“Our Nightmares Are Different, But Our Dreams Are the Same”

Urban League president and CEO Andrea Custis and ADL regional director Shira Goodman share their perspectives on Philly’s present — and what’s needed for a better future.

andrea custis shira goodman

Urban League president and CEO Andrea Custis and ADL regional director Shira Goodman share their perspectives. Photographs courtesy Custis and Goodman.

We are women who lead regional offices of two storied, mission-driven national organizations focused on achieving social justice, fighting hate, and promoting equality. We are both mothers of sons. We first met in one of the most privileged of spaces — a women’s leadership dinner during the Pennsylvania Society. We are colleagues who see in one another kindred spirits and trusted partners. We are the poster daughters for whoever added the tagline “and Sisterly Affection” to Philadelphia’s moniker of “the City of Brotherly Love.” And we are both heartbroken to see our city burn.

For all we have in common, however, there are important differences. One of us has talked to her sons about what to do when pulled over by the police in order to stay safe. The other has not had to have that conversation. One of us lives with the fear that the normal activities of life — driving, jogging, shopping, walking — can shift in a moment into a dangerous, even lethal situation. The other does not. One of us sees George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and so many other young black people murdered and thinks, “There but for the grace of God.” The other is horrified but not personally afraid. And while one of us knows that there are many people who hate her for her religion, she can protect herself by hiding her targeted identity trait. The other one cannot. These divergent realities — even among two women who share so much — expose the inherent injustices in American society today.

Our nightmares are different, but our dreams are the same. We want all parents to rest easy, assured that when our sons and daughters are out in the world, they will be safe. We want our children to be able to put their trust in those who are charged with keeping them safe. We want everyone to experience justice and fairness as realities, not as aspirations.

We want all people to have the same opportunities to pursue their dreams, regardless of their race or zip code. We want the powers that be to understand that equality and equity are not the same thing, and that we must make significant efforts to remedy the ongoing, systemic racism that fuels current disparities in access to health care, education, economic opportunities, and the ability to succeed.

Our city burned this past weekend, but it has been smoldering a long time. Centuries of discrimination have led to major inequities today: disproportionate hospitalization and death of black patients in Philadelphia due to COVID-19; homicide as a leading cause of death for young African American males; an incarceration rate for African Americans nine times that of whites in Pennsylvania; in the Philadelphia School District, 48 percent of children unable to participate in online learning during the pandemic; and so much more. While we are deeply saddened by the recent violence roiling our city, we recognize that these inequities are the kindling that was lit Saturday night.

How can we come together and help guide our city through this turmoil? We both know that you can’t get very far just talking to those who agree with you, but it’s much easier to have the hard conversations when you have good allies. So together we will go into conference rooms and courtrooms and statehouses and make the case for change. Together we will help others look through the smoke to see the kindling, so we can finally address the real, ongoing systemic discrimination. Racism, police brutality, inequities in educational funding — these are not black problems or white problems. They are our problems, and we all must be part of the solution.

In the coming days and weeks, one of us will be talking more, and one of us will be listening more. And together, we will create the space for dialogue and partnership. That is what we can offer our city.

Shira Goodman is the regional director of the ADL, and Andrea Custis is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia.