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Reckoning with Our Past and Present

On December 14, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred. It was a life-shattering event for many in our community and myself. While watching the breaking news on TV, I could turn 180 degrees and see helicopters circling the school a few miles away. I saw a SWAT truck draped with roughly eight black-clad armored and armed people drive by. I’d soon learn the first victim, the shooter’s mother, lay dead in her home on the street parallel to ours. The police were tying off yellow police tape as I stared down the street. A local television reporter asked how I felt. Conscious of an opportunity to convey a message, I said, “We, as a society, are partially responsible for this.” That sentiment did not air.

Over time, society’s norms and culture condition us as individuals. This massacre and my evolving advocacy further strengthened this idea about our responsibility and conditioning, and it broadened beyond firearm violence.

After almost three decades in the information technology industry, I try to understand why something is the way it is. If it is an issue, a problem, work to find a solution. We can improve most things. Within days after the shooting, along with sixteen others, I founded Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a national non-profit that continues today. (I left in the fall of 2013)

Reflecting on my initial motivations that sparked SHP, I turned to peoples’ stories. I hoped to gather a representative, nationwide data set to show the scope, scale, and proximity of violent deaths in the U.S. I expected to engender compassion and awaken people to this crisis of violence to others and suicide. This effort became a project within The Avielle Foundation (TAF), now The Avielle Initiative founded by my friends Jennifer, a medical writer, and Jeremy, a Ph.D. neuropharmacologist. Avielle, their only child at that time, was among the children murdered that horrific day.

Through my work gathering and representing an anthology of stories and work in violence prevention over the years, I’ve learned many things, progressing and leading me to write this piece.

First, in a church on the north side of Hartford, I learned of and felt mothers’ pain, grieving, and frustrations caused by a different form of firearm violence. These events are so tragically commonplace in zip codes across our country every day that they rarely make the news. This treatment starkly contrasted with the treatment and coverage our community received.

I learned that our society places a stigma on “mental health,” an expression TAF worked to change to “brain health.” Brain health reflects the reality that the brain, our most complex organ, can become ill like our other organs. And if an organ is ailing, it is lent the privilege of medical research, whereas “mental” is not tangible and therefore does not hold the same benefit. The brain is an organ, and like other organs, it can be healthy or sick and treated.

I learned that suicide attempts and completions are very prevalent, yet, due to stigma, few discuss it. My friend Jeremy was highly knowledgeable about how our brain functions. He taught brain health first-aid to know the signs of someone in crisis, yet even he succumbed to brain illness because he wouldn’t or couldn’t seek or accept help.

I learned that most firearm violence is due to suicide. In a crisis, access to a firearm often means no second chance, so the Means Matter (Harvard School of Public Health).

I learned that the gun violence prevention movement is fragmented due to the breadth of organizations and lack of collaboration due to the incredibly complex reasons and causes of firearm violence. This situation plays out against the firearm industry and lobbyists who use the focused tactic of fear to prevent safety measures and sell firearms outside hunting and sportsmanship.

I learned that a similar type of fragmentation also operates within the public health sector. Many organizations are vertically focused on their area of expertise. In contrast, working horizontally across areas of expertise in a process-oriented collaboration could benefit public health.

I learned that chronic trauma could be caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), resulting in toxic stress and adverse effects on our brain. Toxic stress not only affects an individual’s long-term health, but the overarching economic impacts of these traumas create an economic burden to our country. (A. Caspi, R. M. Houts, D. W. Belsky, H. Harrington, S. Hogan, S. Ramrakha, R. Poulton, and T. E. Moffitt Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden. Nature Human Behaviour, 2016.) This trauma is inheritable and passed down generationally.

I believe most firearm violence against another is not a tragic result of moral failings or just bad decisions. Its roots are due to a combination of access to firearms and circumstances of where and to whom someone is born, most often brought about by systemic inequity. Then, looking more broadly at public health, it became apparent that systemic inequity was at play again in the disparate health outcomes among specific demographics. These observations occurred during deepening divisions and hatred in our country. Curious about the common denominator of inequity, I started educating myself through various means, including documentaries, books, and articles. Learning more about racism and our caste-based culture, I reflected on my role as a heterosexual, cisgender, white man. I felt compelled to use my privilege for a purpose. “Ultimately, humans are unique because of our imaginations, and it is the ultimate ability to be humane that makes us human, and that is our responsibility.” This refrain was a call-to-action my late friend Jeremy would say during a conversation or concluding his talks.

My advocacy over the past nine years has reinforced my belief that we, as a society, are responsible for many of our country’s problems and that inequity plays a central role. Suppose the U.S. aspires to be a world leader worthy of emulation, a competitive and global force. In that case, we need to start acting like the country we pretend to be.

We need to reckon with our past and present and take action to address our wrongs. To do that, collectively, we need to understand our conditioning over hundreds of years in a caste-based system where racism plays a central role. We must confront and acknowledge that stealing indigenous peoples’ land and slavery played pivotal roles in building this country. Our often-inequitable systems convey privilege to some to the detriment of others. We can do this without shaming people and by educating ourselves about our conditioning towards bias. At a certain point, it makes our conditioning and prejudices hard, if not impossible, to ignore. But one needs to be open to learning and recognizing the messages we’ve absorbed.

With this knowledge, we can become more aware of our biases. We can learn how to deprogram ourselves and see each other as flawed beings worthy of redemption. Our DNA is 99.9% the same, and we are much more alike than different; we are human beings that share basic needs and desires for our lives.

In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson notes that Hitler and the Nazis looked to the U.S. for laws and models on dividing people by race as input to their definition of who was Jewish. Astonishingly, some of it deemed “…too harsh for the Nazis.” It is now time for the U.S. to look to Germany and other countries that have acknowledged, accepted responsibility, and worked towards reconciling atrocities in their nation’s history.

We need to learn and accept all aspects of our history and the resulting impact systemic inequity has played and continues to play. We need to shed the status quo to live in a more fair, just, and equitable society. We need to recognize our privilege and adjust how we conduct ourselves personally and in different facets of our society. These include but are not limited to business, education, healthcare, housing, media, justice, and religion. Whether in a corporation, or non-profit organization working towards a common goal, we need to collaborate and work across our areas of expertise to improve our system. We cannot rely on our government or broken political system to start this work, we the people can lead.

Our society is a mosaic of people from different places, backgrounds, and lived experiences. It will inevitably continue on this trajectory. Our greatness as a society depends on how quickly we can accept this fact, strive for equity, and leverage the genius and talents in every zip code across the land.

By leveraging our most incredible resource — our people — collectively and collaboratively, we can become a better and stronger nation, one we profess to be. Things need to change, so let’s work together to figure out what we can accomplish. After all, we as a society are responsible for what we are and what we can become.

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