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« We are fearless in our belief that we will overcome – that we will rise. This is American aspiration. » -Kamala D. Harris
On the cold January night, after swearing in as the first Vice President of the United States earlier in the day, Kamala D. Harris and first gentleman Doug Emhoff stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s stoic face looked east, past some signposts of our history in the form of war memorials and memorials, to the US Capitol. The monuments to Lincoln and Harris are symbols of American history; But that January, the story unfolded at Lincoln’s feet.
In one day, Vice President Harris broke barriers for blacks and South Asians, women, and immigrant children. As a black woman, Harris could not have held office while Lincoln was alive. It wasn’t until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the civil rights law that she could have voted in many parts of our country.
In the words of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit: « It’s been a long time, but I know change is coming becomes. » Our agency is also changing. We embody our code and commitments (PDF, 4MB) by doing the right things while building trust with one another and with the people and communities we serve. When we live by our values, we show ourselves and the world that we mean business when we say that diversity and interdependence are at the core of who we are. And when others see the diversity of people wearing the same forest service uniform, they see a reflection of our respect for diversity in all things.
On January 20th, our country saw the glass ceiling broken. Pioneers like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan realized that that day was coming. The importance of Vice President Harris assuming the second highest office in federal government reminds us that progress is being made all around us. If we focus on our values, goals, and relationships, our agency can become a model for others.
Historically, February is reserved to celebrate black history and focus on it, starting with slavery. Beyond the Capitol Building and across the Atlantic is West Africa. Before colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, various scholars have established that the ancestors of many black Americans were African kings and nobles from West and Central Africa. Both the African continent and the diaspora have produced inventors, innovators and world changers throughout history and continue to do so today.
This year history played out in real time. There is renewed emphasis on civil and voting rights at all levels of society, including government. Overcoming systemic injustices is at the forefront of the American conversation, driven by black leaders and allies. Although much remains to be done, January 20th was an important checkpoint in the belief that “we will overcome”.
We have momentum. Racial equality is one of the top four priorities of the Biden Harris government. As President Biden said in his Federal Government’s Executive Ordinance Promoting Racial Justice and Support to Underserved Communities, « Equal opportunity is the foundation of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our nation’s greatest strengths. »
Where will we find ourselves in focus this month of black history as an organization? My goal is that black history is not only something we recognize and celebrate every February, but also present a living story that influences our work every day.