A Return to Civility: Reflections from this weekend’s #MLKPilgrimage

Last year, I was booed during my speech at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally in Spokane, Washington.

This may seem strange to you, but I’m thankful that happened. Because that speech, that day, was one of the major inspirations for my ongoing work to encourage unity and a return to civility.

It was also one of the steps I took that led to me joining this past weekend’s pilgrimage. This weekend, I journeyed to Tennessee and Alabama with 30 members of Congress and the Faith and Politics Institute.

As I shared with the group, this was something I never imagined I’d have the chance to take part in. Everyone, from my fellow lawmakers, my friends from Eastern Washington, and our next generation of leaders in America, have so much to learn from Rep. John Lewis and the courageous men and women he stood with during the Civil Rights Movement.

This weekend, we experienced the historic landmarks like the Lorraine Motel, the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. These are all places that help us learn from our sometimes painful history.

I was reminded of some recent history back home in Spokane, Washington — more than 2,000 miles away.

In November of 2016, racist graffiti was spray-painted on our local Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center.

Because of this, I reached out to Phil Tyler, the Spokane NAACP President at the time, to see what I could do — how I could help. Phil said to me, “Cathy, we need to bring people together and have the courageous conversations to build a stronger, more peaceful community.”

It was out of that conversation that we started the Peaceful Communities Roundtable and brought a diverse group of people together to talk about the issues in our community–because we didn’t just want to talk about our problems — we wanted to focus on solutions.

When Phil later invited me to speak at at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally, I was all in — here was an opportunity to put myself out there and show the community how serious I was about being a force for good.

But as I started speaking during the event, protesters started hissing, waving signs, and yelling. As I stood there — listening to their chants and shouts — I was heartbroken. Not because they interrupted my speech, but out of sadness for our country.

We’ve forgotten how to listen to each other, and how to come together for productive conversations. Everything is viewed through an “us versus them” lens. It shouldn’t be “us versus them.” It should just be us – all of us.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to politics — in fact, it’s much larger than that.

In my own community, we’ve faced some challenging times. There was a shooting last year at a local school, and we’ve also tragically lost a number of children to suicide. I know we aren’t alone.  So many communities are in need of healing right now. Which is why I believe we all need to take a collective step back and ask the question, “Why?”

Why is there such a deep sense of brokenness and hopelessness splitting our communities apart? What’s causing our young people to feel so lost or alone? And worse, what’s causing them to resort to such violence?

These are the tough questions we need to be asking — together.

And as we do, let’s look to the example of Dr. King — who taught us to dream of a better tomorrow, to respect our neighbors, and to love one another. His legacy challenges us to find what unites us, and celebrate our shared values as Americans.

As we’ve been on this journey together these past several days, I keep coming back to the importance of unity and civility and how Dr. King’s vision and hope brought together a nation struggling with divisiveness and fear.  

The speech I gave one year ago really pricked my heart — because it  showed me how divisive we’ve become today. Ever since, I’ve been trying to do my part to serve as a unifying force in my community and in Congress to live the example of Dr. King, and return civility to our neighborhoods and communities, block by block.

Through all of this work, I’ve had the great blessing of becoming friends with community leaders in Eastern Washington who joined us on this trip:

  • Phillip Tyler, Co-founder Peaceful Community Roundtable and past Spokane NAACP President;
  • Kitara Johnson, Chief Development Officer at the Excelsior;
  • Joe Wittwer, Pastor, Life Center in Spokane, Washington;
  • Lonnie Mitchell, Pastor, Bethel AME Church in Spokane, Washington;
  • And Rodney McAuley, Community and Church Engagement Director at the Spokane Youth for Christ

I’m so thankful to each of them for leading the courageous conversations in our communities at home in Eastern Washington and for working with me to help build a stronger community.

Together, we’ve identified three priorities that I hope other communities can learn from. They are:

  • Moving from racism to gracism — and viewing every person with respect and value;
  • Moving from poverty to opportunity — to work to create a community where we are warriors for human dignity and potential;
  • And moving from divisiveness to security — because as we become more and more divided it leads to violence and insecurity

This group has been by my side as we’ve brought together people from all different perspectives to have the courageous conversations about the direction we want our community to head.

You know, at last year’s MLK rally, I could’ve chosen to shut the protesters out — to turn my back on them. But instead, I listened.  I opened my heart to them.  

And today, I believe that moment in my life was meant to be, to renew my mission to bring people together.

I’ve started hosting Unity Dinners with people throughout the community because the kitchen table has a way of breaking down barriers between people who may not always agree.

One conversation leads to another, and by the end of the evening we’ve made new friends.

Now, I’m challenging others to do the same: to reach out to people who seem stressed, who they might not agree with, or might not otherwise spend time with.

I invite everyone to do the same — to be better neighbors, and to build our communities when anger and fear threaten to tear us down.