Inauguration Day

Posted by Joan Rachlin, executive director

On a day when the earth is moving beneath the feet of the millions who have assembled on the Mall in Washington, DC, I’m overflowing with emotion as I think of the many sung and unsung heroes who have stood up to injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is near the top of the list, but so are Rosa Parks, the Little Rock 9, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and many others.

Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization I greatly admire, refers to them as “upstanders,” characterized by their willingness to speak out and make an impact on others. The stories of upstanders remind us that it only takes one person, or a small group of people, to bring significant change. Do you know someone who qualifies as an upstander?

I’ve seen some in action, but unfortunately, I’ve seen more “downsitters.” My mother was raised in Selma, Alabama, and my life therefore intersected with that of the civil rights movement from a very young age. Those years were among the most important in my life and put me on a path that led to my work with PRIM&R and research protections.

Having a hard time seeing the connection? It’s not immediately obvious, and it’s more than one degree (but less than six) of separation, but I think that IRBs and IACUCs have the capacity to be upstanders. They are charged with speaking out when they think a proposed research project is not either ethically or scientifically defensible. Justice is one of the Belmont principles, as is respect, both of which are also core principles in the ongoing quest for civil rights.

As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All of us know about the history of racial injustice in this country and we must never stop studying and retelling that history. In fact, if you haven’t yet listened to President Obama’s powerful speech on the topic, please take the time to do so and you won’t be disappointed.

Deep disparities still exist in the treatment of African Americans and other minority groups as well. These inequalities extend to health care and research, and there are often speakers at PRIM&R who talk about racial disparities and the subtle effects of bias, especially regarding quality health care. I’m hopeful that the new administration will immediately begin to ameliorate these and other inequities even before there is widespread systemic change.

So on this momentous day, we celebrate President Barack Obama, new beginnings, the pursuit of justice, and the healing power of hope. We also celebrate the triumph of community. As President Obama has shown us, we can transcend our divided past, if we get to know, really know, one another.

One of the watershed novels in the civil rights pantheon is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One line that has stuck with me from childhood was Scout’s comment that “Atticus was right. One time he said you really never know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” Atticus was an upstander, and Scout became one, too. They had empathy for those around them, they practiced respecting others irrespective of race, class, or disability, and they pursued justice despite the personal risks (and in Atticus’ case, professional risks as well) involved.

Today and every day, we at PRIM&R celebrate the work that you do, and I encourage all of you to be “upstanders” in that work. “Out of many, we are one,” President Obama so frequently reminds us, as so much more unites than divides us.