Monday, December 17, 2012

Building peace at the kitchen table

When Hillary Clinton visited Northern Ireland recently she told her hosts: “You are the ones who reminded the world that while a peace deal may be signed at a negotiating table, peace itself takes life at the kitchen table. It must be nurtured in the hearts of people, in the way they live their daily lives and treat their fellow citizens, in the lessons they teach their children.”

My father-in-law, the playwright Alan Thornhill, chose to begin each scene of his industrial drama, The Forgotten Factor, at the breakfast table. A bitter management-labor dispute is resolved as honest conversation takes place within and between the families.

Most of the violence today is perpetrated by young men. Women, who often hold families together, are in a key position either to reinforce grievances, fears, or stereotypes by the stories they tell their children or to instill values of compassion, selflessness, and forgiveness in the next generation. That is why projects like the Creators of Peace movement, which is catching on in many parts of the world, are so important. 

When our three sons were growing up, my wife insisted on a home cooked meal every night and everyone was expected to sit at the table. I can’t say that we always had profound discussions but perhaps the daily ritual had some civilizing influence. At any rate, Susan is gratified that all three sons have become keenly interested in cooking!

It’s no accident that the kitchen is often the gathering point in a home, the place where people feel most comfortable talking. And sharing a meal is often the first step to a new relationship. Our early race relations work in Richmond involved pot-luck dinners as people opened their homes to people of different races.

For many people who visit the Initiatives of Change conference center in Caux, Switzerland, the most memorable moments are not the speeches on the platform but the conversations in the kitchen where delegates prepare meals for 300 or more with people they have never met before. Alan Thornhill, an Englishman, found himself chopping vegetables with an Argentinean at a time when their two countries were at war in the Falklands. They had no common language but a friendship was formed. 

I vividly remember sitting at dinner in Caux with Les Denison, a former communist, and the exiled King and Queen of Romania. We were served coffee by Archie Mackenzie, a former British ambassador, and Cardinal K├Âning of Vienna. Les laughed and said, “If I told my friends about this they would never believe me!”

Peace conferences, diplomacy and conflict resolution play important roles. But real peace is born and nurtured in our homes, around the kitchen table.   

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The need to be acknowledged, accepted, and respected

Steven Spielberg’s masterful film, Lincoln, comes at a timely moment for America. Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful and nuanced portrayal of the president’s combination of courage, compassion, realism, humor and faith is a challenge to Washington today.

The narrative focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that ended slavery. Spielberg skillfully avoids stereotyping. He respects and challenges his audience by avoiding simplistic or stereotypical narrative and tells history in all its complexity and ambiguity.

From the opening scene of an “honest dialogue” between the president and two black soldiers, the film affirms the agency of African Americans in fighting for their liberty and their rightful place as full citizens. We also are reminded that racist thinking was deeply ingrained throughout the country. Many Democrats in northern states voted against the amendment.  

A fascinating aspect of the story was the arm twisting and patronage needed to assure passage of the amendment. Lincoln was not above getting his hands dirty for a great cause.

I found it impossible not to think about the deep divisions in America’s political life today. In the aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory, much has been made of the overwhelming dominance of Republicans in former Confederate states. But as many white males in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania voted for Romney as did in the South.

Contrary to common media assumptions, the South includes large numbers of liberals as well as conservatives. Not all conservative Republicans are racist and not all liberal Democrats are as enlightened as they like to think.

While some state governments may pursue regressive policies, the day-to-day reality at the community level is often quite different. Many observers have noted that race relations have progressed further in southern states than in the rest of the country. A recent story in the New York Times about three small towns in the Mississippi Delta provides a good illustration.

The three communities in question lie at the heart of a region known for racist brutality and civil rights struggles. Yet, “…beneath the easy assumptions about racial animosity in the South, a different ethos prevails. The races interact daily in these small towns. Despite the oppressive Jim Crow system of the past, people know one another intimately. Trust, it turns out, trumps race. That doesn’t mean racial tension doesn’t exist. But there’s a capacity to look beyond it, born of lifelong intimate contact, that’s rarely found in larger cities.”

Lincoln understood the basic need in every human being to be acknowledged, accepted and respected. When these needs are met, other things may become possible – whether in Mississippi or in Washington, DC. As the writer notes, “personal relationships can supersede race in a highly partisan time, when black and white too often become proxies for left and right.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Needed: a few courageous men and women

We were sitting over dinner in our home with Rajmohan Gandhi (visiting Richmond to keynote our annual Metropolitan Richmond Day forum), two African American neighbors of thirty years, and several young IofC staffers. The conversation naturally turned to the presidential election. 

Some years ago our black neighbors chose to join a nearly all-white mainline church. They reasoned that since race is a human construct, “you can’t talk about a black church or a white church.” They both became respected elders and served on the presbytery. They encouraged the church’s outreach to the poorer sections of Richmond and supported the church’s music minister in launching the city’s first multiracial chorus.  


Yet, the church is solidly conservative and many members are Republicans. In the run-up to the elections, conversation became difficult, even with those to whom they had become personally very close.   

“How can you vote for a party that disrespects me?” our neighbor asked a white friend. The response was awkward: “We love you but …..”  

The widespread disconnect between personal faith and public policy became a topic of discussion around our dinner table. I was reminded of an observation by a local business leader with a passion for early childhood education that Americans send millions of dollars to help survivors of tsunamis, “but we have a social tsunami right here.”

White evangelicals were genuinely shocked to discover that their strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage did not result in support among the vast majority of minorities, young voters and women. Many saw the GOP platform as being extreme and a threat on a wide range of issues from immigration to climate change and economic fairness. They felt insulted by many of the public statements during the campaign.  

Not one leading Republican had the guts to stand up against the outrageous and racially charged allegations that the president was not US born. It is inconceivable that such allegations would have been leveled at a white candidate. 

Not one leading evangelical went out of his or her way to correct the astonishing belief among a majority of Republicans that Obama was either a Muslim or at least not a real Christian.

It was tragic to see Billy Graham lend his prestige to the dubious claims that God favored one side in the election. It was far cry from the Graham of 1993 who wrote in Christianity Today that “racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today.” (William Parnell wrote in the same issue that “a first step is the sincere repentance by white evangelicals.”)   

Sadly, the Republican candidate did not express outrage that a party with a proud history of ending slavery and supporting civil rights legislation would blatantly attempt to suppress black and Latino votes.

I am a registered Democrat but this is not a partisan blog. I believe strongly in the need for a healthy two-party, or multi-party democracy. I also respect the deeply held convictions of many conservatives on difficult social questions as well as on a range of economic issues. Few can doubt that without a renewed commitment to fundamental values of integrity and responsibility and stronger family units no amount of government intervention will lift communities out of poverty. Nor should liberals make the mistake of assuming that all conservatives or white evangelicals are monolithic in their views. Many are deeply committed to social justice.


Speaking to a diverse Richmond audience the day after the dinner conversation, Gandhi quoted Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he spoke of the Black quest for civil rights in these terms.


[W]hen these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream, and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.

“Standing up for dignity and equality is at the core of the American Dream, King was saying. And the lunch counters he was speaking of have a direct meaning today when poverty is a sharp reality for a large number of Americans.”

Who are the Republicans who will call out the best in the party’s tradition to meet the challenge of a new America?

Our dinner group noted the attempt by the militant left to control the British trade union movement in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It led to massive industrial disputes in key industries and deeply wounded the economy. 

An important factor in turning the tide was a new willingness by moderate union leaders to take responsibility and stand up for their convictions in the face of intimidation. This in turn helped to change the direction of the Labor Party, making the leadership of a Tony Blair possible.

Throughout those decades, Initiative of Change was engaged in a sustained effort to support new thinking and courageous leadership in the labor movement. 
 

Some similar action by Republican moderates is needed now in the U.S. for a party that has been hijacked by extreme and irrational forces and a Tea Party movement which major moneyed interests are cynically supporting and manipulating for their own benefit.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (hardly a bastion of liberal thought) editorialized, “The future belongs to the party best able to cross the ethnic and gender lines. It does not rest with a movement personified by the snarling visage of Rush Limbaugh.” But as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “the temptation of the party’s elite will be to fasten on the demographic explanation because playing identity politics seems less painful that overhauling the Republican economic message.”

The country awaits a few good men and women with the courage to stand up, reclaim their party and return it to its true values.  
  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Notes to the occupant of the White House

By the time most of you read this the United States will have chosen the occupant of the White House for the next four years. Half the country will be pleased; the other half deeply disappointed. But everyone will be glad not to see another political ad for a long time!

Whether Democrat or Republican, the president will be confronted with daunting and unavoidable challenges and choices. And he will have to find a way to bridge partisan divides to address any of them. 

Hurricane Sandy brutally exposed the vulnerability of a city that is the commercial heart of this country. Other coastal cities are also at risk. The president will have to face up to the implications of increasingly extreme weather patterns, whatever their cause. Doing nothing and hoping for the best is not an option.

Much of our infrastructure from bridges to power grids to gas lines is decaying or unable to meet the needs of the future. With interest rates at record lows, now is the time to act. The longer we wait the more costly the rebuilding will be.

The economy will probably continue to improve and millions of jobs will be created whoever is in the White House. But the underlying structural problem is lack of workforce readiness for the global economy. And millions of people who are working simply do not earn enough to make ends meet. We need to develop a high skill, high wage economy. That means major investment in education on a level we have not seen in decades.

We have an aging population. Ten thousand people reach retirement every day. Immigration is helping to mitigate the problem. But our president will need to have the courage to tell older Americans the truth about changes that are needed in Social Security and Medicare if we are to maintain a viable program for the next generation and not bankrupt the country.

Overseas, our president can stand firm for our values while also affirming that it is a mark of a nation’s strength, not weakness, to admit mistakes. Donald Shriver’s Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds should be studied by every American political leader.

On the eve of this election, I re-read A Call to Community that was launched at the National Press Club in 1996 by Initiatives of Change and its partners with the support of Democrat and Republican leaders. Its concluding lines are just as relevant today: 
 

To build this new American community, we must empower individuals to take charge of their lives and take care of their communities…This approach calls us to a new concept of partnership and responsibility. It means:
  • Listening carefully and respectfully to each other and to the whole community
  • Bringing people together, not in confrontation but in trust, to tackle urgent needs
  • Searching for solutions, focusing on what is right rather than who is right
  • Building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone
  • Honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities in everyone, and refusing to stereotype
  • Holding ourselves, communities and institutions accountable where change is needed
  • Recognizing that the energy for fundamental change requires a moral and spiritual transformation in the human spirit
Together, we will share our lives and the resources God has given us to make America a community of hope, security and opportunity for all.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Learning the language of others


“We can’t be friends with them because they don’t speak our language,” an Afghan soldier told a reporter in discussing tense relations with US troops. I was struck by this remark because it could be applied to the breakdown of public conversation in America today. 

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, one thing is certain: the victor will be faced with governing a country growing ever more divided around social and cultural issues and more unequal than any other society in the developed world. Both Republican and Democrat campaigns have played to our fears and insecurities; they have not called on our best instincts.    

The vast majority of Americans expose themselves only to media outlets that confirm their own biases and prejudices. Rich and poor live insulated lives. According to some surveys racial prejudice has actually increased since 2008. Most striking is the growing demographic evidence that Americans are choosing to live in regions where the population tends to reflect similar political views and moral priorities.    

I am very aware of how easily my own “hot buttons” get pushed by certain people. It’s as if they are speaking a foreign language. “How can they be so stupid?” I ask. “What planet are they living on, what century are they living in?” Yet I know that many of the people whose views I abhor often feel equally bewildered and threatened by the agendas of the other side.

It will take inspired and courageous political leadership to transcend this dangerous trend toward fragmentation. But each one of us can make a start by refusing to indulge in stereotyping and taking whatever steps we can to learn the language of others. We can remain true to our own beliefs while recognizing that none of us are keepers of the whole truth and that we can gain new insights even if they are difficult to hear.

In The World at the Turning, Charles Piguet and Michel Sentis write: “We have learned in thirty years of working with Buddhists, Hindus, North American Indians, Africans of all beliefs, militant communists, young revolutionaries, powerful capitalists, peasants, politicians, trade union leaders, that hope is not confined to any one temple…The intimate experiences of the heart and spirit are a reality which can be communicated and which every other human being can respond to…This reality has to be stripped of the intellectual and religious verbalizing we normally clothe it in: words, like grand garments on a wasted body, can hide internal poverty. We need to rediscover the one universal language – a life lived out.”

As hurricane Sandy bears down on the east coast we can be sure that Americans of all stripes will band together to protect their neighbors and their communities. Perhaps the storm will cool some of the emotions generated by the election. 

Everyone is needed to build a future of hope and possibility: liberals and conservatives, people of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and people of many faiths. Can we as Americans discover a new language of a life lived out?   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Kosher Gospel in Richmond, Virginia

The Richmond Folk Festival gets better every year. On a crystal clear weekend, with the sun sparkling on the James River, about 200,000 people enjoyed an amazingly eclectic range of culture ranging from Ethiopian Azmari music and dance to Argentine tango and traditional New Orleans jazz, and from demonstrations of the Chinese jaw harp and the Iraqi oud, to Irish and Cape Breton fiddling.

We arrived at the festival on the first day as Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny Cash) rocked an enthusiastic crowd of mostly white baby boomers. (She has a red-hot band and her lead guitarist and husband, songwriter John Leventhal, is a terrific musician). As the day wore on the crowd became noticeably younger and more diverse. A colleague who recently arrived in Richmond remarked on the number of interracial couples – a surprise to her in a city known as the Confederate capital and proponent of segregation.

The festival stages and booths surround the American Civil War Center housed in the old Tredegar Iron Works, on the banks of the James River, that once produced cannon for the Southern army during the Civil War. Without the industrial muscle of Tredegar, the South could not have sustained the long, brutal struggle, a war instigated by slave states to maintain a system of perpetual bondage and to enable the growth of a slave nation as America expanded west. 

We took a Romanian friend to visit the Center. Diana Damsa is a dialogue facilitator and member of a group addressing the need to heal the wounds created by historical divisions in Eastern Europe. She is on an internship in Richmond to study this city’s efforts to deal with its past and to build trust and cooperation. The Tredegar museum is unique in telling the story of the bitter conflict from three perspectives – Union, Confederate and African American. It is a sobering experience to try to imagine the suffering caused by competing and deeply-held concepts of liberty and group identity.

Emerging from Tredegar into the happy, sometimes raucous celebration of our multicultural world, I was struck by how far we have come in overcoming old ideas about race and ethnicity. An unexpected and delightful discovery of the weekend was the music of Joshua Nelson, a black Jew known as the Prince of Kosher Gospel. Nelson takes traditional Jewish liturgical songs and infuses them with the energy of gospel music. 

Yes, there is still a long way to go. Yes, racism still lurks beneath the surface and makes its presence felt in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As we walked to the festival we passed a table selling pictures of Obama. A man in front of me put his finger to the president’s head and said to his family, “I would like to put a bullet right there.” (He was joking – I think – but it still sends chills down your spine.)

But the fact that Richmond, Virginia, can host such a wonderful folk festival underscores that yesterday is not today. The ghosts of the past are fading. Richmond and America are far better places and will continue to get better.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Emancipation and the American Dream

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862, he released a preliminary document promising to free slaves in any southern state still in rebellion on January 1, 1863.

A few days earlier at the battle of Antietam 23,000 men had been killed or wounded in the bloodiest day of battle in American history. Lincoln had always abhorred slavery but his primary goal was to preserve the Union. By the summer of 1862 he had concluded that freeing slaves was an essential step in defeating the Confederacy. Antietam was inconclusive but it was victory enough to give Lincoln the confidence to announce his proclamation.

Today’s historians are focusing increasingly on slavery and emancipation as the central story of the Civil War. However, it is important to remember that well before Lincoln’s proclamation many slaves had already freed themselves. As Dr. Edward Ayers, a noted historian of the South and president of the University of Richmond, told a Richmond audience last year, when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, African Americans “seized the opportunity to make themselves free.” Three enslaved men escaped to the Union army at Fortress Monroe. “As soon as word spread, thousands of men and women took this first opportunity to begin their journey to freedom.”

Many black Americans joined the Union forces. They fought at considerable risk. They knew that if they were captured, they faced possible execution. 
By 1863, two hundred thousand African Americans were fighting for the United States. By 1865, a regiment of black soldiers marched into Richmond as Confederate soldiers fled leaving much of the city in flames. Emancipation was something they fought and died for; it was not handed to them on a plate. 


In seminars and symposiums scholars are revisiting this historic moment. But what does Emancipation mean for America today? What are the obstacles to creating communities of hope and opportunity for everyone? From what do we still need to free ourselves, individually and as a nation?
 

"Central to the American Dream,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, who teaches at the University of Illinois, “is the creation of a new history by defeating poverty, illness and pain.” How one wishes that leaders of both our political parties could embrace such a vision!  Poverty has scarcely been mentioned by either presidential candidate. Meanwhile the yawning gap between the very rich and the working poor continues to widen.

Whites are suffering along with minorities. Life expectancy for the poorest and least-educated whites has fallen by four years since 1990 and by five years for women. The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in a report in the New York Times.

Gandhi will come to Richmond, Virginia, on November 9 to discuss “emancipation in our times.” He will find a city that has made dramatic strides in its ability to tell its history honestly, but a metropolitan region that has as yet failed to muster the vision and courage to address the inequities in education, housing and public transportation that are the result of a history of slavery and segregation.

Metropolitan cities across the country face huge challenges. Meeting those challenges demands leaders who will look beyond the demands of their own group.

Prof. John Witt of Yale calls the Emancipation Proclamation “the greatest moral triumph in modern political history.” One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln’s bold action, who will have the courage to risk political fortune, speak truth to this country and create a new history?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Educating the head and the heart

By any measure, a good education is the surest path to a successful career and financial security. Yes, it’s true that countless people with university degrees are struggling in today’s depressed economy. But the latest employment figures again highlight the fact that those with minimal education have far more difficulty finding a job.

The unemployment rate for someone who did not complete high school is 12 percent. For those with just a high school diploma it is 8.8 percent. For people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher it is 4.1 percent.

So the case for investing in a college education is a no-brainer. But higher education costs are steadily rising. According to a USA Today report earlier this year, the average tuition at a four-year public university rose 15% between 2008 and 2010 fueled by state budget cuts. Latest data indicate that an annual budget including living costs at a public institution is about $21,447 while a moderate budget at a private college averages $42,224.
 

Thirty years ago, Pell Grants, which provide needs-based support to low-income undergraduates, covered 70 of four-year college cost; today they cover less than one third. At the very time we should be investing in education to enable more people to join the workforce and for America to remain competitive we are cutting back.

But investing in cognitive learning alone may not be enough. My eye was caught by a story in the New York Times on widespread and increasing cheating at some of the nation’s top high schools and universities. Studies show that “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others.” According to Howard Garner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, “the ethical muscles have atrophied.” The same article references experts who say that parenting has shifted from “emphasizing obedience, honor and respect for authority to promoting children’s happiness and their ambitions for material success.”

A new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is intriguing because the author, appropriately named Paul Tough, focuses on noncognitive skills as a key to success. “For some people, [the] path to college is so easy that they can get out into life and they've never really been challenged," he told National Public Radio's David Greene
"I think they get into their 20s and 30s and they really feel lost — they feel like they never had those character-building experiences as adolescents, as kids, that really make a difference when they get to adulthood."

Tough worries that our education system doesn't pay attention to noncognitive skills. “I think schools just aren't set up right now to try to develop things like grit, and perseverance and curiosity. ...” He worked with teenagers in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and can attest to the importance of mentoring in helping young people succeed in school.  

"Absolutely, cognitive skill and IQ make a big difference; vocabulary matters. But the scientists, the economists and neuroscientists and psychologists who I've been studying and writing about are really challenging the idea that IQ, that standardized test scores, that those are the most important things in a child's success. I think there's lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character strengths, these noncognitive skills, are at least as important in a child's success and quite possibly more important."

The financial collapse in Wall Street was caused by a huge failure of moral character. If today’s high achieving students cheat in college they may also cheat in business. If they build ethical values while in school they will take those values into the workplace. Kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods and who develop character may succeed academically and in life, despite the odds.
 

Bottom line: we need to invest in quality education of the heart as well as the head. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

More than a songwriter

A dear friend died much too early last week. David Mills was one of the great songwriters of his generation. His innate sense of melody and his arresting lyrics combined to produce a range of music both rousing and haunting, but always purpose-driven. Unlike many musicians in today’s self-absorbed culture, Dave always had a larger aim in mind: to give hope and courage to a world struggling to overcome painful history and divisions of every kind. One of his seminal compositions, “Walk a Mile in Another Man’s Moccasins,” is sung on every continent.  

Dave was an Australian and he wrote powerfully about his beloved land. He drew inspiration from the people he met, his own life challenges and most of all his faith and absolute belief in God’s loving plan for humanity. Music was at the core of his being, but his life was given to a larger cause. As such he spent years leading reconciliation and trustbuilding work in such places as India, Ethiopia and the UK where I first got to know him forty years ago as he grappled with the need to bring new perspectives to the British trade union movement in an era of industrial turbulence.   

As a fellow musician I have fond memories of performing with Dave on numerous stages from London’s West End to the docks of Liverpool. I recall coming out of a theater with him in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1968 to find a large crowd of demonstrators running down the street with police in hot pursuit.  

When Susan and I came to Richmond, Virginia, in the early eighties, Dave and his wife, Jane, and their infant son Keith lived with us for a year. Their care for community leaders in a city deeply wounded by racism helped build the foundations for what we now know as Hope in the Cities. Dave got to know John Coleman, a black lay preacher and pioneer of racial reconciliation.  He captured in music the essence of John’s mission: If you’re going to be a bridge you’ve got to be prepared to be walked on over and over again. 
 

When I visited Dave and Jane in Australia eight years ago I found them deeply involved in addressing the need for dialogue and trustbuilding among Sydney’s increasingly multicultural population. Dave’s “Stranger at your Door” is a clarion call to all of our communities: Turn away all the fears across the border of my mind, as the old world disappears there’s a richer one to find.

During the final year of his life, during which he endured painful and debilitating medical procedures, we had several long Skype calls. Never once did he complain about his condition which he described in a matter-of-fact way. In our last call earlier this summer we chatted for over an hour. He wanted to discuss the upcoming US election, the events in the Arab world and in Africa, and – most of all – the future leadership of the work of Initiatives of Change. Until the last months of his life he took a keen interest in the training portfolio of our international association. 

Two weeks before he died he sent me his final DVD of songs, poignantly titled “Bless These Seeds,” recorded this year with a friend in his home. I wept at “My Pledge to You,” a tender love song that also expresses the commitment to the world that he and Jane undertook together. 

My love, here’s my pledge to you
That whatever comes
I’ll be true to you, and forever
In sunshine or in rain
I’ll be there just the same
To give everything I can
For this life we share
And though sometimes we’re apart
When life takes us away
Deep in my heart, I will always pray
That stronger we may be
And deeper we may feel as one
To live beyond our dreams
For a world out there.


I don’t know why God chose to take Dave at this time and I grieve for Jane and the family. I do know that his sons are extraordinarily proud of their dad. And I know how much Dave rejoiced that a first grandchild is on the way – the gift of new life. The titles of his last songs speak for themselves: “A Loving God,” “Triumph of the Lord,” “He has Risen,” and “Tsunami of Love.” 

Dave sang with a quiet intensity, a light in his eye, a fire in his heart, and a challenge to each one of us to be our best. Farewell, dear friend, until we meet on the other side. Your songs will live in our hearts and your life will continue to inspire us. Thank you, thank you for everything.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A global team in the making

How does a diverse network encompassing forty countries, different spiritual traditions, cultures and generations find a common framework for action?

For the past week I have been in Caux, Switzerland, the international conference center of Initiatives of Change, with 100 colleagues who are committed to building trust across the world's divides.

High above Lake Geneva we start our days with thirty minutes of quiet looking out over the mountains across the water. For those of us who are activists by nature such daily spiritual disciplines are an important time to re-connect with the core of our being.   

While much of our discussions during the Global Assembly have focused on the "container," the structures and programs of IofC, our morning reflections have explored the "content" of our lives and our living. The most important actions we undertake are the personal choices to leave aside ego, fear and resentment.    

There has been much honesty at a personal and institutional level. I had the unique experience of working with a team from UK, India, Australia, Romania and Ukraine in facilitating a walk along a timeline of IofC's history since 1908. We explored the changing culture of the organization in the context of world events. To what extent has it encouraged trust, honesty, inclusion and growth, and where has it been controlling, exclusive, even wounding? Our goal is to become a learning organization. For many this transparency was refreshing, healing and empowering. 

We have wrestled to build energy around specific priorities. Leaders from South Sudan, including the wife of the vice president, are here to seek help in building good governance in their country after years of strife. An Africa coordination team is planning a response.  

Colleagues in India are looking for support to meet the rapidly increasing demand for their training in ethical leadership. Another task force is preparing to respond to the request from the executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification for IofC to train NGOs with the trustbuilding and relationship-building skills to enable sustainable land management.

A group from Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, USA and Canada is creating a coordination group with the goal of establishing a pilot project where young leaders can come together to study trustbuilding, moral leadership, and inclusive economics and also to take part in service projects. 

Today we are deep in budget discussions and election of our International Council. Tomorrow we go back down the mountain. These have been intense days. But through it all there is the sense of a powerful global team in the making.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Becoming better listeners

Last month America lost a voice for rational and civil national discourse. William Raspberry, a veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Washington Post, produced some of the most cogent and balanced commentaries on race relations.
 
He came to Richmond nearly two decades ago to meet with a multi-city committee of the Initiatives of Change program, Hope in the Cities, and offered this sage advice: "We have forgotten the difference between problems and enemies. Focusing on the enemy diverts time and energy from the search for solutions. If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problem be nearer to a solution? By treating people as potential allies rather than enemies we can focus on solving problems instead of continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions.“ 

His wise and challenging words encouraged us to focus on creating welcoming spaces and to reach out to those outside of our comfort zone. As a result, people of liberal and conservative persuasions, grassroots activists and corporate leaders, felt that they could speak honestly and listen with respect. Unexpected friendships and partnerships grew. 

My book documents many of these honest conversations and actions to move beyond the mentality of “them and us,” including a process of constructive engagement with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, long notorious for its racially biased policies and news coverage. Last year the newspaper won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists for a series of articles on race in Richmond.

It’s too easy to look for targets to blame: big oil, unions, politicians or the media. Yes, injustice, discrimination and corruption exist and must be confronted. But in my experience most people are trying to do their best in the context of their experience. Venting our anger may make us feel better but often does little to change things. If we don’t engage with each other how can we grow in our understanding? So I find it important to read opinions in the press that challenge my own biases because I can learn something from those with different political or social views.   

Initiatives of Change in the US deliberately seeks the engagement of people of many backgrounds and viewpoints. It may surprise some liberals that an organization dedicated to racial reconciliation, economic inclusion and understanding between religions, has a lifelong Republican as its chair.  
 
But why not? The work of creating flourishing communities is too important to be seen as the property of any single political viewpoint. Everyone is needed.

Thank you, William Raspberry, for helping us to avoid the pitfalls of recrimination, blame and self-righteousness and urging us to become better listeners.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A gracious and gentle people

Reading about Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Laos brought back vivid memories of a month I spent in that beautiful country four decades ago and where I celebrated my 25th birthday.

It was 1974 when I flew into Vientiane with my colleague Suresh Khatri. We were the advance team for the Initiatives of Change stage production Song of Asia with a cast of young people from many parts of the continent. Our job was to record the dialogue of the show, which had been translated into Lao, so that the cast could perform the scenes to playback.

On arrival we were given the facilities of the radio station and a team of local actors. Without understanding a word of the language we recorded the scenes, marking the tape so we could identify the sections. The first performance for a huge crowd in a stadium was so successful that many of the audience actually thought the actors were speaking Lao. (The second performance had a few frantic moments when someone accidentally kicked a cable, disconnecting the tape recorder that I was operating.)

At the time, Laos was coming to the end of a long period of conflict. The leftist Pathet Lao insurgents were allied with North Vietnamese and had taken control of the northern part of the country. The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 – about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeds the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II. Secretary Clinton pledged to help rid the country of millions of still unexploded bombs.
 

Song of Asia, with its dramatic sketches, dances, and songs portraying true stories of reconciliation and forgiveness gave a powerful message for a war-torn country. A Provisional Government of National Union had just been formed when the Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, who led the leftist forces, came together in a show of reconciliation.
 

Our chief host was Secretary of State Chanthone Chantharasy, who was committed to the principles of Initiatives of Change and was highly regarded for his integrity by many of the students who flocked to the performances. He arranged a special performance for the King and Queen in the royal residence. I still have the lapel pin given us on that occasion. 
 
In the summer of 1974 a hand-picked group of Lao students were sent by Chantharasy to Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change training center in India. Many of them had life-changing experiences. I roomed with a young man named Oukham whose father was a high official in the Lao government. Oukham was a rascal of the first order who had led a fast life with girls and drugs as on one of the privileged elite of his country. During the days in Asia Plateau he decided to get honest with his father about how he had sometimes “borrowed" his Mercedes, skipped school and spent days in a hotel with a girlfriend.

 
Oukham and I corresponded for a while after he got home and he told me how he had put things right with his dad. Then we lost touch. Sadly, the Provisional Government was short-lived. The communists took control in 1975, and Chantharasy and his family were forced to flee, finally making a new life in Australia. His life was probably saved by a warning from some of the young people whose lives he had touched.

I was glad to read of Clinton’s pledge to help cleanse the country of the massive and deadly residue of our military intervention. The Lao people are among the gentlest and most gracious on earth. They deserve a future of peace and safety. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

The promise of new life

Last month Susan and I became grandparents for the first time and Susan's uncle celebrated his 100th birthday. The wonder of new birth and celebration of a life lived over a century.

The van Dykes arrived in New Amsterdam in 1652. They helped found five Dutch towns and were part of the birth of this nation. John Richardson van Dyke (Uncle Rich) has seen two world wars, the rise and fall of fascism and communism, the invention of television and the jet engine. He worked at IBM and RCA at the start of the computer age. His energy and zest for life continue to astound the family. He has friends of many generations. 

Watching our son hold Lucy Hyde Corcoran, his newborn daughter, I imagined the million of bits of information being processed inside her tiny head as she gazed at him or surveyed the world around her while resting on his shoulder. What new wonders will she see in her lifetime?

Lucy inherits the genes of entrepreneurs, artists, writers, explorers, great homemakers, craftsmen, and fighters for social justice. What path will she follow? Where will she find her passion?

How will she and her generation face the challenges of this century? It will be a world very different from that of her great-great-uncle and she will likely see even greater changes.   

Toward the end of his life, my father-in-law, the playwright Alan Thornhill, became a close friend of Malcolm Muggeridge, the well-known British journalist and broadcaster. The notoriously cynical Muggeridge had experienced a surprising spiritual awakening in his later years, even joining the Roman Catholic Church. Yet he remained deeply skeptical and pessimistic about society as a whole. In his marvelous book, Best of Friends, Alan describes Malcolm with a grandson laughing and playing on his knee while he proclaimed doom and gloom for every aspect of our civilization: "At last I could not refrain from asking, 'What about Matthew in all this?' Tears came into the old man's eyes. Quietly he said, 'Matthew will be all right.' It was not wishful thinking or grandfatherly affection. It was his profound belief in and reverence for the wonder and sanctity of human life. He might despair of our society but he was utterly certain of God's care and love for every individual…"

Likewise, I believe that Lucy and her generation will be all right. Call me an incurable optimist but I believe in the unbreakable power of the human spirit. Hope triumphs over fear. Love vanquishes hate. And, as Alan Thornhill was fond of saying, evil ultimately over-reaches itself. Despite injustice, cruelty, and corruption, good continues to surprise and overcomes in the end.

Welcome to this world, Lucy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A question for leaders: how is the circle being drawn?

I've just returned from the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation national symposium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This has always been a tough place for race relations. The first item of business of the new state in 1907 was to pass segregationist legislation. In 1921, Tulsa was the scene of America's worst race riot when a white mob destroyed the thriving black business community. Oklahoma was the only state where not a single county voted for Obama in 2008. Seemingly random killings of African Americans in April have been deemed hate crimes.

Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – Tulsa is making significant strides in uncovering the history of the 1921 riot that was effectively buried for decades and to develop honest community conversations.
 
Aptly titled “The Politics of Reconciliation,” this year's conference was kicked off by the astonishingly sprightly 90 year-old former governor of Mississippi, William Winter. His courageous and progressive tenure earned him the title of "the education governor." At his urging, President Bill Clinton launched his race initiative in 1997.

Winter recalled that at meetings across the country, people of every background were unanimous in telling the President’s One America Advisory Board that they wanted five things: good education for their children; a fair chance of getting a job; to be able to live in a decent home in a safe neighborhood; access to affordable healthcare; and to be treated with dignity and respect. “Why can’t we come together in a good faith effort to try to bring about these very reasonable considerations?” he asked. “We must make this our national political purpose.”

In a call for civil discourse he said that “honorable compromise” has always been an essential part of leadership. But it may involve great courage. It’s a paradox that we have made so much progress in America, yet, to quote the author David Cohn, “With heaven in sight, we insist on marching perversely into hell.” Winter told his audience, “We must have informed and responsible participation by everyone in the country, not motivated by personal and political advantage.”

Two former mayors of Tulsa, Kathy Taylor and Susan Savage, and Wellington Webb, who served as mayor of Denver for 12 years, displayed a refreshing balance of good sense, humor, and lack of ego. If they are typical of city mayors – and I suspect that they are – then we can be hopeful that local government is in good hands regardless of political posturing in Washington.

In a packed workshop, two colleagues from Initiatives of Change, Alex Wise and Tee Turner, talked about how they were able to build trust across racial, political and class differences. Alex is a life-long Republican and the descendent of a Virginia governor and Confederate general; Tee is an African American pastor and community worker. Alex remarked that for him it meant letting go of some myths.  “For example, I always believed that if you just worked hard anyone could make it in America.  I learned from Tee that this is simply not true for many people.” 

Rajmohan Gandhi delivered the keynote address, noting that "a reconciled America may be impossible if the world is outside our thoughts.” America, he said is “linked inextricably and in a thousand different ways with the rest of the world; what is America if not the world itself in a unique, wonderful and hope-giving form? The old world helped create a new world in a new space, and the old world continues to recreate America, even as America continues to reshape the world as a whole.” (Full text of Rajmohan Gandhi's speech)
 
He called on Americans to disprove the thesis that “fear is a better bet than hope” and cautioned against looking for the “most rewarding enemy,” whether Islam or China, for political advantage: “If insinuating that President Obama is a Muslim -- or not tough enough against Muslim countries or against China -- is seen as an effective way of hurting his re-election prospects, then we have to ask whether America truly rejects the proposition that some categories of human beings are inferior to, or more dangerous than, other categories.”

The power of personal stories was evident throughout the symposium. I was honored to moderate a panel that featured George Henderson, the founder of the University of Oklahoma human relations department and the first African American to hold a distinguished professorship. His was the first black family to be property owners in Norman, a “sundown (purposely all-white) town.”  He reminded us that “the head does not hear anything until the heart has listened.”

On the final morning, Beverly Tatum, the president of Spelman College, provided a powerful analysis of the meaning of reconciliation: “You can forgive and walk away, but you can't reconcile without a commitment to continuing the relationship." She noted that we live in an anxiety-ridden time caused by the rapid pace of change, economic insecurity, and for some the fact of having a black man in the White House. "The critical question for us as leaders is: How is the circle being drawn? Who is inside it? Who is outside it? What can I do to make the circle bigger and more inclusive?"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Make Tackling Poverty Job #1

One of the most exciting experiences of recent months has been observing our team of community facilitators at work. Operating in pairs, they have delivered more than 40 presentations of Unpacking the 2010 Census: the new realities of race, class and jurisdiction. Most days one or two of them stop by the office to collect materials or to prepare for a presentation. They are drawn from different walks of life: social service agencies, small business, education, faith communities, and advocacy groups.

Poverty is increasing throughout metropolitan Richmond. The disparities in public education, access to transportation, healthcare, and affordable housing are the result of our history and they are rooted in the structures of our economic and political systems. Heroic efforts are made by countless organizations and volunteers to address the consequences of these unequal systems, but we need a deliberate, sustained effort to alter the basic structures that would enable residents to move out of poverty.

The goal of Hope in the Cities and our partner, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, is to raise awareness among a large number of area citizens and to encourage courageous, innovative and significant policy changes. We are not advocating specific solutions, but we do believe that poverty is everyone’s problem and that everyone is needed to create solutions. 

This groundbreaking documentation of poverty is making waves in the region and it is even gaining attention around the country where countless communities face similar challenges. It combines compelling data on the current realities in the Richmond region along with a short history lesson on exclusionary policies that have resulted in concentrations of poverty. It also explores some of the key areas where new policies are urgently needed. Attendees are often startled by the facts (“I thought I knew but I really didn’t” is a typical comment) and energized for action.

The Chesterfield Observer newspaper made the project front-page news after a committee charged with making recommendations for managing future growth and needs saw the data indicating a 71 percent increase in poverty in the county over the past decade. Previously, poverty had not even been on the short-list of the committee’s priorities.    

So far, more than 600 people have seen the presentation and taken part in the accompanying dialogue. Dr Bonnie Dowdy, our evaluator, has toiled long hours entering and interpreting data from pre- and post-surveys. This week, many of the participants gather to report back and plan next steps. What started as a one-year project is now emerging as a multi-year initiative. The big question is whether the information disseminated will generate an unstoppable grassroots movement for change.
 
The challenges facing the region are significant but by no means insurmountable if we have the will to tackle them. In a time of budget shortfalls, it is evident that city/county consolidation of government and services (police, fire, trash, etc) would generate large savings. Forty years after the region’s refusal to consolidate the region’s school districts, condemning the center city to carry the burden of a hugely disproportional percentage of at-risk students, surely it’s time for a radical rethink of all our schools by asking ourselves: “If every child were my child, what would I do differently?”

Some other localities have found that mixed-income housing successfully reduces concentrated poverty – in fact some studies show that inclusive housing policies are the single biggest factor in increasing overall family health and do not harm property values. Will the region embrace this approach?
If the Greater Richmond Transit Co. can’t come up with a genuinely accessible and affordable public transportation system because of jurisdictional shortsightedness, surely the business community with its considerable resources could design and run a flexible system that gets people to where the jobs are. 

This is Richmond’s moment to do something bold, something unexpected, something that will move the whole community forward by grappling with issues that for too long we have believed are beyond our capacity to address.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes from America Healing for Democracy

Last week I spent three days in New Orleans with 500 people who are passionate about racial reconciliation and justice. Twenty years after the Rodney King verdict that sparked the LA uprising, America Healing for Democracy was hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation for its grantees as part of its racial equity initiative.

"Racism is the corruption that pollutes our democracy," said Sterling Speirn, the foundation's president and CEO. "Until we achieve racial equity we will not be able to create conditions where vulnerable children can succeed....We had the Civil War and civil rights movement. What we have not done is to uproot the tree, the belief that there should be a racial hierarchy."

Joining activists from across the country were prominent academics and the leaders of all major civil rights organizations who featured in several memorable panel discussions. I am still digesting all that we experienced together but some highlights for me included:

  • Partnering with Liz Medicine Crow of Alaska in hosting one of 20 "healing sessions" where participants in small groups could share personal and often deeply emotional experiences on their journey toward racial healing.
  • Being inspired by Rev. James Forbes: "This conference is about enlistment, enlightenment, and empowerment."
  • Being challenged by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans: "Lives of young black men are sacred, they are worth fighting for." About 7000 African American men, mostly aged 16 to 25, are killed each year. "It's the most devastating thing that is happening in America."
  • Asking ourselves: "How to make sense of declining prejudice and increasing inequality." (43% of black and Latino children attend schools with 80% poverty rates compared with 4% of whites.)  "To be non-racist in America now means not to talk about race. For whites, fairness and equality translate into trying to ignore race," said one panelist.
  • Learning more about unconscious bias: The brain can process about 11 million bits of information each second; only 2 percent is conscious.
  • Understanding changing demographics: The racial gap is a generation gap: the median age of non-Hispanic whites is 42, blacks 32, Latinos 27.
  • Getting a new perspective on history from Doug Blackmon, whose book, Slavery by Another Name, documents how, after the Civil War, thousands of African Americans were re-enslaved into forced labor, a human catastrophe that continue until World War II
  • Hearing the pain and weariness of those who cannot believe that they are fighting battles they thought were won decades ago. Legislative actions by state governments across the country represent “the most significant roll-back in voting rights that we have seen in a century,” according to Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project. 
I was awed by the dedication and energy of life-long activist Harry Belafonte interviewed by Charles Ogletree of Harvard. “When I look at America Healing...it’s not just a title,” he said. “It is the crux and the heart of what this country needs….If we cannot bring our citizens together, if we cannot heal, if we cannot show how to be the moral compass, there will be grave consequences."
 
Belafonte recounted two stories. In the first he described a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he told him he had turned away from the church because, "I see so few who walk like Christ."
King: "Do you believe in God?"
Belafonte: "Yes, but I can't make God and the institution square, so I will stick with God."
King: "We will have a good time because I am in the same place." 


Belafonte also recalled that when Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General, many in the civil rights movement were concerned as to what his policies might be. King said, "Somewhere in that man there is good. Our task is to find his moral center and bring him to our cause."

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, is the visionary leader of this growing movement for national healing. She sent us on our way with these words: "If we could model for the world what healing is, it would be a great thing.” Speaking from the depth of her own experience, she concluded, “Racial healing is the capacity to love ourselves and extend that to others... Healing is a process of accepting and embracing the truth and the essence of our being."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Learning from Texas History

I'm just back from a long weekend visiting our son Mark and daughter-in-law Ari in Austin, Texas. They are first-time home owners in a diverse neighborhood a few miles east of downtown. 

A visit to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum gave me a new appreciation of the rich heritage of the Lone Star State. Living in Virginia for thirty years, I’ve been surrounded by the symbols of its leading role in the birth of American democracy as well as the struggles over slavery and the trauma of the Civil War (the state has been slower to fully recognize the Native American aspect of its history).  But Texas boats a heritage that rivals Virginia for its significance in the creation of the nation, with a unique blend of indigenous, Hispanic, Anglo, German, and African American cultures.

I have been fascinated to discover the remarkable exploits of the Comanche people as described in Empire of the Summer Moon by S.G Gwynne. Superb horseman, they “resembled the great and legendary mounted archers of history: Mongols, Parthians, and Magyars.” They rose to power with astonishing speed between 1625 and 1750. From their original homelands in the high country of present-day Wyoming, they moved south to dominate much of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, even penetrating deep into Mexico. For decades they challenged and actually pushed back European settler expansion through their unmatched ability to loose twenty arrows at full gallop in the time it took to load and fire a flintlock musket, and by their ability to travel vast distances in the harshest conditions.

The settlers were tough, too, and regarded the federal government as incompetent to protect them. The Texas Rangers represented an effort to do what Washington would not or could not do. Their story helped me to understand the skepticism with which many in the west view Washington today.

Often missing from the history taught in Texas schools – and largely unknown to many Americans (myself included) – is the crucial role of the Tejanos, the early settlers of Spanish and Mexican descent who arrived long before the migration from the eastern United States. Their blood was shed in the fight for Texas freedom along with Irish, Germans, Scots, and English.

In March of this year, a Tejano Memorial was unveiled on the state Capitol grounds, the result of an initiative launched ten years ago by Hispanic leaders. The planners’ mission is “to establish an enduring legacy that acknowledges and pays tribute to the contributions by Tejanos as permanent testimony of the Spanish-Mexican heritage that has influenced and is inherent in present-day Texas culture." The work by Armando Hinojosa covers 525 square feet and has 12 life-sized bronze statues. A grant from the Walmart Foundation will fund an educational project to develop curriculum materials for social studies classes in the Austin school district.

As I learned more about the Texas story I was struck by the lack of perspective in much of the national debate over immigration.  A commentary in the Star Telegram suggested that the Tejano Memorial might help stimulate serious discussion on the issue, “remembering that many of those we cherish who fought and died for Texas' independence migrated here. And, for the most part, they were welcomed by the folks who already called this place home. Think what the state's future would have been like if the Tejanos had said to Crockett, Bowie and Houston: ‘Go back to Tennessee.’ ‘Go back to Kentucky.’ ‘Go back to Virginia.’"

By embracing all of its rich history, Texas has an opportunity to provide a valuable insight for the rest of the country.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Peacebuilding and the Hard Work of Honest Friendship

At our weekly office meeting, a colleague read a passage from The Purpose Driven Life by the Christian writer Rick Warren:“Relationships are always worth restoring….. Broken fellowship is a disgraceful testimony to non-believers.” 

Often the most painful breakdown in relationships occurs between people who are working for the same cause. I recall a conversation with Ron Kraybill who has spent decades as a mediator, group facilitator, and trainer in peacebuilding. He remarked that some of the worst conflicts occur between people in the peacebuilding community. 

Ego, competition, and hurt feelings undermine the most idealistic projects. Those who build teams and coalitions in efforts to effect positive social change can expect to find among themselves the same tensions, prejudices, and fears as in the communities they hope to impact.

As I wrote in Trustbuilding:“Sometimes people are not prepared for the difficulties and disappointments they encounter in working with people with whom they thought they shared a common vision of community. It is often easier to love the dream than the actual people we are asked to work with.  Because they will disappoint and even hurt one another, the members of the core group must practice the art of forgiveness."

A core principle in the Hope in the Cities team is that we will not walk away from difficult relationships. We must demonstrate the quality of relationships that we advocate in society. One key is to keep short accounts and deal honestly and quickly with issues as they arise. It’s humbling to acknowledge that I hurt my friends and colleagues. But being transparent about mistakes and weaknesses is a basic building-block for trust.

It is said that God gave us pride in order for it to be hurt. Some years ago I wrote a note to a colleague pointing out places where our teamwork might be improved. The response was a four-page rebuttal and an accusation of unworthy motives. My pride urged a rapid and outraged counter-reaction. But calmer reflection suggested instead that I call my friend and offer to go to her home. When I arrived, I found a completely different person. There was welcome, warmth, honesty, and vulnerability. The next day I received a one-sentence message: “What a journey!”

Peacebuilding is hard work and it does not mean avoiding conflict. Sometimes conflict is necessary. My most difficult moment as a leader was to have to tell a gifted and visionary person with whom I had worked for a decade that a particular pattern of behavior was causing unacceptable harm to our team. The parting was painful and for two years we had no contact; the feelings were too raw. And then, by an act of grace, the relationship was restored. Although we no longer work together, we find that the friendship and respect we have for one another is still intact and in some ways has grown stronger. 

True friends tell each other the truth in love. In Community and Growth Jean Vanier cautions about false friendship that “can very quickly become a club of mediocrities, enclosed in mutual flattery and approval.” He also notes that “If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Season for Letting go

It was such a small thing and so long ago. A perceived slight three decades back when we were both young. No doubt he had forgotten it; indeed he probably never intended or knew the hurt he had caused. Our paths had followed different directions and we had not seen each other since. And yet, over all these years the incident had perched at the back of my memory, ready to be relived.

Then recently, at the celebration of the life of a dear friend, I saw him across the hall. I hesitated. Should I greet him? Would the snub be repeated?

I listened to the tributes to the friend we were honoring: his generous spirit, his sense of humor, his clarity of conviction but his lack of judgment of others.

The service ended and we gathered for refreshments. The person in question was standing alone for a moment. I thought, “Why continue to harbor this childish feeling of wounded pride?” I approached him with an outstretched hand, “Your son sang well today,” I said.  He responded with genuine warmth and gratitude. “Thank you for speaking,” he said. “It has been so long since we saw each other.” We chatted briefly about our lives and our families.  “Thank you for speaking,” he repeated as we parted.

It was so simple, so natural. There was no need for explanation.
 
What better way to honor the life of a friend than to bury an old resentment and never think of it again? It was a glorious day, a blue sky and a gentle breeze. Spring has come early this year. It’s a season for letting go.  

Monday, March 5, 2012

People Can Surprise You

And now for something completely different…Last week we bought a new car. We said goodbye to our trusty 1999 Subaru with 150,000 miles on the clock and downsized to something more fuel efficient (since this column is commercial free I will refrain for mentioning the model).

But this blog is not about cars but about the conversation that took place at the dealership. As my wife and I were filling out paperwork, the finance manger, who I will call Bill, commented, “I see that you saved your Obama sticker. I am with you on that.”  This took me by surprise because at first glance I’d pegged him as a typical middle-aged white conservative. Then he asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I work with Initiatives of Change. It’s a network of people committed to building trust across racial, religious, class and other divides, and our main project here in Richmond is around racial dialogue and reconciliation.”

This led to an unexpected and prolonged conversation. Bill was born in the western part of the state. His parents had racist attitudes that were the norm of the time and used the “N-word” frequently. But he had come to a different world view.

He said that many of his peers send him emails with racial overtones criticizing the president’s handling of the economy – even the rescue of the motor industry. He tells them, “You’re crazy, he saved your jobs!” Looking around the showroom full of serious buyers that Saturday morning he remarked, “We are seeing a real uptick in business.”   

Then he said, “Tell me, where you think we are at in race relations today?” “Well,” I said, “they’re a whole lot better than when we arrived in Richmond in 1980. People are much more willing to engage in dialogue.”

Bill told us that his seven-year-old son plays on a soccer team. At one game recently one team was all-black and the other all-white, reflecting the reality of many of our schools. On the way back from the game his son exclaimed, “Dad, it was real easy to tell who was on each side!” He said this without attaching any racial meaning to the fact and Bill felt good about that.  

The young salesman who actually sold us the car was African American.  As we left I handed him a copy of my book, Trustbuilding. He said, “That’s interesting. My family is bi-racial.” Turned out his wife had a Jamaican Muslim father and a Jewish mother. When I came back the next day to complete some paperwork he said, “I have already read the first chapter.”

I left that car showroom feeling better about the country, and I don’t intend this as a political statement. I tell this story to remind myself not to make snap judgments about people. And that there’s more good and more hope around than you might think. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

It may be legal but is it moral?

Thomas Friedman has attracted criticism from some quarters for contrasting Boomers and their “situational values” with their parents' generation which, he says, maintained "sustainable values.” Those who experienced racial or gender discrimination in earlier decades know how unevenly those values were applied. 

America is a far better place today. We live in a more open, inclusive, and democratic society. One example: In 1967 in the Loving v. Virginia civil rights case, the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute. Today, the state leads the nation in black-white unions.

Boomers led the fight for equality for women in the workforce and other areas. And they have been at the forefront on important issues like care for the environment.    
 

But as a Boomer myself, I take seriously Friedman’s comment on the financial crises of recent years: “If there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of 'baby boomers behaving badly' - a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids."
 

Friedman may overstate the case. My generation has contributed enormously to human progress and many of my peers have dedicated their lives to great causes.  But the financial meltdown was the result of too many people – particularly Boomers – living by situational values. Much of the disastrous activity in the financial world may not have been illegal but it was certainly unethical and irresponsible. 

Paul Abrams wrote recently in the Huffington Post: “Wall Street mavens may be coming around. Years after they decimated the economy, they are beginning to realize that they need to change not just the error of their ways, but also the way of their errors. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, now supports increasing taxes on the wealthiest earners, including increasing capital gains and dividends' taxes. Same for Home Depot's Ken Langone.”

But Wall Street was not alone in its irresponsibility. Millions of Americans were living beyond their means to satisfy desires for instant gratification. And beyond the issue of financial irresponsibility, we Boomers have often bent the rules in other areas. We were eager to change the world for the better but less eager to accept the necessary personal disciplines.

Boomers rejected the restrictive morality of earlier generations. Interestingly, statistics show today’s teenagers are misbehaving a lot less than their parents. Drug and alcohol abuse is much lower; even the percentage of 15-17 year-olds who have had sex is down. Boomers embraced moral relativism. We focused on self-fulfillment, believing that “if it feels good, do it.” What comes naturally must be OK. Many broken marriages and wrecked lives and careers were the consequence.   

But should what comes naturally be our guide?  As science writer Matt Ridley notes in Nature Via Nurture (in paperback, The Agile Gene) “A greater tendency to violence is…innate in the human male. That does not make it right...To base any moral position on a natural fact, whether that fact is derived from nature or nature, is asking for trouble In my morality, and I hope in yours, some things are bad but natural, like dishonesty and violence; others are good but less natural, like generosity and fidelity.” 

The Boomer generation and the ones that followed have made tolerance a preeminent value.  But tolerance alone can’t hold societies together. Without objective moral standards, how can anyone claim that one value is better than another? Paradoxically, commented Rushworth Kidder in Ethics Newsline, “as moral relativism grew in strength, so too did a countervailing social consciousness,” a desire for shared universal values for human rights, for rights of women and codes to stop corruption. Relativism is therefore in conflict with widely acknowledged social values of respect, equality, and honesty.

In our legalistic society in the US, we tend to push the envelope of what can be done within the limits of the law. But just because something is legal does not make it right or moral. Can we embrace shared, sustainable values based on trust and integrity for a world that works for everyone?