The Truth About the “Arc of the Moral Universe”

nate woods

 by Stacey S. Joseph March 7, 2020

This morning, I am deeply saddened.  There is something still lingering.  And yet again, I am reminded of the truth about the “arc of the moral universe.”

I did not know Nate Woods.  Like many of us I learned of his story via social media posts requesting a show of support via petition for a stay of execution on his behalf.  Woods was convicted in 2005 of capital murder, but there were questions about his culpability, his representation at trial, and his co-defendant, Kerry Spencer, the confessed murderer, said Woods was innocent. “Nate is absolutely innocent,” said Spencer, who also is on Alabama’s death row. “That man didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody just like I didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody that day, period.” 

The social media petition surpassed 100,000 signatures. However, the stay was denied by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who refused to stop the execution, stating that Woods was an “integral participant in the intentional murder of three officers.”  She also made it a point in her statement to describe Nate Woods as a “known drug dealer.”  In yet another statement Thursday evening after the Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution, Ivey said she would not step in. She said: “This is not a decision that I take lightly, but I firmly believe in the rule of law and that justice must be served.”

Three weeks ago I sat in the dine-in theater with a dear friend.  Both of us with tears in our eyes watching “Just Mercy.” The compelling story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on death row, and Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney on what evolved into a life-long mission and legacy fighting for equality in our country’s criminal justice system. BRYAN STEVENSON FOR HARVARD LAW, MONTGOMERY AL OCT 2018
It’s been thirty-five years since Bryan Stevenson began his meaningful journey in the fight for true justice, and yet, in the name of “justice,” another innocent black man has been put to death.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Eleven years ago President Obama helped to popularize this known Martin Luther King Jr. quote.  Obama loved this quote so much that he had it woven into the rug in the Oval Office.  He also often used the quote to temper the “audacity of hope” that he and his presidency inspired, using the quote to remind all of us who placed our unwavering confidence in his message of change, that meaningful and lasting change, does not come down to one single moment.

Like Obama, I have long since loved the the “arc of the moral universe” quote.  I have always asserted that I am a lover of words; and there is something about those words, that quote in its fullness, that has always settled deep within me.  However, my love for the quote has itself been tempered; both by the fact that far too few are able to draw the connection between Dr. King’s words and the original utterance of the quote, and the deeper, more true, and thorough meaning behind it; and by the fact that the sentiments behind the use of the quote by so many in America, often times feels to me like a micro-invalidation of what far too many black people know to be true.

I learned about the original utterance of this famous quote over twenty years ago.  I was in college and had to declare a major and had already fallen in love with Philosophy but knowing that my mother thought I should become a lawyer, I contemplated a major in Political Science.  My academic advisor asked me a defining question – “What is a basic belief that you hold about the nature of mankind?”  After a moment of reflection, I looked down and answered – “I think I believe, no, I know that I believe that people are inherently good.”  He looked at me curiously and then said – “Hmmm,  and why when you answered did you look down as if you were disappointed to say so.” I had no answer for him at the time, but it has since become clear to me why. As I walked out of his office still uncertain about my major, he called out to me – “Hey, (pause) you are a Transcendentalist.”  Shortly thereafter, I came to terms with the fact that I did not want to be a lawyer, and I declared myself a Philosophy major.  I quickly became particularly interested in Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 30s in the eastern United States.death-row  It arose as a reaction to protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality at the time.  A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of nature and people, accompanied by the belief that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual.  The philosophy emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism, and that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.

During my time studying transcendentalism, I was introduced to the works and writings of a man named Theodore Parker; an American Transcendentalists, reforming minister and abolitionist.  Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: “peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor, “though none became a dominant factor in his experience” with the exception of his antislavery views.  Parker predicted the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause in stating:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the cure and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And this quote, the “arc of the moral universe” quote, is one that Dr. King used many times, including during the march from Selma which began on March 7, 1965, exactly fifty-five years ago today, and a century after Theodore Parker’s first utterance of this famous and poignant contemplation. the scales

The truth about this quote and the reason why my love for it over the course of my life has been tempered, is because the repeated use of and reference to this quote seems to always carry with it the pervasive social hazard of romantic and magical thinking when it comes to social change.  It carries with it this reliance on something that is preordained.  I mean, after all, if in fact the arc of the moral universe ineluctably bends toward justice, there is little reason or even motivation for [any or all of ] us to do our part to work tirelessly toward justice. If it is only a matter of time or cosmic pre-determination, then to some extent, we’ve been let off the hook and we can continue, like Gov. Kay Ivey, to rest on objective empiricism and deference to past masters, and call it justice.

And this is why I am deeply saddened.  Because two centuries ago Theodore Parker uttered a prediction about the success of the abolitionist and social change;  and a century after that, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered with even more hope than Parker, a prediction about the success of the Civil Rights Movement and social change; then twenty years after King, Bryan Stevenson began his journey of doing the “uncomfortable thing” in working tirelessly to change our country’s legal system; and twenty-four years afterward, America’s first African American president convinced us to have “hope” in a “change we can believe in.”  I am deeply saddened because after the execution of Nate Woods, I have to ask myself the same question that each of these men through their life’s work and legacy were essentially also posing about the “the arc of the moral universe.”:

“How long will it take to see social justice?”

I did not know Nate Woods but I have read that among other things, he was contemplative, and he enjoyed writing poetry.  Below is a poem that Nate wrote. He gave it to his sister Pamela, and asked that she share it with us – “in case” the state of Alabama murdered him.

nate w


The Man He Killed

Had they and I but met
At some old residence in Ensely
Had they put their badges
Before their criminal affiliations.
Claiming to be Law
Claiming to serve and protect
Didn’t forget to call us niggers
White men’s Mentality
Police Brutality
Bent on beating my colored life away.

And now, the kith and kin at once start preparing the funerals.
The cries and laments of the sympathizers are over and they are calm now.
The enemies are jubilant.
The kinsmen are busy dividing the estate –
and as for the dead man, he lies entrapped by his own deeds.

Such is the reality of mortal life.
The cause of the death is severe indeed,
and, by and large, we fail to realize its gravity.
Involved as we are in our daily pursuits,
we seldom hint at death and even when we do, we just bring it in as a piece of conversation.

This will not avail us.
Instead we ought to clear our hearts from the thought of all other pursuits and think of death as if it were facing us.
This realization can be brought by recalling
how you prepared the funerals of your friends and relatives
and bore them on a cot to grave then interred them in the grave.

Imagine their faces,
their high stations in life;
and then reflect how earth would have disfigured the beauty of their faces,
their bodies would have disintegrated into pieces,
how they departed leaving behind their children orphans,
their wives widows, and their relatives mourning.
Their goods, their properties, their apparels — all left behind,
and then let the realization dawn on you,
that one day you are inevitably going to meet this doom.

How those who lie dead and still today
used to raise laughter in the company of their friends!
How deeply were they engrossed in the pleasures of the world.
They lay in the dust today!
How remote the thought of “DEATH” was from their minds!
They have become its prey now.
They were intoxicated by the bubbling passions of their youth!
Today their teeth lay scattered, the foot lays broken; the worms are eating into their tongue; their bodies are infested with mite!
How frank was their laugh! Today their teeth must have fallen!

What plans had they conceived!
How they entertained thought of making provisions for years ahead!
And yet, death was hovering over their heads.
The final day of their lives had come,
but they knew not that tonight they would be no more.

Such is mine own case.
I am busy planning my life today.
Little do I know what will happen to me tomorrow.

No living being knows the time of its end.
Man makes provisions for a hundred years,
yet, knows not that he might die the next minute.




Stacey Joseph is a writer, published poet, and social change provocateur. She is also the Founder of    ImpactEDI – a social benefit company that works toward the attainment of equity through diversity, inclusion, and creating safe spaces of belonging.

Five Steps to Help Children Develop and Maintain a Growth Mindset This School Year

growth mindset

PNG image-FCE47D3E67EB-1by Stacey J. Sage – September 9, 2019 

Last year, my son hit an academic rough patch.  As far as grades were concerned, he was still doing well, but in Spanish he seemed especially discouraged.  He hurried through homework disinterested, and while he achieved decent grades on some of his tests and quizzes, he often made careless or silly mistakes which caused his grades to slip.  The inconsistency in his achievements completely discouraged him and because he typically establishes mastery of most subjects with ease, his attitude toward Spanish leaned in the direction of defeat.

I received a midday email from his teacher in reference to his “attitude.”  In response, I requested  that we speak in person.  During our scheduled meeting she told me that there were times when my son seemed to be “negative,”and that she believed his “negativity” to be the cause of the decline in his grades.  When I asked her to give me an example of a time when my son displayed “negativity,” she shared the following incident:  She witnessed my son fiddling with something in his backpack and “in order to bring his attention back to the lesson” she called on him saying “…I bet you can’t conjugate the next verb.”  He asked her what was the next verb and to her surprise, he was able to conjugate the verb correctly. In a moment of pride (and a little bit of middle school gloating) he said to her “see, I got it right,” and she felt that was “disrespectful.”  What she neglected to share, and what my son later informed me of during my check-in with him about the incident was that after he said “see, I got it right,” his Spanish teacher responded saying: “But I bet you won’t do good on the next test.” My son went from achieving a B+ on the previous test to a C on the follow up test. That C was the beginning of a roller coaster effect (grades wise)  that would leave my son feeling discouraged and disappointed in himself.  His teacher continued to draft weekly emails to me.  They culminated in a very smug email she’d written to let me know that my son’s overall grade had “yet again” dipped because of his inconsistent grades on quizzes, his “inability to master Spanish” and his “defeatist attitude” and that she believed that part of the problem was that he was not “punished” for his low grades nor his previous behavior towards her.

Through a series of conversations with my son, trying to figure out how to help him, he shared with me that his teacher had habitually embarrassed him and other students in front of the entire class when they didn’t perform well.  He openly shared that his decline in grades along with her chiding [whether he had gotten the answers right when called on or when he didn’t do as well on tests] made him feel like there was no point in trying.  The next morning I went to school for an impromptu meeting.  Learning of children being teased gets my goat every time! Especially when the child being teased is mine. During the meeting, among other things that were discussed, his Spanish teacher said that while she didn’t mean to embarrass him by teasing him, that in her class “this is how we do.”  Shocked and angered by her admitting to teasing him, and struck by the absurdity of her admittance to her classroom environment being one where teasing was “how [they] do;” and the convenient use of such colloquialism, I told her that she would 1. need to apologize to my son and 2. that he would no longer be her student.  On so many levels her behavior and teaching method was wrong, and certainly inconsistent with what I and the school believed to be a healthy learning environment. Unfortunately, the one thing that she was right about was that after having done good in Spanish without much effort and then having his grades slip, my son had begun to exhibit and cling onto an attitude of defeat which left him feeling like he was “just no good at Spanish.”

Carol Dweck is a Stanford University Professor of Psychology most known for her work on the mindset psychological trait.  She popularized the idea of mindsets by comparing varying beliefs about where our abilities come from.  Carol Dweck and her colleagues became interested in students’ attitudes about failure. They noticed that after a failure, some students rebounded while other students seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behavior of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.

A mindset refers to whether you believe qualities such as intelligence, talent, and mastery are fixed or changeable traits.  People with a ‘fixed’ mindset believe that these qualities are inborn, fixed, and unchangeable.  Mindset also orients the way in which we handle or adapt to situations, and the way we sort out what is going on and what (if anything)  we should do about it. Our mindsets can also help us recognize opportunities, or they can keep us trapped in self-defeating, self-sabotaging cycles.

getty_rf_photo_of_boy_doing_homeworkWhen someone has a fixed mindset, they spend more time documenting their intelligence or talent(s) instead of developing them.  They also have the tendency to believe that talent alone creates success, and that effort plays a very minimal part, and they’re wrong.  A fixed mindset supports the belief that our ability is innate. As such, failure can be unsettling because it makes us doubt how good we are.  However, when children have a growth mindset, they search for missing links that may be keeping them from completing or mastering a task.  They grasp that they can at any time improve or build upon skills.  They find ways to ‘train their brain’ to get better.  When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them a stronger student, and they see the way forward past their academic challenges. Therefore, they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

There are several ways in which we can better support children through their academic challenges.  Unfortunately, my son’s teacher was was not committed to the process.  Allowing her ego to get the better of her, and indoctrinating pessimism into her classroom atmosphere, she explained repeatedly that “teasing” was how she motivated students.  At home, while I had the best of intentions  telling my son that there was “no reason” he couldn’t ace Spanish,”  I was adding a certain level of pressure on him by repeatedly reassuring him how naturally smart he was.  Suffice it say that teasing, shaming, embarrassing, punishing, and pressuring children into doing well, does not grow a growth mindset.  Thankfully, his new Spanish teacher got it!

After doing some online research, I found a live online Spanish class for my son.  During the first online session, the new teacher Mr. Luis simply had a conversation with my son, incorporating some of the materials from his former class lessons and tests.  Ten minutes before the end of the class he asked my son what he thought about Spanish and my son said “I used to think I was good at it but now I just don’t think so.”  Mr. Luis responded saying “hmmm, before you began learning Spanish did you believe you’d ever be able to speak it…did you believe that one day you would be telling someone in Spanish – “Tengo doce años y estoy en sexto grado. Me gustan las matemáticas y mi deporte favorito es el fútbol.”  My son said “no” and then Mr. Luis added, “you ever notice how sometimes there are things we think we can’t do but really can.”

The best teachers get that intelligence, critical thinking, and mastery are skills that are cultivated through encouragement, persistent effort and sustained periods of hard work. It’s imperative that parents get this too, and that teachers and parents in partnership, help students see this as well.   One essential way in which we can help children develop the growth mindset is to change the language of a child’s self-talk.  Self-talk is the voice of our mindsets and Dweck identifies self-talk as one of the key elements to how mindsets are established and maintained.  Below,  are five steps that parents and educators can take that will help shift a child’s mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

1. Explain to your child/student the dynamics of mindsets.  You know that old adage ‘knowing is half the battle’?  It definitely holds truth with regard to explaining the nature of fixed and growth mindsets to children. Understanding the dynamics behind the way we tick, help us tick even better.  When I began talking to my son about mindsets and how they work, he was able to make connections between his mindset with regard to not just school, but sports, and friendships, and building success in those areas.

 2. Become aware of how mindset is expressed in thoughts.   When you encourage a child or student to take on a challenge, pay attention to the initial response.  Do they respond in a way that is overly critical and demoralizing?  I.e. “It’s useless, I’m just no good at that!” “Everybody else is so much smarter than me!” “I’ll only end in an epic fail.”  And what about you. When your child presents you with a challenge they’re having, how do you respond. Perhaps you’ve said – “You’re not a science person so it’s going to be hard for you.” or “You’ll be fine, you’re a smart kid.”mindset  It’s crucial that we pay attention to the thought that is expressed behind the words.  What is the response expressing about the child, the challenge, the overall experience, and the mindset behind it.  It’s a good idea to ask children and even ourselves “what is the thought behind what I just said and what does it say about how I am thinking.  This can help verbalize internal/self-talk and help change it if need be.

3. Clarify for/with your child that they always have a choice.
This is a key area for adults to pay attention to.  Our years of experience can sometimes convince us that we have the best solution.  But children are driven by a sense of autonomy.  It’s empowering for children to know that they are in control of their self-talk, and that they can choose how they think about their abilities and skills.  It also boosts self-esteem when children understand that they can choose how to approach a challenge.  Our job is to support them in discovering and executing their individual process.

4. Actively use the growth mindset to talk to yourself, and help your child get in the habit of  doing the same. As parents/teachers, there can be a tendency to assess and over assess and even incorrectly assess children’s abilities and skills. So much so that we can forget that children are still developing; their brains are still in training.  Instead of thinking of their failures as proof that they are not skilled or competent, or will always struggle in a specific area, and rather than make predictions based on prior challenges, coach children to see failures as an opportunity to learn.  Help children use their challenges or failures as a way to pinpoint what doesn’t work for them, and figure out strategies that do work for them.  Helping them understand that the way they talk to themselves is important.  It’s even a good idea to have a visual reminder of what fixed mindsets sound like vs. what growth mindsets sound like.  Create a bulletin board with fixed mindsets such as “I’m just no good at math.”  paired with growth mindsets and self-talk like “There’s something I’m not getting.” “How can I work on this?”

5. Take Action. Once children clearly understand mindsets and get how they work, how they’re able to determine which mindset currently influences their inner voice, understand that mindset and the type of self-talk we use is a choice, and take action by learning how to talk to themselves from a growth mindset perspective, they will be able to apply what is revealed in the research of mindsets.  Rather than avoiding challenges as potential avenues for failure, they will be able to pursue academic and personal challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.  As parents and educators, once we do the work of shifting mindsets, we will place less importance on outcome, and shift our focus, support, and even praise to the process of growth.

Whether at home or in the classroom, teaching children to develop a growth mindset isn’t a quick and simple process.  However, the return on your work is rewarding and lasting.  Find teachable moments where you can easily pinpoint the fixed and growth mindsets at work, and allow children to make their own assessment of the process and outcome relative to both.  Be sure to check yourself to see if you are modeling optimism or pessimism for your child or student. Whether a person is optimistic or pessimistic can often be picked up by children.  I find little tweaks in the way I encourage my son is shifting his mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Rather than emphasize how smart he is, I talk to him about how hard he works at things.  When I hear him speaking negative or demoralizing self-talk, I process it with him. I ask him to think about what the end goal is.Dads-on-Duty-welcoming-school-kids-first-day  Recently, I talked to him about the developing brain and how at his age, he is actually feeding his brain the things it will come to repeat and know.  Do you want to train your brain to think and come to know that you’re “just no good at this” or that you can figure it out.  I’ve even began doing visualization work with him where I ask him to picture himself running a marathon, and on the sidelines are all the people who love and support him.  We’re all rooting for him and cheering him on with shouts of encouragement and signs.  I ask him to shift his focus from the finish line which is further ahead, and turn to look at one or a few signs being held up on the sidelines that stand out to him.  I have him sit for a minute or two with that visualization.  When I see the muscles in his face start to relax and his breathing changes from quick and shallow breaths and becomes deep and regulated, I ask him, what does the sign(s) read?  That’s when he usually smiles and says, “Okay mom I get it.”  I then usually ask, “well tell me, describe it to me, what does the sign read.” He used to almost always visualize a big sign with red block letters that read: “You Can Do This!”  Now, he tends to visualize signs that read: STICK WITH IT!  KEEP PUSHIN’! GIVING UP IS NOT AN OPTION!


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