Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Richmond's journey of healing


Twenty-five years ago, Richmond took its first steps toward publicly acknowledging its traumatic history of slavery and racial oppression. On June 18, 1993, area residents of all backgrounds supported by representatives of 50 other cities and 20 countries walked together (video in two parts) to mark sites previously too painful or shameful to remember. 

In organizing the walk as part of an international forum, Hope in the Cities, the Richmond-based program of Initiatives of Change (IofC), and its allies issued a call for honest conversation on race as an indispensable step in building a healthy community. They were insistent that this required the full participation of all sectors. And they held up a bold vision: in the words of Ben Campbell of Richmond Hill, “the place of greatest pain might be the place where healing could begin” for America. Significantly the organizers called on all stakeholders to accept the challenge of personal responsibility by modeling the necessary change as the foundation for this vision. 

From the outset, the movement has been distinguished by courageous action by many individuals willing to step outside of their comfort zones. In an early example, Collie and Audrey Burton, two black community activists reached out to A. Howe Todd, the white senior assistant senior city manager – a man they suspected of racial bias. The impact of that friendship was such that someone exclaimed, “What has happened to Howe Todd? Whenever I went into a meeting with him, I felt the cards were stacked, that the decisions were already made. Now he really listens to what I have to say.” 

This citizen led, organic initiative has engaged hundreds of Richmonders in constructive dialogue across traditional divides and it has inspired and mobilized institutions across the region. It led to the marking and development of the historic Slave Trail, and Hope in the Cities facilitated Richmond’s relationship with Liverpool, UK, and the Republic of Benin and the placing of the Reconciliation Statue. While there are various opinions about the appropriate memorialization of the slave market site and African Burial Ground, there is now broad consensus on the importance of the project. Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, remarked, “I see in Richmond a city that is engaging with its history in a potentially transformative way. There is a long way to go, but even further in other places.” Last year a team traveled from Selma, Ala, to learn from this city’s experience. Community leaders from a dozen states have taken part in IofC’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship which lays a foundation for narrative change and relationship building.

As important as the ability to talk about our history is the new determination to address its legacy. Together with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Hope in the Cities partnered with Dr. John Moeser to conduct more than 80 presentations using census data and historical narrative to demonstrate how racialized policies created and perpetuate concentrated poverty. This gave impetus to the creation of the city’s first anti-poverty commission and the Office of Community Wealth Building. 

Noting this sustained effort, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation selected Richmond as one of 14 locales nationally to implement “Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.” Now the Richmond region has the opportunity to take its 25-year commitment to honest conversation and healing history to a deeper level. Through cross-sector collaboration, Initiatives of Change is working with its partners to demonstrate that racial equity benefits everyone. 

With a talented and committed new generation of individuals now stepping into leadership roles, it is time for me to transition to a new phase of life. My family came to Richmond in 1980, never imagining that we would be here nearly 40 years later. We’ve had the honor of working with people from many walks of life who are building a new future for a city scarred by a history of slavery, civil war, and discrimination. It has been our privilege to accompany them and to learn from them.  

The world’s cities face increasingly urgent issues of diversity and inclusion. I look forward to sharing Richmond’s ongoing story as an encouragement and practical framework for concerned citizens everywhere who are striving to build trust across historic divides.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

A toolkit for white allies

We need a new approach to dialogue about race in this country, according to David Campt, one of the nation’s most experienced and innovative practitioners who once advised the White House. I first met him when we were working together on a dialogue guide for President Clinton’s One America race initiative. Over the past decade, in Campt’s view, the role of dialogue has diminished nationally. There was a burst of activity in the 90s and early 2000’s but it was under-resourced and was largely confined to people already concerned about racism.

“Now we are facing two challenges," says Campt. “People of color are saying, ‘I’m not going to go on educating white people and try to persuade them that racism is real and it is wrong.' And there are a whole bunch of white people who are not affected by any claims of racism. Their perspective is ‘the demographics of the nation are changing and people like me are being treated unfairly.’* So how do we have the conversation about race? How do we engage people who believe racism does not exist?”

Campt was in Richmond this month to launch his new publication,"The White Allies Toolkit Workbook: Using Active Listening, Empathy, and Personal Storytelling to Promote Racial Equity." The toolkit is predicated on the belief that some progress in race relations is best achieved through conversation among white people. It is a comprehensive step-by-step resource for white allies (those people who want to support the struggle to end racism) to learn better ways to engage with other whites who don’t believe that racism is a problem. He calls the later group “racism skeptics.”

In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, Campt says, “A lot of people who do this kind of work, they think that it is important that white people feel bad about themselves…I’m not sure that that’s the best strategy for having people learn.”

He told the Richmond audience that in today's culture racism is practically the worst thing you can be accused of “just below murder and child abuse.” He suggests that white allies need to adopt “code switching” in talking with racism skeptics. “We need to talk differently to people based on who they are. Black people have done this for hundreds of years.”

 “White allies tend to adopt the prophetic voice, lecturing people about white supremacy. But skeptics will not be shamed into changing their minds. We need a coaching perspective, we need to bring them along, not berate them.”

He admits that people of color have sometimes urged white allies to adopt a lecturing style because they are fed up with racism. “But it’s not the best communication strategy. The question is what will be effective.” Crucially, he believes that to move the ball forward “we have to extend dignity, even to those who are denying dignity to others.” The goal is to move the conversation from a battle of opinions and "facts" to an experience-based inquiry. The project does not take the position that bringing white skeptics out of their denial of racism necessarily means getting them to abandon their conservative beliefs. For many ideological skeptics, their perspectives about race are part of a larger battle between what they see as healthy conservative values (such as hard work, obeying authority, merit and uniform standards) and a liberal attack on these values.

The Toolkit outlines a four-step process for engaging with a skeptic:
  • Reflect: be prepared to be in a listening mode. This requires careful personal reflection before the conversation, being aware of your listening blockages and being prepared to find something however small in what the skeptic says that you can align yourself with.   
  • Ask: inquire about the personal experiences that have led the skeptic to their belief.
  • Connect: share a personal anecdote that is likely to have some resonance with them. There may be an experience in the story you share that they can identify with. It is important to make the skeptic feel that you place some importance on the point of agreement. 
  • Expand: tell an anecdote that invites an awareness of race or racism. This may be the moment to introduce some data or research findings. 
Each of these steps is explored in some detail along with helpful suggestions. Campt notes that this process may involve a series of conversations or interactions and that getting to stage 4 is challenging. “We need to look at this as a long game.”

Will this approach prove successful and can it be taken to scale? Campt has certainly identified a crucial area for work. He will be back in Richmond later this year to offer some training to groups who would like to try out the toolkit. 


*In a 2017 poll, about 55% of white respondents said that racism against white people is as big a problem as racism against people of color.

David Campt is a faculty member of the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Good neighbors come in all colors


1968 was a momentous and turbulent year. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out in cities across America. In June, Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. 

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, resistance to change was fierce, nowhere more so than in the housing market where real estate agents, banks and newspapers were conspiring to maintain segregation. Some neighborhoods had restrictive covenants to ensure that homes could only be sold to whites. Following the passage of the Fair Housing Act, also in 1968, agents would often scare white families into selling by telling them that their neighborhood would become unsafe and their house would lose value if blacks moved in. They would then sell the house at an inflated price to a black family. Realtors profited further as whites fled to the suburbs. This practice was widespread across the country. 

But in a quiet neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, a small group of determined citizens set out to reverse the trend and create an integrated community that was to become a national model. The Carillon Civic Association (CCA) began 50 years ago in the home of a local white lawyer, Randy Rollins, and his wife, Martha, a businesswoman. After the first blacks bought houses, about a third of the neighborhood left within 18 months. But the CCA founders were determined to show that “good neighbors come in all colors” and actively promoted a diverse community The group included Harold Marsh, whose brother was to become Richmond’s first black mayor. Martha says she knocked on the doors of all 350 homes in the neighborhood. 

The CCA filed complaints about race-based listing of housing ads in the Richmond newspapers and by the summer of 1971, this system had ended. An “Arts in the Park” festival, launched in 1972 as a collaborative neighborhood project, draws well over 100,000 visitors to see the work of artists from all over the United States.

This month, two of those who were attracted to the neighborhood in the early days of integration shared their memories at the CCA annual meeting. At the time, John Moeser and Rutledge Dennis were both professors at Virginia Commonwealth University and both served on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), founded in 1971, which successfully sued real estate companies that were practicing discrimination. Moeser is white; Dennis is black. 

Moeser recalled a meeting of CCA officials: “The board wanted to engage in an open discussion about the ‘tipping point.’ A neighborhood could flip when the proportion of African Americans reached a certain level. What gave me such a high regard was the fact that the board wanted to talk about a really difficult question: How many blacks could the neighborhood absorb? It was honest. If I were an African American I would have been indignant, but they were willing to take the risk of being misunderstood. It was a remarkable conversation.”

Dennis called the CCA pioneers “movers and shakers for a new Richmond and a new America.” There was a sense that “we were going to be different, just as Richmond was in the process of being different. (The city elected its first black majority city council in 1977.) We are not going to have white flight.”  He said the creation of John B. Cary elementary school as a model integrated school, where Dennis served as PTA president, and the growth of HOME, as well as the work of the CCA, made him feel "this is my home.” It was “a community in action.”

Integration did not come without its challenges. Mrs. King, a somewhat eccentric elderly white woman, asked Dennis soon after he arrived, “Who bought your house for you?” But, says Dennis, “we became good friends.” White neighbors across the street used to run inside whenever he came outside. “Sometimes I would come outside just to see them run inside!” He recalled with special affection his next-door neighbors with whom he had daily conversations. “The wife gave me advice on how to weed and take care of my yard.”

In 1971, Governor Linwood Holton praised the community for its “extraordinary efforts” in race relations: “It is my sincere belief that what happens in a small Richmond neighborhood with less population than a Manhattan apartment complex, can be of enduring importance to America.” In 2016 the Carillon neighborhood was designated as a national historic district. In making this designation, the Department of Historic Resources was particularly interested in the human story of the neighborhood in working to encourage integration.

My family has lived here since 1980. Our three sons attended John B. Cary elementary school. We know all our neighbors. Crime is virtually unknown. But as Richmond becomes increasingly attractive, house prices in many communities are rising steeply. This may pose a challenge to the economic diversity of which the CCA is rightly proud. We should take to heart Rutledge Dennis's closing words to the annual meeting: "It was a grand experiment; but we have to work to make it work."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Quiet Time: rediscovering two way prayer

When I first met Rev. Bill Wigmore he was running the largest recovery center in Texas based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In recent years, Wigmore, who is an Episcopal priest, has been researching the movement’s early methodology to rediscover the lost or forgotten process followed by Dr. Bob and the A.A. pioneers. Foremost among these is what Wigmore describes as two-way prayer – regular quiet times which he says were regarded as even more important than group meetings.

Dr Bob wrote that the alcoholic “must have devotions every morning,” a ‘Quiet Time,’ which includes prayer and some reading from spiritual literature. “Unless this is faithfully followed there is grave danger of backsliding.”

The Oxford Group (later Moral Re-Armament and now Initiatives of Change) provided the founding principles for A.A. Wigmore says that in the late 1930s, when A.A. separated from the Oxford Group, it left behind a number of ideas and a few of the Group’s most effective spiritual practices. Letting go of some of these was deemed necessary at the time, but Bill Wilson later lamented “…something was lost from A.A. when we stopped emphasizing morning meditation.”

Today, various forms of meditation and mindfulness are practiced widely by people of all faith backgrounds as well as those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Brain science is showing the health benefits of such practices. Business schools now incorporate it into their courses, and school teachers are finding that a short period of meditation can improve behavior and learning readiness of children who often come into the classroom distracted or stressed.

However, while many contemporary forms of meditation focus exclusively on the self, the Quiet Time as practiced in many IofC circles, connects us both with our true inner compass, or God, depending on our faith  or cultural tradition, and with other people and practical life.

This may be important in a society which is becoming increasingly self-preoccupied. Ruth Whippman has spent the last few years researching and writing a book about happiness and anxiety in America. In a New York Times commentary she writes, “I’ve noticed that this particular strain of happiness advice – the kind that pitches the search for contentment and an internal personal quest, divorced from other people – has become increasingly common.”  

She notes that spiritual and religious practice is “slowly shifting from a community based endeavor to a private one with silent meditation retreats, mindfulness apps and yoga classes…. ‘self-care’ has become the new going out.” Paradoxically, while we put more and more emphasis on seeking happiness within, Americans are spending less time actually connecting with each other. Yet contrary to popular belief, research shows that happiness comes not so much from within but from our interaction with other people. A healthy introspection is an important part of life, but we have got things out of balance.

Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church recently told our congregation at St Paul’s Church that “self-centeredness is the most destructive force in the universe.” Richard Rohr writes that prophets and wisdom teachers like Jesus “have passed through a major death to their ego. This is the core meaning of transformation.”  Marcus Borg says that this kind of transformation “leads from a life of anxiety to a life of peace and trust. It leads us from bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It leads from life centered in culture to life centered in God.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong proponent of the right kind of self-care. I work all the time with community activists and we know that burn-out is an occupational hazard. The challenge is to practice disciplined self-care that does not fall into self-absorption. 

I once heard Dr. Paul Campbell, a Canadian physician, describe the Quiet Time as “the highest use of the brain.” Writing down the thoughts that come in silence and sharing them with a trusted friend or sometimes with a circle of friends is another helpful step in discerning what the Spirit may be trying to communicate and in holding ourselves accountable.

In my experience the Quiet Time enables us to accept our true selves and to allow the power of love to permeate our minds and hearts to see ourselves and others in a new light – and then to act. The power of this practice is seen in the practical steps taken by shantytown leaders in Rio de Janeiro and village farmers in India, a politician in Australia, or a business executive in Britain.* For them, and for thousands of others, the Quiet Time not only made them better and happier people but connected them with their neighbors and colleagues, or overcame rivalries and bitter feuds, and led to creative approaches to everyday challenges. 

*See Lean, Bread, Bricks, Belief: Communities in Charge of their Future (Kumarian Press,1995); Father of the House: The Memoirs of Kim. E. Beazley (Freemantle Press/Penguin Books, 2009); Corcoran, Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility (University of Virginia Press 2010)   

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Remembrance and repentance at former church of the Confederacy


Over the past two years I have been part of a History and Reconciliation Initiative at St Paul’s Episcopal Church. A deep dive into the archives reveals the extent of the congregation’s involvement in Richmond’s slave economy, its promotion of the Lost Cause mythology and racial hierarchy, as well as significant work in recent decades to promote dialogue and to address needs in education and housing.


On Saturday, March 10, we welcomed the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry at a public forum, “Bending toward truth: a forum on race and religion in Richmond.” Curry, who is the first African American primate of the Episcopal Church, came to affirm the work of St Paul’s. Up to 500 people from across the region heard panels of historians, clergy of various denominations, the leader of a foundation focused on health, and the CEO of a museum. As part of the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise, Initiatives of Change-Hope in the Cities partnered with St Paul's. 

Historians Chris Graham and Elizabeth O’Leary told the forum that the resources that made the church came directly from the profits of factories and businesses built on the backs of enslaved African Americans. One of the benefactors, Joseph Reid Anderson, owned 75 slaves who worked at his Tredegar Iron Works. Graham said that little is known of the people who built the church, “but this story is less about how slavery built the church and more about how the church built race.”

St Paul’s supported a widely-held theology that claimed God ordained racial inequality and that it was the moral duty of whites to govern blacks. “They defined the enslavement of humans not as an act of violence, but as benevolence, which they justified by their Christian faith,” said Graham. People at St Paul’s were “fully invested emotionally, financially, spiritually in the Civil War.” Confederate leaders worshipped in our pews, and after the war the congregation installed an iconography of the Lost Cause and used magnificent stained-glass windows to tell a false narrative of former glory which denied slavery as the primary cause of the war – an early example of fake news. The land for the Lee monument was donated by a member of the congregation. Members of St Paul’s were delegates to the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention which disenfranchised huge numbers of African Americans though poll taxes and literacy tests to re-assert white supremacy; this led to 86 years of rule by the Democratic party.

In the first part of the 20th century, the church was eager to improve “race relations” and promoted charitable causes but only within the context of Jim Crow segregation. St Paul’s members were involved on redlining that prevented blacks from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods, and in the decision to construct a highway though the heart of the thriving African American business district.

However, in recent decades St Paul’s has incubated important efforts such as the Micah Initiative which inspired scores of area congregations to support elementary school children and teachers, particularly in high poverty areas, and the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center which has become a vital place of spiritual renewal and racial reconciliation. Members of the congregation were also instrumental in the development and support of Hope in the Cities. Indeed, Rev. Ben Campbell, the founder of Richmond Hill, was my closest ally in the early development of Hope in the Cities as it launched its campaign for honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility, including Richmond’s first walk through its racial history.

Disrupting the narrative

The forum featured panels of historians and scholars including Edward Ayers, president emeritus at the University of Richmond, Corey Walker, dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, as well as clergy of different denominations, and Mark Constantine, president and CEO of Richmond Memorial Health Foundation and Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum.  

Among the insights I noted:
  • It is irrelevant to focus on the personal qualities or motivations however noble of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, because if they had won the result would have been a vast nation built on perpetual bondage.  
  • What happens to a people who forget their holocaust? America as a whole does not believe that it had a holocaust, but African Americans know. The Germans have done deep work in remembering their history. We built monuments to losers.
  • The African American community is not a problem or pathology to be solved by public policy. The critical question is how do we understand what it is to be human?
  • The individualizing of faith divorces it from social consequences especially among white evangelicals.
  • White fragility is very strong. We need to say we are not afraid to repent not just for our personal sin but for the historic and institutional sin.
  • The consequences of our history include a 20-year difference in life expectancy in different parts of the city; lack of affordable housing; an ongoing segregation in our schools; and lack of access to employment because of inadequate public transportation.  
  • We must “disrupt the narrative.” This is a day of reckoning. It is an opportunity to take our history and build a new narrative that grapples directly with white supremacy.

In a call to action, Bishop Curry told the forum, “This is important not only for Richmond but for the nation and the world. We must find a better way; you are modeling a better way.”

A statement printed as the introduction for a service of remembrance and repentance on Sunday summarized the key findings of the historical research. It concluded: “While our church is rooted in great injustice, our story reveals great transformation and courage among our members who we have not remembered as we do our famous war heroes. Taken together this whole story provokes us to think about repentance. To repent is to turn around. We are turning. There is more turning yet to do… We humbly acknowledge that this service of remembrance and repentance is but a step along a journey.”

Curry’s sermon focused on the power of love which is the antitheses of selfishness. He called self-centeredness “the most destructive force in the universe.” He left us with the affirmation that “St Paul’s has the capacity to speak hard words that are saturated with hope.”