Honestly, it is rare that I see 2:49 a.m. these days. By the end of a typical day, I am spent; having given it all that I have, and there is immense satisfaction in that toil. “Fearless for Change” is our mantra, and today’s activities were anchored in that mission. Although middle-of-the-night sessions are uncommon, here I am, just before 3 a.m., writing some thoughts that kept me awake.

We all recognize that our lives are forever changed by a worldwide pandemic, but for all we see on the news and in our social feeds, there is a silent victim that our collective conscience isn’t considering. Our human services communities are beginning to get the first glimpses of what the future may hold.

After a mere four months of modest isolation, the true silent victim is beginning to appear in our communities. The silent victim is disproportionately poor, more likely to be our fellow Oklahomans of color, and they are suffering more than those of us with a steady source of food and a roof over our heads could imagine.

While our systems made the proper choice to protect ourselves from a viral killer, we made the unconscious decision to trade short-term protection for the unknown that is slowly being revealed. The trade that we made is what keeps me awake.

Presenting in our communities within the last couple of weeks are children who have never been hungry before yet today are searching for a meal. Kids who once were selecting backpacks to carry books for the upcoming school session are now asking for bags to pack up their belongings to move out of their apartments and into their cars. Reports of child abuse and neglect are down 45%, not because family stress has reduced, but because children who were once monitored by their teachers are now at home all day with their abusers.

Over the generations, our society weaved a fabric of safe spaces — schools, churches and community centers that created a patchwork of places that monitored the safety of children. The fabric of our society, as thin as it has been for many of our neighbors, is now failing for those who cannot afford for it to fail, and the consequences are deep, heartbreaking and generational.

The opportunity to get ahead of a coming wave of disaster requires truly visionary thinking, authentic humility, deep compassion for our fellow man, unprecedented speed to action as well as collaboration and forgiveness that my lifetime has not seen. We as a community must put down our swords and our shields and unite to rise to an unprecedented challenge.

The social conversation pits neighbor against neighbor over singular issues yet provides no understanding that the complexity of those issues that might extend beyond their impact to those arguing them.

The complexity is impossible to discuss in 280 characters, yet leaders are forced to communicate with this brevity. It does not seem possible to build consensus, engage in proper debate and find viable, unified solutions in today’s world, yet it is what is desperately needed to serve the needs of the silent victims.

Servant leaders who are making decisions with no right answers must seek input, and those providing input must do so with empathy and civility, understanding that in today’s world it is tough to discern comments that come from a pure heart from those that are written to divide. We must resist all temptation to vilify the man in the arena, because without him, the arena is empty.

These middle-of-the-night notes are written only to raise the red flag for our communities. These months have brought a depth of trauma that will likely thrust generations into a cycle of poverty that we can’t simply address later. Children and families are suffering, and we must unite to solve this together. Without each other, we have already lost the fight, and the silent victim will be the first to fall.

Justin Brown is Oklahoma secretary of Human Services and Early Childhood Initiatives.

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