When the Unspeakable Needs to be Spoken

May 25, 2022

“It is gun control, but not only gun control. It is broken masculinity. It is exposure to violence. It is mental health. It is systemic disparity.” These were the words uttered by my good friend, Pastor
Spencer Sweeting the day after the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018. Those words prompted a conversation between Gary Olson, CEO at ESSA Bank and myself. We started and ended the conversation with the same question, “What can we do to prevent this tragedy in our community?”

To begin, let’s identify what the solution is not. The solution is not left against right. It is not a Facebook debate or political rhetoric. It is not finger pointing. It is not just shallow thoughts and undirected prayers. It is not normalizing the behavior. It is not projection of personal beliefs. It is not division. It is not more negativity. It is clearly not hate.

The solution is community. Now, this can be read as Pollyanna-ish, hippie love, or pie in the sky thinking. Please do not give in to the temptation to roll your eyes before continuing on. Back to community. What is our community? It is our students, schools, businesses, faith-based groups and non-profits. It is our parks, streets, trees, and mountains. It is the people: those that have
generational roots, along with those that arrived yesterday. It is a culture of caring, of coming together and growing individually and collectively. It is the solution.

I have two children and I selfishly want to protect them. As a community leader, I feel an obligation to protect our community’s children, thus prompting this post and a course of action to follow. Our community has amazing resources, but we must come together in order to utilize them. Let’s break down the issue into segments: broken masculinity; violence; mental health; gun laws; and systemic disparity.

Broken masculinity. We are a fatherless society. The American male is conditioned to be aggressive, emotionless, and violent. From a young age, boys are taught to avoid vulnerability. Hide your emotions, except for anger. Anger is only condemned when it comes in the form of extreme violence and abuse. Mild violence falls into one of the following categories: ignored, socially acceptable, embraced or encouraged. Boys are often taught to be strong, but without compassion; competitive, but without mercy; chauvinistic, without love or respect for women. This swells to heights of abuse and violence that leaves us asking the question, “What happened to our little boys?” This is the American male and it is broken.

Violence. I would actually categorize the issue as sensationalized violence. Sexualized violence fills the internet and contributes to the porn industry, also tainting boys’ understanding of masculinity and healthy relationships. Graphic violence in video games, movies, and sports has confused our senses into unhealthy craving when we should be provoked to show compassion. Any hint of concern receives negative backlash and perpetuated conditioning. There is a photo from my childhood that shows my cousin and I squaring off to fight to settle an argument. We were probably eight or nine years old. I remember images like this from my adolescence, where friends prepared to fight, and were even encouraged to do so by the adult males in our lives. Settle your differences with violence, with your fists. That’s what we were taught.

Two decades ago, I was in high school when the shooting at Columbine occurred. It shocked the country but maybe it shouldn’t have. In 2010, an Indie rock band called Foster the People came out with a hit song called Pumped Up Kicks. This song was written from the perspective of a troubled teen with homicidal thoughts. The most repeated line in the song was, “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.” It was trendy and had a good beat so no one explored the lyrics too far. Or maybe it was no longer shocking to see a teenage boy respond violently to the world that he lived in.

Mental Health. Gary Olson turned me onto this topic several years ago. Community leaders know that we must address behavioral health, defined as both mental health and drug and alcohol misuse. The problem is out there. It is marginalized until the unthinkable occurs. Then, everyone wants to blame mental health. The majority of the time, we suppress and “victim-blame” those that struggle with these topics. One out of five adults suffer from mental health illness each year. In Monroe County nearly 10% of the population suffers from a substance abuse disorder (pre-pandemic). We cannot ignore this as a contributing factor to mass shootings. In the same breath, we cannot misdirect the conversation to blame only this factor without further action and care.

Gun laws. This gains a lot of attention in the wake of a school shooting but loses traction after a few weeks. I encourage advocacy for responsible amendments that protect people while providing reasonable and responsible use. There is a compromise and medium that could curb some of the misuse of firearms.

Systemic disparity. The haves and the have-nots. Institutional racism. Sexism. Us against them. The commonality is that there is a strong element of hate laced within each of these agendas. The burden of hate is one that I struggle to understand. These systemic disparities continue to confuse the identity and self-worth of our future generations. As I visit high school and college classes, I see the evidence of a generation that is scarred from all of the topics listed within this document. It saddens me. When I think about it for more than a second, my eyes swell with tears. I cry. I weep out of concern for our community. It breaks my heart. But the only benefit of a broken heart is that it can be worn on both sleeves. We need more than poetic acknowledgements. We need action…from our community…for our community…for every community.

So…let’s talk about action. Our community is full of resources (call PoconoInfo at 570-517-3954 if you or someone you know needs help). Some need more attention. Some need more funding.
A call to action, attention, and funding is needed to support these great services. My hope is to centralize and mobilize. I would like to see schools promote restorative justice, the violence and abuse prevention programs of Women’s Resources more adequately funded, along with the strongest opposition to hate crimes, “othering”, racism, sexism, and any other -ism. I believe
coordination between our community leaders and the schools will encourage courageous conversations on the previously mentioned disparities within the systems. I want to see behavioral health less stigmatized and better treated. I hope for a day when compassion, mercy, and concern are offered over judgment and disdain. I long to see neighbors caring for their neighbors and genuinely asking, “How are you?”. One caring adult makes a difference in a child’s life. I know this is possible. I know I need to be more intentional. We must not give up hope. We must continue the work until there are no more mass shootings, or better yet no shootings at all.

Join me. Join us. Join this community.
To the families and communities of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, the east side neighborhood of Buffalo, NY and the Taiwanese American church in Laguna Woods, CA… I am sorry I have
not acted sooner.

Michael Tukeva


Pocono Mountains United Way