racism go away. The “solution” begins with many tough, exhausting conversations between those who live the fear and frustration and those who need to understand it. It involves a commitment to lifelong learning that turns into daily deeds that begin to change our lives and the lives of those around us.
It continues with acknowledgment that the “system,” not just individual attitudes, needs to change, and that the changes need to be designed with those affected by systemic racism leading the conversation. It ultimately results in opening up core aspects of our society, from education to economic and social levels of advancement, to ensure everyone has equal access and equal opportunity, and that we all benefit from the full value of everyone’s contribution.
Many of the major civil rights milestones in America in the modern era — from women earning the right to vote, to the Voting Rights Act, to the Americans With Disabilities Act, to the recent US Supreme Court decision on the LGBTQ right to equal protection in the workplace — began with the sharing of personal stories and the recognition of common humanity. Discrimination and struggles don’t disappear after a law is signed or a decision is handed down. But they represent a fundamental shift in the momentum toward justice from which there is no turning back.
Let’s make sure that our community, known for being part of the technology innovation miracle of Silicon Valley, also becomes known as a place where we innovate based on our values as well as our business acumen. When we look back on “the pandemic of 2020,” let’s mourn the death and devastation that shook our world. But let’s also remember this as a time when we were jolted by the abrupt, seismic shifts in our lives into challenging basic assumptions and starting to solve “unsolvable” problems at the core of our society. And once we experienced the powerful, positive impact of racial equity on all of our lives, we never went back.