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.