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)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Breaking the polite silence

In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed all its public schools to avoid integration. Classes did not resume until 1964. No other jurisdiction in the US has ever taken such action. The white elite quickly established a private academy for their own children, using resources from the closed schools and vouchers provided by the state. Meanwhile, 1,700 black children were shut out of their schools. Some were sent to be with families or friends in other counties or states; many never regained the five lost years of education.  

The struggle for civil rights – and white resistance to change – in Prince Edward County began in 1951 when Barbara Johns led a student strike to protest conditions in Farmville’s all-black Moton High School. It led to Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which became part of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools for the entire country. 

Henry Marsh, a civil rights attorney who became Richmond’s first black mayor and later served as state senator, says, “The revolution …took wings in Prince Edward County. The spirit of blacks in Prince Edward is the spirit that fired the civil rights movement to overturn Plessy v Ferguson,” (the 1896 decision which enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine).

Recently, I attended a preview of a new documentary in the making, They Closed Our Schools. Afterwards, three Prince Edward County natives who grew up in Farmville discussed their vastly different experiences of privilege and exclusion.   

With the schools closed, Dorothy Lockett had to walk three miles to attend a makeshift school in a church basement. Later, her father rented a derelict house in a neighboring county so that his children could attend school in that district. The house was in such poor condition that they could not live in it, but every morning they would enter by the back door and come out by the front door when the school bus arrived. Over time, children from other families joined them until finally 21 children would come out the front door to board the bus. “We had only one book in our home,” said Dorothy, whose grandmother was born an enslaved woman and lived to age 113. “But we had to read the newspaper every day and be able to discuss it.”   

Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal junior college in North Carolina, offered space in its high school department and the black community’s Prince Edward County Christian Association helped 61 students to attend. One of them was Charles Taylor. (His cousin was sent to be with a family in Ohio: “They were white and vegetarian!”)  Charles was reluctant to go because it meant leaving his best friend behind, plus there was no sports program at Kittrell. “I was miserable for the first few months.” 

Many years later, Kristen Green attended Prince Edward Academy, the private school which had been set up for white children. The first black students were accepted in 1986 when Kristen was in 8th grade. Because of Virginia’s pervasive culture of polite silence, she only discovered the history of public school closings long after she left and had become a successful journalist. 

While in Oregon and California reporting on immigration and poverty, Kristen began to question what had happened in her home town. Her new book, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, is a compelling narrative about her family, her home town and the struggle for civil rights. It is her personal “journey of discovery,” peeling back the layers of history and acknowledging her place of privilege.   

Within months of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the white elite met to draw up their battle plan. They created a statewide organization, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, and began putting in place a plan to deny state funds for schools forced to desegregate. They went on to create the Prince Edward School Foundation and collected hundreds of pledges in order to fund a white school. When the court’s mandate was finally enforced, they were ready.

Virginia’s response to integration was “massive resistance”, a phrase coined by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd who led the political opposition to integration. By 1965, thirteen private schools were established in Virginia. By 1974, the region’s 3500 academies enrolled 750,000 students. Ten percent of Virginia’s white children were attending private schools. Resistance in Virginia and especially Prince Edward County became a model for other southern states.

In the course of Kristen Green’s research she discovered that her grandfather (her mother’s father) had been deeply involved in the school closing. He was a member of the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty and a founder of the Farmville’s white academy. Kristen was stunned. “To me he was the perfect grandfather. I rode the tractor at his farm; he taught me how to fish.  I realized that someone you love and admire could also be something else.” 

She said her parents have been supportive of her writing project but that it was hard for her mother who taught in the academy most of her working life. “The first time she read the book she said, ‘I hated it.’ The second time she said, ‘It’s all true.’ The third time she said, ‘It’s a pretty good book.’”

The panel conversation reflected the determination of black parents to get education for their children. In her book, Kristen writes poignantly that Elsie Lancaster, a black woman who loyally served Kristen’s grandparents and parents as house cleaner and child minder, and who had helped take care of Kristen herself, sent her own talented daughter to an aunt in Boston. She stayed up north for decades. This was never discussed in Kristen’s family.  

Those who experienced the school closings are survivors. Some of them even thrived. 

Charles Taylor went on to spend 20 years in the US Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam where he was race relations consultant to General Schwarzkopf.  Dorothy Lockett attended Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1972, she was hired as the first minority professional staff of the Virginia Employment Commission in Farmville, Virginia where she worked for 31 years. “Many of the people who came in looking for a job were people who had lost their schooling and who needed help,” she recalled. She is now chair of the Moton Museum Council, the site of the 1951 student strike. 

The museum, which tells the story of the Farmville student protest and the school closings, has become a place of dialogue and healing where white and black can hear each other’s stories. Charles Taylor serves as a member of the Council. He said, “I have experienced cancer, divorce and being shot at, but nothing was as painful as the closing of the schools. But I still love Farmville.” 

The panel discussion underscored the power of the white elite who controlled Price Edward County and the failure of the two local colleges and the churches to speak out. As Brian Grogan, the producer of They Closed Our Schools, put it, “It was all about race and class.” 

He recalled the words of Senator Harry Byrd: “Why do we need all these schools? They are just going to work on the farm.”  

Kristen Green, whose husband is of mixed racial heritage, now has two daughters in a Richmond public school where they have friends of all races and backgrounds. They are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with an excellent school, but in her book Kristen reflects on the difficult choices facing many parents who want to participate in public schools in a city where most white parents have abandoned the school system.  In different circumstances she might make different choices. “We want the best for our children, just as my grandfather did for his.”

Brian Grogan concluded the panel by commenting that the story of Prince Edward County highlights what public education means for America. “It is the foundation piece for democracy. The key issues are still with us today.”