Nov 2020 - Project REAL...Reflection, Education, Action and Love...Part 1
Editor's Note: Earlier this fall the Notre Dame Senior Alumni (NDSA) Board of Directors issued its Statement Against Racial and Social Injustice. In conjunction with this statement NDSA also unveiled Project REAL and committed to further initiatives around the themes of Reflection, Education, Action and Love. In this issue of the Golden Domer, NDSA Operations Officer Cindy Lupica, '80 offers her thoughts on the theme of Reflection.
by Cindy Lupica, ‘80
“All lives matter"
Walking by two of my adult kids, I heard words known to me. I was not surprised by the fact of a topical conversation; the two have always been close, as are all of my kids, and they talk about everything. My son’s profession requires him to continually analyze data and evaluate facts, and he is slow to react and careful in his comments. When he does respond, he is direct, to the point, and no-nonsense. My daughter, a primary care physician, is fully non-judgmental, very accepting of life’s vicissitudes, and empathetic to a (good) fault. The two, debating a real-life social issue, were respectful but pretty much at an impasse. Each had argued positions and, as a by-product of having an attorney mom, there had been a lot of devil’s advocacy going on. My daughter then said words unknown to me: “Social determinants.” I had no idea what that meant. My curiosity piqued, I decided to join the conversation.
“What are social determinants?” With that question I began an uneasy, emotional, and ongoing journey into my feelings toward race, equity, and social justice.
I live in a small, “bedroom” community, the same one in which I grew up after my dad’s transfer to California from the Midwest. My upbringing was quintessential Norman Rockwell: a lot of siblings; scores of neighborhood friends; parents around every corner, meting out discipline as needed; and a carefree childhood that saw us playing and biking and having orange fights until my mom rang the bell, calling us home for dinner or bedtime. Life was simple, fun, and uncomplicated.
Admittedly, my town was mostly white, with a smattering of Asian and Hispanic families. During my public high school years there was only one black family in our school district. The family, admired by all who knew them, was also, understandably, “known” to even those who had not made more formal acquaintances. The teenaged son, younger than me, never wanted for dates from fellow students, all, white females. My two younger sisters wistfully daydreamed of going to the prom with this handsome young man. Among us kids, there were no racist incidents or stories, nor did we ever hear or witness racist words or actions from our parents. In my pre-college world, such sentiments did not exist within my family or circle of friends. As a family, we were anchored by my parents’ small, Ohio-town sensibilities of hard work and service, where help was freely given to any and all in need.
Similarly, my college years at Notre Dame were devoid of known-to-me racist events; the same can be said of my years working as an attorney. My professional and social relationships with minority members of the bar—Black, Hispanic, and Asian attorneys and judges--similarly produced no statements or evidence of discrimination or racism. We were all in difficult jobs which caused us to mostly work together and get along.
My kids’ discussion was interesting to me for so many reasons. I was listening to two children from the same family and upbringing, who had individualized, nuanced, and sometimes diverse ideas on race, poverty, access to healthcare, and other issues involving not only people of color, but also the underserved. Each was a strong advocate, a fact that I found refreshing as social or political fervor was mostly absent in my personal life. It was well-known to all that my “default” position to spirited discussions was the safe harbor of, “I am fairly apolitical.” Here, my ambivalence did not prevail, as I was both intrigued, and slightly concerned, about what I was hearing from my daughter. Having only recently moved to California after spending eight years in New York for her medical education and residency, my daughter was showing me a side of her that was previously unknown to me. All that I could think was that she did not believe all that she was saying. In fact, she did.
My daughter has both a medical degree and a Master of Public Health. She has worked with underserved communities beginning with her time at Notre Dame and continuing to the present, both in the United States and abroad. As such, her life experiences, vastly different from mine, have allowed her to expand her vision beyond the small boundaries within which I have always lived my life. With my son long gone from the conversation, my daughter explained to me the term that initially brought me into the conversation about race and inequality. That term, which was actually “social determinants of health,” means, per the CDC, “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes.” I then heard multiple stories of discriminatory facts and practices where Black patients in the Bronx clinic where my daughter had previously worked, and Hispanic patients in the clinic in Compton where she presently works, were effectively denied needed medical care. Details of the discrimination are not necessary here, but I did continue to try to introduce alternate explanations to race discrimination as the only causal connection, explaining that not all social ills result from racism and discrimination. Yes, I acknowledged, there is racism and discrimination, but there is also simply unfairness in life. Further, I questioned if my daughter had ever considered the concepts of personal responsibility, fortitude, grit, or the proverbial “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps?” I was politely chastised that my comments, especially for many in the black and brown communities, could be considered racist. I was now becoming uncomfortable, annoyed, and defensive. Offended? Absolutely, as her suggested narrative did not comport with my view of how I have lived my life. At this point, we realized that family harmony should prevail over the debate. We moved on.
In reality, I did not move on, and my discomfort did not end with our mutual détente. Over the coming days and weeks, I played over in my head the “tape” of our conversation. Was I wrong? Was I right? Do I need to change or am I okay, as is? During this period of my discernment, my community was experiencing the start of its own racial awakening. A local Black Lives Matter group was formed, mostly comprised of post-high school kids with direction and oversight from parents of color. Weekend protests were noisy but mostly benign, with the occasional blocking of streets by prone kids. More troubling, our city’s Facebook page suddenly morphed from a repository of best repair persons and announcements of community events, to a political page where school board candidates were embraced and encouraged or lambasted and disparaged. Any candidate who was not pro-DEI, or who argued that parental oversight and education was preferred over left-leaning writings from prominent Black writers, was labeled a racist. An “Anti-Racist Education” Facebook page was started and the commentary there—from both sides--was oftentimes mean, personal, and defamatory. I was very troubled by what I was reading, but I was also disconnected from local school issues as my kids were long gone from their high school days and, they had not attended the public schools but Catholic boys’ and girls’ high schools that were rich in diversity. Now I began to question if there was some racial undercurrent in my town of which I was previously unaware. I soon learned of an earlier, racist incident at a high school basketball tournament game that involved some of our public high school kids and Black kids from the opposing team. Additionally, through postings of historical documents on the anti-racist page, I became aware that my city had been a “sundown town,” and that that now-illegal deeds had contained racist Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions preventing the sales of homes in my city to people of color.
As tensions in my little city rose, factions and leaders emerged, ugliness became commonplace, and I felt as though I did not know the community that had raised and nurtured me since the 1960s. While not a prolific Facebook contributor--my occasional posts highlighted cooking, sewing, and gardening posts--I nonetheless contemplated weighing in. I, as a long-standing member of our community, could surely defend it, offering reasoned thought, explanation, and context. “Don’t do it,” my husband and kids advised.
“We are all people of goodwill,” I began, “who share in many common goals: a warm and welcoming community; health and safety in our homes and for our families; and good schools.” My seemingly benign words, at least to me, were only benign to those who agreed with me. From those who did not share my views, I experienced anger and derision. “Of course, your white privilege allows you to say nonsensical things in the face of an alternate reality for people of color.” As with my daughter’s chastising comments, I was offended, but I was also baffled. Anecdotes of driving-while-Black, or people of color being stopped while simply walking, did not make the neighborhood newspaper crime column. Had they really occurred in my city? I caught myself in this way of thinking and, remembering my own statement of “people of goodwill,” chose to give others the benefit of the doubt, as maybe such incidents were not reported by the police, or the involved citizen. I was reminded of my daughter’s explanation to me, during our earlier conversation, that she was simply living the Catholic/Christian life that my husband and extended family and I had taught and modeled for her and her siblings.
Life moved forward, COVID raged on, and the school board race was decided, all the while additional conversations with my daughter, and later with my physician son-in-law, continued. Examples of unfairness--or racism--in the provision of medical services to underserved children of color also continued. I listened compassionately to such stories, oftentimes moved to tears over the inequities suffered by so many. Occasionally, tempers still flared a bit, but clearly, there was movement on all sides. I came to realize how inequities in how services and benefits are provided, and taken away, dramatically affected the ability of families to get needed medical care for their children. I learned the facts of unceasing poverty. I learned how personal initiative in seeking promotions, and a slight raise, “penalized” families who then lost other needed financial benefits. Equally troubling were low-income earning parents who had so little sick time that they put off for months—until they could take time off--truly needed medical follow up for kids’ hypertension or auto-immune diseases. On her end, my daughter’s life experiences were expanding. One evening after work she incredulously told me of a woman of color who alleged racism when my daughter—truly a doctor for all underserved--denied clinic care (due to COVID protocols) to the woman’s feverish daughter, the ER/ED being the only option for care. Each of us was listening, watching, and reevaluating beliefs, and where months earlier we had been in our separate boxes of righteousness or indignation, now, corners were slowly and methodically being worn off, extremes were being replaced with more areas of gray, and people of goodwill were evolving.
I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the religious component that afforded my progress in this journey that began with that conversation between two of my children. Contemporaneous with that conversation starter, I and the rest of the members of the Notre Dame Senior Alumni Board began the process of discussing, debating, and drafting the “NDSA Statement Against Racism & Social Injustice.” This was not fully an easy process, as different sensibilities were expressed, but through multiple virtual meetings, phone calls, and emails—and probably a few prayers to the Holy Spirit--the Board composed a timely, important, and relevant statement. One of the key tenets of that statement was drawn from the Penitential Rite of the Mass, wherein we ask for God’s forgiveness and acknowledge our sins, not only of commission, but of omission. This confession, having been spoken hundreds of times by each of us, calls us to reflect and to attempt, as my daughter reminded me, to daily seek to live a Christ-like life.
Now, months later, with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and past misconceptions mostly in the rearview mirror, I focus on listening, understanding, comity, and kindness. I acknowledge that the process in getting to this place has required soul-searching, introspection, and a willingness to admit that I am not too old to learn—from my children, my community, and my faith. In the end, we are all people of goodwill.