True understanding requires stepping into one another’s shoes

Participants march in September near Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston during a Charleston's Days of Grace event. (Andrew Knapp/File)

We’re approaching a very painful anniversary here in Charleston. Six months ago, nine of our black community members were murdered as they sat together in prayer at Mother Emanuel Church, tearing open a deep wound in a city that has witnessed hundreds of years of racially motivated violence, segregation and discrimination.

Sadly, our pain and suffering are not unique, as communities across the country continue to confront the devastating impact of individual and systemic racism and intolerance. And out of this pain emerged a community of activists, built upon an equally long history of organized protest, legal action, philanthropy and artistic expression, that has provided continuity, comfort and inspiration to all of us here.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to participate in the Nov. 2 town hall at Mother Emanuel focused on issues of race and designed to “promote unity and progress on racial equity.” Unfortunately, the resulting conversation appeared to be nothing more than an exploitative public relations ploy that will do nothing, in its current form, to help us address the deep divides in our community and others.

Organizers A+E Networks and iHeart Media (which will launch a national campaign with a two-hour concert special this month) seem to have put much more energy into getting celebrities engaged than they have in creating conversations that will truly support change.

When I arrived at the church, I saw Pharrell and Soledad O’Brien on stage while prominent Charlestonians, including Mayor Joe Riley, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson and others, were seated in the audience. Hundreds of Charlestonians, including me, had come to the church that evening, eagerly embracing the opportunity to have a real and productive discussion about healing racial divides. While there were plenty of cameras ready to capture our experiences, there was no way for us to have a fruitful conversation, because the event organizers didn’t create an agenda, a panel of speakers or any real channel to facilitate dialogue. No one had worked with local activists to highlight the work already being done in our city on these issues or to consider next steps that could be raised with the group.

Instead, the evening quickly devolved into frustration and anger. With no real way for us to listen to one another and without any clear calls to action, we had nowhere to go.

As someone who cares very deeply about our city, as a mother and professional striving to create a healthy environment for all of the children here and as a white leader looking to help address historic racial divides, I want to offer a small but actionable idea we can all use to advance equity and equality. Let’s step into the shoes of others.

At WINGS for Kids, an after-school social and emotional program based here in Charleston, we teach social awareness (among self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills) to elementary school aged kids. Every day after school we help kids better understand themselves and their peers through empathetic techniques like stepping into the shoes of others.

When was the last time you really stopped and stepped into your co-worker’s world? Or tried to understand your child’s frustration during homework? One by one, all together, if we challenged ourselves to step into the shoes of others at least once a week, empathy would grow and understanding would increase.

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We at WINGS have accepted this challenge, too, and have introduced a project called Kindred Kids, which connects fourth graders from North Charleston Elementary to fourth graders at Mason Prep in an effort to learn more about those different from them by stepping into their shoes. This individual activity won’t solve historic inequities here in Charleston or across the country. But it can help all of us build the empathy we need to work together towards real solutions.

We don’t need celebrities to tell us how to heal and grow — we have the expertise and leadership we need right here if we’re willing to utilize it.

Let’s get moving by stepping into the shoes of others.

Bridget Laird is CEO of WINGS for Kids.

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