05/08/2012 01:06 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

Making Sacrifices When Change Is Inevitable

If we do not accept change, they will crumble.
If we accept change, they will be torn down.

-Gerardo Mosquera

This is not a story about race, although it may seem so at first. I will leave that reflection for another day. Instead, it is about how a country chooses to embrace and create solutions when faced with something that has impacted each of us personally: what do we choose to do when we can see that not changing will force what we have, to crumble? And, when we can feel in our hearts that change will irretrievably alter what we believe must be held, do we resist change?

I am reminded of the crumbling of Apartheid. Years ago, I traveled to Zimbabwe and South Africa from my home base in Tanzania. I set out across the lower fourth of the African continent as a young, multi-racial working class student. My mother had moved us to Brookline, rescuing us from the bussing crisis that rocked Boston in the early '70s. Most of my exposure to racism up until moving to Africa had constituted #middle class problems of race. My mother had sacrificed much to protect us.

In the late 1980s I wandered into a racial rabbit hole in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe entirely by accident via my fellow travel companion a white exchange student from Wisconsin. We found ourselves stranded, just as dusk was rolling into dark, on the side of the road just outside of town: a not unexpected consequence of hitch hiking through eastern and southern Africa without a known person for thousands of miles. A fancy black car pulled up along side us and an older, white gentleman rolled the window down. He warned us of the danger of being young and out after dark. He identified himself as the mayor of Bulawayo and said he would escort us to his home for dinner and a place to stay. As a parent, I cringe at remembering my reaction: hopping into the car without question, enticed by a warm meal and a bed for the night. I remember that he looked like Santa Claus.

He brought us back to his home and his friends had gathered there. Zimbabwe had just nationalized all privately held land and businesses and redistributed it to poor, black citizens. The majority of whites were removed from power, but that transition was happening more slowly. Bulawayo remained a stronghold of apartheid ideals. The conversation that evening was about the benefits of apartheid, particularly related to the economic security of Zimbabwe. I sat there, self identifying as a Black Jew indoctrinated about the Holocaust, Vietnam and Laos and what happens when power is based on racial or ethnic identity and is not shared. I was "prepared" with years of ideological "education." I was eager to "correct" their thinking, but as a guest, I remained silent.

I learned the most powerful political lesson of my life that night. When one moves beyond theory to the manifestation of political reality in the daily lives of people, those who like their lives as they are, will do, say and believe almost anything to maintain the political reality that supports their lifestyle. And that even when it is obvious that things must change, humans are innately protective of that in which they have invested time, passion, sacrifice and resources.

The white, wealthy gentlemen gathered in that living room in Bulawayo were not talking about race or denigrating the black population because of the color of their skin, racial identity or capacity related to something inherent in their ethnic make-up. They were singularly focused on the economy and upholding the system that supported their families. They chose to support apartheid not because it was fair or good for all on a social or human level, but because they feared what would happen if it was dismantled. Even all of these years later, I am given pause as I read about staggering inflation, crippling unemployment, extreme poverty and a seemingly never ending brain drain from Zimbabwe. If we know things must change, is this what happens when everyone does not choose to participate in that change once it is upon them? Have the successes enjoyed in Cuba, been because of widespread belief in the change? Can the failures be blamed on a lack of true universal participation?

Today while touring old Havana, our Cuban guide shared the quote by the highly respected architect Gerardo Mosquera speaking of the centuries old buildings "If we do not accept change they will fall down, and if we do accept change, they will be torn down." I am sympathetic, highly sensitized to what it may mean to face the dismantling of what you know. In Cuba there is such recent memory of what it was like before the revolution and how change has successfully addressed certain social inequities that even exceptionally well resourced nations like our own have not mastered: universal free education and health care. Yet in order to continue these successes they are facing critical decisions about how to align accepting the benefits of a market economy with ideological principles. What will be torn down?

That night in Bulawayo, after three hours of heavy conversation about upholding Apartheid, the mayor's children came into the room. Their skin was cafe con leche, like my own. His wife, a beautiful chocolate brown woman, then served us dinner. She sat on the arm of his chair and he held her throughout the meal. His desire to uphold a system that would maintain her second class citizenry, was less important to them than this system upholding their capacity to provide for their family; land, food, money for fuel superceded racial equality. His wife said "if there is work and food and education for my family, I am happy." Her grace, elegance of speech, deep connection to basic human principles and unquestionable personal power continues to guide my imagery of what it means to be a woman.

At ideological levels, it is too easy to take sides. It is too easy to see clarity and point out the "obvious" dangers and/or benefits of maintaining the status quo or change. When political decisions are brought down to the level of each individual human it becomes harder to see the clear path.

What would each of us do if possessed of the knowledge and power that without change things will fall apart, and that with change, things will be taken apart? Where can each of us imagine a situation in our own lives when we have had to stand in this place? What choice did we make? What choice would we make? When the paradigm is two options without control over the outcome, the Cuban fervor to conquer their right to make, observe and self-correct their own mistakes, feels more universally human than isolated ideological belief.

How many of us would be willing to give up our way of life, that which comforted us and what was familiar to us, in order to benefit the greater good? Would you hand over your car, your own bed? Would you hand over your grandmother's land, your grandfather's desk, your great, great, great aunt's favorite book handed down through generations? Would you accept someone rewriting your family history? Could you willingly allow for what was given to you to be kept and held, to be put through the process of change without assurance of what would become of those things, even your family identity?

As those who were raised in the US, even those of us with the very least, we still have a keen sense of what belongs to us, what feels rightfully ours. The more politicized of us may have given ideological thought to sacrificing for the greater good. But in truth, I know few people within the US who would stand by as someone forced their hand to give up those things they deem most personal, most private. How many of us are willing to give up that which brings us at least familiarity, if not comfort in order to bravely accept a change that we cannot even imagine?

To be here in Cuba means to exchange ideas with people who have sacrificed what was familiar. In post-revolutionary Cuba, these are people who are old enough to remember lives lived of incredible means and privilege and who now proudly identify as communist. They are people who despite travel abroad choose to return home. They are people who yearn to educate anyone who asks about the centuries old history of revolution. They are people who have created a superior educational system to train its people to be leaders in engineering, economics and medicine that fuel the capacity and brain trusts throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. And yet, they are on the precipice of having to face new change: rights for gays, broader access to authority for Afro-Cubans, a required infusion of capital from ideologically diverse sources. While they decide, what will permanently crumble? What will they have to choose to tear down as they accept what must change?