My fire service dream

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to reflect on our fire service diversity situation and take the necessary steps to improve it

Although the greater Chicago area has a very diverse population, I’ve lived for more than 15 years in one of its predominantly white communities. And being a white man living in a white land, I’m fluent in white-speak.

Which is why I’m surprised, disappointed and embarrassed that it took me so long to understand part of a conversation I had the other night.

I’m writing this on Monday, January 16 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Our office is closed, but I want to get a jump on the week’s work. A few nights ago, I was sitting in a favorite local pub swapping lies with several acquaintances when I asked if anyone had Monday off from work.

One man said, “No, we only get real holidays off.”

Those who’ve not brushed up on white-speak lately, that was code — kind of like “Canadians” is code for black people. This code meant that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not a legitimate holiday because King was a black man championing black rights, something those who speak in code also don’t see as legitimate.

And I can tell you, reporting from deep inside white America, that this coded white-speak is often far less nuanced than my encounter this weekend. It can be quite blunt when the setting is considered “safe” to air racist views.

And to be clear, this white-speak and the fear and hatred behind it is not something all white people buy into or practice — not even the majority of them for that matter. It is there in a minority of white people, but there nonetheless.

This weekend’s encounter struck me partly because the U.S. fire service resembles my small white community — at least in terms of racial makeup. But more on that later.

First, it’s necessary to dispel the belief that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is somehow an illegitimate holiday. Outside of a few exceptions, national holidays are a celebration of contributions that have made this country great.

This country was founded on ideas and ideals. Reaching the full potential of those ideas and ideals is a work in progress. Consider the enormous contributions throughout the generations toward that end of those we celebrate on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day. These are days to reflect on what it means to be patriotic and what we can do to be more so.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a patriot who led a nonviolent effort to defeat our country’s enemy within. He was a champion for liberty and justice for all, without which we can never realize those lofty ideas and ideals and be the great nation we aspire to be.

Why we’re better

So back to the fire service. While it may mirror mine and many other lily-white communities in demographics, I believe it differs greatly in composition.

Generalizations are typically worthless, but there are two that I will stand by when it comes to firefighters. First is that they are at their core people who want to serve and help others. Second, they are deeply committed to other firefighters.

And it is these two things that give me optimism that we will see greater diversity and equality in the fire service.

Before sitting down to write this, I re-watched Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. One line leapt out at me for its correlation to the fire service.

"I have a dream that one day the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

It’s my dream that the fire service has the attitude and demeanor of a diversified brotherhood that will and does gather as equals around the dayroom table — even if the diversity numbers aren’t yet there.

It’s also my dream that those number will follow. And that we see groups like the International Association of Professional Black Firefighters disappear not because they were run out of town, but because their existence was no longer necessary.  

Racism isn’t confined to one segment of the population, it isn’t found only in small white silo communities, or in the fire service or in the United States. It is a human problem, and one that can be solved with effort.

When firefighters roll up on a scene — be it a fire, a crash or a medical emergency — we make an accurate and honest assessment of the problem, form a plan to mitigate the dangers and execute that plan; it’s one of the things that makes us great.

Applying that model to how we treat those who are different from us will make the fire service stronger and better — as it will for this country.

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