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.”   

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Connecting personal and social change

Initiatives of Change has always stressed the connection between personal change and change in society. It is at the core of our vision and mission. Our global website states: “Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behavior, starting with their own.”

Many social movements advocate change in the behavior of other people or groups. Initiatives of Change challenges us to ask whether our own attitudes and actions reflect a spirit of inclusion or exclusion, resentment or forgiveness, egoism or self-giving.

When we talk about personal change leading to change in society, we mean that if we live out the principles expressed on our platforms and taught in our training program, they inevitably have an impact on the world around us – our families, our social circles, our work places and institutions, and sometimes in the larger economic and political arena. It will be different for each person: there are many ways in which this approach will mobilize individuals.

In Trustbuilding I write: “In the Hope in the Cities model of honest conversation, dialogue is more than a tool, with which to exchange information. It can lead to transformation in individuals, in relationships, and – if sustained – to change in society. It moves us to action because it touches us at our deepest point of motivation. When we experience dialogue at this level we respond and behave differently. We relate to other people differently and choose different priorities in our lives. Our friendships, our interests, and our worldview are all deeply affected.”

Those of us who strive for social justice need to ensure that our inner life is congruent with our goals for social change. Charles Marsh asserts in The Beloved Community that the early civil rights movement pursued a form of discipleship that was “life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals… A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and enabling trust.”

As I write in Trustbuilding, “The most-needed reforms in our communities require levels of political courage and trust-based collaboration that can only be achieved by individuals who have the vision, integrity and persistence to call out the best in others and sustain deep and long-term efforts.”

I also believe that inner transformation is only possible in the context of our relationship with others, with society and the world. That is where personal change becomes real. john powell, in his introduction to Racing to Justice writes, “Can we realize that working for the elimination of social suffering is an integral part of any spiritual project? Can we have a discussion about values that is grounded in hope and acknowledgment of our connected being?”

Garth Lean, in his biography of Frank Buchman, quotes Cardinal Franz Koenig, who served as archbishop of Vienna from 1956 to 1985: “[Buchman’s] great idea was to show that the teaching of Jesus Christ is not just a private affair but the great force to change the whole structure of the social order of economics, of political ideas, if we combine the changing of structures with the change of heart. In that sense he opened a completely new approach to religion, to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to the life of modern man.”

john powell refers to Roberto Unger, social theorist and Harvard professor, who believes, as powell puts it, “that our religious existential project can only be worked out through engagement with others, by constantly remaking our context, institutions, and structures in response to the demands for engagement. It is not enough to remake ourselves; we must remake the world so that our selves can more appropriately think of the world as our home.”

Buchman said about Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change), “It gives faith to the faithless but also helps men of faith to live so compellingly that cities and nations change.” At one point he said, “With the world still in the making, what does Moral Re-Armament aim to remake? Remaking what is wrong? It is more than that. It is adding to what is right. It is being originative of relevant alternatives to evil in economics, in government policy and so on. It is seeking God's experience for the human race, and is open to everyone.”

Buchman was speaking in the language of his era and from his own particular theological and religious standpoint. However, the core truth that personal change provides energy and sustainability for constructive social change remains valid. And failure to root social justice efforts on the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts. As a veteran social justice activist told me, “We spent so much effort in changing structures, but we had to keep going back and doing it again because we did not change the hearts of people.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

No retirement from commitment

Virginia and Virginia (Ginny) are both in their nineties. They live in the same retirement community in Richmond, VA. Both of them have been part of the work to build trust across divides for more than 50 years.

When my wife and I visited them for lunch this week they brought the latest copy of our newsletter with sections marked and questions for clarification: “Tell us about the social determinants of health.” “Explain about African American school students experiencing harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.” They also wanted to know whether we had read a recent newspaper article (relevant points highlighted) about our junior senator. And “What are we going to do about ISIS?”

In the late 70s these two veterans were part of the Initiatives of Change team that welcomed members of the first black majority on Richmond’s city council and worked to build bridges across the racial divides. Community meetings and pot-luck dinners took place in their homes where diverse groups would strategize about how to bring a spirit of unity to the city.

Ginny had been head of the Richmond PTA in the 1970s during the stormy days of integration. “People I had known for thirty years at our church would step out of the way if they saw me coming because they had just put their child into private school,” she told me years later. She recalled speaking at a regional PTA meeting where she said, “If we had open housing, we would not have had busing.” There were boos and hisses from the audience, but as she left the hall, her vice president, who was black, put an arm around her and said, “Now I know you are not the fake I suspected you were.”

After the events of 9/11 Virginia and her husband joined the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. “Neither my husband nor I knew any Muslims in Richmond personally,” said Virginia. But she met the wife of the president of the Islamic center, and the two couples became friends, opening the way to a dialogue between Muslims and evangelical Christians.*

Although not wealthy, both Ginny and Virginia have been regular and generous contributors to IofC. Daily quiet times, when they seek for God’s direction for their lives and how to care for people around them, have long been part of their routine.  

Ginny, who is confined to a wheel chair, told us that she “would like very much to visit Richmond’s historic slave trail.” Virginia said she was going to do crossword puzzles to keep her mind engaged. I remarked that her mind already seemed pretty engaged!

We agreed that we should meet more often, although they seem to keep so busy that it’s hard to find time on their calendar!  If you want to be inspired by examples of long-term commitment, you should meet these two valiant ladies.

*See passage from Trustbuilding