Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Conscience and Power

Disheartened by the dearth of political courage and statesmanship displayed by our representatives in Washington, I turned for inspiration to the memoirs of a remarkable Australian politician, Kim E. Beazley. Among his many accomplishments as Minister for Education were the abolition of university fees and the introduction of needs-based funding for all schools. He also put the issue of Aboriginal rights onto the national agenda. He retired in 1977 as the longest serving member of the House of Representatives and widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest parliamentarians.  

“If you do not accept the importance of conscience, you accept only the importance of power,” was a Beazley maxim.  Elected at the age of twenty-seven, he was a rising political star when he encountered Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) and attended a conference in Caux, Switzerland.  For Beazley it was a watershed moment that re-framed his life and career. 

He wrote an honest letter to his wife about events he had concealed from her. The letter made her feel, she said, that, “I could trust my husband forever.” He also apologized to political colleagues. As he said at the time, “In politics you can lie by distortion, and I have done that. You can also lie by concentrating only on your opponent’s mistakes and never on their virtues. That was my particular problem.”

He began to approach issues on the basis of, “It’s not who is right but what is right.” In his memoirs he wrote: “For me, honesty meant that I would not play the political game of making cases, suppressing everything inconvenient to my position and playing up everything convenient. This game has many dangers, not least that I found I was convincing myself on the strength of arguments I didn’t really believe.”

As a young politician, Beazley spoke against the racial bias of Australia’s immigration policies and throughout his career he was an advocate for the Aboriginal people. In 1960, as the Labour party’s spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, he told parliament, “I suspect that assimilation is a more immoral policy than apartheid, because apartheid at least assumes a right to exist, while assimilation is extermination.” Beazley helped to restore Aboriginal land rights and dramatically increased their educational opportunities. He believed that “to deny Aboriginal people an education in their own language was to treat them as a conquered people.”

Some believe that Beazley’s commitment to be true to the voice of conscience cost him the highest leadership position. But more importantly, he won the trust and respect of both parties and of a grateful country.  

Father of the House (Fremantle Press) should be required reading for all Republicans and Democrats.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Gift of Historical Imagination

“Historical imagination is the ability to imagine walking in the other person’s shoes,” says Alex Wise. One hundred and fifty years ago this week, his ancestor of the same name was a prominent and decisive voice in the debate that concluded with a 90-45 vote by the Virginia state convention to succeed from the Union. The state that had produced four out of the nation’s first five presidents became the leader of a rebellion to preserve the system of slavery. When the Civil War broke out, Richmond was the third largest city in the South; without the industrial muscle of the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced more than one thousand cannon for the Confederate army, the South could not have the sustained the long, brutal struggle.

The former congressman and governor, H. Alexander Wise, became a general in the Confederate army and, at the end of the war, surrendered, bitterly, to his own brother-in-law, General George Meade. One of his sons was killed in action, another wounded, while a third succumbed to tuberculosis from sleeping on the wet fields. Wise also fathered a son by a slave woman. The boy, William Henry Grey, became a prominent churchman and a politician in Arkansas at the time of Reconstruction, where he strove in vain for equality for his people.

In 2003, the governor’s great-great-grandson told an audience of several hundred Richmonders that his family story illuminates the pain and sense of betrayal experienced differently by black and white southerners, which “hardened into racial resentments in our society that have lasted for generations.” But, said Alex, “I refuse to be captive to my ancestor’s experience….Honest conversation about race and responsibility strips away isolating pretensions and allows us to feel and value the humanity of all…Life is too short to keep resenting each other for past betrayals. We must realize that then is not now and we are not they.  Resentment kills imagination, and without imagination there can’t be hope or action to build a better future.”

Alex’s imagination led him to create the American Civil War Center at the site of the old Tredegar Iron Works. Its unique mission is to tell the story of the conflict from the perspective of Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.  Alex’s bold vision was that everyone would be challenged to walk in the other person’s shoes: “Tredegar will become a place first of dawning awareness, then of civil discussion, and finally of healing.”

Two months’ after the public telling of his family story – which I had posted on our website – Alex received a call from Texas. “I think we may be related,” said an African American woman who identified herself as Starita Smith, a descendent of William Henry Grey.  So began Alex’s discovery of the other branch of his family. When the center opened in 2006, ninety members, black and white, of the extended family were on hand to continue their discoveries.   

Alex says that a huge lesson of the story is that “we have to stop demonizing each other based on race and look at one another as mutually connected human beings.” Race, economics, and politics have always been closely intertwined in America. Perhaps at this time of deepening polarization, when the issue of states’ rights has surfaced again over arguments about health care, environment, and other federal legislation, we might begin to build some trust by learning to walk in the other person’s shoes.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reflections from the Birthplace of Flight

"Why spend the day talking about trust?" asks Walter Rice, a senior U.S. District Court judge in Dayton, Ohio. "Because nothing less than the future viability of this community – economically, socially, and politically is at stake."

I've just spent thirty-six hours consulting with a remarkable group of leaders in this Midwestern city who have sustained a Hope in the Cities dialogue on race relations for a decade. More than 3000 people have taken part.

Judge Rice, who is European American, and Judge Adele Riley, who is African American, are the co-chairs of the Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations. Their team includes the president/CEO of United Way, senior staff from two universities and a community college, business people, pastors, and community organizers.

My colleague Cricket White and I led a workshop to explore the role of trust in tackling key community issues. The sheriff, representatives of the housing and transport authorities, and health care providers were among the participants. The exchanges were frank but there was much careful listening.

Particularly revealing was a historical time line which identified events and public policy decisions since 1970 that have helped to build or to undermine trust.

Dayton, home to the Wright brothers, the pioneers of flight, has long been a birthplace of inventions: the parachute, cash register, movie projector, and microfiche to name but a few.  But in recent years it has seen a dramatic loss of its industrial base and a declining population. It is also deeply divided by race. In 1975, Dr. Charles Glatt, a school desegregation expert, was gunned down at the federal courthouse while working on a desegregation plan for the city's schools.

Like many U.S. cities, Dayton is experiencing daunting challenges in the face of greatly reduced revenues. "We are a community with about thirty different government structures, little jurisdictions fighting over a finite number of jobs," says Rice. "What we need is a community-wide dialogue on the best form of government for the twenty-first century, otherwise the marketplace will make the decisions for us. But we can't begin to discuss this unless there is an element of trust."

Rice and his colleagues are planning the next steps, including the use of a dialogue curriculum on race, economics, and jurisdiction developed by Hope in the Cities.  But what struck me most about Rice and his colleagues was the evident bonds of friendship and commitment that have sustained this diverse leadership group over many years. There is affection as well as honesty. I came away with the distinct feeling that this courageous and persistent team might come up with an approach to regional challenges that could be a model for other cities.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Remembering a Difficult Conversation

Watching the remarkable events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, I am reminded of a stark encounter in the summer of 2006 when the Iraq war was at its height. 

A group of young Tunisians had come to the Initiatives of Change conference in Caux, Switzerland. One evening, they invited Susan and me to dinner. They were bright, engaging young men, keen soccer players; they reminded us of our own sons who were students at the time. The meal began pleasantly as we sat on the terrace, enjoying the evening sunset. Our host, a Tunisian friend who had organized the group, invited us to talk about our work in America.  

But the tone changed dramatically when someone touched on U.S. foreign policy.  At once, the group turned on us.  “All the problems in the world, without exception, are the fault of America.” said one. “If U.S. policy does not change there will be more 9/11s.” For the next hour they launched a relentless assault, urging each other on, seeming to enjoy the opportunity to wound.  One of them said, “We would like to go to Iraq and kill Americans.”

We attempted a rational discussion, to explain that most Americans did not see Muslims as enemies and that many longed to see their country take a more balanced approach, but it was futile. The pain and anger of the young Tunisians was too great. We left the dinner depressed, frustrated, and emotionally scarred.  

Our friend explained: “This is the first time they have been out of the country and you are the first Americans they have had a chance to speak with. At home we are living in a prison.  When we have meetings with our group a security man is outside the door.”

We understood their need to vent. But Susan was so shaken by the experience that she removed her name tag that identified her as an American for several days.

On the last day of the conference, we saw the young men at breakfast preparing to leave. I said, “We must at least go and say goodbye.” As we approached their table, several of them rose and greeted us with warmth and charm. “That was a great conversation!” said one.  I laughed, “It wasn’t so great for us!” We wished them well and we parted on good terms.

In recent days Susan and I have often thought of those young men. We rejoice in the new freedom that is coming to their nation. We regret that for so long America and other Western countries have supported dictators in that region who have terrorized their people. We hope that these young Tunisians are safe and that they can look forward to a brighter future in which they see America as a friend.