Tuesday, March 29, 2011

You Can Count on Spring

Susan and I take walks around our neighborhood park before breakfast. It’s a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the seasons, especially spring. At this time of year, the warming sun is just appearing over the trees as we round the first bend.

“Believing that spring will come is an act of trust,” says Susan as we pass some early blossoms. “Even after the harshest winter, when you wonder whether anything can still be alive, you can always count on spring.”

A scheduled work trip was canceled, so last week we had unexpected time to give attention to our garden.  We planted a dogwood, a cedar, and some mountain laurels in the gully that borders our half-acre yard. I gave the grass its first cut of the season. A camellia is in full bloom and the periwinkle looks perky. Two pairs of cardinals are enjoying our bird feeder and a phoebe is exploring potential nesting spots under the eaves. Yesterday, an unexpected snow shower left a white dusting, but it was gone by noon.    

It’s remarkable to think that year after year, century after century, seasons come and go with relatively little change.  Our human activities seem puny by comparison. 

We watch in awe and with a feeling of utter helplessness the overwhelming, relentless power of nature devastating Japan with earthquake and tsunami. Our hearts go out to the thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed and whose families have been so cruelly torn apart.   

But even in Sendai, spring will come.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Racial Equity and Racial Healing

There’s a perennial debate about the relative importance of dialogue and action, the work of racial healing and the work of structural change. Two events last week showed how they go together.   

On March 18, Richmond’s mayor, Dwight Jones, announced an anti-poverty commission at a public forum sponsored by my colleagues at Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.  Dr. John Moeser, Richmond’s acknowledged expert on urban issues, presented data highlighting “deep canyons” of poverty in parts of the city as well as new pockets in the suburbs. The panel will develop strategies to increase employment, educational achievement, and access to transportation.    

On the day of the forum, I was in Maryland for a 36-hour strategic retreat reflecting on racial equity and racial healing with program officers of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and 15 leaders of racial reconciliation and racial justice projects. Our group included people of African, European, Native American, Mexican, and Hawaiian heritage. We heard from a member of the Seneca Nation in Oregon working for child welfare, leaders of reconciliation initiatives in Mississippi, a truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro, North Carolina, and an advocate for violence prevention in families and communities in California.

We studied vital data, but mostly we shared personal stories of healing, and of healing in our communities. Trustbuilding was a constant theme.

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, said the foundation has made a long-term commitment to racial equity: “A lot of work is being done on structural racism – the achievement gaps in education, and in areas of health, food, economic security. But I have insisted that we must do the healing work. People say, ‘This is fluff. We want to change the world.’ But who is going to change the world? We need to change hearts and minds, one person at a time and grow this exponentially. We must make healing and wholeness as ubiquitous as the false beliefs today.”

Here’s a sample of insights shared by the group:  
“Data is important but stories are powerful.”
“We need humility to move beyond our assumptions and self-righteousness: we are all learners.”
“We need to create an emotional and physical safety for people to share. But there needs to be sufficient dissonance, some level of discomfort, or people won’t feel the need to change.”
“Who heals the healer? We have to make time to take care of ourselves…We must have the courage to say to someone: ‘I need you.’”
“How to ask the right question? Only a true question will bring a true answer.”
“Scientists now know that a moment of trauma can change brain chemistry. So a healing ceremony might also change brain chemistry.” 

I told the group about the Richmond development. Many of the anti-poverty commissioners are active in the work of trustbuilding and racial healing. They include Tom Chewning, a business leader who led the campaign to put the statue of the African American sports hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe on an avenue previously reserved for Confederate generals, and Lillie Estes, a community organizer who says she learned to move beyond anger to effective leadership and community bridge building.

John Moeser said that cities across the U.S. must address the issue of poverty. “But why not start here, where the greatest of all national tragedies – the slave trade and the Civil war – were played out at such enormous human cost?"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Question from Vietnam

A young friend in Vietnam, who is reading Trustbuilding, emailed me this question: “Why is reconciliation and trustbuilding important for a ‘superior (by this he means dominant) community?’”

My friend’s important question arose from observing the peacebuilding process between Cambodia and Vietnam. He says young Vietnamese do not have a complete picture of the interrelationship in terms of historical and social context and do not feel reconciliation or peacebuilding is needed. Instead, the focus is on economic growth.

He notes a similar pattern in the relationship between the dominant Kinh ethnic group to which approximately 85 percent of Vietnamese belong and the other ethnic communities who feel threatened on cultural and social issues: “As a Kinh, I was not aware of this until I could hear the stories. In fact, what happens does not affect my life at all.

Here are my initial thoughts: 

Across the globe, we see that the generational transfer of trauma caused by unacknowledged and unhealed pain, humiliation, and injustice can become sources of unending conflict and destruction.    

Also, in every broken relationship where there is a superior/dominant group and a minority/victimized group, both sides suffer. Both the dominant group and the minority group are wounded, although the wound is much more obvious to the injured party.   

Margaret Smith writes in Reckoning with the Past, that the way memory is handled in society will always be an indicator of power relationships. Since history (e.g. the way history is taught is schools) is generally controlled by the dominant group, an honest, critical, and inclusive telling of past events is fundamental to any process of community reconciliation.

Following America’s 1845 annexation of Texas, U.S. troops conquered the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California and captured Mexico City, forcing the sale of Mexico’s northern territories. Americans refer to this conflict as the Mexican-American War or Mexican War. In Mexico it is known as (primera) intervención estadounidense en México ((first) American intervention in Mexico), or invasión estadounidense de México (American invasion of Mexico). The average American’s lack of full historical appreciation continues to impact our relationship with Mexico and distorts how we respond to such important current issues as immigration.

A dominant group may carry conscious or unconscious guilt or fear. There is denial in the dominant group because it fears blame or retribution. One of the reasons why white Americans avoid conversation about race relations and particularly the question of a formal apology for slavery is the fear that apology will lead to a demand for reparations.

Our society is structured so that many white Americans can live their lives insulated from making decisions based on conscious racial feelings. We have built economic, intellectual, and emotional walls to protect us from our deepest fears.  But the very separateness of our lives is deeply damaging to the national psyche.

In 2001, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran two full-page editorials, calling for a national conversation on reparations and a “three-step process of acknowledgment, atonement, and reconciliation.” Such a process, said the editors, would help America address a long-delayed moral task and would be spiritually satisfying.  We are still waiting for that conversation.

My Vietnamese friend is right: We need to hear each other’s stories. The work of reconciliation and trustbuilding is important for both sides. I will return to this question in my next bog. And I welcome insights and comments from readers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Valuing the Hands that Build

I’ve been fascinated by the ABC news feature, “Made in America.” A Texas family emptied its home of all items not made in this country (i.e. practically everything) and refurnished it with only U.S. products. The first big challenge was to find an American-made coffee pot.

Why is it so hard to find American products in stores? One answer is that the consumer demand for inexpensive products, the obsession with short-term profits by corporations, and the predatory behavior of the financial community has devastated America’s manufacturing sector. The relentless pressure caused by outsourcing means that the median male American worker earns less today, adjusting for inflation, than he did thirty years ago.

According to ABC reporter David Muir, “Economists say if we spent 1 percent more than what we're spending now on American goods, we could create 200,000 jobs immediately."

Why am I writing about this in a blog about trustbuilding?  Because a primary cause of mistrust in America today is the collapse of the social contract of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, along with any sense of shared sacrifice for our national community. And our emotional connection with other Americans is weakened when so few of the things on which we depend are made by those with whom we share a common history and culture. 

 If “buying American” caught on, would it have a negative impact on workers in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia or Honduras? Experts say the effect of a modest shift would be minimal. Buying American-made products might cost us more since our labor costs are higher, although the Texas family found that some domestic products were actually cheaper.  But new spending habits, a revived manufacturing sector, and a better-paid U.S. workforce would ultimately lead to a healthier, less debt-burdened economy which, in turn, would be good for the world as a whole.

We should not stop buying products from overseas, but we can pay more attention to what we purchase. Discovering the communities in our country where pride in craftsmanship thrives might lead to enriching conversations and connections. And by valuing what we build and the hands that build, we might just build a bit more trust.