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The Bridge Over Troubled Waters

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My parents were from humble beginnings. “Ma,” as I called her, was from North Carolina, and dad heralded from West Virginia. They met in Washington, D.C., at a time when it was common for African-Americans to leave rural towns to pursue jobs in major cities. Both were subject to Jim Crow laws that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites. Neither achieved a college degree. However, both had a strong work ethic and common sense, which they passed on to me, in part by making sure I got a good education.

Sadly, neither one lived long enough to see our first African-American president take the oath of office – twice – but I think they would have been equally surprised to see their daughter join that president on March 7 in Selma, Alabama.

We were there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day in 1965 when civil rights marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge were savagely beaten by the authorities. The events of Bloody Sunday led to the passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signaling the beginning of the end of racial discrimination at the ballot box.

Standing in Selma, I felt the energy and the history. I wondered what my mother, then 19 years old, and my father, 29, would have thought of the changes that were sparked by that walk across the bridge.

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I’m sure they would say that the change has been remarkable. After all, their daughter was representing a major corporation, Johnson & Johnson, as part of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which comprises 675 African-American state legislators representing more than 65 million diverse constituents.

But they would also say that the change is incomplete. Selma itself, by all outward appearances is a town that is still struggling. Income disparity and the lack of economic opportunity permeate the streets of this town and the dilapidated homes, which appear little changed from 1965. And beyond Selma, our United States of America has been rocked in 2015 by more protests and bloodshed over racism.

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A senior from Selma High School beautifully articulated our hopes for the future. For me, it was a time of introspection to understand that the fight for freedom and justice is not over. As this historic occasion has been marked by months of events and celebrations, kicked off by the movie Selma and continuing with the re-enactment of the bridge crossing, we do well to remember those who came before us.

And yet there is plenty of work to be done. My generation is the bridge to a future where the equality envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is realized. We are the bridge to mentoring our younger talent so they know they are great regardless of their circumstances. We are the bridge for economic justice and educational opportunities.

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In health care, we are the bridge to providing equal access to treatment, eradicating health care disparities, and addressing chronic disease through health and wellness education.

A few days after the Selma event, I returned to New Brunswick for my company’s 37th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance hosted by the J&J employee resource group, Helping Our Neighbors with Our Resources or H.O.N.O.R. In his address to the group J&J Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky connected the cause of civil rights to the enduring mission of Johnson & Johnson as embodied in Our Credo.

Sitting there, I thought again of mommy and daddy, and how proud they would be to know that their baby girl, through her role at J&J, is leading with a purpose – not only witnessing and living history, but even making it.

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