Photo by engin akyurt. Source: Unsplash

Breathing should not be a privilege.

There are so many things that unite us as members of the human race, but there is nothing more fundamental than breathing. Breath is life.

Life for the human race. The. Only. Race of people on earth.

Nothing saddens or discourages me more in these distressing times than the massive chasm between our experiences as members of this one race — a chasm manifested tragically in the capacity of one member of our race to take away the breath of another member. Even worse, in the evident belief of that person that he had the right to take breath and life away from another person.

One form of breathing is speaking. Having a voice — spoken, written, illustrated, demonstrated — is also a fundamental aspect of being human. Having a voice should not be a privilege.

As I watch the damage and violence of some of the demonstrations across our country (much of it instigated by outside agitators), I observe how many people feel that this is their last possible method of making their voice heard. No one can condone this destruction but looking at the landscape in which it is taking place, one can certainly understand it. Who among us has not had experiences in our lives when we got so angry, we felt like punching or breaking something?

I have a few fights, a trail of shattered tennis rackets and a kicked-in door in my personal history. And while this obviously is far less consequential than breaking windows and burning buildings, so were the events that led up to my eruptions.

We must start listening to each other, welcoming and respecting each other’s voice. We can disagree constructively. We can look for where we do agree instead of constantly focusing on our differences. If we don’t start now, I can only imagine the eruptions getting worse.

We don’t even have to agree on why some people’s life experiences might lead them to erupt. But I hope we can agree that conflict and destruction are not the path we want to take, and that amplifying the voices of those who are most typically unheard — that we may not even want to hear — is necessary to finding a better path forward.

This is not always easy, especially in a hyper-polarized environment with a stunning absence of leadership. Fear is rampant on so many levels, and so many of our so-called leaders work daily to fan the flames of fear.

Having safe environments where people can come together, across all the lines that serve to divide us, is critical to this listening. We as individuals can create these on a small scale. Organizations such as the Campaign for Equity New Orleans (CENO) and the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council offer models and opportunities for individuals to be dialogue leaders on a very personal level (once the COVID situation permits it, of course). Small groups of real people sitting and talking together also close out the chatter, disinformation, anger and manipulation of online provocateurs.

CENO in particular brings New Orleanians from all backgrounds together to learn and confront the systemic racism that permeates society, locally and nationally. Understanding how racism was created in our country, how it has been embedded so deeply, is essential to finding the will and means to eliminate it.

Of course, we do have to translate listening, learning and discussing into action. As a vital step in that direction here in New Orleans, we simply must create the permanent, universally accessible participation structures that will bring people together, inclusively and respectfully, to address the issues and solve the problems that confront us.

The essence of equity in a democracy is the opportunity for all residents to be informed, to be heard, to be a meaningful part of the decisions that impact their lives. How many more crises does our city need to go through before we implement a Community Participation Program (CPP) to provide this opportunity?

Mayor Cantrell objected strenuously to having demonstrators at her house, as an intrusion on her and her family’s privacy and safety. I think it’s a fair point — and I would suggest that the best way for her to avoid this in the future is to follow through on her previous commitments to implementing the CPP and other meaningful participation mechanisms.

If we don’t create these mechanisms for dialogue, for finding common ground, for designing universally beneficial solutions and moving forward on them, nothing is going to change. To get different results, we must consider different approaches and take different actions. This includes listening to different voices.

The essence of our shared, singular humanity is breathing. Breathing should unify us like no other human activity. Let’s do it together.

Keith Twitchell has served as president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans since 2004, focusing primarily on civic engagement and community participation as avenues to creating an equitable, inclusive and prosperous city.

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Keith Twitchell

Keith Twitchell has served as president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans since 2004. He was worked on city budgeting issues since shortly after Katrina, and spoken at national conferences on Participatory...