A few years ago, I spent a day in prison…volunteering. It was a wake up call, and I feel compelled to write about it today as we grapple with our moral core, in the wake of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper.
My colleagues and I were spending the day with about 100 inmates*, a microcosm of society, people of every race and color.
Imagine this. The organizer draws a line in the middle of the room, inmates on one side, us on the other. Then he says “if you grew up in a single parent household, step towards the line”. Both inmates and visitors who grew up with the grief of parental loss, met in the middle, looked at each other…understanding and acknowledgement of pain in their eyes, …and shook hands. As he goes through his set of questions, “Step up if you were not born here”, “if you ever got into a physical altercation”, “if you drank so much, you passed out”, “if you ever fired a gun”, “if you ever lied or cheated”, “if you ever broke the law, sped, ran a red light, used fake ID at a bar”…; more and more of us on the visitor side, meet the inmates in the middle.
Then he says “The only difference between you is one bad decision, the one bad decision that toppled someone over from a fulfilling productive life, to being incarcerated”. That is one of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard.
They were us. We were them.
I have been brought up to lead with Respect first, but this experience gave me a whole new appreciation for the Power of Respect.
Respect defines our equation with others, and with the world. It reflects what we think of others. As with the most important relationships in our lives, respect is the cornerstone, the foundation and the bridge to how we connect with others. It defines how we treat others, it engenders empathy versus sympathy, and enables us to see others as valuable and unique in their contribution to society.
It is hard…, No, it is impossible to treat someone poorly or ‘less than’, if you respect them. It is impossible to imagine the kind of brutality that results in someone shooting a passer by, randomly firing into a protest or putting a knee on another human being’s neck, if we had respect for each other, for society, and for humanity as a whole.
How can we teach ourselves to lead with respect first?
Start with curiosity. When we are curious, we are open. We are open to learn, to question, to understand, to see different sides of the story, to find common ground, to discovering our similarities rather than obsess over our differences. Open mind, open heart.
If there is one thing we could use a large helping of in this decade, might just be respect.
If we approach the world with curiosity and respect, there will be no place for racism or violence. Isn’t that the world we all want to live in, and can help create?
*They were close to completing their terms, and we were helping them strengthen plans to start their own business and contribute to society.