Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Leading with love

How can Initiatives of Change best contribute to healing the wounds of America’s history of racism? This legacy affects each one of us; it corrodes every aspect of our national life. The election season has revealed the depth of healing that is needed. According to a recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 49% of Americans believe that racism is “a big problem.”

I’ve just returned from Chicago where I spent two days with 30 racial healing practitioners convened by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. All of them lead organizations that do courageous healing and equity work in their cities across the country. This extraordinary group – African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American and European American – has come together periodically for six or seven years to facilitate healing sessions at the foundation’s annual America Healing conferences. It is a deeply moving and inspiring experience to be part of this team. We have become quite a close-knit family, with an unusual level of trust, honesty and vulnerability.

Over the past six months I have collaborated with Mike Wenger to collect highlights of the work of these practitioners as well as lessons from truth and reconciliation efforts in several US communities and in Australia and Canada. I first met Mike when he was deputy director of President Clinton’s One America initiative on race. Our survey and the Chicago meeting are part of the preparation for the launch of a national Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) process.

TRHT differs from many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in several ways. The emphasis is not on identifying victims and assigning blame. The goal is to understand and to overcome the false notion of a human hierarchy based on race. Its visionary leader, Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for TRHT and a senior advisor at the Kellogg Foundation, says, “A lot of people want to focus on the consequences of racism but we want to go to the belief system. We want to keep focused on the desired outcome: the equal value of every human being.” There are so many experiences of oppression, but this is not the “oppression Olympics.” We must go beyond merely focusing on our own group.  

The TRHT vision is huge (as Bernie Sanders might say). It will be a multi-year effort that must include every sector. Already, more than 100 organizations and thought leaders have signed on. Vital for its success, it seems to me, will be the full engagement of those whose views have been shaped by very different life experiences. For example, it must welcome the contribution of more socially conservative Americans as well as business leaders.      

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cautions against “liberal arrogance  the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.”  As a self-confessed liberal he writes, “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

A more conservative columnist, Ross Douthat wrote of the current political scene: “On the one hand there are liberals determined to regard Trumpism as almost exclusively motivated by racial and cultural resentments, with few legitimate economic grievances complicating the morality play. From this perspective, the fact that Trump’s G.O.P. has finally consolidated, say, a once-Democratic area like Appalachia is almost a welcome relief: At last all the white racists are safely in the other party, and we don’t have to cater to them anymore.

“On the other hand, there are left-wingers who regard Trump’s support among erstwhile Democrats as a sign that liberalism has badly failed some of its natural constituents, and who fear that a Democratic coalition that easily crushes Trump without much white working-class support will simply write off their struggles as no more than the backward and bigoted deserve.”

However misguided or alarming its expression, the rise of populism in the US and in Europe reveals deep frustration and pain that political establishments have failed to address. As Douthat writes, liberals across the world see “a widening gulf between their increasingly cosmopolitan parties and an increasingly right-leaning native working class.”

The Trump phenomenon, while deplorable, highlights this reality. An effective TRHT process must speak a language that connects with groups who feel their voices are not being heard.

IofC is a partner in the TRHT process which will roll out publicly in 2017. Our pioneering work of honest conversation and racial healing in Richmond can be an important resource. Of particular interest is our track record of enabling communities to walk together through their shared history and to connect with unlikely allies across political, religious, class and racial divides.   

The group in Chicago recognized that the American story is complex and defies easy stereotyping. There are evils that must be confronted and acknowledged. But we should be cautious about seeking any one "truth." Truth does not belong exclusively to any one political or cultural viewpoint. We are all on a journey of discovery. In the words of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

In this era of rapid demographic, cultural and economic change, anxiety is natural. And while much of this change is inevitable and may ultimately be positive, no change feels good to those who fear that they will be left behind. A TRHT process must show how the belief in human hierarchy hurts all Americans how all Americans will benefit from overcoming it. 

Above all, as Gail Christopher reminds us, “We must lead with love."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Building a container

History shows that revolution is hard work. The founders of this country, having ousted the British, fought bitterly among themselves over state and federal jurisdiction. And their descendants had to endure a bloody civil war and a century of racial segregation before true democracy was achieved. 

Bernie Sanders has inspired millions with his radical vision of a more equitable America, but has yet to articulate a strategy to achieve it. In 2008, Barack Obama swept to victory on a wave of hope and a belief that this nation could set a new course, no longer bound by outworn concepts of race. But we seem more divided than when he took office. In an earlier decade, the “Reagan Revolution” called for a country less constricted by government regulation and more rooted in individual freedom and responsibility, a "shining city on a hill;" yet under his administration the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 and Americans are still in deep disagreement about government's proper role. 

The difficulties facing social change efforts are evident globally. The Arab Spring that began with so much energy and optimism has not proved sustainable. South Africa is discovering that ending apartheid has not ended racism or economic inequity. Countries of Eastern Europe, liberated not long ago from the grip of the Soviet Union, are erecting fences to block migrants and are retreating to narrow nationalism (as is most of the continent).   

So what kind of leadership is needed for effective, long-lasting efforts for change?  

Syngman Rhee, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, escaped as a young man from North Korea, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and devoted his life to reconciliation. He highlighted one key factor: “However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

Hugh O’Doherty, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says the key question is how to create that container. He told a group of aspiring community facilitators in Richmond, Virginia, that many of the biggest challenges facing society require adaptive change. Technical challenges can be solved by experts but adaptive challenges require new learning and new behavior. “There is no promised land, " he warned. "There are lots of snake oil salesmen. There is no road map. It can feel profoundly dangerous.” People are always looking for a leader, for an authority figure. The leadership challenge is how to connect people to a purpose that will make them willing to take the risk of moving out of the status quo and staying in the “learning zone.” An effective facilitator of change must be a “non-anxious presence when all there is is anxiety.” 

Staying with this metaphor of the container and the demands of leadership, a few further points occur to me. 

A strong container requires everyone to take responsibility. We cannot look to one leader to show the way, however visionary and persuasive he or she may be. As Syngman Rhee put it, "One stick does not make a strong fire." 

Nor can we be content to point the finger of blame. It has been said that the most reactionary people are those who demand change in others yet refuse to take an honest look at their own attitudes and behaviors. We all have work to do. 

The container must be built to last. Millennials demonstrate passion, compassion and creativity. They sometimes show less willingness to invest in long-term commitments. Successful economic and social revolutions are usually the product of decades of patient, persistent work.     

The container must be a place of welcome. It must be flexible enough to include potential allies who bring different life experiences. At times it may be intensely uncomfortable. But the most-needed reforms in our communities require courage and trust-based collaboration by individuals who have the vision to call out the best in others.   

The container must be able to nurture the inner life. My former rector, Bob Hetherington, was among the thousands of students who traveled to Alabama in 1965 to support the campaign for civil rights. “Those were heady days,” he recalls. “But the forces of darkness were stronger than we imagined. We thought that if we worked harder we could bring in the Kingdom of God. People got burned out. We stopped saying our prayers. We did not renew our spirits.” 

By contrast, Charles Marsh writes in The Beloved Community, that in 1956, following threats to his life, King prayed at his kitchen table to "that power that can make a way of out no way." "Faced with the intransigence of white 
resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required." In those early days the movement "pursued a form of discipleship that was life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”

Vision, persistence, courage, self-awareness, and a spirit of inclusion:all these qualities and more are needed to build the container. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The quiet inner drama

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights the re-emergence of religion as a global force. “What the secularists forgot,” he writes, “is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal.” Science and technology have taken us to unprecedented heights but they cannot answer the most basic questions of life. The twenty-first century has left us with “a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” 

Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, explores the connection between religion and violence. He notes that “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.” Religion becomes destructive when it is used to divide humanity into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad, the innocent and the guilty. 

“Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two – our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness. If there is evil in the world it is because of Them, not US. This mode of thinking leads to some of the worst crimes in the history because it causes people to demonize their opponents, see themselves as victims and convince themselves that evil committed in a good or sacred cause is justifiable, even noble.” This is altruistic evil.  

Although Sack’s book focuses on the emergence of extremist religious groups such as ISIS, I am struck by its relevance for America at this time. The use of religion as a battering ram in an increasingly polarized political environment contributes to the fracturing of our civic life. A sign outside an Iowa church exhorted its members to “vote biblically.” What are we to make of this? There is little information in the bible about democracy and voting.

The constant assertions of piety and devotion to God’s will by so many political candidates bring to mind Jesus’ admonishment, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” 

Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times column, “I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes.”

In today’s toxic political climate we risk labeling those on the other side as totally evil: liberals, conservatives, socialists, Wall Street, unions, immigrants, pro-life, pro-choice, government, or corporations. 

A few months ago I sat with some 15 people from different religious traditions discussing the role of faith in public life.  Among the insights that I jotted down were the following: 1) We need to rediscover the adventure of listening to people who are different. 2) Ideological differences are greater than religious differences. 3) We should focus on faith not as dogma but as lived out experience. 4) Conservatives need to talk more about social justice and liberals need to be more forthright about moral values and spiritual values.

Talk of following God’s guidance becomes dangerous when it is detached from clear moral codes defined in all the world’s great religions. Sacks reminds us that some of history’s worst tyrants claimed God’s authority. Unspeakable crimes have been perpetrated in the name of religion. ISIS is just the latest example.  

The movement of Initiatives of Change, which engages people of all faiths as well as no formal religion, has always advocated a search for inner wisdom, or the voice of God or conscience, tempered by universal moral benchmarks. As I write in Trustbuilders, this approach includes honesty about our failures, purity in our motives, unselfishness in our support of others, and love in our readiness to forgive and accept forgiveness.  

Friends can support us by having the courage to tell us the truth, however uncomfortable. Shining the spotlight on our own faults keeps us humble and helps to avoid the worst excesses. 

More important than public expressions of religion is what Sacks calls “the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Don’t flunk the “Job test”

Tim Kaine had stepped off a plane the previous night after a congressional visit to Vienna, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Ramallah. He was nursing a sore throat and was due for a root canal the following morning. But the Virginia Senator was determined to join Richmonders of all faiths and backgrounds in a show of unity in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment and xenophobia. 

 “We spent two and a half hours with the president of Turkey,” Kaine told a diverse gathering of 600 at Congregation Beth Ahaba. “His first question was, ‘Why is there so much hostility to Muslims in America?’ I was able to say to him, ‘Let me tell you about the event I will be attending in Richmond on Sunday.'"

“One of the most important things we can do for the world is to do what we do when we are at our best: people of different backgrounds working together,” continued Kaine, who serves on the Foreign Relations committee. 

“Nations around the world are looking at us and this is what they love about us.” When we go “off track,” he said, they are concerned. Our example speaks louder than treaties.  

President Obama made a similar point in his final State of the Union speech. “The world respects us not just for our arsenal but for our diversity and openness.” He also noted that democracy requires “basic bonds of trust between our citizens.” 

Those bonds are being sorely tested. Obama admitted his own failure to overcome political partisanship and that “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," adding that "a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” 

While some Republicans leaped to condemn the speech even before it was delivered, the official GOP response by South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, was more self-reflective: “We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.

“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.” Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, also took aim at extremists in her party."During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

Two days earlier in Richmond, Tim Kaine had also addressed the anger, anxiety and negative rhetoric dominating the public space: “So much of this is about suffering and when there is suffering people look for someone to blame.” 

He concluded his remarks by drawing on the story of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures who was tested by God almost beyond endurance as he lost everything, yet he remained faithful. “The question for Job was whether he would be true to his principles. And after 9/11 and Paris we can either blame others or see it as a test of our principles.” 

The challenge for us today, said Kaine, is “not to flunk the Job test.” 

Friday, December 18, 2015

An America for all

The breakthrough at the Paris climate talks gives hope. It shows that with sustained effort, good intent, gracious hosting and skillful facilitation, the most difficult and contentious challenges can be met. Commentators credit a change in geopolitics, a clearer perception of the threat posed by inaction, and the art of French diplomacy which ensured that every country, regardless of size or wealth, felt its voice would be heard. The presence of business leaders committed to addressing climate change was critical.    

My mind turned homeward to the United States which appears more deeply polarized than at any time in recent decades. What can we learn from Paris?

However much one deplores the Trump phenomena, he is exploiting genuine anxiety and insecurity among many Americans. The hollowing out of the middle class, loss of solid blue collar jobs, crippling student loans, rapidly changing demographics, threat of terrorism, and 24-hour social media and cable news combine to feed a climate of fear. Death rates are rising among middle-aged white Americans, unlike every other age group, or every other racial and ethnic group. Conservatives feel their values are under assault from secularists. There is fury at the corrupt politics of Washington. Above all, many people feel that their voices are simply not being heard.

Underlying much of the fear and anger is the issue of race. In recent polls most Americans believe race relations are markedly worse than a decade ago and are getting worse. African Americans are no longer prepared to accept persistent bias and discrimination. Whites resist loss of control and are uncertain of their own place in a “browning” America. Yet race has scarcely rated a mention in presidential campaign debates.

The Republican establishment is terrified of a Trump (or Cruz) candidacy. But GOP leaders have helped to prepare fertile ground for extremist campaigns by playing on the deepest fears and worst instincts of Americans.

It began with the so-called “Southern strategy” employed by Republicans in the 1960s and early 70s, a naked appeal to white racial resentment. It continued with pandering to the Tea Party, questioning of Obama's patriotism, demonizing of government, undermining of voting rights, lies about cross-border immigration, and now anti-Muslim rhetoric. All this has created a political climate where as one civil rights leader put it, everyone has been given tacit permission to unleash their anxieties on those they believe to be the “other.”  

Twenty years ago Harlon Dalton* wrote, “…meaningful action at the societal level is virtually impossible. As a nation we lack a consensus concerning how to deal with the problems that bedevil us most. We seem unable to take sustained action in any direction for very long. And we don’t trust anyone enough to let them lead us. We are, in short, politically paralyzed. The reasons for this paralysis are several but chief among them is our failure to engage each other openly and honestly about race.”

As a nation we have never undertaken the task of examining our racial history honestly. Its legacy is seen in every aspect of our social structures and public policies. Most importantly, as Dr. Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation points out, we have not overcome the “belief in a hierarchy of human value which became manifest as racism,” or the “consequences, implications and most importantly feelings, motivations and behaviors that have grown over time from adherence to this belief system.” As America becomes increasingly diverse – the workforce will be majority minority by 2030/31 – we must face this if we are to create a healthy society and if America is to play a constructive role in a world torn by ethnic and sectarian conflict.

On December 4, I joined leaders of civil rights organizations, advocacy groups and national institutions as well as some corporate representatives to explore the potential for a national truth, racial healing and transformation process. Dr. Christopher emphasized that the focus should not be on perpetrators or victims, but on “the power of belief that created both, the belief in a hierarchy of human value…Ours is a shared history, a shared journey with a shared responsibility to shape a future America that has truly jettisoned this archaic concept along with biases both conscious and unconscious.”

A call to action came from 92-year-old William Winter, governor of Mississippi, a self-confessed former die-hard segregationist, who, in the words of Christopher, “embodies the transformation of which we speak.”  Winter is known for his strong support of public education and racial reconciliation. As governor he introduced the landmark Mississippi Education Reform Act which established the state’s first public kindergartens.

Vigorous as ever, Winter says, “I have a lot of friends who say, ‘Why not leave it [racial justice and reconciliation] alone? It will work out.’ The last years have shown that WE have got to work it out… in such a way that everyone feels they have a stake in the process….to level the playing field, to create a country of opportunity for everyone.”

This task requires determination and persistence. It will take courage to face honestly the truth about our history as well as our present. And it will only succeed if all Americans feel that their voices are heard and respected. Black, white, Hispanic, indigenous, Asian, liberal, conservative, grassroots, corporate, government, immigrant, people of all faiths and secularists: the best of everyone is needed.

If 195 nations can come to an agreement on climate change in Paris, could Americans of all backgrounds join together to finally overcome the scourge of our racial history? 

*Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (Harlon Dalton, Doubleday, 1995)