Sunday, November 23, 2014

Could Virginia help bridge the national divide?

In contact sports if you play scared you will get hurt. And in the mid-term elections the Democrats played scared. 

Yes, Republicans worked shamelessly to suppress the vote in Texas, North Carolina and other states. Yes, the Koch brothers and others flooded key campaigns with money. And yes, some irresponsible voices played on fears of the electorate with wild statements conflating threats of Ebola, terrorists crossing the border and executive over-reach in Washington.

But the Democrats have only themselves to blame for an inept campaign that completely failed to build on a solid record of accomplishment. How could they do so badly despite a healthy growth rate, unemployment under six percent (although this figure masks a much grimmer reality), consumer confidence at a seven-year high and low inflation?

Their worst mistake was failing to champion the landmark reform that has delivered health care to 10 million people. They embarrassed themselves by disowning their leader. Instead of highlighting success they let themselves believe the Republican narrative – which was adopted by a typically lazy media – of a "deeply unpopular president." It did them no good. Most candidates in tough fights who distanced themselves from the president lost.
   
It was no surprise that the base did not turn out. Why would African Americans be energized when candidates held the first black president at arm’s length? Why would Latinos turn out for the Democrats when the Obama administration decided to delay executive action on immigration until after the election in the hopes of protecting vulnerable candidates? In Texas, Republican Greg Abbot garnered 45 percent of the Latino vote in his successful gubernatorial campaign.

Democrats relied too heavily on single issues such as women’s reproductive rights. By appealing only to minorities, single women and millennials they may be able to win the White House but not the House or Senate. Republicans were more disciplined than in previous elections and managed to keep the lunatic fringe in check. And there is serious thinking going on among some leading conservatives on reforming the tax code to make it friendlier to work and to families and to close loopholes; others are looking at criminal justice reform. 

There is another factor that Democrats ignore at their peril. They must take seriously the need to reach white males, both middle class and blue collar workers, and address their anxieties. 

Vast numbers are still suffering as a result of the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2009 the net worth of an average family fell by $50,000. Many of those who experienced unemployment for the first time in their lives – often for months or even years – now find themselves working two or more jobs at far lower wages just to put food on the table. In his book Losing Our Way: an intimate portrait of a troubled America, Bob Herbert describes through numerous personal interviews a sense that the country is falling apart. Failing infrastructure and a fraying social contract cause many to look at the future with pessimism. By 2009-2010 the number of Americans committing suicide was approaching forty thousand annually, more than the number being killed in motor vehicle accidents. The suicide rate among men in their fifties increased nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2102.

There is enormous anger at political elites – Democrats just as much as Republicans – who are completely entwined with megacorporate interests and Wall Street. A sense of insecurity and of unprecedented abandonment among millions of ordinary Americans allows vested interests to exploit racial, ethnic or class divisions and as well as historical resentments.    

In a nation where political allegiance is increasingly defined by geography, Virginia stands as a key gateway state between North and South. This is important because our national political and cultural divide reflects in part the unhealed history of the Civil War and white Southerners reactions to President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To avoid ongoing gridlock we need some political leaders who can work intelligently to overcome mindsets stemming from historical resentment, condescension and acceptance of the usual stereotypes.    

Although they are both Democrats, our Virginia senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine may be able to play a bridge-building role. Warner is respected for his business acumen and his bi-partisan approach to budget issues. Kaine takes his Catholic faith seriously and his father-in-law was a Republican governor who exemplified the best of the party’s tradition. Both are rooted in values important to a more conservative electorate. Could they help generate an honest dialogue and encourage the best contribution from their colleagues of both parties for the sake of the country?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lessons from long distance runners

This month we celebrated the life of a great community builder and social entrepreneur. John Cotton Wood, who died at the age of 97, lived every moment to the fullest in the belief that every person could make a difference. He and his wife, Denise, who died a few years ago, provided a model for building trust and connecting divided communities that has inspired similar approaches in cities around the country – including my own city of Richmond, Virginia.

John was born in New York and grew up in privileged circumstances in Boston and San Francisco. According to his obituary: “He attended white-tie dances at FDR's White House, meeting the President and dancing with Eleanor Roosevelt and then listening to Gershwin himself play Rhapsody in Blue. Yet he was never a snob. At age 18, John met Dr. Frank Buchman, founder of Moral Re-Armament [now Initiatives of Change], a network of people of many nationalities and backgrounds, committed to building trust and constructive relationships within and between nations. From Buchman, John learned, ‘If I listened to God, He would tell me what to do.’ Listening became the cornerstone of his life, enabling him to forge deep friendships with people, who were sometimes enemies, as he sought to help them overcome personal pain and prejudices sufficiently to unite to solve problems in their communities.”

Among his lifelong friends was my dad, a former shipyard worker from Scotland, who spent many years in the US in efforts to overcome industrial conflict in the nation’s steelworks, automobile and aircraft factories and coal mines. He and John – both in their twenties – would travel the country together, meeting labor leaders and employers in work that was seen as vital to the war effort. They both served in the US Army.

In the post-war years, John’s future wife, Denise, whose mother was French, was a trusted colleague of Irène Laure, a key figure in Franco-German reconciliation, and interpreted for her on her international travels. 

After an active life working on several continents, the Woods settled in Pasadena, California. John became the director of development for the Braille Institute in Los Angeles and Denise served as dean of students at a private girls' school. As they approached retirement years they could have settled for a well-deserved quiet and comfortable life. Instead they launched into a whole new adventure by addressing the needs of Pasadena as an increasing number of immigrants made the city their home.  

As senior warden of All Saints Episcopal Church, John volunteered to explore the possibilities of creating a regional skills training center. This required building a partnership between city government, the school system and a community college – all of which guarded their territory jealously.  At first John was hesitant. “I’d only been to Harvard, which doesn’t prepare you for real life all that well.” But his open, persistent approach and ability to build trust paid off.  More than 4,000 trainees, many of them immigrants, now attend the center each year.

John was a gentle, gracious man. His most important asset was his love of people and an ability to listen and respond without judgement. The head of the community college noted his leadership qualities, his “low-key personality, not excitable and able to meld the various groups together and come up with something that would be workable. It was essential that all three parties felt they had done something constructive.”


In 1983, All Saints Church commissioned Denise to conduct a survey of the quality of life in Pasadena. In the course of seven months she conducted over 100 personal interviews with community leaders.  She said, “I went to these interviews with no hidden agenda of my own; I went to be taught.” The result was a report, Experiencing Pasadena: The Needs, Promises and Tasks of an American City. It depicted a city that was rapidly becoming two cities: a rich city and a poor city.  As a result of Denise’s report, All Saints founded the Office of Creative Connections to identify urban needs and resources. Now in its fourth decade of operation, the center has incubated several major projects, including "Young and Healthy," which provides health care to uninsured children and "Day One," a city-wide effort to combat alcohol and drug addiction.

John and Denise’s style of teambuilding in the community was distinctive. They called it “caring for the care-givers.” They would invite individuals who were knowledgeable or affected by a community issue to come to their home for informal conversations over coffee or a simple lunch. They discovered that many of those working in the city’s 192 social service agencies did not know each other. Often people were meeting for the first time or at least for the first time over a meal.

It was during this time that the Woods built a friendship with John Perkins, an African American pastor, civil rights activist, author and community developer from Mississippi who founded the Christian Community Development Association, which is now active in neighborhoods across America.

Even after their final move to a retirement community at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, this remarkable pair continued their outreach by creating an after-school program, "After-the-Bell," for local middle school students, resulting in a feature in Time magazine.

Richmond owes much to John and Denise. They visited several times in the late 1980s and shared their experiences with leaders of this community. Their encouragement and wisdom gave impetus to the emerging network of honest dialogue and inclusive partnerships. The methodology employed in Pasadena provided a foundation for what is now known as Hope in the Cities. Key lessons include: 

  1. Listen to the people of the community one by one and to its public bodies to gain a living picture of its needs, its strengths, and its possibilities.
  2. Discern the meaning of what has been heard and the imperatives of what must be addressed.
  3. Report to the community – not blaming or name calling, but not watering down the truth – and speak with a moral voice to the whole community.
  4. Connect citizens around common concerns and create coalitions and structures to carry out what needs to be done.
This is not a set formula but as John and Denise would say, a “mindset.” They were reticent about talking publicly about their faith, preferring to let their lives do the talking. But they were deeply rooted in spiritual practices that enabled them to be “long distance runners.” In a 1987 interview Denise said, “It gets you up in the morning, prevents burn-out, teaches you to listen to other people, to believe that things will happen. I used to play a lot of touch football. I believe my faith gives the courage to make a forward pass and believe someone up ahead will catch it.”

A senior Pasadena attorney said of the Woods’ contribution: “Nothing gets done until you have people like John and Denise whose motivation...has been truly directed to transcendent values of the community, even at the expense of their own personal economic benefit.”


Thank you, John and Denise, for all that you taught us. You have made a difference.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
To read more about John and Denise Wood see Basil Entwistle, Making Cities Work (Hope Publishing House 1992), and Corcoran Trustbuilding, an Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility (University of Virginia Press 2010).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why story matters

This week Scotland will vote on independence. Whatever the outcome, the campaign is a reminder that identity, culture and the power of story can trump rational argument and economic self-interest.

Story matters. For centuries Scots have told a story of the English as dominating neighbors and oppressors who have looked on Scots as inferior. There is truth in this. But this version of history persists despite Scots’ prominent role in every aspect of British life including in its rise as an industrial power and its imperial ventures around the globe. Indeed there can be few cases where a minority has exerted such a deep influence on a majority population. 

According to Margaret Smith, in Reckoning with the Past, history and memory “provide material for group myths that are the source of social cohesion because they supply operational codes and a system of ethics…. History becomes narrative when it turns into a frame of reference for individuals and groups in their daily lives.” The group “story” provides psychological security. “Regardless of the material benefits a person derives from group membership, the person will have a strong psychological proclivity to support certain narratives that keep her own psyche intact.”

The power of historical narrative is seen clearly in Northern Ireland which was the subject of Smith’s research. Even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of violent conflict, provocative sectarian marches continue to keep alive partisan historical narratives that have been handed down from generation to generation.

In Russia, President Putin builds popular domestic support for his policies in Ukraine, despite US and EU sanctions, by playing on his compatriots’ resentment at loss of prestige since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and an emotional desire to relive the glory days of Catherine the Great. The memory of China’s thousand-year history as the world’s wealthiest nation and its humiliation by colonial powers is a motivating force for its leaders and for its people who demand respect in the world. Every Iranian knows that the US participated in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in order to preserve its oil interests. And anyone who has visited the ruins of Persepolis, founded in the 6th century BC by Darius the Great at the height of the Persian empire, will understand better the immense pride of Iranians and their insistence on a right to nuclear power.

Steven Ward, who teaches government at Cornell University, wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year about Russia’s escalation of the crisis in Ukraine: “Defending honor, responding to insults, avoiding humiliation and building prestige are intangible values that are difficult to incorporate in a cost-benefit analysis. And history (and recent scholarship) shows that states have sometimes pursued these values at the expense of economic and security interests.”

The same dynamics can be seen at work in social and political debates in the US where rational argument does not always prevail. For instance, in a recent Pew poll, 46 percent of Republicans said there is not solid evidence of global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats. Since the 46 percent includes a large number of highly educated individuals who are aware of the overwhelming scientific evidence, other factors must be influencing the survey.

A column in the New York Times by Brendan Nyhan entitled “When beliefs and facts collide,” offers important insights on the question of cognitive dissonance.  He highlights surprising findings by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan: 
The divide over belief in evolution between more and less religious people is wider among people who otherwise show familiarity with math and science, which suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of information. When he instead tested whether respondents knew the theory of evolution, omitting mention of belief, there was virtually no difference between more and less religious people with high scientific familiarity. In other words, religious people knew the science; they just weren’t willing to say that they believed in it.
This finding supports what those of us who conduct community dialogues have often found to be true. Facts are vital but constructive dialogue is more likely if they are presented in ways that do not involve the humiliation, or threaten the security and deeply held values, of key stakeholders. Facts may be received better and understood if they connect with the belief systems and values of all participants. And if individuals and groups feel their stories are being heard and respected, they are much more likely to be open to accepting challenging facts. 

In Richmond, Virginia, my Hope in the Cities colleagues and partners ran a regional project on race, class and political jurisdiction using census data to illustrate how poverty is entrenched in certain inner city areas and how it is rapidly increasing in the surrounding suburbs. The three-part presentation included a segment showing the historical events that had led to the current reality. Some groups were exposed to both the data and the history. Other groups saw only the data. While both groups reported increased understanding, the group that was exposed to the history saw a far greater impact.

Our report stated: While attendees began with similar perspectives and backgrounds in working to address poverty in the community, those attending the sessions in which local history and current systemic challenges were discussed were more strongly impacted. Results suggest that the information and facilitated discussions challenged assumptions about the root causes of poverty, including that the cause is primarily situated in individuals and current barriers. These discussions also provided a new perspective on actions needed to produce community change. While data about current trends is important and needed, understanding how we got where we are today gives that data meaning that impacts understanding and motivation to act.

On national issues that are polarized by race, politics and culture we would do well to note Brendan Nyhan’s advice: “We need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican.” 

As people connect with each other’s individual and community stories and are able to have open and respectful conversation about their sense of identity, their values and their beliefs, they may be better able to deal with facts. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

If you’re not safe nothing else matters

In May of this year I was called for jury duty. Every Wednesday for a month I joined more than 100 other Richmonders of all backgrounds at the John Marshall courthouse. For hours we waited patiently to be called in groups to different courtrooms where final jury selections were made. The process was slow and sometimes boring and I never made the final cut. But I was deeply impressed by the care taken by the lawyers and judges to safeguard the fairness of the trial by ensuring that we all understood our duties as potential jurors and by emphasizing that presumption of innocence is the legal right of every defendant until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
 

To pass the time during the periods of waiting, I read The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. The book is a stunning reminder that what we take for granted in the US and most developed countries – protection under the law – is simply not a reality in much of the developing world. It exposes the “vast hidden underworld of unseen violence where the common poor pass their days out of sight from the rest of us.”
 

The lead author, Gary Haugen, is founder and president of International Justice Mission which seeks to protect the poor from violence; he was awarded the US highest honor for anti-slavery leadership. His co-author, Victor Boutros, is a federal prosecutor who focuses on police misconduct and international human trafficking internationally. Their core argument is that violence is the single greatest factor that keeps people in poverty: “If you are not safe nothing else matters.”
 

The current surge of children crossing the border from Central America into the US desperate to escape violence of drug gangs is stark evidence of this harsh reality. Most of the 2.5 billion poor people in the developing world live outside the protection of the law. They live every day with the threat of being robbed, raped, threatened or killed by gangs, imprisoned without trial, having their land stolen, or being forced into slave labor. In fact, there are more enslaved people today – about 27 million - than were taken from Africa during the 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
 

In many countries there is a complete absence of a functioning criminal justice system.  Worse, the most pervasive criminal presence for the global poor is often their own police force: “Poor people regard the police as agents of oppression not protection……just another armed, predatory gang in the community that steals, rapes, extorts from and assaults them. In fact, it is likely that the local police extort and rob money from poor people on a more regular basis than any other criminal presence in their community.”
 

In a small Peruvian town, an eight-year-old girl from a poor family is brutally raped and killed at a community celebration in the home of a wealthy family.  Her body is left on the street. The police do nothing in the face of an eye-witness account that points to the guilt of the son of the powerful family.  After community protests the case comes to court and the family use its wealth and influence to secure an acquittal. Finally, the police arrest a simple-minded young man. They torture him for three days until he confesses. His mother sells her small plot of land and uses all her life savings to pay a lawyer who does nothing. Her son, without any legal representation, is sentenced to 30 years in prison. This is just one of many similar stories from Asia, Africa and Latin America. 
 

The authors provide helpful historical context. In the 19th century, even as they were developing their own civilian-friendly domestic police forces, Britain, France and other imperial powers introduced militarized police forces to maintain control of their colonies. The system was designed explicitly to protect the colonial regimes from the common people, not to protect the common people from crime. When the colonialist left, many laws changed but law enforcement did not. An Indian historian who served at the highest levels of his country’s police force notes that the Police Act enacted by the British in 1861 to “protect the ruler against all threats to their power and authority” still governs the organization, structure, philosophy and function of Indian police. 
 

In much of the developing world, court proceedings are still held in the language of the colonial power. In Mozambique, Portuguese is the language of the court although 60 percent of the population has no working knowledge of the language. In Malawi, just one percent of the population speaks English yet this is the language of the courts. Spanish is used in many Latin American counties although the indigenous poor may speak another native tongue.  In the Philippines, proceedings are conducted in English, a major obstacle to poor and marginalized groups. 
 

Court proceedings are agonizingly slow. Up to 10 million people globally are held in “pre-trial detention” which can last for years. The average pre-trial detention in Nigeria is 3.7 years. India has 30 million cases pending.
 

In the face of a dysfunctional  criminal justice system, the new elites in developing counties have built a parallel system of private justice with private security forces and alternative dispute resolution systems that leave the poor at the mercy of broken public systems.
 

Readers in the US will recognize a similar trend in this country where gated communities and private security protect the more privileged. And the US has its own history of notoriously violent and corrupt police activity in cities such as New York in the late 19th century as well as pogroms against the Chinese in Seattle and attacks on union workers in Pennsylvania. In the 20th century, segregation was enforced violently by local police, and public lynchings were carried out with impunity. Today our prisons are filled disproportionally by young men of color convicted of non-violent drug offenses. We have criminalized a whole segment of the population and now have the world’s largest prison population.
 

Haugen and Boutros remark that the focus of the international community has been on countering narcotics, terrorism and maintaining commercial stability. In conferences on poverty, everyday lawlessness is rarely highlighted. The human rights and development field has “spent decades devising ways to help poor people to survive in the absence of ‘a working pipeline of justice.’” The human rights community focuses mostly on compliance with international legal standards but not the practical work of building and supporting local law enforcement mechanisms. Yet Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, concluded that “the most fundament prerequisite for sustainable development is an effective rule of law.”
 

The good news is that change is possible.
 

In 2003, Georgia was rated as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Its police were the object of particular hatred by the population. Yet by 2010, Transparency International ranked Georgia first in the world in reducing corruption and its police were seen as less corrupt than police in Germany, France and the UK!
 

Five steps contributed to this remarkable change: Building social demand for change; looking for decisive and courageous reformers inside the system; attacking corruption in the criminal justice system first; cleaning house (Georgia actually fired its entire police force and started over); treating the new police with respect (provide training, uniforms, better pay); and winning public trust through effective crime fighting ad public relations. The result? Crime dropped by half and 95 percent of the residents of the capital city report “feeling safe at all times.“
 

In the Philippines, International Justice Mission has worked to reduce child trafficking for the sex trade. A four-year project supported by the Gates Foundation in Cebu, the nation’s second largest metropolitan area, brought together police, prosecutors, courts, and social services to “stop the violence before it begins.” This resulted in a 1000 percent increase in the rescue of trafficked children and a 79 percent reduction in the availability of children in the commercial sex trade. More than 100 sex traffickers were successfully convicted. Other stories of hope come from Brazil, Sierra Leone and India.
 

The Locust Effect is a call to fundamentally change the conversation about global efforts to combat poverty by honestly facing the need for functioning criminal justice systems.    

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mystery is a gift to be enjoyed

Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.” But too often political and religious leaders select passages from sacred texts to bolster their own beliefs or prejudices.

God must be appalled at hearing his/her name being used as justification for bigotry, discrimination, torture and murder. Each week brings horrifying reports of atrocities by supposedly religious groups: Christians slaughtering Muslims in the Central African Republic; Buddhists killing Muslims in Burma; Sunni and Shia bombing each other in Iraq. Europe suffered centuries of religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. US history is full of examples of religious bigotry. Even slavery was supported by established Christian churches and discrimination was often cloaked in religiosity. More recently, the burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida provoked deadly riots in Afghanistan and American evangelicals are actively supporting Uganda’s human rights abuses against gays.

Worldwide persecution based on religion is increasing. For example, one hundred years ago Christians accounted for 30 percent of the Middle East’s population; today they represent just three percent. The region risks losing its historical diversity and tradition of tolerance.

So it was with relief and gratitude that I rediscovered a small gem of a book entitled God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan*. Susan and I read it during our morning reflections while on vacation. The British author, Tim Firth, who died recently, was a prominent Catholic priest who, finding that for him church doctrines “ceased to be convincing interpretations of reality and a basis for living ,“ left the church and pursued a career as a human resource manager with an international accounting firm. With his theater director wife he became deeply involved in the arts as a vehicle for spiritual renewal.

To a large extent Firth’s book reflects his own journey from the certainty of a specific religious tradition into a wider world of unknown paths and a new understanding of spirituality. He notes that we are all innately spiritual beings; religion is a comparatively recent creation. It is, in the words of Diarmuid O'Murchu, “the local harbour that points to the vast ocean beyond, without which the harbour would never exist in the first place.”  Firth focuses on exploring that vast ocean and the many ways in which humans connect to what he calls the "Mystery of Being."

He repeatedly cautions against the “either/or” trap of doctrine, recalling the words of Ludovic Kennedy: “Believing may be what people die for but doctrines can be what people kill for.” He encourages the reader to take a “both/and” approach. Human beings crave certainty and we fear the journey in the unknown. But according to Brian Boobbyer, “Mystery is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be enjoyed.” 

Firth affirms that religion plays an important role in providing a framework and identity. Where it goes wrong is in claiming exclusive fullness of the truth. The Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths said, "Be true to your roots, but go beyond their limitations.”
 

Prayer, art, myths, stories and symbols are helpful because they tend to unify across cultural boundaries: “Beethoven speaks universally; the same principles of geometry are found in Stonehenge, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Kaba in Mecca and Chartres Cathedral because their architects all believed that by building on geometric proportions they were building – the same proportions God used in building the cosmos – they were building truth. There is no such thing as Hindu geometry or Islamic beauty or Buddhist music – there are just mathematics, geometry, beauty and music.”

Firth believes we all have an “an in-built compass to believe what our instinct tells us will give us life and hope.” Obedience comes from the Latin “ob-audience” which means listening – listening to our conscience and attending to the Mystery of Being. In the end it is about relationships: “You must live in a certain way and then you will encounter the sacred within.” 

Personally I think God might welcome a year with no public mention of his/her name. Instead, people of all faiths and spiritual traditions could simply live out the universal core values of honesty, love, forgiveness, compassion and justice. The world might be a very different and much better place as a result. 

*God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan, Tim Firth, Catholics for a Changing Church 2007 London, UK.