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’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.”