Black Lives Matter

Kali Ladd's Powerful Words on the Protests in Portland

"We are developing racist schema and reinforcing racist ideas in the minds of our children when we fail to talk to them about racism. When we fail to tell the truth about history. When we fail to point out injustice whether it’s overt or covert."

By Kali Thorne Ladd June 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: On Sunday, May 31, Kali Ladd, Executive Director of Kairos Pdx, spoke at SEI along with other community leaders about the ongoing protests in Portland over the killing of George Floyd. With permission, we're running this transcript of her speech to the city.

Good afternoon,

As I thought about my remarks this morning, all I could see was my children. My 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. The wondering of what does all of this look like through their eyes? I see their beauty and innocence, their intellect and brilliance, and wonder how the world will snatch it away from them. And then my head begins to spin.

You see, because I’ve devoted my life and career to children, I am always palpably aware of their presence. I know they are watching what we do, and what we don’t do. Watching what we say, and what we don’t say. Every moment is instructive. They are listening for something, and if they only hear silence their heads are filled with noise. And this noise can be fear, this noise can be depression, this noise can be complacency, the noise can be grief. 

And while I don’t condone the looting and vandalism, I know that it is a symptom, not the problem. I know it personifies how I feel inside and I wonder if it’s not an opportunity to help my children see this too. That as wrong as it may be, it is a symbol of our shattering, our devastation, and our internal beating every time we see a life lost like George Floyd.

George Floyd called out to his mother. His cry reaches the heart of all of us moms. We see our sons and our daughters and we are in shambles.

But I think there is hope. I think there is hope because I come from a people who carry hope across generations. A people who despite devastation and terrorization and oppression have written spirituals that lift this whole nation up in hope. A people that have strengthened the fiber of our being even when forces are taking away our breath.

Protesters in East Portland marching toward the Morrison Bridge on June 3.

I also think there is hope because I study neuroscience and psychology and child development and these things tell us we can create a new narrative. But as mothers and fathers and educators we need to be intentional. This does not happen by chance.

Our brains are incredible, miraculous things that can be wired and rewired by our words and our actions. They call it neuroplasticity.

The science tells us that children are not born hating other children or rendering certain people invisible. This happens over time. You see every circumstance is a data point that forms an idea. Watching that black boy in pre-school get kicked out of class repeatedly is a data point, pretending as though the founding of this country did not come at the hands of genocide is a data point, silence in the aftermath of a killing is a data point.

And these data points form ideas. And these ideas begin to cluster and form schema. And this schema dictates behavior.

We are developing racist schema and reinforcing racist ideas in the minds of our children when we fail to talk to them about racism. When we fail to tell the truth about history. When we fail to point out injustice whether it’s overt or covert.

You see, when we put children at the center of our lives, our comfort or discomfort become less and less important. Our words today can save lives tomorrow. Our children are the souls we will send into a time we will likely never see.

Because when we’re stressed, what’s inside of us, come out. When Amy verbally attacked Mr. Cooper watching birds in central park, what was inside of her came out. Let this be a warning to us all.

But what was inside of Mr. Cooper also came out. Let him be an example of what happens when we build in our children the moral character of calm, grace and forgiveness even amidst our lives being threatened.

The neuroscience and social science tell us that diversity matters. As human beings we dehumanize what we don’t know; we fear what we don’t understand. Our brains will rely on data derived by soundbites and stereotypes instead of facts when we don't have real people of different races and backgrounds in our lives.

Toya Fick wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s Oregonian about the importance of retaining teachers of color. So well timed…. because this is something we can do now. This is a way to actively combat racialized violence. When we do this, we make our schools safer for our black and brown children. We break down fear for our white children. And collectively our children get one step closer to seeing the humanity of another.

This is everything because I believe that when a white child can see the humanity of my black son, it becomes that much harder to crush him with their knees. Diversity is not just anti-racist, it’s humane.

The list can go and on, but I will stop here. Let there be no question that there is something we can do right here and right now to change the course of history. It lies with our children. It lies with the roadmap we are building in their brains. It lies in the ways that we wire and reinforce their wiring.

We are giving them the data that informs their schema with the words we use or don’t; the care we give or withhold and the people they see or don’t. Every. Sing. Day. I can’t think of any greater light in the darkness than them.

Let’s collectively illuminate these lights, strengthen them to understand the tenuous tentacles of racism so they can dismantle them. Let us collectively seek to build strong and resilient children rather than repair broken adults. Love them, love them, love them—especially our black boys—so they are resilient and strong in the face oppression. Do not dismiss them or their pain and don’t exacerbate it. Talk up and not down to them. Collectively let’s do what it takes to build in our children, a foundation that can effectively disrupt the patterns of injustice and destroy the stronghold of hatred that brings us all here today. Children are not just our future, I really do believe…. they are our greatest hope.

Read Ladd's essay from our February 2020 issue here: Black Girls Matter: Navigating Portland’s Systemic Racism as a Parent of Daughters

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