There’s a meme going around, that no one will be sad to see 2016 in our rearview mirror. “Worst year ever!”
People who share this belief point to the bruising US presidential race and election, the persistence of racial hostilities and anti-immigrant sentiments, and so on. Politically, this has been a rough time.
But there is another way to frame the year, and it’s leaving me with a touch of what I’m calling enlightened optimism. This doesn’t mean that I’m looking back on 2016 through rose-colored glasses. Believe me, I am cleareyed and well aware that things have been corrosive and nasty. Yet some responses to the rough times in 2016 demonstrate the wellsprings of good within our communities.
Facing History and Ourselves, a global education organization, is hearing from teachers all across the country. Racial, political, and cultural fissures exposed by a challenging year are coming up in classrooms. Teachers feel an urgency about really difficult work with their students.
But there are ways to make things better in schools. One teacher wrote to me that some of his students were distraught after the election. He was able to help them reframe their feelings into greater knowledge of some of the economic divides in the country and into empathy for students in communities that voted differently. My optimism? That teachers all across the country will act to (in his words) “draw kids and adults into meaningful discourse about really hard topics.”
Meaningful discourse — coupled with action — is a powerful tool in building community. Locally, the Jewish community is helping to welcome and resettle Syrian refugee families in Boston. Other faith-based communities have now joined the effort, and the diversity of Boston is on full display as these families start new lives in the safety that we take for granted.
The families aiding these Syrian refugees will sew long-lasting seeds of connections between communities that otherwise might have found it so easy to be on opposite sides of every divide. Many refugees use WhatsApp — a messaging application invented by an immigrant escaping anti-Semitism in Ukraine to tell their families scattered across the world the real story about life in America: This is a good place, full of people who do good.
And if you Google the phrase “walk with Natasha,” you’ll find another illustration of enlightened optimism. In a powerful show of force against intolerance, 300 members of the Baylor University community, in Waco, Texas, from all backgrounds, walked one student to class.
Two days earlier, this student, a young black woman, had been accosted and verbally assaulted on her way to class — a graphic illustration of the damage done by a bitter year in political discourse. Angry, but determined not to be defeated by the bigotry, she described her experience on Facebook. Her community responded in kind and responded in force.
Wherever we are on this globe, we each have within us that same determination and compassion. This is what I mean by enlightened optimism. Even when confronting really hard situations, you can change your mindset. Your action can make the world a better place.
Let’s all enter the new year determined to bring enlightened optimism to one another, to bring out the best in each other. The strength of our communities in 2017 and beyond depends upon it.
Roger Brooks is president and CEO of Boston-based Facing History and Ourselves.