Surviving World War C: Managing our Behavior and Emotions in an Era of Hopelessness

Our nation is in a tailspin.

Lately, we’ve been sucker punched by a few too many unruly opponents — adapting to the chronic health fears and social diss-association of this pandemic. Managing the social-emotional issues resulting from the stress of school closures, increased joblessness, and an uncertain economy have led to issues for almost everyone. Dealing with riots, which have hijacked peaceful and necessary protests for George Floyd, and the history of inequitable treatment have added additional stressors.

Admittedly, it’s encouraging to see all races come together for a common cause: justice. To proclaim that we, as a society, have reached our limit and must now speak up, step up, and stand up for everyone is important. Despite the climate of hopelessness, I’m optimistic that for all concerned, we can and have the potential to do better. We’re in the midst of a remarkable decade.

How will we define ourselves as we observe the upcoming presidential election? What will change and which choices will be made by families, communities, and our nation? Most important, what will become of our children’s social-emotional development in this new age?

Endangered Species?

Being Black in America means that I have a lower life expectancy compared to Asians, Whites, Latinos, and Native Americans. Born in Mississippi, prior to the civil rights movement, I attended a segregated school. Like many children during that era, my family and I experienced racism, bias, despair, denial, and living in a constant state of fear. This trepidation resulted from being born colored and perceived as “less than and unworthy.” 

It’s hard to explain the pervasive feeling that’s part of your existence, except to say that with every breath you take, you feel a foreboding cloud of hopelessness hanging over you. Most people won’t ever know what it’s like to have been taught “how” to speak to the police or White people in a Jim Crow environment — that still exists today in too many parts of America.

As a child growing up in the country, my mother would later tell stories of our family having to take turns guarding the church to keep it from being torched by the Klan, referred to in our community as the Kluckers. I was told of an incident when the Klan was planning to come after my daddy. When a threat like that is reported to the Sheriff — and then you find out that the Sheriff is a Grand Wizard with the Klan, you feel that wherever you turn, there’s no justice.

At some point, you start to feel ashamed for being born, living in the South, or for just living at all as a black person. I concluded that Blacks (American Blacks) are the most hated race on the planet. I pray that with discussion and positive action we’ll be in a new era where racism is finally addressed. My hope is that this issue won’t get ignored by the coming of the next crisis. 

My mother and her family have always been fighters. Movies like Sounder, Places in the Heart, and The Color Purple depict much of the misery and hardship they endured when she was a child. My grandmother was murdered when my mother was just four years old. As a teenager, Mother sat in at lunch counters to protest the perverted application of the 14th Amendment. She also paid a poll tax and had to take a test for the privilege of voting in a country that her family helped to build. In the South, there’s the law, and then there’s tradition. Those traumatic life experiences would mold and shape every aspect of her life, and eventually, mine. 

It has been important for me to consider these essential questions. What would she decide to do with those life experiences? What behaviors would she exhibit because of those traumatic events? How did her interpretation of those life-altering experiences impact the way she raised her six children? As the eldest, I’ve often wondered how we survived and made it this far.

Eat What’s on Your Plate

Gumbo is a soup made popular in the South. But it’s more than just soup because of all of the different flavors, spices, and love that goes into making it. It’s the official state cuisine of Louisiana where my Daddy’s family hailed. Gumbo consists primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, meat and/or shellfish, a thickener, and what Louisianans call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables, namely celery, bell peppers, and onions. Basically, this hearty meal with rice, cornbread, or whatever else you’d like to add (hot sauce) brings back heartfelt memories. 

When we consider social-emotional learning and resilience, it reminds me of a hearty bowl of gumbo. We must ask ourselves about the context in which these words belong, especially when juxtaposed with racism and poverty. In my home, while growing up, we just called it home trainin’. We were expected to act right, be right, and do right. If we didn’t, well, let’s just say that you’d have an experience seared in a place where you couldn’t sit for a week. Our parents and elders didn’t spare the rod, the love, or the discipline because like gumbo, the ingredients have to be right to maintain harmony.

For black folk, having “home training” also meant living another day. The wrong look, the wrong word, or the wrong interpretation by the majority community for not being home trained or knowing your place was always a matter of life or death for you or your family members. At the very least, you would lose your job and livelihood. 

Back then, even if your daddy didn’t live with you there was an air of harmony and expectation. Your community, the church, your elders, and the familial DNA were always a part of your upbringing and your family’s name.CASEL defines Social and emotional learning (SEL) as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. In other words, home trainin’, southern style. To act up and act out, or as my family would say, “monkey shine,” would be a disgrace to the family and it meant a trip to the woodshed or an immediate response of discipline and rebuke in front of everyone.

Balancing Acts

Sadly, teachers and others have to take on the roles of being an educator, disciplinarian, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, counselor, pastor, and whatever else is needed today. In the past, the majority of kids came to school with parameters of behavior that mirrored the expectations and values of that family, the church, or one’s community. 

Now that the faith-based and whole family units, led by loving, disciplinarian, wife honoring, positive work ethic fathers are diminishing, we’re seeing a perversion of what it means to be socially and emotionally stable.

Children, especially those during early development from birth until age six, need support, modeling, and positive engagement with other stable children. If they don’t get it, they won’t be socially and emotionally able in an increasingly diss-abled world.

Living Out Our Ideals

Did you know that at the foot of the Statue of Liberty (that was originally created to celebrate freed slaves, not immigrants, and was in the image of a black woman) there’s a broken chain and shackle, half-hidden by her robes? This image was meant to represent freedom and the end of servitude and oppression.

It is critical, more than in any other time in our nation’s history, that we are intentional about providing a healthy home environment for our most precious natural resource — our children. Poverty, single and no-parent homes, social strife, pandemics, riots, messaging, and higher stress levels diminish the capacity to properly shape young and malleable minds. Unfortunately, this has caused a chronic state of developmental disruption for far too many kids, especially those that live on the other side of the tracks. Hall of Fame Coach Tony Dungy said, “we’re in an age of dysfunction.” 

Additionally, due to World War C (Covid-19), the data is disheartening for many:

  •  Unemployment: 36,000,000 people have lost their jobs, about 16% of the labor force
  •  Depression: 57% of our population is suffering acute and chronic depressive issues
  • Suicide: 1-year worth of suicides are being reported in just a 4-month timeframe
  • Food Deprivation: Impacts a minimum of 41% of households weekly
  • Domestic Violence: 20% increase, 15,000,000 additional cases have been reported
  • Child Abuse: 22% reported increase / 76% of kids are quarantined with the perpetrators
  • Alcohol and Drug Abuse: 55% and 36% increase/stress, social isolation, and unemployment

These statistics further impact the behavior and social-emotional achievements of our kids, already living in a stressful world.

My family moved to Oakland, CA when I was a child during the height of the Black Power, Black Muslims, and Black Panthers movements. I became a gang leader at the age of nine and was recruited by Angela Davis and Huey Newton at the age of twelve to join the Black Panthers. Among other things, I learned to march and protest. It’s ironic, but not surprising, that we were protesting for the exact same things being demanded today. The genesis of these civil unrest movements is about social ills, a lack of caring from the power structure, and a deep need to feel significant, relevant, and human.

There’s something to be said for families and communities that suffer and have endured similar experiences together (racism, economic hardship, educational disenfranchisement, incarceration, gerrymandering, etc.). These common experiences unite a community, in an unspoken way, to take control of that which they can — their home, church, and community environments. Home trainin’ was an all-encompassing phrase for being well-grounded in the most important areas: social-emotional intelligence, resiliency, mental acuity, kindness, respect, and honor. 

All movements have a time and a place. Nothing, except hope, can last forever. I’m hopeful that the torch for justice will be carried and not thrown to destroy lives, buildings, and innocent people. Despite the current noise, remain hopeful, our children deserve it.

Dr. Gregory A. Spencer volunteers as a Senior Policy Advisor and Behavioral SuperPowers™ Catalyst with He also serves as Vice President with, a social justice bilingual literacy and parent engagement organization. After surviving a traumatic childhood, Dr. Spencer went on to earn his degree from The University of San Francisco. He has served as a teacher, school principal, school board president, superintendent, elected city commissioner, and as a Legislative Aide in the California State Assembly. Dr. Spencer is an ordained minister who earned his Ph.D. in Traumatology and Crisis Counseling from Monarch Theological Seminary, with courses from MIT. He is a recognized thought leader, best-selling author, and co-author of An American Crisis: Veteran’s Unemployment, Invest in Your Debt, 936 Pennies, How to Close the Credibility Gap, and Discover Your Inner Strength with NY Times best-selling authors, Dr. Stephen R. Covey & Dr. Ken Blanchard. Dr. Spencer has earned many accolades, including being recognized by The White House, the U.S. Senate, and the CA State Legislature.

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