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Facing 2020 For A New Perspective On Race In 2021

Ruben West holding facemask
Ruben West of Bloomington encourages people to find perspective when they struggle with uncertainty in the new year.

Most Americans couldn't wait for 2020 to end. Yet 2021 has started much the same way. A raging pandemic, racial injustice and an election that revealed a deeply divided country that still has many on edge.
If 2020 was supposed to be a year for vision, Bloomington resident and motivational speaker Ruben West didn't like much of what he saw.

"Clear vision is clear vision no matter what it shows you. Vision is clear because it shows you what's actually there," he said. "What happened to George Floyd, that was a clear vision. It happened out in the open and it's only through those things happening out in the open, can we ever see the changes we need to make."

Robert Garcia portrait
Credit courtesy
Robert Garcia

Activist Robert Garcia of Bloomington has fought for change. Recalling the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police, Garcia said one moment of protest stuck with him the most.

“I remember being there, marching in the streets of Louisville and I was at the front of the crowd because I was live streaming. Right behind me was Breonna Taylor's family and we’re all marching, but then all of a sudden we get boxed in by Louisville PD,” he said.

Police were in riot gear. Garcia said he was afraid. He said the group he was with did not take part in violence, but the memories from that night are still pretty dark.

“What stuck with me is this image of me turning around and seeing her family running, just running, and I think of all the pain this family has endured,” he said. “They were just asking for justice and we’d just found out there would be no justice, and the police wanted to bash some heads to get revenge because two of theirs had died the night before.”

Angell Howard, coordinator of Professional Development at Illinois State University, said 2020 exposed a lot about race relations, leading to some positive changes.

Angell Howard portrait
Credit courtesy
Angell Howard

“Everyone wanted to start a group, everyone wanted to call their Black friends to get information, so I did see something happening. Even in our institutions, we saw positions being hired and letters being written to show support for Black lives, so I did see a piece of coming together,” Howard said.

But she questions the authenticity of some of these efforts because often they don't last long.

“Unfortunately a lot of this coming together was very performative," she said. "I think it was about checking a box and trying to show, ‘I support you,’ but when it comes down to it, do you really?”

On the day before the election, President Donald Trump signed an executive orderthat established a 1776 Commission. Its intent was to create more "patriotic education." Howard sees it a way to whitewash the country's history with slavery. Howard said everyone must take initiative to educate themselves.

“It takes more than just a book and it takes more than just a study group to learn about this stuff. You need to start reading more on your own, googling, and connecting to people you’re with because you can’t be fifty years old and just realizing it. Even twenty-something and not knowing that this stuff is legit real.” 

While racial injustice affected minorities in 2020, COVID-19 affected everyone. As an introvert, Garcia said in the beginning he saw the pandemic as a time to de-stress, but soon the realities of isolation hit home.

“It was self-care for the first two weeks because we thought it was going to be short term, then it didn’t end,” he said. “I found myself missing being able to go have dinner with friends, go to the movies, or do something simple so all of sudden being stuck in my apartment for that long, it took its toll.” 

Howard at ISU, spending time with her family as a newlywed was the most enjoyable thing. But having to put a hyper focus on her daughter's needs along with her own emotions has been difficult.

“Being home with a teenager that doesn’t want to be at home is very hard," she said. "I watched my kid go through emotional changes that you don’t really get to see so abruptly and I saw her emotions of happiness and stuff really changing. I’m a person that likes to educate and although I can do that through Zoom, it’s hard because I love being around people. Having to manage my own emotions with that was a lot of happiness but also a lot of fighting sadness.” 

As a global speaker, West was used to traveling for a living, but when the pandemic hit, he had to adapt to staying home. It struck him that many others couldn't do the same.

“I made a list of people that I knew lived alone and called them on a regular basis. I said, ‘How are you doing, how are you feeling, what are you up to?’ and they’d be like, ‘Wow it’s so amazing that you called me,’ and that’s the kind of care we need. We may be doing okay but are we making sure others are doing okay?"

West said it’s easy to be discouraged, depressed or scared with so much suffering going on. He said we all need imagination to pull us out of that fear.

“What you think about, you bring about,” he said.

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.