Wes Moore talks Baltimore and social justice

By IDOIA DIZON | November 29, 2018

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COURTESY OF IDOIA DIZON Wes Moore discussed the need for people to care about social injustices that may not specifically affect them.

Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates and CEO of Robin Hood, the largest anti-poverty nonprofit in New York, discussed the human consequences of bad policies on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at the Parkway Theatre. Moore graduated from Hopkins in 2001, after which he earned his master’s at Oxford University.

His talk drew on examples of ways government and society fail to protect the less fortunate, emphasizing the important role individuals play in improving social policy. Individuals, he argued, have the responsibility to recognize and acknowledge structural inequities that limit others’ opportunities or civil liberties before any specific policy changes can be made. 

“If you’re not willing to understand and do something about the macro, then you have no right to worry about the micro. If you’re not willing to understand the larger context, the ways in which the world and communities evolve, then you have no right to get upset when disaster hits the micro,” Moore said.

He explained that when many people understand and accept that it is inherently wrong for other people to be treated certain ways, the responsibility of taking action to curtail the discrimination shifts from the individual to a united group with a common goal.

“For every bit of progress that we have made in our society, we have to understand the diligence and hard work and intentionality that went into it. Progress is hard. Progress is not simple. Progress is hard fought. But there’s a certain level of deliberate, forceful, nature that we might put into it,” he said.

However, Moore admitted that this same unification of groups may also work against progress.

“We also have to understand that for the same intentionality when we talk about progress, there is a similar intentionality behind inequality,“ he said. “We don’t have certain levels of inequality that we have in our society without people recognizing that there will be winners and there will be losers — sometimes extreme winners and extreme losers.”

He explained that he came to this realization while working with Robin Hood to support programs that improved human lives by countering unjust policies that allowed inequalities to persist.

“I don’t live in statistics,” he explains. “I live in communities. I wake up every morning around remarkable social entrepreneurs that are coming up with creative ways to solve truly entrenching hard problems. ”

He gave the example of Good Call NYC, a nonprofit that Robin Hood supports. This organization, he explained, aims to provide people who have been arrested with the resources to defend themselves. Without this assistance, people can be often be left defenseless during questioning and may be unknowingly exploited by the bail system.

The talk then transitioned to a question and answer period, during which Moore connected his personal experiences with his work.

Moore discussed his involvement in the fight against the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) legislation, which barred openly homosexual or bisexual people from military service. When asked what spurred him to become involved, he brought up a revelation he had during his own time in the military. After seeing the effect the DADT legislation had on a close friend, he became conscious of his individual responsibility to affect injustices even when they did not directly affect him.

“I got very involved in the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It wasn’t a law that impacted me when I first joined the military until I realized how ridiculous and barbaric and contradictory a law it actually was. Because you’re asking us to serve in uniform and be people of honor and integrity, but you’re also asking some of us to lie about who we are,” Moore said.

Moore emphasized that groups experiencing discrimination should be able count on more privileged groups to support them and advocate for their rights.

“Each and every one of us must be able to acknowledge our own privilege and be able to be comfortable being uncomfortable — and to be comfortable with the fact that our voice is going to matter for those who we know oftentimes are looking for champions,” Moore said.

While he was proud of the fact that he stood with his moral code, he explained that standing for what is right in the face of significant opposition sometimes required sacrifices.

He argued that the civil rights movement in the 1960s was an example of people standing up for what they believed in, despite it not personally affecting them. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized that signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into effect would alienate the South for a decade, but he understood that the rights of the many were more important than him winning a second term.

When the question and answer period opened up to the audience, members focused on how social policy improvements could be made in Baltimore. After being asked to illuminate the biggest blindspot that many people in Baltimore have with regard to the city, Moore chose not to identify a specific challenge facing the city. Rather, he reiterated his point that context mattered when discussing specific societal problems.

“It’s really important that people understand the societal context. It’s really important that people understand what it’s like being born poor in this city,“ he said. “Oftentimes when we are talking about our city, it’s the context that is missed. Instead when we’re told to be afraid of something, I wish we were told to understand something.”

University of Maryland freshman Serena Fano attended the talk and was inspired by Moore’s message and work for human rights.

“I had read his book in school and was impressed by how he overcame significant adversity in his life and still chooses to use his skills to help others. I thought his talk tonight was informational and inspiring — he showed us the role we as individuals can play in fighting for equality, even when it seems like an uphill battle,“ Fano said.

Moore explained that individuals can show their love for their community by forcing themselves to confront inherent structural inequalities.

“Loving this country doesn’t mean lying about its history; loving this country doesn’t mean lying about its past. Loving this country means being honest about it and being willing to address it,” he said.

When asked about Baltimore specifically, Moore explained that the City still plays an integral part in his work.

“I’m a Baltimorean. I love this place with all my heart. You cannot understand me without understanding Baltimore and the role that Baltimore played in everything that I am. This work matters to me. This town matters to me,” he said.

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