Friday, August 26, 2016

Snapshots of the America I know and love

It is just 10 am but the mercury has already climbed to 85°F as we arrive at our favorite little beach where the York River estuary spills into the Chesapeake Bay. On a grassy park area, Latino boys are playing soccer. Under the few big shade trees large family groups – Latino, African American and Asian – prepare the mid-day meals. Tempting aromas waft from grills. 

As we relax in our beach chairs after a swim, members of an African American Pentecostal church conduct a baptism, wading into the warm waters, while high school seniors in bikinis stroll by. A few yards away, an older white man is fishing. A black army veteran with a yoga mat stops to say hi. It all seems far removed from the picture of a country seething with anger and fear conjured up by Donald Trump.

I have spent the past three decades engaged in efforts for racial healing and equity. I am acutely aware of the injustices that continue to deny too many people of color – as well as white folks – the opportunity to thrive, and I am angry that a society as wealthy as ours still allows so many hard working Americans to live in poverty. I have written extensively about these things. But this blog is about the hopeful side of this country, the America I know and love. 

While deep divisions do exist, most of America is not about to erupt in riots. At our annual neighborhood National Night Out picnic, people of all races and ages mingle happily with officers from the city sheriff's office. In a contrast to images from Ferguson and Baltimore, the newspaper reports that in the days since the Dallas shootings community groups and individuals in predominantly minority communities have delivered pizza and cookies as well as thank-you cards to Richmond police. Richmond is not alone in this regard.    

Despite the partisan gridlock in DC, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans actually agree on major issues such as the reality of climate change, the need to address inequality and to establish sensible gun controls, as well as to properly fund education. There is an overwhelming desire to limit the power of money and corporations in politics. 

According to a 2013 poll, 87% of all Americans (including 84% of whites) now approve of interracial marriage. In 1958, when the question was asked only to whites, it was 4%. Many commentators have remarked on the diversity of America’s Olympians, particularly the black, white, Latina and Jewish female gymnastics team. 

In another hopeful sign of growing awareness, in a polling analysis conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction with the Northeastern University School of Journalism, a majority of whites acknowledge that racism still exists, and that it creates bias in structures such as the criminal justice system. Also, in a poll last year, 53 percent of whites said more changes need to be made to give blacks equal rights with whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier. 

I think back to the early 80s soon after we arrived in Richmond. We were attending a city-sponsored July 4th concert in our park, accompanied by a young black friend in what was an almost entirely white audience. To our shock, the conductor returned after the interval decked out in a Confederate uniform and as the band stroke up “Dixie” the entire crowd leaped to its feet shouting and cheering hysterically. We remained seated; I could feel the fear in our friend. Such a scenario is unthinkable in Richmond today. A typical July 4th concert crowd is notable for its diversity.  

Two final snapshots: 

Susan and I are taking our usual early morning walk around the park. A vehicle carrying a young black couple pulls up alongside and the driver rolls down the window. 
“Are you guys brother and sister?” he asks.  
“No, actually we are married,” I replied. 
“Looking good!” he smiles, and drives off.  
The fact that a young black man – a complete stranger – feels comfortable to interact like this with a white couple is testament to a growing comfort and confidence across racial lines.

Returning to the US from an overseas trip, the officer greeting us at the immigration desk may be of any race, religion or ethnicity. He or she may have come to this country even more recently than I. 
“Where have you been?” the officer inquires.
“Europe, attending a conference and also visiting family.”
“Family is good. Welcome home.”  

We have a long way to go to make this country truly a home for all of its people. But I am with President Obama when he says, “I’ve also seen, more than anything, what is right with America.” 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The hard work of democracy

Susan and I landed at London’s Heathrow airport the morning after the Brexit referendum. Back in the US, Democrats were conducting a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to shame their GOP colleagues into allowing a vote on a measure to reduce gun violence. On both sides of the Atlantic, the political elites seem paralyzed and out of touch with key sectors of the electorate. Large numbers of Americans and Brits feel they are not being heard. There is anger and frustration with elected leaders who are self-serving, unresponsive to real needs and (in the case of the US) controlled by lobbyists and moneyed interests.      

Yet, paradoxically, on both sides of the Atlantic, constituents often vote against their own self-interest. In Sunderland in northeast England, the “Leave” campaign won 61% percent of the vote despite the fact that the region is a large recipient of European money and is home to Britain’s largest car factory from where Nissan exports duty-free to the continent. In the US, since the days of Reagan, the GOP has succeeded in winning the support of many white blue collar workers even while Republican policies have helped to widen the rich-poor gap.  

Healthy democracies depend on a well-informed public. Electorates in the US and the UK have been very poorly served by media obsessed with ratings and sensationalism. Responsible media might have exposed Trump as a fraud much earlier. But recent events demonstrate that humans are often influenced more by emotion that by rational argument. We may ignore data but we will resonate with stories; indeed our brains are wired for story. Stories are what make us human. They give meaning to life. They form our identity. 

Stories of course can distort how we remember history. After the American Civil War, the humiliated Southern states developed myths depicting a heroic past and erected monuments to the Lost Cause. It is a universal trait among people with an uncertain future. As Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani political scientist and journalist observed, they “affect distorted engagements with the past. They eschew lived history, shut out its lessons, shun critical inquiry into the past…but at the same time invent an imagined past – shining and glorious, upon which are superimposed the prejudices and hatreds of our own times.”   

Listening to post-referendum radio interviews with UK voters, I was struck by the many references to sacrifices in two World Wars and to pride in Britain’s past by those who support leaving the EU. America reflects a similar pattern where older working class whites seem to long for a return to the good old days. Those good old days, of course, were better for some Americans than for others. In the 1950s, a white middle class (many of whom started from humble beginnings) grew rapidly and built unprecedented wealth as a result of the GI bill which enabled them to become homeowners, but blacks were largely excluded by discriminatory bank lending policies. Federally financed highways allowed whites to escape to the suburbs, while minorities were trapped in the inner cities. School segregation continued for decades even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision. 

Current demographic trends show that Americans in increasing numbers are choosing to live in areas populated by people who share their political and cultural views. And we rely on media sources that reinforce our biases and prejudices. In both America and Europe, cultural and generational divides are becoming more evident.   

What can be done to address the growing threats to responsible democracy in Europe and the US? Joyce McMillan wrote in The Scotsman newspaper a few days before the referendum result, “Only a move towards a modern form of social democracy can find the answers we need."  While few of us may be in positions to affect policy directly, there are steps that any of us can take. Here are a few for starters: 

We must all get involved in the exercising of democracy. At the most basic level this means voting at the local, state or county and national level. While 75% of 18 to 24 year-old Britons favored staying in the EU, only 36% actually bothered to vote. Democracy is hard work and requires more than debates on social media. As Bernie Sanders discovered, “momentum” is not enough.    

We can consciously choose to put ourselves in places where we hear the stories of people of varied life experiences and views. We don’t all have to agree but we can all learn something from people who think differently. Instead of contributing to the fragmentation of society we can choose lifestyles that tend to build community. Try actually talking to our neighbors and spend less time on Facebook or Twitter.    

On both sides of the Atlantic we must acknowledge the hopes and the fears that are the natural response to rapidly changing social, economic, cultural and demographic realities. Globalization brings benefits while also demanding painful adjustments, but together we can build a shared vision for the future in which the contribution of everyone is welcomed and valued.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Leading with love

How can Initiatives of Change best contribute to healing the wounds of America’s history of racism? This legacy affects each one of us; it corrodes every aspect of our national life. The election season has revealed the depth of healing that is needed. According to a recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 49% of Americans believe that racism is “a big problem.”

I’ve just returned from Chicago where I spent two days with 30 racial healing practitioners convened by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. All of them lead organizations that do courageous healing and equity work in their cities across the country. This extraordinary group – African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American and European American – has come together periodically for six or seven years to facilitate healing sessions at the foundation’s annual America Healing conferences. It is a deeply moving and inspiring experience to be part of this team. We have become quite a close-knit family, with an unusual level of trust, honesty and vulnerability.

Over the past six months I have collaborated with Mike Wenger to collect highlights of the work of these practitioners as well as lessons from truth and reconciliation efforts in several US communities and in Australia and Canada. I first met Mike when he was deputy director of President Clinton’s One America initiative on race. Our survey and the Chicago meeting are part of the preparation for the launch of a national Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) process.

TRHT differs from many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in several ways. The emphasis is not on identifying victims and assigning blame. The goal is to understand and to overcome the false notion of a human hierarchy based on race. Its visionary leader, Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for TRHT and a senior advisor at the Kellogg Foundation, says, “A lot of people want to focus on the consequences of racism but we want to go to the belief system. We want to keep focused on the desired outcome: the equal value of every human being.” There are so many experiences of oppression, but this is not the “oppression Olympics.” We must go beyond merely focusing on our own group.  

The TRHT vision is huge (as Bernie Sanders might say). It will be a multi-year effort that must include every sector. Already, more than 100 organizations and thought leaders have signed on. Vital for its success, it seems to me, will be the full engagement of those whose views have been shaped by very different life experiences. For example, it must welcome the contribution of more socially conservative Americans as well as business leaders.      

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cautions against “liberal arrogance  the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.”  As a self-confessed liberal he writes, “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

A more conservative columnist, Ross Douthat wrote of the current political scene: “On the one hand there are liberals determined to regard Trumpism as almost exclusively motivated by racial and cultural resentments, with few legitimate economic grievances complicating the morality play. From this perspective, the fact that Trump’s G.O.P. has finally consolidated, say, a once-Democratic area like Appalachia is almost a welcome relief: At last all the white racists are safely in the other party, and we don’t have to cater to them anymore.

“On the other hand, there are left-wingers who regard Trump’s support among erstwhile Democrats as a sign that liberalism has badly failed some of its natural constituents, and who fear that a Democratic coalition that easily crushes Trump without much white working-class support will simply write off their struggles as no more than the backward and bigoted deserve.”

However misguided or alarming its expression, the rise of populism in the US and in Europe reveals deep frustration and pain that political establishments have failed to address. As Douthat writes, liberals across the world see “a widening gulf between their increasingly cosmopolitan parties and an increasingly right-leaning native working class.”

The Trump phenomenon, while deplorable, highlights this reality. An effective TRHT process must speak a language that connects with groups who feel their voices are not being heard.

IofC is a partner in the TRHT process which will roll out publicly in 2017. Our pioneering work of honest conversation and racial healing in Richmond can be an important resource. Of particular interest is our track record of enabling communities to walk together through their shared history and to connect with unlikely allies across political, religious, class and racial divides.   

The group in Chicago recognized that the American story is complex and defies easy stereotyping. There are evils that must be confronted and acknowledged. But we should be cautious about seeking any one "truth." Truth does not belong exclusively to any one political or cultural viewpoint. We are all on a journey of discovery. In the words of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

In this era of rapid demographic, cultural and economic change, anxiety is natural. And while much of this change is inevitable and may ultimately be positive, no change feels good to those who fear that they will be left behind. A TRHT process must show how the belief in human hierarchy hurts all Americans how all Americans will benefit from overcoming it. 

Above all, as Gail Christopher reminds us, “We must lead with love."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Building a container

History shows that revolution is hard work. The founders of this country, having ousted the British, fought bitterly among themselves over state and federal jurisdiction. And their descendants had to endure a bloody civil war and a century of racial segregation before true democracy was achieved. 

Bernie Sanders has inspired millions with his radical vision of a more equitable America, but has yet to articulate a strategy to achieve it. In 2008, Barack Obama swept to victory on a wave of hope and a belief that this nation could set a new course, no longer bound by outworn concepts of race. But we seem more divided than when he took office. In an earlier decade, the “Reagan Revolution” called for a country less constricted by government regulation and more rooted in individual freedom and responsibility, a "shining city on a hill;" yet under his administration the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 and Americans are still in deep disagreement about government's proper role. 

The difficulties facing social change efforts are evident globally. The Arab Spring that began with so much energy and optimism has not proved sustainable. South Africa is discovering that ending apartheid has not ended racism or economic inequity. Countries of Eastern Europe, liberated not long ago from the grip of the Soviet Union, are erecting fences to block migrants and are retreating to narrow nationalism (as is most of the continent).   

So what kind of leadership is needed for effective, long-lasting efforts for change?  

Syngman Rhee, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, escaped as a young man from North Korea, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and devoted his life to reconciliation. He highlighted one key factor: “However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

Hugh O’Doherty, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says the key question is how to create that container. He told a group of aspiring community facilitators in Richmond, Virginia, that many of the biggest challenges facing society require adaptive change. Technical challenges can be solved by experts but adaptive challenges require new learning and new behavior. “There is no promised land, " he warned. "There are lots of snake oil salesmen. There is no road map. It can feel profoundly dangerous.” People are always looking for a leader, for an authority figure. The leadership challenge is how to connect people to a purpose that will make them willing to take the risk of moving out of the status quo and staying in the “learning zone.” An effective facilitator of change must be a “non-anxious presence when all there is is anxiety.” 

Staying with this metaphor of the container and the demands of leadership, a few further points occur to me. 

A strong container requires everyone to take responsibility. We cannot look to one leader to show the way, however visionary and persuasive he or she may be. As Syngman Rhee put it, "One stick does not make a strong fire." 

Nor can we be content to point the finger of blame. It has been said that the most reactionary people are those who demand change in others yet refuse to take an honest look at their own attitudes and behaviors. We all have work to do. 

The container must be built to last. Millennials demonstrate passion, compassion and creativity. They sometimes show less willingness to invest in long-term commitments. Successful economic and social revolutions are usually the product of decades of patient, persistent work.     

The container must be a place of welcome. It must be flexible enough to include potential allies who bring different life experiences. At times it may be intensely uncomfortable. But the most-needed reforms in our communities require courage and trust-based collaboration by individuals who have the vision to call out the best in others.   

The container must be able to nurture the inner life. My former rector, Bob Hetherington, was among the thousands of students who traveled to Alabama in 1965 to support the campaign for civil rights. “Those were heady days,” he recalls. “But the forces of darkness were stronger than we imagined. We thought that if we worked harder we could bring in the Kingdom of God. People got burned out. We stopped saying our prayers. We did not renew our spirits.” 

By contrast, Charles Marsh writes in The Beloved Community, that in 1956, following threats to his life, King prayed at his kitchen table to "that power that can make a way of out no way." "Faced with the intransigence of white 
resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required." In those early days the movement "pursued a form of discipleship that was life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”

Vision, persistence, courage, self-awareness, and a spirit of inclusion:all these qualities and more are needed to build the container. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The quiet inner drama

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights the re-emergence of religion as a global force. “What the secularists forgot,” he writes, “is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal.” Science and technology have taken us to unprecedented heights but they cannot answer the most basic questions of life. The twenty-first century has left us with “a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” 

Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, explores the connection between religion and violence. He notes that “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.” Religion becomes destructive when it is used to divide humanity into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad, the innocent and the guilty. 

“Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two – our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness. If there is evil in the world it is because of Them, not US. This mode of thinking leads to some of the worst crimes in the history because it causes people to demonize their opponents, see themselves as victims and convince themselves that evil committed in a good or sacred cause is justifiable, even noble.” This is altruistic evil.  

Although Sack’s book focuses on the emergence of extremist religious groups such as ISIS, I am struck by its relevance for America at this time. The use of religion as a battering ram in an increasingly polarized political environment contributes to the fracturing of our civic life. A sign outside an Iowa church exhorted its members to “vote biblically.” What are we to make of this? There is little information in the bible about democracy and voting.

The constant assertions of piety and devotion to God’s will by so many political candidates bring to mind Jesus’ admonishment, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” 

Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times column, “I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes.”

In today’s toxic political climate we risk labeling those on the other side as totally evil: liberals, conservatives, socialists, Wall Street, unions, immigrants, pro-life, pro-choice, government, or corporations. 

A few months ago I sat with some 15 people from different religious traditions discussing the role of faith in public life.  Among the insights that I jotted down were the following: 1) We need to rediscover the adventure of listening to people who are different. 2) Ideological differences are greater than religious differences. 3) We should focus on faith not as dogma but as lived out experience. 4) Conservatives need to talk more about social justice and liberals need to be more forthright about moral values and spiritual values.

Talk of following God’s guidance becomes dangerous when it is detached from clear moral codes defined in all the world’s great religions. Sacks reminds us that some of history’s worst tyrants claimed God’s authority. Unspeakable crimes have been perpetrated in the name of religion. ISIS is just the latest example.  

The movement of Initiatives of Change, which engages people of all faiths as well as no formal religion, has always advocated a search for inner wisdom, or the voice of God or conscience, tempered by universal moral benchmarks. As I write in Trustbuilders, this approach includes honesty about our failures, purity in our motives, unselfishness in our support of others, and love in our readiness to forgive and accept forgiveness.  

Friends can support us by having the courage to tell us the truth, however uncomfortable. Shining the spotlight on our own faults keeps us humble and helps to avoid the worst excesses. 

More important than public expressions of religion is what Sacks calls “the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.”