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G-Sync: Between the city and me

For any city to move forward, its citizens must find ways to create and ensure a harmonious living for all of us. But an act that occurs on a bus ride home causes Publisher and G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen to step back and ponder the results of his actions. This is his journey.
How should we live in society? Ideally, we should practice the art of listening, processing, and crafting an honest response. In reality, when applying these principles to our own lives, the results are varied, with a high amount of failure even on my part. The tension between the ideal and the reality is the space where artists work best, a truth I was reminded of while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' New York Times' bestseller, Between the World and Me.
Artists (and writers are artists, too) like Coates often use the writing device of penning a letter to the future as a way to make sense of our present tension and Coates' book does just that in this eye-opening book written as a letter to his teenage son. Reading it reminded me other other, similar treasures.
Early in my life I was turned on to the idealistic writings of Rainer Maria Rilke, who penned to 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus a series of correspondence that became Letters to a Young Poet. Within Letters was the gem to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart," adding that we must learn to "live in the question.”
But this idealistic weight of patience is not something everyone in an American society is afforded. Author James Baldwin, black and gay, employed this future-addressing technique in his book The Fire Next Time, shining a bright light on the inequities of his time in the mid-20th century.
Baldwin did not believe in kicking the can down the road on the topics of race, gender, and privilege. "Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated," wrote Baldwin, "and this was an immutable law."
Baldwin's prophetic vision has become our modern reality, with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and most recently Sandra Bland being cast as the headlines of our hate.
The act of listening and responding to it in the time it is occurring is what Baldwin envisioned for us …even if we did not deliver on it. Now comes another author's letter to the future -- and this time I wonder if we will listen or simply repeat history.
With the release of Coates' Between The World and Me, we get a summer bestseller that is not about escapism (as is often the case with summer bestsellers), but a personal narrative that tackles the topic of race so devastatingly beautifully that it can crush the spirit as we unconsciously try to reconcile his reality with our own. It is not an easy read, but an essential book.
Coates, an atheist, has broken off ties in his book with the traditional African American narrative that any struggle on earth is worth enduring because of the reward that awaits one in the afterlife. The feeling of personal safety runs through Coates' book just as it did for Baldwin, who in his time felt so unsafe in America that he spent his adult years in France. 
Coates understands that modern tensions around the topic of race are not just an American matter, but also a global problem. Talk to a person who is Jewish living in France today and you'll see hatred knows no boundaries. History sadly confirms this fact time and time again. Between The World and Me tries to present a map only a father could write to his son, knowing that no matter what he may attempt to do, his son will never be able to divorce himself from the color of his skin and what it brings as a result.
So what does this have to do with our city?
To be honest, it says a lot and is why it is worth reading as we begin to take our next steps in our growth. "Think Globally, Act Locally" might be just be a bumper sticker to some but I challenge you as I do myself to adopt this slogan as a good mantra to move us forward. 
My journey to this editorial began with a reaction, a microaggression on my part that sent me deep inside seeking more meaning.
Years ago I confessed to a friend that, on my commute from my Heritage Hill apartment to my server position at The Ground Round, I would lock my car door at the corner of Eastern and Franklin. This, to my shock, was an example of what would become known as a microaggression with my unwarranted fears being traded out in the name of personal safety. I had never been presented with this concept and yet suddenly was convicted that it was one.
My commitment to ending this behavior came when I inserted myself into the situation as the one ultimately responsible. Being made aware was the first step to correcting my behavior. Making sure I do not engage further is the journey. That is, until I got on The Rapid last week.
To some, the act of placing my hand on my book bag sitting on the empty aisle seat of the bus might not seem to be a soul-searching moment. But the fact that a reflex prompted my action as someone unlike me entered the bus aisle sent me into days of introspection.
I could have said immediately, "I'm sorry" or just written the whole thing off, calling myself an idiot for letting such a reflex return. But I did want to know more, so I returned to my books, as I often do when struggling with an internal conflict or question. And I noticed something I hadn't seen before in Rilke's letters – a possible path out of my microaggressions.
When asked to critique Kappus' poetry, Rilke wrote, "Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself."
I realize that this is what privilege affords me. I also know some actions do not end so poetically for others, often based on the color of one's skin. Having this time was something others do not get. Sometimes the only print they will see is their headline in the newspaper.
In the end, the hardest part was ending at the same conclusion nearly each time: I cannot roll back the clock but can work to ensure it never happens again. It will not absolve me, but it does place me back in society as one committed to the questioning that needs to happen.
"What would it I be like to be black?" is a question we often ask ourselves, and one that I know I will never be able to answer. But I can listen. And read. Ask questions. And maybe, when appropriate, contribute. I hope this is one of those moments as I write today.
"You can't go around hoping that most people have sterling moral characters," says author Fran Lebowitz, who I like to imagine is writing to the present version of me. "The most you can hope for is that people will pretend that they do." 
Maybe the best we can ask if we find ourselves feeling mighty puffed up in our opinions is that a pinch of humility will soften our touch in this world, making room for others. Because the story of our city is still being written. It is up to us to decide if we will provide a pathway for others to contribute a verse.
In the coming weeks, the GR Forward downtown and river action plan will be moving into the public comment phase. Within this document is something I've not seen too often: a plan with diversity and inclusion woven within it and not served as a side dish. 
The intentionality and validation of this plan's mission will only become fully authentic when your voice has been added. I hope you will pick a few areas of interest within this more-than-300-page plan and join in pledging your thoughts. I also hope you will invite others off the beaten path to lend their voices, too.
In my case, I pledge to be better next time. This is not to make me (or you) feel better about me, but is my way to use this space as I always have: as a space to be open to the changes I believe we want to see in our city. I am not sure an apology will ever reach the gentleman on The Rapid's No. 13 bus who started me on this journey, but if he should ever stumble across my words I hope he knows how truly sorry I am.   
So the next time I sign off, the future needs all of us, I hope we all are reminded (including me) that we cannot do it alone. Baldwin affirms in his book that the fire next time will consume us all; hatred promises such an all-consuming fate. I say, together let's write a fresh narrative to the future city as we shoot for a boundless sky.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
For information on the GR Forward plan process, please visit Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.'s GR Forward website. 
For the very best in events to consider adding to your week, please visit Rapid Growth's G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! 
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