Are We There Yet? No, but it’s about the journey
(This is the first installment of a three-part series of posts by Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation. Originally posted on LinkedIn, Nov. 23, 2020.)
For more than 25 years, I have known Governor Gary Herbert, who will finish out his final term as governor at the end of December. It has been a pleasure to work with a man of such great character. Herbert’s leadership style is to surround himself with the very best people he can find–although I have occasionally questioned at least one of his choices. I have heard him say many times that he doesn’t care about someone’s political party, religion, or where they are from — he just wants great people helping him make the best possible decisions on behalf of the people of the state of Utah. Once he makes his selection he clearly lays out his vision for the State and then he says go figure it out, I trust you, do the right thing.
Which is why, as Executive Director, I am given great latitude to set the direction for the Utah Department of Transportation, I have never had to request permission to do this or that. As long as I have the best intentions for our State in mind, and I am guided by my own personal values, I along with our leadership team get to set the State Transportation Vision — and yes, to be accountable for our mistakes. And that’s a good thing because I certainly make mistakes!
So it was unusual when, during our July 8 Cabinet meeting, we were informed that we were all going to participate in a 21-day challenge on Overcoming Racial Inequality, and then once that was completed we would all be taking part in multiple follow up workshops with experts who could help us learn — and, hopefully, unlearn — elements of racism in our lives and in our culture that had previously been invisible to many of us. The training has continued through the year — in fact, I attended a workshop just last week.
When this was announced it stood out to me because of how important this obviously was to the Governor. He wasn’t asking us to do this, nor was he suggesting that this would be a good idea for all of us to consider. This was an order — something he rarely gave, especially to those of us in his Cabinet. In Governor Herbert’s mind, this wasn’t optional, and it clearly wasn’t a “check the box” exercise. This was something he really cared about, and he wanted it to be done. Period. No discussion. He wanted us all to be better leaders, and he wanted Utah to be a better place. That came through to all of us — loud and clear.
The 21-day challenge the Governor spoke of consisted of an incredibly diverse series of daily readings, videos and podcasts on race and social justice. I’ve got to tell you that at first I was thinking, “I can’t believe the Governor is asking us to do this.” But as the challenge progressed, it was amazing to hear the conversations among my fellow Cabinet members. We were coming face-to-face with certain realities that far too many of our fellow citizens live with everyday, and that we should have been more aware of.
People who know me are well aware that I’m a big fan of the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey. He said, “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I think that applies to all of us in America today. With all of the divisiveness and discord that we see in this country — whether we’re talking about racism or the recent election season — we should be trying to fight through the dissonance and focus on learning and compassionately understanding each other’s respective positions. Unfortunately, again quoting Covey, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
So seeking first to understand another’s position and point of view would be my highest priority for all of us today. Don’t filter everything through your own life experiences — try to see things from another person’s perspective. Walk a mile — or two or three — in their shoes. Ask some questions of someone whose life experience is completely different from your own, then listen — really listen — to their answers. Don’t even think about responding. Just listen — and learn. As you do so, I believe you will find your own personal perspective expanding, and your fear of the unknown diminishing. And that will make a difference in our homes, our communities and our country because I believe that fear is at the very heart of racism. As renowned chemist and physicist Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Borrowing from a concept I learned in Simon Sinek’s book, “The Infinite Game,” some of you have heard me refer to our “just cause.” At UDOT, we have usually used the phrase in the context that our “just cause” is building a better quality of life for all Utahns by providing innovative transportation solutions to help build the communities of our dreams. But I think it also applies here. This Just Cause is also about the future. It’s a vision that inspires us as we think about the communities of our dreams. I love that word, “community.” Now more than ever we realize the value of community. A place where people can live their lives in liberty and in the pursuit of happiness. A place where all people can come together to realize their dreams. Building communities like that, with true liberty, justice, respect, inclusion and opportunity for all of its citizens, is the Just Cause of our nation. It is our worthy cause. There is no racism in the communities of our dreams.
We have to realize that we have not arrived at our ultimate destination in this journey; in fact, it is a journey for which we may never fully arrive, because we will never be perfect. Nonetheless, we will remain committed to the pursuit of excellence, if not perfection. It will require the commitment of people who know they are not perfect, people who will make mistakes and learn from them, people who care more about the success of others than about theirs. In other words, it will require the commitment of people of character.
It won’t be easy. In fact, it will involve some of the hardest things we humans can endeavor to do. We’ll have to change how we think. We’ll have to change how we feel. Shifting our beliefs will shift everything we do toward a genuine feeling of love and respect and inclusion — for everyone. The journey will continue. More to come . . .