Monday, July 29, 2019

If every child were my child

When my wife and I arrived in Richmond in 1980, the schools were experiencing white flight to the counties and to private schools. Living in the Carillon neighborhood all three of our sons attended the local John B. Cary Elementary School, which began as a “model” school, open to people across Richmond and designed to reflect the racial makeup of the city. Places were in high demand and student selection was by lottery based on racial and gender quotas. There was no sibling policy, but all our sons were lucky enough to be selected.

By the time our youngest son, Andrew, entered Cary, it had changed to a neighborhood school. The demographics began to shift. I recall a PTA meeting where a white father stated, “We are proud of the diversity in this school, but we don’t want too much diversity.” In the late 1980s white parents “rediscovered” Mary Munford Elementary School which at the time was 96% black although it was situated near some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. (Black kids were bused in.) Many white Cary parents, who were dissatisfied with a new principal, transferred their kids. Today, Munford is about 73% white and 12% black.

By the time Andrew graduated from John B. Cary he was the only white male in his class. This story is typical of swings that occur as white middle-class parents who have the privilege of mobility seek the best options for their children. (Incidentally, all three of our sons say that when they went to college, they were better prepared for the real world than many of their peers who had attended largely white schools. Andrew won a two-year Harvard Fellowship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is now on the foundation staff helping them redesign their support for public education.)

In recent years, Richmond has attracted increasing numbers of young white families, many of whom express a desire to live in a diverse urban community. I had hoped that they would approach the question of schooling with a less racially biased lens than earlier generations. So, I was disappointed by recently reported comments by some parents at William Fox Elementary School that a proposed pairing with Cary (just a few minutes’ drive west) to create two racially balanced schools would force them to choose private schools or move to the counties. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras termed some of the initial reactions to the preliminary plans “Massive Resistance 2.0,” in reference to the state’s opposition to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. It seems that many white parents still want diversity on their own terms.

Some years ago, our Hope in the Cities team launched forums and city-wide conversations about education with the question, “If every child were my child, what would I do differently?” 

This question raises discomforting moral issues with which we as a community must grapple if we are serious about building an education system that is worthy of every child in Richmond.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Naming as an act of healing

On Saturday, June 22, several thousand Richmonders celebrated under a clear blue sky as state and city leaders dedicated the Arthur Ashe Boulevard to the city's most distinguished native son. The event also highlighted the opening of an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture depicting the struggle for black equality and marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans to English North America.

We heard the veteran Civil Rights leader John Lewis delivering a rousing keynote. “We cannot remake what happened 400 years ago,” said the Congressman from Georgia, “but we’re here today as one people, as one family." Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia called the name change "an act of healing." 

Ashe grew up in a segregated Richmond. As a young black tennis player, the future Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion was barred from playing on the Byrd Park courts at the south end of the Boulevard and was confined to practice on segregated courts in the north of the city.  

Honoring Richmond’s true heroes has been a long struggle. Twenty-two years ago, after an intense public debate, a statue honoring Ashe – who won international renown as a civil rights activist and humanitarian – was unveiled on Monument Avenue, previously the exclusive domain of massive sculptures of Confederate generals who had fought to maintain slavery. Senator Kaine was serving on the city council at the time. He recalled a seven-hour meeting following a public hearing at which more than one hundred people spoke. 

Kaine and other speakers paid tribute to the late Senator Benjamin Lambert, III, a distinguished African American state senator who raised funds for the statue, and Tom Chewning, a white business leader, who led the campaign to put it on Monument Avenue. Chewning said afterward that some people with whom he had close relationships were upset, but “That’s the price you pay.”

Now we are at another historic moment for Richmonders as we work to create a new narrative for the city. "This is truly a spectacular and momentous day," said David Harris, Jr., Ashe's nephew who led the drive to rename the road formerly known simply as the Boulevard. Previous attempts had failed in 1993 and 2003. Harris enlisted the support of Kimberly Gray, an African American council member whose district includes a portion of the boulevard. Her tireless efforts paid off.

Mayor Stoney proclaimed that the Arthur Ashe Boulevard symbolizes the city we want to become. The boulevard bisects Monument Avenue and is a principle gateway to the city. “Richmond is at a Crossroads: Will Arthur Ashe Boulevard Point the Way?” asked a New YorkTimes commentary

I think that the renaming shows that even though it took a long time, these things can be done,” said historian Ed Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond, in an interview with Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams. “People understand that memorialization matters; that the names that we give things have consequences.” The crowd applauded when Mayor Stoney announced that an elementary school formerly bearing the name of Confederate General Jeb Stuart has been renamed after Barrack Obama.
My one brief contact Arthur Ashe was in January 1993. We were preparing for the Healing the Heart of America national conference the following June which featured Richmond’s first public walk through its racial history. My wife’s godfather, “Bunny” Austin, the celebrated British tennis player, a Wimbledon finalist in 1932 and 1938, was a close friend of Ashe. Bunny encouraged me to call Arthur and invite him to play a role in the conference. I knew Arthur was ill but to my surprise he picked up the phone himself. He listened politely and expressed some skepticism that Richmond would ever have an honest conversation on race! However, he suggested I get back in touch once plans for the conference were firmed up. One month later he was dead. With our young sons we stood in line with thousands of Richmonders to pay tribute to him as he lay in state in the Governor’s Mansion.  
I am told that some members of the Ashe family were initially hesitant about the renaming of the boulevard. They felt that Arthur, a remarkably humble person who had a passionate conviction for education, would have preferred to see the money spent on schools. However, I believe he would have rejoiced to see his hometown at its best last Saturday and to feel along with the jubilant crowd that Richmond could show the way to a nation much in need of hope and healing.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

New beginnings

Forty years ago, Susan and I came to make our home in Richmond, Virginia. This summer we will move to Austin, Texas. Last week 40 friends, including neighbors, work colleagues and others from across the city crowded into our home, to celebrate my 70th birthday. We also came together to give thanks for the remarkable journey we have shared together. 

We have loved this diverse community known as the Carillon where we raised our three boys. Our walks in the park are a highlight of most days. Richmond looks its best in April. Dogwood and azalea are in full bloom and the brilliant green leaves on massive oaks and tulip poplars provide shade. Just a mile away is Cary Street with cafes and boutique stores and the historic Byrd Theatre. Down the hill the river beckons.     

People sometimes ask us, “Why Richmond?” The answer we give is that we somehow felt God was doing something special in this city and we wanted to be part of it. Of course, we had no idea what that would mean! Our lives were changed by individuals who became our friends and who offered a level of trust far beyond what we had any right to expect. It has been our privilege to accompany them and to learn from them. They have had the courage to start a change process in their own lives; and they are building a new vision for a city scared by a history of slavery, civil war, and racial discrimination. 

Over the years, visitors from as far away as Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and Guatemala have come to study this city’s approach to healing wounded memory and building partnerships across traditional divides. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, was among those from 25 countries in 1993 who joined Richmonders in their first public walk through the city’s racial history. He wrote later, “June 1993 was the start of a remarkable revelation. Resolving (with some difficulty) to face a painful past, Richmond discovered that concealed inside that pain was the seed of a great promise – a promise that an America that seeks healing will be sought after by a hurting world.”

Despite the odds, Richmond continues to build networks of trust that stand the test of time. The trustbuilding process begun here is now the foundation for pilot projects in several countries launched by Initiatives of Change International.

When we came to Richmond in 1980 we made a commitment to colleagues that we would stay for five years.  At the time it seemed like a lifetime. Neither of us had ever lived for more than three years in one place. Now we are following a new call to a new city and a new home. We have a five-year-old granddaughter eager to welcome us to Austin.

We will leave with mixed emotions, leaving so many dear friends who have become like family to us. As we discover a new community, we know that we will be led to people who are working for change. As we often say, “the team is waiting to be discovered.”

At this Easter season of new birth, it seems fitting that robins have laid eggs in nests in bushes at both ends of our porch and on the day of the party last week three of them hatched!

It's a time for new beginnings. Watch this space for updates on our adventures.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

He walked the talk

By my desk there is a photograph of Walter T. Kenney, the former mayor of Richmond, who died in January. The portrait features on the very large printed program for a 1995 banquet honoring Kenney’s 18 years of service as a councilman. The text reads, “Politicians seldom get their just desserts, but Walter Kenney will get his tonight.”  

Rev. Dr. Paige Chargois, a lead organizer of the event, comments on the picture:“It symbolized his stature and capacity. But the measure of the man was never his height (although he stood well over 6 feet); it was, instead, the depth to which he loved Richmond which reflected in all that he lavished upon its citizens!” 

Chargois writes that Kenney’s civic concerns took him well beyond his official duties into the corners of citizens' lives that many political leaders consider not safe for their political careers. “Although Richmond's racial dilemma had been around for decades with many politicians preferring a ‘hands-off’ policy, Mayor Kenney did the opposite, including a deep dive into the work of racial reconciliation.” At his invitation, delegates from cities across the US and from 25 countries came to the former capital of the Confederacy in 1993 to launch “Healing the Heart of America: An honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility.” The landmark event was jointly sponsored by the City, Hope in the Cities, and the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center.

Two years later I was with him when he spoke at Brooklyn Borough Hall about the Richmond community’s courage in coming together to tell the truth about our history by marking sites associated with the city’s history of slavery: “It is often the thing from which we hide that eventually wounds us – from the inside out – and such had been the case in Richmond….We did not highlight these places in an effort to hand out guilt or to vent anger. We wanted to acknowledge their existence so that we could close the door and move forward.” He continued, “The mentality of victimhood or guilt-ridden shame anchors us in inaction...Regardless of past or present injustices, we are all responsible for shaping our common future."

Walter encountered Initiatives of Change soon after joining the city council in 1977. One of the IofC network, a retired secretary invited him and his wife to tea. Walter said it was the first time he had been invited to a white home. He had worked for many years in the US Postal Service, rising to become the first African American to be elected as a national officer of United Federation of Postal Clerks AFL-CIO, and then one of Richmond’s first black councilmen. When my dad, a former trade unionist from Scotland, came to visit me in Richmond he would call on Walter who joked about being a labor leader and elected official in such an anti-union state.   

He entered politics when the city was experiencing a dramatic and sometimes tumultuous transition and as the white establishment confronted the reality of power sharing for the first time. He understood that trust is built by those who are prepared to look at their own leadership style:"If I change, if I learn how to care more deeply, or listen more intently, then I bring that to virtually everything I touch, whether it is regional discussions, the national agenda, or settling a neighborhood dispute," he once said. Henry Marsh, Richmond’s first African American mayor, said of his long-time friend and colleague, “He had no hate for anyone.”

It was Walter Kenney's inspiration to create the annual Metropolitan Richmond Day, a breakfast forum which for many years convened hundreds of representatives of non-profit organizations, corporations, local government, educational establishments, and faith communities.

At a celebration of his life, fellow church members, politicians, friends and family stressed his care and support for every individual he dealt with. As one person put it, “When he talked with you, you felt you were the only one in the room.”

His care extended to his car which, according to his family, he washed every day. When my wife and he were both serving on the IofC Board he would often pick her up in his prized Lincoln Town Car for the drive to Washington. And no day was complete without an ice cream stop!

Walter was a man of infinite grace. Shortly after losing his city council seat by just a handful of votes, I travelled with him and a few other Richmonders to Chicago where we were preparing for a national Hope in the Cities forum. Among the group was the person who had defeated him at the polls, Shirley Harvey. I will never forget the sight of Walter and Shirley sitting contentedly side by side watching sports on the airport TV monitor during a layover. Another member of the city council was in the arrival area when we flew back to Richmond. His face registered shock and disbelief as the two former political opponents exited the flight together.

After leaving office Walter continued as Richmond’s ambassador, taking Richmond’s message of healing across the US and Canada as well as to Europe. In 1996, I travelled with him to South Africa where he shared his experiences with newly elected black leaders. I also recall a meeting in Paige Chargois's home with Rajmohan Gandhi and the famed civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill. 

He was a man of deep integrity. In a loving tribute a granddaughter said, “He walked the talk. He taught us to do the right thing all the time.” His executive assistant, Cricket White, told me that on one occasion she was given an envelope said to contain damaging information about a potential political rival.  When she put the sealed package on his desk, Kenney was visibly angry and told her to destroy it immediately. 

Walter believed in the power of presence. You could always count on him to show up at an event, even if he had no official role to play. This probably accounts for the remark I heard from one elderly African American woman: “He will always be my mayor.” As his brother said, “He was a man in love with his city.”

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Hospitality of our hearts and minds

This month, Richmonders from many parts of the city celebrated twenty-five years of work for honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility by the Hope in the Cities network. “It was launched in perhaps one of the worst racialized locales: Richmond, Virginia – given its Confederate history – a city that became the capital of racial contempt and enslavement with a racial war to prove it,” said Rev. Dr. Paige Chargois. “But where else in America could such work have become more significant or productive!”

Senator Tim Kaine sent a message in which he recalled his words eight years ago at the launching of my book, Trustbuilding: “Racial discrimination remains with us, and we will continue to need the help of Hope in the Cities to conquer our lesser instincts.” He wrote, “While I am saddened that this observation holds true today, I am heartened by Hope in the Cities’ work to confront our lesser instincts…This commitment has spread across the world where activists work to create more peaceful, just and equal communities.”

Recalling the first public walk through Richmond's racial history, Kaine said,"In an age of heightened bigotry, my advice to you is to keep on marching as you did twenty-five years ago."

What lies behind the depth, dynamism and durability of this movement in Richmond? The answer can be found in the lives of many of the individuals present at the celebration. In different ways, each of them made choices to step beyond their fears, pride, privilege or hurt and to reach out to those who are different. Audrey Burton, an African American community activist, told how she and her husband, Collie, built a friendship with a man they had suspected of racial bias, the senior assistant city manager, and opened their home to people of all backgrounds.  

Audrey also enlisted her friend Paige Chargois. “Hope in the Cities resonated with me for several reasons,” said Paige. “Most importantly, it had moved beyond simplistic approaches to more serious efforts of racial reconciliation. The challenge of reconciliation is brokenness. To reconcile, a relationship must be broken from its old way(s) of relating superficially – or with historical bias – then put back together in a different, healthier, and lasting way. Without disruption, the work of racial reconciliation can become superficial or placating at best, non-existent at the worst. 

“Within the work of racial reconciliation and seeking to end racism, we realized that we could expect to be wounded, offended, and diminished at times as we fought to make the work successful!”  As one of her former colleagues I can attest to some of the struggles!

The Hope in the Cities team determined that relationships were more important than projects, and over the years they have accompanied each other and many others in the wider community who needed support, often acting as silent partners without any demand for public recognition.

This accompanying role was highlighted in a letter from the chairman of Initiatives of Change USA, Alex Wise, who was chairman of the Museum of the Confederacy when he first encountered Hope in the Cities. He came to realize that “people like me were used to telling the story of the Civil War with blinkers on, and that this was contributing to the South’s racism and resistance to change.” He began to imagine a new museum where the whole story could be told from all perspectives. “Gaining the support of Hope the Cities was a key to our success.” Thanks to the trust Hope in the Cities had built, “we were able to gain a hearing and win the support of enough black opinion leaders to get the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar off the ground, and to help to change America’s narrative of the conflict that still shapes our nation.”

As Tim Kaine noted eight years ago, “Hope in the Cities focuses on the 'still small voice', not loud and flashy approaches, or neon signs…Listening is a lost art in this world. Hope in the Cities is creating a space where people can talk. It is incredibly important work…That listening thing is needed more than ever, and not just in racial issues."

Creating space for change requires us to create places of hospitality in our hearts and minds. For many of the Hope in the Cities founders like Audrey Burton and Paige Chargois it meant welcoming diverse groups to their homes. Hospitality means laying aside our preconceptions, bias and prejudices and learning to listen. Listen to the story of the other person, the other group; and listen to the voice of the Creator. None of the breakthroughs that have come through the efforts of Hope in the Cities could have occurred without the willingness of individuals to listen deeply to that inner voice.  

According to the historian Philip Boobbyer, Frank Buchman, the initiator of the Initiatives of Change movement which birthed Hope in the Cities, once said, “If you break the power of your instinctive actions and reactions by obeying the Spirit, you are on track.”  Susan and I have benefited recently from reading Listening to the God Who Speaks by Klaus Bochmuehl. It contains a wealth of insights about the guidance of the Spirit, which, according to St Bernard of Clairvaux, “admonishes the memory, teaches reason and moves the will.”  Bochmuehl highlights the "liberation" of listening: liberation from the "dominant cliches," the "clamoring voices of our culture," and a "return of creativity and spontaneity." Those who listen to their inner voice become "spiritual resource people, constant sources of inspiration rather than irritation." 

At this season of new birth, what could be timelier than to make our hearts and minds places of hospitality for the Spirit? I am reminded of the final verse of a carol that I wrote for our eldest son’s first Christmas:  

Tonight, across the world, ‘midst hunger, hate and war,
In each heart He’s knocking softly at the door.
Through pain and darkness there shines a light
For all mankind to share.

Top photo: Rob Corcoran and Mayor Walter Kenney in the late 90s by Karen Greisdorf.