D. Watkins and Nia Johnson: Not Just Surviving, but Thriving
There's often a vast chasm between people's moral aspirations and the things they need to do just to survive in a brutal world.
By Corey S. Powell
Morality goes hand in hand with empathy. If you imagine the worst about other people, you can justify nearly any awful behavior; if you try to understand other people's motivations, it becomes easier to summon kindness and generosity. But the lofty form of "moral imagination" requires space for calm contemplation—a luxury that many people don't have.
Nia Johnson is an assistant professor of social work at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, where teaching her students how to imagine the moral is part of her daily job. D. Watkins is the bestselling author of Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised and We Speak for Ourselves. His writing draws heavily on his experiences growing up in East Baltimore. In this podcast, hosted by OpenMind co-editor Corey S. Powell and supported by the Pulitzer Center, Johnson and Watkins explain why moral acts are contingent on the circumstances of life, and reflect on what it takes to put ourselves in others’ shoes. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
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Nia, I'd like to start with your thoughts on the meaning of "moral imagination" from the perspective of social work.
Nia Johnson: It’s essentially what social work is and what we are tasked to do. Moral imagination is creatively imagining the full range of options while you're making moral decisions, so it requires us to consider somebody's social context. As a social worker in my profession, it's imperative that we do that; it's imperative that we take the context of society, the neighborhood, and the oppressive systems that are impacting this person. Just the day-to-day life and the things that this person is coming up against. The reasons why folks are making certain decisions, and realizing that oftentimes people have to choose between a bad and a horrible choice.
You have a beautiful statement of purpose on your website: As stated by Maya Angelou, "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive." I've always been acutely aware that this pursuit is made harder for some of us than for others. And I remain inspired by the ability of many of us to persevere. There's limitless potential within social work to transform lives, communities and policies. What does it take to step beyond the moral framework we were born with, to transform ourselves?
Nia Johnson: For those of us with certain privileges, it takes us stepping out of our bubbles to understand what's going on with other folks, and why they're making certain decisions. Being a Black girl from Baltimore, there are certain things that I have experienced, but also my parents were college grads. And that's a different experience, right? I’m an academic and a tenure-track professor, and I'm aware that there are certain privileges that I have and certain experiences that I just don't know. So it's incumbent upon me to step outta that bubble and to learn and to understand, not in a condescending way, but pushing back on those oppressive systems that are limiting the capacity for people to imagine.
D, you've shared some intense stories about difficult moments in your childhood. Can you talk about how growing up in East Baltimore affected the way you saw moral acts?
D. Watkins: I've been fascinated with this story because moral imagination was part of my hero's journey. When I was coming up and hanging out on the block, the toughest kid in the neighborhood, Burger, bullied me. So I figured out a way to get him back. I put a lock in a sock and I busted his head, and I did it while everybody was watching: "You can't bully me." Then when he was about 20, someone shot Burger and he got murdered. Then I thought about his family and I thought about all of this stuff he went through, and I thought about the ways in which he had to have this bravado because he didn't have some of the things that my friends and I had. He didn't have the new Air Jordans. He didn't have a Game Boy. He didn't have new clothes on Easter. He wore his brother's hand-me-downs. So his resiliency was his toughness.
I'm not saying that a young kid is supposed to be able to analyze these things. I was just a child. But we are responsible for how we reflect on these, on these different things. I felt like I didn't have a choice; I had to make that decision for my survival. For years I carried that around as if I won some sort of championship, but in actuality, what I did to him made me sad. I realized that I didn't have to make that decision. I'm literally a part of the problem if I'm telling that story as if I was a hero and I did something that was so great. However, the flip side of that, which makes it even more complex, is that I didn't have many options because I would've been eaten by that community because those were the rules that existed inside that society at that particular time.
Was there a particular moment or an incident that made you go back and rethink that memory and look at it differently?
D. Watkins: This is gonna sound really sappy, and I don't want your listeners to throw tomatoes at their devices, but I want to be a better person, and I'm on a journey and I'm trying to become a better person. Part of that journey is me realizing a lot of the false things, a lot of the wrong things, and a lot of the bad things that I've done, bad ideas that I've bought into, the things that exist that make our society toxic. I want to try to undo a lot of that. I've been doing that through my writing. I've been doing that as a mentor. I've been doing that as I spend time with people working their way through difficult situations themselves. I don't want my nephews to look up to me because I used to be a street guy. I want them to look up to me because when I've had the opportunity to do the right thing, I did the right thing.
Nia, what are your thoughts on the tension D discusses between surviving and thriving?
Nia Johnson: Listening to D, the story is unfortunately not super-unique in terms of what people have to experience and the options that people are faced with. I am out here self-actualized, doing yoga, sipping my peppermint tea, and I don't ever curse anyone out. I think that sometimes the thriving part requires not having to just survive. Sometimes the thriving is done when you have the space to imagine, the space to reflect. I have the space to think through things and teach my child when people aren’t coming after me. A lot of D’s stories speak to the kind of duality you're faced with when what you feel is right is different than how you have to present in this world to survive. You don't have the space to thrive if you don't have the space to exist outside of that box. That's life or death in certain circumstances.
D, in your OpenMind essay you write about another childhood episode when your father perpetuated a scam to get a big-screen TV for your family. How did that influence you?
D. Watkins: If everyone in the neighborhood weren't buying big TVs, would my dad have needed that TV? Did he feel like he's not taking care of his family the way other neighbors are because they have those big TVs and we didn't? Well, he decided he's gonna do what he has to do. So he went to Circuit City to apply for credit. He didn't get approved for enough, but his friend told him about this little scam where if someone distracted the person who was working at the store, you could change numbers on the application. If you got approved for $500, you can put a 1 in front of the 5, and it looks like you got approved for $1,500.
Later I would find out we got a little extra credit because it was my social security number that my dad used. I was horsing around with my friends and I broke the TV. I told him, "I broke the TV." And he was like, "No, you broke your TV." He did something that he normally wouldn't do. I don't try to justify his actions. I just try to show the perspective of a person who feels like it's morally OK to score these temporary wins and these small luxuries because they'll never have that big house and that big flashy car, that trip to Europe. He was willing to risk and sacrifice his freedom for that feeling.
I think of moral imagination as a double-edged sword. It allows you to project onto other's aspirations of how you want to behave. But it also allows you to project onto them your imagination of the worst things that they could be. In that sense, can moral imagination be a misuse of empathy?
Nia Johnson: I would venture to say that when you are misusing empathy, then it's no longer empathy. Then you get into manipulation of understanding for your own personal gain. This might sound a little corny but feeling a certain way about a group of people who look a certain way requires self-awareness and you have to be honest with yourself that you have these thoughts or that you don't understand. It's really about sitting down and looking at what you really think. Wherever we go, there we are. I can say that from a place of privilege, my lights are on. I live in a comfortable house. I literally get paid to think these things and pontificate and write about all this stuff. But the hope is that I do that with the outcome of making space for other folks to expand their imagination. That expanded imagination, and that empathy, is like a muscle.
I see a lot of people latch onto conspiracy theories and misinformation to avoid aspects of the world, and of themselves, that they don't want to examine too closely. I get it; honest self-awareness can be difficult and scary. Do you have any advice to help people do the hard work?
D. Watkins: I think one, you have to realize who you are in a self-audit. A lot of moral imagination, in my humble opinion, is driven by who's watching. I would not have had to attack that kid if no one was watching. That kid did not bully us when it was just us. He bullied us when it was a block full of people.
Nia, a key part of your work consists of trying to help people change perspectives. Have you developed techniques to make it easier?
Nia Johnson: There are certain tools and frameworks that people use. D mentioned the self-audit, which I feel is a long-term investment. It's difficult to decide between the short term and the long term, but giving people space to be heard and to listen and to learn is the most important part. It doesn't mean you have to go through all your personal traumas. It just means that you've allowed yourself to have space to be human and then given somebody else that space, too.
When Barack Obama gave his Nobel lecture, he commented that the "non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love they preached, their faith in human progress must always be the north star that guides us on our journey.” That's his definition of moral imagination: aspiring toward an idealized version of yourself. What do you think of that lofty goal?
D. Watkins: It's beautiful when we pull back and realize that Gandhi wasn't perfect. King wasn't perfect. Obama wasn't perfect. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, even though they named the Peace Prize after him. He was not a perfect person. Not to say that we don't need dynamite, but none of us are perfect. At the end of the day, we can try our best and we can try to grow as we try to encourage the people around us to grow as well, but with love and, and not judgment. It's important to say that even the people who look perfect aren't perfect. We all can be better, and we all can try. We'll never be perfect, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try our best to be the best people that we can be.
Nia, what are your thoughts on this type of moral imagination?
Nia Johnson: My response is the opposite of D’s, as if to a little child. When you were reading that quote, it made me think of the movie Finding Nemo when Dory said, keep swimming, just keep swimming. It's something that like that I'll say sometimes to folks, you know, just keep swimming. It's not about, OK, I've done all of this work and now I have the moral high ground and I make these ethical decisions. No, it's bit by bit. It's about, in this situation, I made that decision. Ooh, let me think that through. Maybe I'll do it differently next time, and then in the next situation, maybe you do it a little better, whatever better is. Because better shifts depending on the context sometimes. At certain points in folks' lives, and in whatever context, they made certain decisions and believed certain things and thought certain things were right and wrong, and then they shift and grow and you just progress bit by bit. Then as you progress, you are not allowing yourself to feel higher than others and say, oh, come on, you need to come up here with me. But instead, it is maybe more along the lines of, I'm figuring myself out. How about you figure yourself out too? I can help you along the way.
In different ways, you're both talking about the idea that real-world morality is not about absolutes. D, it's a lot to ask, but can you share any lessons to guide people through the challenges of moral flexibility?
D. Watkins: I can take a shot at it. It's important to understand that everyone is on their own journey. We should try to be the best people we can be while giving ourselves the grace to fall short. But we should also extend that grace to other people as they try, because, you know, at the end of the day, we're all growing, we're all changing. There's no finish line, there's no destination. We are just here and we should experience and enjoy and love each other as much as we can.
This podcast and Q&A are part of a series of OpenMind essays, podcasts and videos supported by a generous grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.
February 1, 2024