Dr. Lisa Downing-Forget of SVMC Internal Medicine delivered the speech below at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union’s Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday, June 18 at Mount Anthony Union High School.
We are here today to celebrate the fact that, just over 150 years ago, our nation declared that slavery would no longer be legal in the United States. At that time, the goal of freedom seemed unobtainable to those whose families had been enslaved for more than 250 years already.
Even though freedom from slavery is certainly a reason to celebrate, today we also celebrate the fact that the African-American experience is being formally recognized as a national holiday and publicly recognized for the first time in Bennington, VT. And I am proud to join SVSU and represent SVHC in sharing in this celebration. In the SVHC Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, we believe that African-American culture and history deserve to be celebrated.
Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that the emancipation proclamation “came as a great beacon-light of hope, as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” He went on to proclaim that people of color were still not free. You will hear the same proclaimed today. For what is freedom without equity and inclusion?
It is well documented that African Americans face a myriad of inequalities daily—in our incomes, educational achievements, housing opportunities, incarceration rates, birth rates, death rates and in the healthcare that we receive. And as a woman of color and a descendent of African American slaves, this saddens me deeply, but it also makes me want to take a stand. We cannot change the past but what we learn from our past determines how we view our future.
James Baldwin wrote, “The world changes according to the way people see it. And if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it.”
It is not enough to learn from history, we must go beyond that, to understand that we are making history, right now. We are creating a legacy for our future generations We must have courage to overcome fear—to do what is right. We must continue to lend a helping hand to those who need it and stand up for the impoverished, the downtrodden, the troubled, and extend human compassion to those who look, sound, or act differently than ourselves. In doing so we appreciate each other more and move closer to an existence that offers the same opportunities to all its citizens.
We cannot overlook the harassment, subjugation, and even murder of African-Americans. Inequity is real. Black lives do matter. But instead of focusing on the negativity in our history, I challenge you to focus on the good. Instead of focusing on our differences, let us focus on the things that bind us together. Let us share our struggles, our hopes, our joys. And let us recognize that we are all resilient, resourceful, imaginative, creative, intelligent, strong, and beautiful!
Thank you for sharing with me in writing this next chapter of our history.