“Optimism can be more powerful than a battery of artillery or squadron of tanks. It can be contagious and it’s necessary to being a leader.” — General Rick Hillier

And well, we’ve seen where lack of optimism has gotten us.

This was not my scheduled post, this week. As I write this, our country has just come through its eighth night of protests stemming from George Floyd’s tragic death, and somehow sharing new dessert recipes just didn’t seem appropriate—no matter how good they are (and they are…). People of color are once again at the center of unnecessary death and violence. Atrocious in its own right, it came at a time when our society and the world at large are reeling from the physical, emotional, and financial toll inflicted by Covid-19. The adage, “one step forward, two steps back,” has become grossly out of date. We’ve taken at least 10 steps back. We all ask—and rightly so—when will all this madness end?

“Optimism inspires, energizes, and brings out our best. It points the mind toward possibilities and helps us think creatively past problems.” — Price Pritchett, Hard Optimism

Optimism seems to have become a feeling of the past. A feeling that many of us had with the start of a new year and a new decade—before the coronavirus hit—and certainly before this and other recent travesties of justice took place.

I could argue that it’s easier to be a pessimist, especially these days. Look around. There’s a lot wrong. A lot. But to me, that’s the lazy and dangerous way out. It takes vision and hard work to create something positive, especially when you are surrounded by negativity. However, it takes little effort and thought to tear down something that someone else has taken the time to create. So, understanding that there will be some scorn and accusations that I am not a realist, I still choose to remain optimistic and look at the world through the eyes of one who strives to create, and to be a potential problem solver and healer.

“The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality, and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Amid the turmoil, there have been an increasing number of stories that have shown impressive courage, leadership, and compassion—some of the qualities needed to help the country’s healing begin. While it is impossible to name them all, three in particular stand out to me. The first was on Saturday, when Genessee County (Michigan) Sheriff Chris Swanson spoke with demonstrators in Flint Township, when they were met with police in riot gear. Sheriff Swanson took off his helmet and put down his baton, telling the protestors that the police were there so that the demonstrators’ voices could be heard. Then, when asked to march with them, Sheriff Swanson did. Flint—having suffered through an unthinkable water crisis—is a city in dire need of healing.  

Another moving act of leadership and courage was displayed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo when they spoke to a group of protestors on Sunday. Using the words, “Give us this honor,” Chief Acevedo offered a police escort for George Floyd’s body during his funeral as a means of providing security to the family and as a way to honor Mr. Floyd. According to ABC affiliate KRTK, the amount of security used to transport Mr. Floyd’s body will be similar to that of when an officer dies in the line of duty.

Leadership and courage continued on Monday when Chief of Department of the New York City Police Terence Monahan—the highest-ranking member of the uniformed NYPD—took a knee in solidarity with protesters, as well as when he stopped to talk with activists. He was also shown hugging one of them. Other uniformed officers in NYC and around the country have taken similar actions.   

Contrast these words and actions with those of violent protesters, looters, and others who incite divisiveness and hatred. There is no room for the latter in a country as great as ours, particularly when so many of its citizens cry out for healing.

Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” — Christine Caine

With appropriate actions, environments can change. Hope and optimism can be restored. They have in Camden, New Jersey.

I’m betting that Camden wasn’t on a lot of people’s lists of “Places I Want to Visit.” Certainly not in 2014. That year, Camden was designated as the most dangerous city in the country, according to national real estate website, NeighborhoodScout.com.

In 2014, NeighborhoodScout.com compiled information from FBI reports and other incident reports from approximately 17,000 local, municipal, and state law enforcement agencies from around the country.[i] The algorithm they used incorporated the number of violent crimes reported, including murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and armed robbery per 1,000 residents. Camden had 1,895 violent crimes in 2014—an average of 25.66 violent crimes per 1,000 residents—more than six times higher than the national average of 3.8. At that time, Andrew Schiller, NeighborhoodScout.com’s founder and CEO stated that “…the picture of violent crime in America is different today, with more of the most dangerous areas dominated by single family homes, abandoned homes, low-income areas in inner-ring suburbs or decaying cities.” NeighborhoodScout.com also found that a city’s safety didn’t depend on “how big your economy is, but what type of economy you have. What types of jobs, and who is attracted to those jobs.”[ii]

Fast forward to January 2020. In the past six years, Camden experienced a 60% drop in its homicide rate and a 40% decline in violent crime.[iii] In fact, total crime fell to levels not seen since the 1960s. Changes took place in the police department, including promoting a new chief, adopting a new use of force guidelines that became nationally recognized, a virtual training mechanism for de-escalation, and a continued strategy grounded in the tenets of community policing, mutual respect, and the preservation of life.[iv] Engagement and dialogue with residents” was credited as being at the center of the city’s civic partnership.

Now, Philadelphia is asking for Camden’s advice on how to reduce violence there.

 Other changes experienced by Camden include:[v]

  • public and private investment of more than $2.5 billion for new corporate campuses, academic buildings, and park construction, with more than $53 million scheduled for investment into the city’s infrastructure during this fiscal year
  • a 14% drop in the poverty rate since 2013, according to the US Census Bureau
  • a rate of job growth that led the nation in 2017
  • a 30-year low in unemployment
  • a high school dropout rate that was cut in half since 2013
  • the arrival of the largest student body ever to attend Rutgers-Camden

Engagement and dialogue, mutual respect, preservation of life, and civic partnership—aren’t we as a nation supposed to stand for those concepts? And we’re reminded of this right after Memorial Day—a time when we remember all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.” — Benjamin Franklin

A steady diet of headlines over the past few months could drain even some of the great optimists—so what can we do improve our outlook—and those of others? Jason Wachob, cofounder and CEO of the website, MindBodyGreen.com, says that optimism, like any healthy habit, is something that you need to practice every day. David Mezzapelle, author of Contagious Optimism adds that combining optimism with accepting the life you’ve been dealt can translate into the sky becoming your limit. Together, Mezzapelle and Wachob have offered seven traits that optimists share:

  1. They express gratitude.
  2. They donate their time and energy.
  3. They’re interested in others.
  4. They surround themselves with upbeat people.
  5. They don’t listen to naysayers.
  6. They forgive others.
  7. They smile.

And these steps, I believe, can be the start of changing our own corner of the world, as well as perhaps spreading optimism at a rate that would leave the coronavirus in the dust. It’s certainly worth a try. Just ask the residents of Camden, NJ.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” — Anne Frank

Do it. Our country and the rest of the world are counting on you.

Until next time,

PS—For a quick fix of inspiration, please see Quotes on Optimism.

[i] Report: Camden Most Dangerous in the U.S.; Charlotte May; nbcphiladelphia.com; February 5, 2015, https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/local-city-named-most-dangerous-in-us/1998894/

[ii] Ibid

[iii]Philadelphia Officials Turn To Camden, New Jersey For Advice On How To Reduce Violence In City; Chantee′ Lans; CBS News; March 9, 2020; https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2020/03/09/philadelphia-officials-turn-to-camden-new-jersey-for-advice-on-how-to-reduce-violence-in-city/  

[iv] Camden City Experiences Historic Drop In Crime Rate, New Study Claims; SNJ Today; January 7, 2020; https://snjtoday.com/2020/01/07/camden-city-experiences-historic-drop-in-crime-rate-new-study-says/

[v] Ibid

[vi] Seven Habits of Optimistic People; fastcompany.com; Stephanie Vozza; February 9, 2015; https://www.fastcompany.com/3042025/seven-habits-of-optimistic-people

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