Being Honest About Who We Are to Become Who We Can Be

Like many, I spent much of Wednesday afternoon transfixed by the coverage of the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol. I was consumed with sadness, anger, and fear.

Having lived close to the Capitol for almost a decade, the building played a supporting role in my daily life. From endless walks around the Capitol building with my sons, to working in the Capitol early in my career. During long days, I’d walk right outside the west entrance and look onto the Mall toward the Washington Monument. It never failed to astonish me that I was there, that the building was my office. Growing up in rural Louisiana, I could never have imagined that I would walk the halls of the Capitol daily. But, if anything, the Capitol building is meant for stories like mine.

I wondered what my parents were thinking about the scenes from DC having come to this country from Cuba and El Salvador—in part because of events like those that happened yesterday. I thought about my own experience monitoring and responding to similar events around the world during my career at the State Department and USAID and how I never believed this could happen here. But mostly, I thought about the inevitability of what I was watching. While there is specific blame to be placed on a few individuals for yesterday’s events, it would be a mistake to limit that blame to those individuals and groups.

Yesterday’s violence was not an isolated incident caused by one person or small group of people. It was an extreme reaction to a growing but still too slow movement toward a more equitable future for ourselves and our children. It was a product of systems that were built to oppress some and to make others feel aggrieved when that oppression is challenged. A culture that perpetuates a narrative that people of color and marginalized groups will succeed by overcoming the systemic barriers they face rather than working to dismantle those barriers. A culture that perpetuates the idea that those who currently hold power have an exclusive right to success.

We must be honest about this. Too often when tragic events like yesterday’s violence happen, we exclaim that “this is not who we are.” But that easy refrain dangerously papers over the truth that this is, actually, a large part of “who we are.” It is a reality that shows up in more subtle ways every day. It lives in the way that we talk to our children about the founding of this country, what we choose to emphasize in our history, and whose stories we lift up in support of that history. It lives in the way we police communities of color and disproportionately discipline Black and brown students. But it also lives in what opportunities are available across our society and to whom.

If we don’t admit our society’s long history of building and perpetuating a system of oppression, we will never be able to build a more equitable future for ourselves and our children.

We must move beyond moments of reflection and act to change the system we all know isn’t working. We cannot lose focus on the severity of what we are experiencing and what it means for us as country. I, for one, will never be able to forget the images of the confederate flags waving in the rotunda of the Capitol or images of angry mobs rushing through the halls and onto the floor. This is not a time for us to only condemn the acts of a few, but a time for us to acknowledge the deep and widespread extent of the challenge and proactively take action to fix it. But we can’t do it alone. We must collaborate and support those who are leading the charge toward a more equitable future—especially young people—and use our own voices to accelerate change.

If we don’t, we’ll continue to be filled with sadness, anger, and fear and never become “who we can be.”


Dennis Vega
Interim President & CEO
America's Promise Alliance