Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The power of story

Day 2 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

“Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we hear,” says Gail Christopher as we embark on a “day of healing” at the TRHT summit. “Today is about stories…When we form a circle we suspend the hierarchy…we are not here to judge but to create a safe and sacred space.” 

We pause to celebrate the remarkable forgiveness ceremony that took place at Standing Rock just twenty-four hours earlier where military veterans made a heartfelt apology to Native people for military action taken against them for centuries. Rituals of forgiveness, says Christopher, can give rise to “heartfelt commitments to change conditions.”

An important step in the healing process is to overcome false narratives that define us. So for most of the day, the entire conference is divided into groups of 20 to 24 people. Each “healing circle” is facilitated by two experienced “healing practitioners” who invite the participants to share a personal story about a time when they overcame, challenged, changed and/or stood up to what they felt was a false narrative about themselves or their identity group, and how that moment influenced them or changed their life and/or the lives of others. It is a powerful experience that one of my colleagues describes as a process of slowing down; of showing up as your authentic self; and of deep listening and being listened to without judgement. 

Later in the afternoon several members of a team working on guidelines and recommendations for a racial healing strategy discuss their experiences of racial healing with the whole conference. They include Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaska Institute, Jerry Tello of the National Compadres Network, Lloyd Asato of the Asian Pacific Community in Action, and Mee Moua of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Some important steps in healing highlighted in the team’s recommendations:
  • Let the voice and spirit of the community be your guide. Listen to the communities and consult with them; ask what they need; seek their ideas and visions and reflect back what you have heard.
  • Validate the practice of racial healing and recognize those who are doing healing work in your communities. Seek guidance and support from those who have done this in other communities. There are many people and organizations who have developed racial healing practices, history walks and rituals, as well as dialogues, community trustbuilding and community organizing. Map these resources, learn from them, amplify them and make connections.
  • Develop a racial healing practitioner network and affirm the necessity for healing by creating healing spaces for ourselves and others. Pay attention to reflection and to self-care, to relationships in our own homes and family life, as we try to heal our communities. Avoid a hierarchy of woundedness. Support each other.
  • Our work is centered on dialogue and connectedness. Recognize that the healing process is for everyone, both the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • Look for ways to connect racial healing to efforts for equitable public policy. Highlight the importance of connecting stories to data as a way to reach people emotionally as well as intellectually and to mobilize them for action in effecting needed structural change.

Tomorrow’s agenda will focus on some of the key areas for where change is needed. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The power of love

Day 1 at the Truth Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

“In Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation the power of love is leveraged to transcend the power of fear,” says the visionary leader of this initiative, Dr. Gail Christopher, senior advisor and vice president at  the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She is speaking at the opening of a summit that has convened 570 leaders from across the country representing racial healing and justice organizations, faith communities, corporations, academia, government and the arts. 

Fifteen of us have traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to Carlsbad, California, to take part in this historic event. I will be blogging regularly as we experience these days together. On the first evening the attendees are welcomed by Stan Rodriguez of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Lipay Nation. “Hear with your heart,” he tells us. “We are the ancestors of the ones who are to come. What legacy are we going to leave them?” 

Kellogg’s president and CEO, La June Montgomery Tabron, recalls the words of its founder that the only change that is permanent is the change that emerges by the force of the people. And she inspires us with Nelson Mandela’s powerful insight that “No one is born hating another…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  

Gail Christopher calls this event “a dream come true…. In this time when there is so much anger and pain, we will together project a different energy into the discourse.” Explaining TRHT, she says (I am paraphrasing here): What do we mean by truth? It is in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (Of course the founders only meant white men.) Our goal is to bring forth the potential of our democracy for all to be respected and honored. Healing means to move beyond denial to recognize the fundamental fallacy of racial hierarchy and its monumental cost and to come face to face with our true humanity. In the human body, healing takes place naturally when the conditions are right. It is the same in this work: healing comes with trustbuilding, building relationships, creating a new narrative. The transformation is expressed in ending our separation and segregation, reconstructing our legal system and building an economy open to all. “Systems produce exactly what they are designed to produce. The inequalities are there by design.”

Former Mississippi governor William Winter, now 93, but as feisty as ever, is interviewed by Tsi-tsi-ki Felix, a journalist and news anchor with Univision. Winter says of the TRHT initiative, “This is the most important thing that any one of us can be involved in, without exception. We must learn to live with each other.” He says we must renew our determination not to allow the progress in racial justice to be reversed. 

Winter recalls a segregationist governor claiming at a political rally, “If I am elected there will not be any more integration in Mississippi.” A supporter standing next to Winter cheered loudly. “I said to him, ‘You don’t really think he can do that?’ ‘No, but I just like to hear him say it!’” Winter observes that Americans “can get into a lot of trouble when people succumb to believing that which is not so.” 

Winter says that in his travels as one of the commissioners serving President Bill Clinton’s One America initiative in 1997 and 1998 he found that everyone, regardless of race, class or politics,  wanted four things: a good education for their children; a fair shot at a job; a decent house on a safe street; and to be treated with dignity and respect. “Why can’t we devote energy to making these aspirations a reality?” 

The former governor, known for his educational reforms, grew up in “the most segregated corner of the most segregated state in America.” But he had a father and a mother who “taught me not to hate anyone or be unkind to anyone and to try to be fair.”  A pivotal moment was his experience in the newly integrated officer corps in World War II. “I was with very able African American officers.” But on buses in southern towns he got to sit at the front while they had to it at the back. They could not eat at restaurants or go to the movies together. “I said, these things have got to change.” 

I end today reflecting on Gail Christopher’s reference to the concluding words of Lincoln’s immortal second inaugural address: “With malice towards none, with charity for all…” By this he meant love for all, says Christopher. “We are not going to allow this country to descend into hate. We will stand in the presence of divine love to heal the nation.”             

Friday, November 11, 2016

The healing we need

As the full dimension of the Trump victory became apparent, a veteran strategist remarked, “My crystal ball has been shattered…Tonight data died.” After a sleepless night, I struggled like many others to come to terms with the shocking turn of events. How was it possible that someone so unqualified for the presidency could defeat the most qualified candidate in decades?

Trump owes much to the moral collapse of the Republican leadership who abandoned principles for political expediency, and to the arrogance of Democrats who took their base for granted and failed to reach beyond it. There should be serious soul-searching among the media giants who profited hugely from Trump’s ascent. He in turn received billions in free promotion through disproportionate coverage. Media gave virtually no consideration to matters of policy. They grossly underreported the underlying concerns of voters and relied heavily on polls and punditry.  

The biggest take-away from the election is that much of America lives in parallel universes. The mindset and daily realities of those on the east and west coasts are worlds apart from those in America’s heartland. And while the thriving and increasingly diverse major metropolitan regions across the country are largely Democratic strongholds, the vast rural areas and numerous small towns, many of which face declining economies and opportunities, are less diverse and strongly Republican. 
Much has been made of “working class” support for Trump. He won significant support in the rust-belt where the effects of globalization are felt most keenly. But the median income of Trump voters in the primaries was $72,000 while Clinton’s was around $61,000. Issues related to culture, values and identity were greater contributing factors. After all, if Trump was truly leading a working class movement, why did an overwhelming majority of African Americans and two-thirds of Latinos vote for Clinton?  
Racial anxiety, or, as a Pew Research Center survey found, concern that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens US values,” appear to be the most common indicators of Trump support. White nationalism is a more accurate description of the movement. From the outset of Obama’s presidency, the backlash against the first black man to occupy the White House was vicious and sustained. Put in the context of similar backlashes in Europe, what we may be seeing is reaction to the end of 500 years of white colonial domination.

Our young people are experiencing the deepest and most lasting wounds. The memory of this brutal campaign will not be easily erased. A Muslim friend says that for months before the election her children were reporting racial taunts from white kids in affluent county suburbs. A Latino leader whose son attends a Jesuit school in affluent Silicon Valley told me that a boy came into class this week chanting, "Build that wall, deport them all!" Children who have grown up with Obama as a role model are confused and traumatized. Across the country thousands of young people who feel betrayed have taken to the streets in protest. 

Besides race, Trump tapped into a deep-seated male chauvinism and misogyny. Had Clinton behaved as crudely towards men as Trump did towards women she would not have survived a day in the primaries let alone in the presidential campaign.

But despite all this, we must also recognize that many white Americans do feel genuinely bewildered, lost and left behind in a rapidly changing world. Cultural, social and demographic changes as well as economic stress cause anxiety and a crisis of identity. Middle-aged white males are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers compared to every other group.   
Liberals, particularly the college-educated elite, must share blame for the deep polarization. As one commentator observed, they failed to foresee the political shockwave and have virtually no understanding of the worldview of Trump supporters. Within the white community the gulf between so-called “educated” and “working class” voters is as great as the racial divide. Charles Camosy writes in the Washington Post about the “monolithic, insulated political culture” in most of our colleges and universities. 

Liberals have often been guilty of bigotry against conservative religion and against rural and poor whites. Conservatives are not wrong when they resist what they see as a decline in moral values and family life and the crudeness of our entertainment industry. Democrats have been reluctant to recognize that many Christian evangelicals who may differ with secular liberals on issues such as abortion could be strong allies on racial justice issues. America is a vast and complex country and defies easy stereotyping.
Supporters of Trump and of Bernie Sanders are rightly in revolt against the corruption of Wall Street and Washington, DC. Above all, millions of Americans want their voices to be heard. The election result was more a shout against the establishment than a vote for Trump. Democrats and Republicans would do well to listen carefully.

There is much talk now of the need for “healing.” Clinton’s concession statement in which she pledged to help Trump be a good president was a model of graciousness. Democrats should follow her lead. Trump praised Clinton and says he wants to be a president for all the people. After his attacks on Muslims and immigrants he has work to do, and those Republican leaders who first denounced and then supported him must hold the new president accountable.

Obama displayed class and dignity by reminding America – and the world – that the peaceful transfer of power by the ballot and not the bullet is a hallmark of this nation. His remarkable welcome to Trump at the White House prompted the president-elect to call him “a very good man” and to add that he would seek Obama’s counsel.

Healing will not be easy. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, could play a key bridgebuilding role in the Senate. He is well-liked and trusted by members of both parties, and he combines a strong faith with a passion for racial justice. As a representative of an increasingly diverse southern state, he understands the importance of history and tradition as well as the reality of changing demographics.   
The trustbuilding work of Initiatives of Change USA with its focus on race, reconciliation and responsibility has never been more relevant. The core principles of its manifesto issued in 1996 as a Call to Community could form a basis for the healing that America so desperately needs. They include a commitment to listening carefully and respectfully to one another and the whole community; honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities and refusing to stereotype; building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone; and holding ourselves, our  communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.

Initiatives of Change is partnering with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and more than 130 other organizations to develop a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process for the United States. Perhaps the shock of the election will jolt Americans enough to take a fresh look at our assumptions, prejudices and insularity. We might take a break from social media and talk with our neighbors. Perhaps we are more ready for honest conversation than we realize.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Addressing poverty from the inside out

Mother Teresa once remarked that the “greatest disease in the West…is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” She went on to say that the poverty in the West is poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. 

Physical poverty is real in America. In a city like Richmond nearly 40% of our children experience it every day. And 15 million children across the nation live in families below the poverty line. It is America’s shame and a topic that scarcely surfaced in the presidential campaign. But Mother Teresa was pointing to a deeper truth. 

In a sobering column, Growing Up Poor in America, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the home of a 13-year-old boy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who has three televisions in his room, but there is no food and no books in the house. “The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana.” 

Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, documents the different experiences of families navigating changing economic times in his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio. In Putnam’s youth, kids of different income levels played sports and interacted socially together; “civic engagement and solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.” Today Port Clinton is “a split-screen American nightmare in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that dissect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits kids from the right side of the tracks.” 

Putnam writes that “an unexpected consensus has begun to crystallize across ideological lines that the collapse of the working-class family is a central contributor to the growing opportunity gap.” A child with a mother in the bottom educational quartile is almost twice as likely to live with a single mother as a child whose mother is in the top quartile. Putnam’s carefully documented case studies track the experiences of children from well-educated middle-class families and contrasts them with the challenges facing kids whose parents have a high school education or less and are struggling economically. 

Putnam acknowledges that changes in the economy are important contributing factors in the weakening of family structures. Unemployment, underemployment and poor economic prospects discourage marriage and stable relationships. But he also notes that gender and sexual norms have changed: “For poor men, the disappearance of the stigma associated with premarital sex and nonmarital birth, and the evaporation of the norm of shotgun marriages, broke the link between procreation and marriage. For educated women, the combination of birth control and greatly enhanced professional opportunity made delayed childbearing both more possible and desirable.” 

President Obama, in a thoughtful review of “unfinished business” for the Economist, highlights the need to address rising inequality. While most economists focus on technology, education, globalization, declining unions and falling minimum wages, he believes that “changes in culture and values have played a major role” in widening the gap. He notes that in previous decades “differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels – at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organizations.” 

As a society we are communicating very mixed messages to our children. This is particularly evident on college campuses where students enter what one professor calls “a culture of moral, emotional and social chaos.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol is a factor in 97,000 cases of sexual assaults annually among college-age students. A drunken fray by Michigan students caused more than $400,000 in damage to their vacation hotel rooms. Harvard - one of the world's most privileged institutions - cancelled the the rest of the season of the men's soccer team following revelations of a so-called scouting report that rated the sexual appeal of their female counterparts. Is it any surprise that graduates from our universities display selfish and irresponsible behavior when they get to Wall Street? 

The elevation of tolerance as a primary virtue can leave people adrift without any guidelines for personal conduct and public action. If there are no objective moral benchmarks, how can anyone claim that one value is superior to another? We see a growing social consciousness on issues such as women’s rights, and the need to protect the environment and to fight corruption; but relativism can end up actually being in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect, equality, and honesty.  

To return to the starting point for this blog: poverty is a moral challenge for the richest nation on earth. Liberals and conservatives should find common cause in addressing it. But as Kristof writes, “Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society’s irresponsible self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.” 

We must work at structural change and “inner” change at the same time. We need just policies and personal responsibility. One without the other is unlikely to be effective. We must hold ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed. 

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.”