“Our goal is to create a beloved community and
this will require a qualitative change in our souls
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the College of Environmental Design our core focus is the betterment of communities. Through the building, strengthening, and nurturing of community—not for but with those communities—we seek a sea change towards the goals of sustainability, equity, and human agency as we imagine a just and righteous future for human habitation on our wounded planet. Our belief in betterment is constantly tested, by this pandemic and its inequitable consequences, by being situated in a country whose communities are needlessly ravaged by gun violence, and by the constant reminder that in our communities some lives—Black, Asian, Sikh, Transgender—clearly matter less than others.
Immersed in this context of constant testing we digest the news that Derek Chauvin is now a convicted murderer who mercilessly stole the life of George Floyd on the streets of our communities. A jury finally did the right thing. The infamous blue wall in our communities finally cracked. The Floyd family, unwavering in their dignity, made us all stronger. Video and its promulgation through social media has changed our world forever.
Yet as Vice President Harris brilliantly and succinctly put it, “a measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice.” We take solace in this verdict, but only in light of all the verdicts lost. From Ferguson to Fruitvale to Florida, we bear witness to the many who received not even a measure of justice as they, unarmed, had their lives taken from them over these long 400 years.
Watching the Floyd trial was gut wrenching, not only because of the infamous video, but the more mundane yet achingly ominous video of the moments before his murder, of a man, in his community, at a store, on the street, laughing at his own imperfections, moments that turn dark and then crescendo to a human being rightfully fearful of those who who were sworn to serve and protect him. “Don’t kill me” he cried, with the wisdom of knowing what it is to live here, in our communities, in this America, in the twenty first century.
A year, a pandemic, an election, and an insurrection later, it was equally gut wrenching to witness the days leading up to the jury’s verdict, as officials around the country chose to militarize the streets of our communities, potentially igniting the worst by projecting the worst because they were only capable of imagining the worst. How slowly we learn.
So we are tested. We are always tested, which is why we grow stronger. From the suffragettes to the civil rights activists to the catalytic figures of the BLM movement, no one fights for betterment without the knowledge of being tested, without ingesting the bitter fruit of cautious optimism. Like Gandhi before him, Dr. King knew the dangers of such optimism, and yet he called for us to strive towards the asymptote of the “beloved community,” for us to imagine a world here on earth without inequity, poverty, or hate. He believed this was achievable in communities through non-violence, through the act of embracing rather than dismissing one’s adversaries, through “a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
By this what did he mean? It is an unequivocal call to change heart and head...to quell the racism in all of our hearts, but also to act—clear-headed—to change the policies that manifest that very racism in our streets. I personally note this in my own practice, in communities like Cleveland and Detroit and Indianapolis and Newark, and stand in awe of how communities of color persevere in their stewardship of place despite all that has been perpetrated upon them. As many have written, these are the true patriots, those who stand by their country despite their country so rarely standing by them. They clearly muster the daily courage to heed Dr. King’s call, to embrace their adversaries, to fight for their communities without violence, to build the beloved community.
It is inspired by them that this work towards community betterment is our daily call. It is not work that ends graciously each day with a compliment and a gold star. It is not work that is typically clear or unambiguously correct—embracing one’s adversaries never is. The best of this work is rarely pretty, perfect, or premiated. But it is the work that must be done.
Like so many of us, legal scholars for decades will speak of George Floyd, and hopefully, finally, long overdue police reform will come to our communities—one of the many changes we must demand as we hear the voices that say such reforms are not possible. Criminal justice reform or replacement, would be an important step, but a single step nonetheless, in the climb towards King’s dream. Either way, we have any more steps to climb.
Betterment comes in many forms, rarely through vitriol, never through violence, but always through voice. Our qualitative and quantitative work for the betterment of communities, towards the pinnacle of the beloved community, in the midst and mist of this Earth Day, is our super power as the builders of community. Let’s climb together.
William W. Wurster Dean
College of Environmental Design