Few voices have moved me more, during this year of racial reckoning, than Isabel Wilkerson’s. I was blessed with the highlight of my #OnlyAtGW moments this winter when I was able to interview her at GW. She has given me many gifts, many questions, and a rich history I’m embarrassed to have never known. But most of all, she introduced me to soulful beings like Miss and Ida Mae. And she gave me the leadership gift of Mr. George Starling.
What is the meaning of intersectionality, in these difficult and challenged days for our Jewish community? How do we hold our multiple identities close, firm in our convictions but open in our willingness to evolve? As I watched the war in Gaza & Israel transpire this spring, and witnessed the aftermath of antisemitism online and on-campus this month, I’m grappling with the meaning of silence. I’ve been taught my whole life to use my voice and stand-up for my convictions. But the older I grow, the more I value leadership of a different kind. And I was reminded of that when meeting my teacher, George.
George grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in Florida, challenged daily by the Jim Crow laws that dictated his daily life. He dreamed of a higher education that was never meant to be, and landed in the fruit picking fields of Florida instead. But he left this life behind, along with endless others, to try to make a new life in the North during The Great Migration. The great irony of this journey is that he ended up earning a living working on the railroad, retracing his route from New York to Florida endless additional times as he accompanied passengers back and forth and back again.
Without Ms. Wilkerson, George’s story might have never been told, never to be written in the history books like the great orators or community organizers of the civil rights movement. And yet, George’s leadership lesson from the rails is one I cannot escape. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted, there was still an informal understanding that when reaching Washington, DC while heading south, black passengers would give up their seats and move to the less desirable colored car. This was ‘the way it was’ but no longer in line with the letter of the law. And George knew it.
Wilkerson writes that around Baltimore, George would size up the passengers and find those who felt would lend him an open ear. He would then lean down to each of them – quietly, subtly, intentionally – to remind them that they paid for their ticket and were under no obligation to give up their seat. The days of segregation, in the North and South, were legally dead. But to actually enact change, it took George and others like him intentional conversations, day after day, to shift our culture for the better. Did he realize the revolution he was a part of? Did he grasp the unheralded boldness of his daily act of leadership? Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to interview Ms. Wilkerson again one day and ask her…
In the meantime, George is my teacher in this complicated world. I see the struggle our community is currently facing – from my Hillel Director colleagues to my students via their Instagram feeds. They are thirsty to tell the world of their nuanced thoughts but feel pushed to affirm with certainly their principles. They are called upon to use their voices but consistently fearful about the ramifications of doing so. They are thirsty to support causes of justice, but feel pigeonholed into one box or another. I feel their pain and I grapple with whether my sometimes public silence is mistaken for inaction. It is not.
Instead, I follow George. I keep my head down and I have conversations again and again, with intention and love in my heart. I choose the route of empathy, and I pray it is not mistaken for cowardice. Maybe I am naive; I lay awake at night certainly fearing that. But whether or not my brave public voice is utilized, and I fear this year it may be more than most, I will continue to cess out the scene in my own metaphorical Baltimore. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in private change processes in addition to public ones. And I will pray for even an ounce of the strength that George Starling must have had as he rode the rails.