I didn’t know Bill Nordmark. And I’m probably not alone. That is until his name appeared on the obituary page of a local newspaper. “Bill Nordmark fought polio as a child and racism as an adult, all the while believing that one person can make a difference,” the opening paragraph read. Two years ago he embarked on a mission to forge better race relations – two people at a time – through what became known as a “Friendship Initiative.”
You see, that line and the rest of the story about Bill Nordmark (I’ll get to some of it further down), conjured up for me a line from one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner. “You move a mountain one stone at a time!”
Clearly it seems that Bill was able to step away from the yelling that’s engulfed attempts at conversations, TV, and talk radio and poisoned social media. These days vitriol has supplanted virtue, “me” and “I” have kicked aside “we” and “us,” as folks have retreated into their bubbles to protect “their own” and shout down, and sometimes even, shoot at “those others.” Obviously Bill would have none of it.
So like Nordmark I know for a fact there are largely silent others who believe that we’re better than this. Many of them anyway. So to turn the tide on what seems to be a race to the bottom of hate, anger and fear, can we figure out a way to get deeply invested in one another, our differences in race, religion, gender, and political affiliation aside?
Yes, emphatically yes!
Which takes us back to the obituary – strike that, back to Nordmark’s story as an excellent example of human potential.
Longtime friends Bill Nordmark, he white, and John Grant, he African American, started the Friendship Initiative in 2016 in response to what Nordmark saw as a lack of civility in society and rising tensions between police officers and members of some of the nation’s African-American communities. Their idea: “Have two people of differences or ethnic backgrounds agree to meet at least twice a quarter and bring their families together once a year in fellowship.”
Reflecting on his relationship with Noedmark, Grant said: “We made each other better people by allowing ourselves to be open to each other and bring our deep selves forward. Once you do that, you realize you are not very different.”
Humm, easier said than done you may be thinking to yourself given that race remains a slippery slope in America these days.
So where do we start to make a difference?
As good a place as any is to accept the fact that there are some awfully good people in this world. And – get this -they all don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “now who can I go out and offend today?” The other side of that fact is that those good people are not without flaws and imperfections, something they’re quick to admit, and reach out for feedback for correction.
Step two is give folks the benefit of the doubt. Allow them to be themselves unscripted; to “step in it” from time to time, some room for error, mistake-making ……and correction. Develop a habit for catching each doing something right across the racial divide for a change. As the saying goes, “nothing is all wrong; even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Third, form your impressions of “others” from first-hand experience, not from the purported experiences and perceptions of others. Ready yourself for a surprise or two when impressions you were presented with don’t square with your first hand experience.
Fourth, when it comes to moving the relationship needle in the race space, understand that there are no short cuts nor easy answers. It’s a journey, a lifetime journey of learning and unlearning with pitfalls and detours along the way. Understand further that even when you fall flat on your face you’re actually moving forward.
So Bill Nordmark, here’s hoping that our paths will cross one day in the future as we travel the open road.