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.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Will America create healthy integrated public schools?

Ten years ago I took part in a forum of scholars, social psychologists and racial dialogue practitioners, marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education.  At the time we noted that American schools were reversing much of the progress toward integration achieved since the Supreme Court decision.   

That same year, our youngest son graduated from Richmond Public Schools. Nearly half of the city’s schools had fewer than ten whites in their student bodies and eight had none at all.

A glance at the 2014 demographics shows that while the number of white students has increased, due largely to greater participation in elementary schools, white participation in middle and high schools remains low. Out of a citywide population of 1,153 12th graders there are just 100 white non-Hispanic students. The largest number is at kindergarten level and 146 out of the total 258 are clustered in two elementary schools.  Some schools have lost ground. The middle school that our sons attended has just two white 8th graders (there were 19 in 2004). 

But Richmond is actually faring better than many school districts nationally. As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, the resegregation of America’s schools as documented by Jonathan Kozul in The Shame of the Nation:The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is relentless. And in a 2007 ruling, the Court effectively buried Brown by outlawing even voluntary initiatives to create racial balance, as for example in Seattle and Louisville. Justice Stephen Breyer, in a scathing dissent, likened the inequality in our schools to “a caste system rooted in the institution of slavery and 50 years of legalized subordination.”  

A compelling case study, Segregation Now, by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The Atlantic, April 2014, examines the story of one school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that has experienced both integration and resegregation.   

By the 1970s, public schools in the South had become the most integrated in the country, largely as a result of court-ordered action. Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was “one of the South’s signature integration success stories.” In 1979, a federal judge had ordered the merger of two largely segregated high schools. For two decades, students at the new integrated Central High performed at a high level academically and in sports. 

But the Tuscaloosa school system was steadily losing white students. Once a majority, by the mid-1990s they made up less than a third of the population.  Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city/county line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools. And the business community, concerned about the eroding tax base and hoping to attract new industries, wanted to be able to say that Tuscaloosa City Schools would not be “an inner-city school system.” In 2000, after much back-room lobbying to build support from key leaders (including some African American leaders), another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate.

“Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time,” writes Hannah-Jones. The citywide integrated high school was replaced by three smaller schools. Central High is now “a struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black...Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.”

To be sure, there are no all-white schools; most of the city’s white students attend schools with significant numbers of blacks. “But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else.”

And this appears to be the key point: Across America, the overwhelming majority of white and middle-class parents do not wish their children to be educated alongside poor black and Latino kids.

Yet integration has been shown to benefit whites and blacks alike. The Atlantic story cites a 2014 study by Rucker Johnson, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who found that African Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than those who attended segregated schools. Five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail and they were healthier.

The reasoning behind Brown was not just about black kids being able to go to school with white students. It was about having access to equal resources and similar opportunities which could only be achieved through integration. Research by Richard Kahlenburg in All Together Now:Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice shows that both lower-wealth and higher-wealth students perform better in economically integrated schools. 

Our sons all say that their experience as white minorities in Richmond schools prepared them for living in a diverse world. Our middle son, Mark, says that despite the challenges, “the public schools did set us up socially by teaching us the thing that is fundamental in life: being with people who are different.” 

My wife, Susan, comments: “I guess I hoped that if our boys were in the public schools, some African American kid would have the experience of knowing at least one white person who was an OK guy, and it would help to break down some stereotypes. Equally, for our boys, if the black guy sitting next to them was better than them at math or won the science prize, they are less likely to have negative images of African Americans.”

Andrew, our youngest son, is now director of programs at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school. Located in Anacostia in Southeast DC, it serves an all-black population, mostly from low-wealth families, and prepares them for college.  US News & World Report highlights the school in
Fixing the Education Gap 60 Years after Brown.Every student in each of the school’s graduating classes has been accepted to college and the alumni are graduating college at rates five times higher than their neighborhood peers.

But despite the remarkable success of Thurgood Marshall Academy and a few  other standouts around the country, the vast majority of black and Latino students are attending schools that are underfunded, badly equipped and lacking in resources. Dedicated professionals and volunteers work tirelessly to mitigate the impact of segregation, but a friend who has done much to support Richmond’s schools says, “No-one is talking about the importance of a healthy integrated school.”

At this point it will be virtually impossible to reverse the resegregation trend without courageous, determined and sustained action by citizens of all races and social classes – but particularly by white upper- and middle-class parents who are prepared to invest their families in building community. My blog of last April highlighted some Richmond families who are doing just that.

A wise friend who does racial healing work in Oakland told me, “We have to keep going upstream about consciousness and ask ourselves: what are the truths we have lost sight of? If we recaptured them, things would be very different. One such truth is that we are all connected. Our social structures are set up to help us forget this.”

Race and class largely determine the neighborhoods we choose to live in, our friendships, our recreation and our places of worship, as well as where we invest our time and resources and how we vote. As Michelle Obama told students in Topeka, Kansas, “Brown is still being decided every single day, not just in our courts and in our schools, but in how we live our lives.” 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A welcoming space for difference

The theme of this year’s Lenten series at my church was “radical welcome.”  So I have been reflecting on what it actually means to create a welcoming space in my life, my friendships and my work with Initiatives of Change. 

It takes courage to reveal your true convictions when you feel you may be alone in your beliefs among a large and vocal group.  It is doubly hard in the polarized political climate of the US today where we so quickly form stereotypes around words like conservative and liberal.

An organization like Initiatives of Change which claims that it is for “everyone everywhere” must take special care not to allow prevailing orthodoxies of left or right to create a culture where honest conversation is stifled.

When Susan and I first came to live in Richmond thirty years ago, many of the people we came to know, including our work colleagues, were deeply conservative. As the son of a trade unionist, I often felt like an outsider.  But one of my early “aha” moments was the realization that my natural inclination to make judgments about conservatives was a barrier to my effectiveness in building the teamwork needed for social change and that I had something to learn from everyone – including those whose political bias was different from my own.

Today the scene is very different. I would venture to say that the great majority of those with whom I interact are strongly liberal, so it becomes especially important to hear and encourage the more conservative voices. No one has a monopoly on truth.

I am convinced that one of the greatest obstacles to progress in this country is the prevailing sentiment among liberal activists that “we are the solution and others are the problem,” or at least in need of education. I recall a meeting of national social justice advocates where I remarked that we were “like an airplane with one wing.” How could we change the country with only people of one worldview?

Some years ago, I invited a dentist friend who devoted much time to pro bono work to attend a “dismantling racism” workshop. He withdrew in frustration because the trainer insisted on group acceptance of a particular social construct and historical interpretation. My friend was made to feel that his contribution to the community was of no value – worse, in the prescribed victim-victimizer paradigm, he was identified as a perpetrator of injustice who must be reformed. A potential ally was lost.

Similar feelings of exclusion can occur around matters of faith. One of the most significant moments of a recent national meeting of Initiatives of Change occurred in the final hour. A woman from Northern Virginia rose to say she was aware that most people in the room were liberals, but she wanted everyone to know that she was a conservative Christian and marched in pro-life rallies. But she also said that she was committed to social change. (Later one person said to her in surprise, “But I thought all pro-lifers were mean people!”) 


This act of courage emboldened a participant from Richmond to say that she also was a conservative and had not previously felt comfortable within the group. Another person expressed appreciation for the sensitivity she had felt during the weekend as a person of no religious faith. Afterwards she met over lunch for a heartfelt conversation with the two self-identified conservatives. She said she had frequently felt excluded in a predominantly Christian culture and she “wept tears of joy” at finally being accepted for who she was and feeling that she had a home in Initiatives of Change.

Many of my sons’ generation would describe themselves as spiritual and are deeply committed to making practical change and to building just communities. They do not believe in a God confined behind church doors, where the emphasis is more on gaining members than addressing social ills, where doctrine excludes rather than welcomes and where judgment supersedes love.  

My own spiritual beliefs and my views on abortion, gay and straight relationships, racial and economic justice, and a range of other issues do not fall easily within prevailing political or religious orthodoxies. I suspect that many people are frustrated by the liberal/conservative or cultural and religious boxes in which we insist on placing each other. Life is complex and we must allow for ambiguity.

Now more than ever America needs spaces where honest conversation can flourish and where unexpected partnerships become possible. If people feel they must check their true selves at the door, the dialogue will not be honest and we will miss opportunities to celebrate the richness of our diversity. As I wrote in my book, Trustbuilding, “true dialogue involves inquiry, attentive listening, and sharing of experiences as well as information and assumptions with the purpose of learning.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Democracy depends on good losers

I have been reading Making Our Democracy Work by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (Knopf 2010). One passage may be of particular relevance to the struggle for democracy now underway in many parts of the world from South Sudan to Egypt. It is also a challenge to those in Washington whose reluctance to follow the basic operating principles of a two-party democracy has led to government paralysis. 

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the national popular vote. But elections are decided by the electoral votes and everything hinged on Florida. Under Florida law (like most states) the candidate who receives the largest share of state’s popular vote also receives all the state’s electoral votes. In the original count, Bush led Gore by fewer than two thousand votes out of the six million cast, thus triggering an automatic recount. Bush still came out ahead but by a narrower margin and Gore challenged the count in four districts. 

The Florida Supreme Court then ordered a recount of the entire vote. Bush’s legal team leapt into action and challenged the state’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in a highly controversial decision voted by 5 to 4 in Bush’s favor.

The process had been complicated by hand counting of machine-uncountable ballots due to various types of voter error. Subsequent studies produced conflicting conclusions on which candidate would have won, had the state been allowed to do a complete recount. For many the Court’s decision was a huge disappointment and many regarded it as unfair.

Justice Breyer, who was among the dissenters on the Court, writes: “Whether the decision was right or wrong is not the point here. If I and three other members of the Court thought the decision was very wrong, so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next. Gore, the losing candidate, told followers not to attack the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. And despite the great importance of the decision, the strong disagreement about its merits, and the strong feelings about the Court’s intervention, the public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully, with no need for troops… without rocks hurled in the streets, without violent massive protest. The leader of the U.S. Senate Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that the public's willingness to follow the law as enunciated by the Court constitutes a little-remarked, but the most remarkable, feature of the case. I agree”
 

In a New York Times commentary on December 13, 2011, Scott Farris reflected on what some observers have called one of the great political speeches in American history: “In many countries, losing candidates do not peacefully accept defeat, and their obstinacy leads to political chaos, riots and sometimes civil war. Gore understood the risks to America from a prolonged dispute over an unresolved election. Our democratic political system works only when the losers give their consent to be governed by the winners. So, on Dec. 13, 2000, Gore chose to begin a process of healing. He did not merely concede, he gave a remarkably upbeat and friendly concession speech and quoted an earlier losing candidate, Stephen Douglas, who pledged to Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’”
 

In order to function, democracy requires a loyal opposition which puts country before political partisanship. Al Gore offered a lesson we all will do well to remember.