Message from Our Chief Diversity Officer

The Chorus and the Invitation

The pain of the murder of George Floyd is deep and raw, and leaves us saddened and deeply troubled and questioning how we can move forward. We look for the voice or the leader that can offer solace and guidance and find it lacking, leaving us to wonder if this wound can be healed. We cannot unsee what we have seen and we cannot ignore or rationalize the impact of the long history of institutionalized racism in this country. This tragic event comes on the heels of years of intentional exploitation of racial division, a global pandemic that unmasked inequity and disparity in real time and two recent murders preceding that of Mr. Floyd: Ahmaud Arbery, a young man jogging, and Breonna Taylor, an EMT worker sleeping in her bed.

Like many African Americans, I have lived my life with an ever increasing number of names in the graveyard I carry in my mind and heart from Emmett Till of my childhood to George Floyd of today, and all the ones whose names I do not know. In recent years, I have seen the constant denigration of black and brown immigrants, the separation of children from parents and the brutal caging of children. Over years, I have witnessed the relentless massive incarceration of black and brown men. There are so many things to note, the relentless progress of women against all odds, the awareness of a planet in peril, poverty and hunger, and endless wars.

Like many, I was taught gratitude for any success I might have because there were many who were denied not by lack of ability but by circumstance. I was also taught my responsibility to help those who find the barriers insurmountable.

The glimmer of light in the swirling turmoil of this moment is the engagement of a multi-cultural force for change. It is not “A Voice,” it is the voice of many. It is time for the chorus, not the solo. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolution. Today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenges of change.”

The change we seek is the change we must make individually and collectively, informed by our common humanity. We cannot confuse rampage with outrage, and must not let our gaze be diverted by the violence that must be stopped. We must let our outrage motivate us to action. We must commit to use our awareness in meaningful action in our daily life. As all of us in science and medicine know great scientific discovery is often built on a series of seemingly small steps that then reveal a great understanding. Successful treatment of the complex patient evolves from meticulous evaluation and perseverance that saves a life.

Nelson Mandela said, “Change begins when people of courage and conscience fight for justice.” This struggle will not be quick or easy, but we must do as the taunt aimed at Senator Elizabeth Warren, PERSIST. The young children of today deserve a fairer, more just world that supports creativity and education, economic viability and a planet that sustains them.

As Sam Cooke sang in 1964, “Change is Gonna Come.” Yes, be hopeful, but take the counsel of the poet Robert Frost: “Hope is not found in a way out but in a way through.”  We have the compassion to care, so let us move forward with the courage to begin and the strength to stay the course. Let us be the people we want to meet.

Finally, the incomparable poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”

I respond and address my invitation TO HOPE.

Carolyn Barley Britton, MD, MS
Professor and Chief Diversity Officer
Department of Neurology, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Columbia University Irving Medical Center