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.