Spectrum Perspectives: The times they are a-changin’

By Neil Heinen, editorial director at 'Madison...
Spectrum Perspectives: The times they are a-changin’
Neil Heinen is editorial director at Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.

Not too long ago a friend and I were talking about the role of media in addressing issues of racial disparity in our community. As we explored various perspectives, my friend, younger than me by some twenty years, asked me how I would describe my generation’s contributions to the current state of race relations in our country and in our culture.

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot over the last several years, as each new year serves as a fiftieth-anniversary reminder of some aspect of the 1960s, the decade during which I “came of age,” and a decade often defined, to distinguish it from any other, by one word: change.

It is a question the mere pondering of which fills me with a sense of both yearning and great sadness. There was no question that we Boomers in the ’60s were going to change the world. And there is no escaping that the world we changed is the one we are living in today. One that is benefiting from, and still badly in need of, a new generation of change agents.

A valid criticism of the Baby Boom generation is that we talk about ourselves as if we speak for an entire generation that is somehow special, that the change we created was better than the change that came before or after. We often do talk that way. It’s nonsense, really. But we tried. Many of us tried very hard. And some of us were shaped by the effort. I was. Father James Groppi and the Commandos of Milwaukee were heroes. I lay in bed at night with the transistor radio under my pillow listening to the “Negro” radio stations, waiting excitedly to hear Barbara Lewis or Martha and the Vandellas sing to me, and me alone. Men and women, Black and white, we marched arm in arm and together we danced in the streets. We talked to each other and about each other as brothers and sisters. I, for one, thought the change had come and it was real.

I feel that way again, in 2016, in Madison. I hope I am more right now than I was then. This generation, of young people in their twenties, especially, but even younger, too, seems to embrace change, and with a comfort for risk taking that we eventually found untenable as the ’60s became the ’70s.

Government is arguably more of a mess now than it was then, but less so at the local level. The diversity of the Madison Common Council is noteworthy. But comparatively more businesses and nonprofit organizations and institutions are getting it. The importance of diversity is now part of the strategic vision of any company wishing to compete for talent and global positioning. And so is the recognition now that disparities are symptoms of our failure to be truly diverse.

Spectrum grew out of a recognition of the need for change by the companies that sponsor it. One need look no further for examples of change agents. In fact, the commitment to change is rooted in the willingness to be examples of change: recruiting, hiring and retaining diverse talent, supporting diverse communities, promoting a culture of diversity and diversifying at all levels of leadership.

Historically, change has been accompanied by resistance almost as a matter of course. This has been true here in Madison as much as anywhere. And that resistance is part of the Boomer legacy as well. To read the stories in this edition of Spectrum is to understand that change is happening regardless of generational differences, as it should.

But these stories, these people and these businesses and organizations that are the new agents of change deserve more than grudging acceptance. They deserve support and encouragement because it is right, and because it is our chance to effect the change we’ve failed at till now.

Find my Spectrum 2016 content here.