Be Mindful of the Past and UNITE for the Future

For my birthday this past year, my husband bought me a book by Jill Lepore entitled These Truths – a nearly 1,000-page tome that tells the history of the United States, although describing it that way sells this wonderful book vastly short. What These Truths does is tell the complicated, messy, and intertwined stories of the people who collectively enacted and constituted the history of the United States. Like many, I read for pleasure only as I am falling off to sleep at night. This means it will be at least a few more months before I finish the book! But now, more than halfway through it, one thing is horrifyingly clear: slavery, persecution, hate crime, the advantage of assimilation and the deadly disadvantage of being identifiable as “other” have pervaded the history of this country since before its inception through the present day. To be sure, and somewhat reassuringly vis-à-vis the very humanity of the human race, outspoken and courageous opposition of people who viewed this to be wrong began almost as soon as the first enslaved person stepped on our shores. But too often, economics and xenophobia won out.

When my grandparents came to this country, two from Warsaw, one from Gostynin, and one from Sadagora, all in Eastern Europe, they were fleeing persecution and a future of almost certain death. In fact, my paternal grandmother had family members who moved to Belgium when she moved to the U.S. Many of them perished in Auschwitz. Coming to this country meant a new beginning for my family. Productive employment, an education for their children, the right to have a voice in their government, and perhaps the right to practice their religion. What they didn’t know before they came was that the condition for attaining these hallmarks of freedom was that they, at least publicly, had to assimilate, to blend in by at least appearing to be who they were not and suppressing who they actually were. Those who refused to “Americanize” their appearance, their speech, their names, their habits, or who openly defended the rights of others to be who they were suffered negative consequences.

Still, the United States took my family in, protected them, and afforded them a better life and a chance at personal fulfillment and professional success. Through whatever they overcame, whatever they tolerated, they never forgot that and always worked to pay back what they saw as a debt by supporting, defending, empowering, and promoting those whose race, ethnicity, gender identification, or cognitive ability made them “others” in the eyes of those who denied them basic human decency and rights.

Why am I writing this now? Because the NIH UNITE Initiative, described in detail by NIH Director Francis Collins and by NINDS Director Walter Koroshetz in their respective blog entries, is one I cannot allow to wither and I cannot allow to fail. My colleagues at NINDS and I are working actively to change the culture; embrace and ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion in our community and those we fund; and build a workforce and workplace that is respectful, humane, and supportive to everyone without a quid pro quo of “fitting in”. We believe in UNITE and are translating our belief into sustained action because it is good and right for us, for all our colleagues, for NIH, for science, and for our country. And I am also doing this to repay a family debt of gratitude and finish a human job about which my ancestors were as passionate as I.

Learn more about UNITE:

NIH is seeking input from stakeholders including the public on practical and effective approaches to improve and strengthen racial diversity, equity, and inclusion across all facets of the biomedical enterprise. Submissions are open through April 9, 2021.