Sunday, December 22, 2013

The mystery and wonder of life

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced,” said Søren Kierkegaard. Personally, I have reached the point in life where I don’t feel the need to understand everything, particularly in the area of faith.

The mystery and wonder of life is at the heart of this season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But religion often focuses on doctrine, creeds and even the divinity of Jesus to such an extent that we miss the reality of his humanness.

My friend Rev. Ben Campbell in his wonderful lecture series Who is Jesus?, says: “The Son of God can mean a lot of things. But the one thing it most  assuredly cannot mean is that Jesus was not human, that he was not a man, that he did not come from the womb of Mary, that he did not function in a  normal human  way… God may be a lot more like the Jesus we see as human than the miracle-working Jesus we see as divine… The more we sense the reality of Jesus as a human person, the more likely we are to be infected by the holiness of his being.”

Watching our two granddaughters (18 months and 6 months), I marvel constantly at the gift of life, a true miracle each time. I imagine Jesus as a baby and a toddler who, like our grandchildren, had to be fed, washed, and educated and – no doubt – scolded from time to time. The values that he lived he learned from his mother and father. One of the things that fascinates and humanizes Jesus for me is that he appears to have been learning all his life. He was open to new insights and even challenges – sometimes from women. 
Jesus did not come to found a church or a religion. He came to demonstrate a way of life that above all emphasized love of our neighbors, particularly those of different economic, cultural and racial backgrounds. Yet his name has been used as justification to exclude, persecute, imprison and kill countless innocents. Other religions are equally culpable. In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian McLaren recalls a mentor telling him: “Remember, Brian: in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”

A demand for certitude and discomfort with ambiguity misses the wonder of the season. Ben Campbell remarks on the frequent descriptions of amazement in the Gospels. “The good news will call you to a stature of astonishment rather than certitude; of appreciation rather than control; of heart knowing rather than head certainty.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mandela’s spirit in Ukrainians’ stand for democracy

While the world celebrates and mourns Nelson Mandela, another great drama is playing out in Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. While South Africans throng the streets of Soweto to honor the man whose moral courage overcame the brutality of apartheid, thousands of young (as well as not-so-young) men and women brave winter weather and the security forces to stand for democracy in the streets of Kiev. 

This fall our office was privileged to host as an intern a leader of the young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine. Lena Kashkarova is among the many young professionals in Eastern Europe who have been trained by the IofC program Foundations for Freedom. Based in Kiev it fosters the values of honesty and personal responsibility that are essential for free, democratic and just societies.

Lena leads the House in Baranivka project. With their own hands she and her colleagues are building a meeting place and establishing a community of people who are working to improve society. Few countries suffered more than Ukraine in the last century. Millions of Ukranians died under Stalin and under Nazi occupation. Lena is a facilitator for an important project called Healing the Past

In November, Initiatives of Change and Open Ukraine Foundation jointly led a forum for 51 young professionals from 13 countries of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Held in association with Chatham House, Britain’s Institute of International Affairs, it drew people working in government, academia and civil society on the topic Towards the European Union through Good Governance. Participants were selected through a competition for the best policy papers on good governance.

Last week, as the protest movement in Ukraine grew, Lena cut short her internship in Richmond to fly home to be with her colleagues. Before leaving she shared with us her feelings about the growing demand for change in her country: “It is about dignity, being treated with respect and feeling responsible for what happens in your country… This is not about economics and trade agreements. It’s about honesty, accountability, rule of law and democracy. Young people are not scared. They don’t have the experience of the Soviet Union and they feel they can really change something.”

South Africa had the good fortune of transitioning to democracy after the collapse of Soviet communism. But as Chrystia Freeland writes in the New York Times “The struggle that seemed to be over in 1989 is still going on...Russia and the former Central Asian republics developed a new, post-communist form of authoritarianism; China never dropped the original, communist version, though it finally figured out, at least for now, how to combine it with robust economic growth.

“Meanwhile, back at home, free-market capitalism is feeling tired. Europe is economically sclerotic, politically fragile and flirting with xenophobia. The United States is still struggling to recover from the 2007-9 recession. The neo-authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow are, by contrast, increasingly confident… What is important about the demonstrators [in Kiev] is their certainty that democracy matters, and that it can be made to work.”

When I first visited South African in 1977 it was hard to imagine how the country could transition from the grip of apartheid to a non-racial democracy or how horrific bloodshed could be avoided. Yet South Africans surprised the world. Paying tribute to the man who made this possible, President Obama said, “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own.”

People like Lena and others in the Foundations for Freedom network embody Mandela’s spirit. They are the best hope for Ukraine. Maybe they will also inspire Western Europeans and those of us in the USA to take our democratic responsibilities more seriously. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Finally, the unvarnished truth about slavery

12 Years a Slave is the most important film ever made about American slavery. Steve McQueen’s harrowing masterpiece will put to rest any lingering sentimental notion that the culture supported by enslaved labor was anything but utterly destructive. 

Based closely on the remarkable first-hand account of Solomon Northrup, it depicts his kidnapping in Washington, DC, and his transportation to New Orleans where he is sold to a Louisiana plantation owner. On the way south he passes though Richmond, Virginia, where he spends a night in one of the city’s notorious holding pens owned by a Mr. Goodin. (This scene is not included in the film.) 

In unrelenting detail the movie documents the treatment of human beings as chattel: the separation of children from mothers and husbands from wives, the use of brute violence to break the will to resist, and the ever-present threat of rape and torture. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup is stunning as are all the other actors.

In the most hard-to-watch scene, a single ten-minute shot depicts Northrup being forced to flog a young woman, whom the plantation owner has repeatedly raped, while the jealous wife demands to see the blood flow. In this one shot McQueen captures the absolute evil of the plantation system, with its toxic mix of racism, greed, sexual lust and jealously, fear, dominance and ubiquitous violence. Such an environment leads to a kind of madness.

McQueen captures the way in which fear conditions its victims to accept violence as the norm. Thus, in another unbearably long shot, Northrup is shown being punished by hanging for hours, almost to the point of strangulation – his toes barely touching the ground – while others of the enslaved workforce carry on with their work around him in the fields.  In such scenes McQueen avoids the use of dramatic music; the chirping of birds or insects provides an even more haunting background. 

These scenes of cruelty brought to my mind the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural address delivered during the carnage of the Civil War: “Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

Our office team viewed the film together. Afterwards we reflected on what we had experienced.

  • We were struck by the fact that both the enslaved and the slave owners lived in fear: the enslaved men and women never knowing at what moment violence would erupt or when they might be separated from their loved ones; the slave owners constantly fearful of an uprising.  In this sense both victims and victimizers were trapped. As my colleague Tee Turner says about race relations today: “Some of us are in maximum security prisons and others in minimum security prisons, but we’ve all suffered and we all need to be healed.” 
  • A major theme of the film is dominance. We asked ourselves: what part does dominance play in our lives and in our society today? 
  • Can we handle the complexity and ambiguity of history? The film subtly indicates the sense of superiority of free men like Northrup who had not previously experienced slavery toward others who had grown up in – and been beaten down by – the system. In another vignette, we see an enslaved woman who has become the mistress of a plantation owner and has learned to use her power to attain a position of privilege. 
  • Does religion require giving up your agency to someone else? The slave system used Christian scripture to justify the subjugation of other human beings. How could men and woman in bondage see beyond this hypocrisy to the spiritual truth that could not be destroyed and to the promise of liberation? 
  • In light of the history of slavery and the 100 years of segregation that followed, how was it possible for African Americans to forgive?
12 Years a Slave made me angry, it made me weep and it left me more than ever in awe of the courage of African Americans and their gift of grace to this country – and the world. 

It is a story of unimaginable horror but also a story of survival. Hopefully it will generate more serious conversation about the legacy of our history, why even to this day no formal apology has been offered by an American president – much less reparations by the federal government – and why we still tolerate the de facto segregation of our schools and neighborhoods and continue to feed young men to the prison industrial complex. 12 Years a Slave is more than a powerful telling of history: it can be a spur to our conscience and an inspiration for action.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A fair day's wage for a fair day's work

“It’s about cheap labor,” says my friend Eric, an African American businessman. “It was about cheap labor then [when America’s wealth was founded on slavery] and it’s about cheap labor now.” Eric is not a radical. He might even be seen as a conservative in some of his views.  He and I were meeting to discuss plans for a dialogue involving two Episcopal churches – one predominantly black, the other majority white – that we will facilitate together next year.

The extent to which race and class are inextricably woven together becomes ever more obvious in the current political climate. “Race is a decoy,” says Eric.  This observation echoes the view of many commentators who see racial fears, prejudices, stereotypes and resentments being used as a political lever to achieve the goal of an unrestrained “free market” (free for some), to steadily reduce support for public institutions, and to attack legislation that supports the health, safety and earnings of American workers. 

One of the most interesting, unexpected, and hopeful events of recent weeks is the courageous action of Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, who overrode the majority votes of his own party in both houses, and decided to extend Medicaid to poor adults and people with disabilities who do not currently quality. Kasich has stated that Christian compassion and economic good sense drove his decision.

Kasich told his fellow Republicans, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. You’d better have a good answer."

The attacks on Kasich reveal the true face of ruthless materialism. Surely the best in all our faith traditions goes hand in hand with good economics. Conversely, economic policies that are morally indefensible will not in the long run turn out to be sustainable. Doing the right thing generally turns out to be good for business. 

It’s time for Republicans of character to stand up like Kasich. Democrats also need to lay aside the focus on political advantage and be willing to talk seriously about entitlement reform. 

Both Republicans and Democrats need to start talking about poverty which is at the core of the challenge facing the country. For too long we have lived with the indulgence of a low-wage economy. The fact that half of all public school children (most of whose parents are working) receive free or reduced lunch in the richest country on earth should make us all feel ashamed.

If conservatives are really serious about reducing government programs, the best thing they could do would be to support a radical increase in the Federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to something closer to $15.

If hard-working American were earning decent wages they would not have to turn to food stamps; they would not have to work two or three jobs, thereby jeopardizing their family life; they would not be crowding our hospital emergency rooms; and they would not have to live in subsidized housing. You can’t on the one hand call for less government spending and on the other hand persist in paying the lowest wage the market will bear. A living wage – a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work
is a truly deeply conservative solution to poverty because it puts equal responsibility on employer and employee.   

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Learning to make hard choices

If you want to see a model of what public education can and should be in America’s inner cities you don’t need to look further than Richmond Community High School (RCHC). Established in 1977 as America's first full-time, four year, public high school for academically talented students primarily from minority and low-income families, it fosters a culture of high expectations and high standards.

Entry is competitive but the school is looking for attitude as much as academic talent. Students participate in the selection process and do not let one another fail. Parental involvement is expected. The first year includes a camping trip to encourage bonding. All students complete a well-researched paper and present it to an audience as part of graduation requirement. RCHS has a 100 percent graduation rate and almost everyone goes on to college, often with major scholarships.    

Two of our sons attended RCHS. They received a good education but they also learned something about problem solving and how to interact with people of different racial and social backgrounds. They both say this was invaluable preparation for the real world. One of the pleasures of recent years has been seeing their classmates succeed in their careers and blossom into productive and responsible citizens.         

This past weekend Susan and I went to see a new feature film by Patrick "Praheme" Ricks who graduated from RCHS with our son Mark in 2002. Troop 491: The Adventures of the Muddy Lions is about choices. The story follows Tristan, a typical adolescent boy facing the pressures of urban life where there are few good role models. His mother (his father is in jail) enrolls him the Boy Scouts to keep him off the streets. But when he witnesses a murder, the shooter – a neighborhood thug – warns him of the consequences of being a “snitch.” Tristan has to choose whether to follow the code of the streets or the code of the Scouts.

Produced with a half-million dollar budget by Virginia actor, comedian and director Tim Reid, the film is inspiring and authentic. It pulls no punches in its message. I hope that it receives the wide distribution it deserves. Thousands of boys and young men face the same daily challenges as Tristan. They need encouragement and the courage to make good choices. 

RCHS should be enormously proud of Praheme – and all of its graduates. Certainly “Troop 491” should be a great recruiting tool for the Boy Scouts!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Standing our ground

Like many others I was challenged by the passion of veteran civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis when he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: “We cannot give up. We cannot give out. We cannot give in.”

"Stand your ground for freedom and justice,” said Myrlie Evers- Williams, whose husband was shot in front of his home in 1963. Other speakers were equally riveting. 

How will we – how will I – respond to these stirring calls? Did they just inspire us for a day when we remembered the heroic struggles of a remarkable generation, or will they spur a new activism, a new commitment and a new willingness to pay the price of real change in America?

In a country focused on short-term goals, easily distracted by the next headline, so engrossed in social media that we often can’t pay attention to the needs of our neighbors, and obsessed with a drive for personal fulfillment, what will generate the energy to sustain a movement for social justice that is visionary enough to include everyone? 

The great gift of the Civil Rights Movement was the belief that there is a “divine spark” in every person – even the perpetrators of oppression. That core principle, along with a high degree of discipline, courage, and faith in America to be its best, gave a moral backbone to the movement and drew people of all backgrounds to work together.   

Initiatives of Change (IofC), the organization for which I have worked for more than forty years, describes itself as a movement of people committed to the transformation of society through change in human motives and behavior, starting with their own.  We work to build trust across the world’s divides. We train peacebuilders who take constructive action in many countries. We are not partisan and tend to avoid advocacy.   

But in listening to John Lewis and others I was reminded of IofC’s heritage as a revolutionary movement, with a radical approach to personal and social change. It’s founder, Frank Buchman, who mobilized people of every walk of life with his vision of “remaking the world,” once said that in his view this meant “being originative of alternatives to evil” in economics, government policy  and other areas of public life. As a consequence he was frequently attacked by both the right and the left.

To stand our ground for freedom and justice in America today as Myrlie Evers-Williams challenged us means advocating  for a living wage for every working American, (see War on Americas poor), for reform of our criminal justice system, and for schools where every child gets a quality education. It means resisting voter suppression efforts and calling out the corruption of our political system by vested interests. It means holding ourselves to the same high standards that we demand of others.   

Columnist Charles Blow wondered recently who will be this generation’s "most dangerous" American – a reference to the label given by the FBI to Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most dangerous Negro.”

Where should we stand our ground? Will we be dangerous to evil? We should not doubt that there will be a price to pay for confronting powerful interests. Are we prepared to pay that price?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The hard work of building an inclusive democracy

Lee Daniel’s new film, “The Butler,” with its masterful performance by Forest Whitaker, is a powerful and timely reminder of America’s all-too-recent struggle for civil rights and what it meant in the everyday lives of black Americans. Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who served seven US presidents, the movie also captures the generational stress inherent in any social revolution. We see the all-black staff serving the White House dinner table while black and white students – including the Butler’s son – are insulted, spat on, and beaten during a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Building an inclusive democracy is a long and difficult work. It may involve protests and civil disobedience, but it also needs people like Eugene Allen who are simply willing to go to work every day and be excellent at what they do. It also requires intelligent strategies, coalition building, and careful, unglamorous efforts to address specific policy issues. 

The story of the neighborhood where my family has lived for more than thirty years is a testament to this kind of steady, persistent process of relationship-building and targeted action.  

Known as the Carillon, it was one of the first Richmond neighborhoods to experience desegregation and today it is notable for the diversity of race and income levels among its residents. Drawing on numerous interviews and historical documents, long-time resident Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary has researched and published a fascinating history, going back to the days when slaves worked the fields here. 

The Carillon Civic Association (CCA) was formed in 1968, one year after the first African Americans moved into the previously all-white neighborhood. Its first goal was to counter the scare tactics of real estate agents who were encouraging nervous whites to sell and move out.

Harold Marsh, an African American lawyer whose brother was to become Richmond’s first black mayor, had recently bought a house in the Carillon. He took part in the early CCA organizational meetings which, as O’Leary reports, sometimes ran from 8 pm to 1:30 am. A white resident recalls, “Harold led the way in teaching us what it was like to be a black man in Richmond.  We were young then and full of energy, and we thought we could make a difference in a city of segregated neighborhoods.”

Beyond becoming good neighbors the CCA leadership was serious about changing discriminatory policies. They filed complaints and contacted the U.S. Justice Department about dual, race-based listing of housing ads in the Richmond newspapers. By the summer of 1971, this system had ended. CCA activists were also prominent in founding Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), which is dedicated to fair housing, to changing attitudes about integration, advising potential homeowners, and enforcing the law.

An “Arts in the Park” festival was launched in 1972 as a collaborative neighborhood project. Today it draws well over 100,000 visitors to see the work of 450 artists from all over the United States. Fees paid by the artists generate significant funds for the CCA which has made grants to more than 130 organizations in the city.

“Hard work,” writes O’Leary, is a phrase frequently used by CCA members in describing efforts over the years to stabilize the neighborhood and bring about policy changes.

Which brings me back to the “The Butler” and the unmatched example of grace and courage shown by African Americans in working for peaceful and sustainable change in the face of state-sanctioned violence and persistent discrimination. In the words of one of the Freedom Riders whose bus was burned by a white mob, “Our only weapon is love.” It is a model for those who are impatient for justice in many parts of the world, including those now crowding the squares of Cairo.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Move beyond stereotyping to honest dialogue

I welcome occasional guest blogs. This week’s blog comes from Juliet Henderson, a high school teacher from Connecticut. She is currently on sabbatical in Spain with her wife and two children, aged nine and seven.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a dream that my two little girls will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by whom they love or whom they worship but by the content of their character. I have listened for years to conservative Christians making sweeping generalizations about “the homosexuals.”  In return, I hear many non-straight people talk about the “intolerant Christians” and the harm that organized religion causes around the world.

Organized religion does not have to be practiced by all, and no one should be forced to marry, but everyone should be afforded the right to these practices. The danger comes when one group of people tries to legislate against another.

For many, the joy after the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was declared unconstitutional was palpable: smiling faces, eyes bright with the promise of full recognition under the law and all families on equal footing. Facebook was lit with red equal signs. The annual Gay Pride Parade in New York City, while always joyful, had an extra feel of love, support, enthusiasm, optimism and happiness. The cheers of onlookers communicated a sense of community and camaraderie. No longer just marchers and spectators, everyone was part of the same family.

Gay couples gained over 1100 rights that they were previously denied in their unions. But the joy has not been felt by all. Mike Huckabee felt in touch enough with God to declare that “Jesus wept” after hearing the decision (it was pointed out on Twitter that perhaps those tears were tears of joy.)  Others, such as Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), believes “society itself is at risk and cannot continue.”

The sweeping generalizations made by those who oppose marriage equality are ludicrous and completely out of touch with reality. To generalize that “the homosexuals” are bringing down society as we know it is bestowing upon the gay community a power that does not exist. I can say with complete certainty that my marriage has not threatened or damaged anyone else’s and that my children’s mere existence has not damaged the "American family."

Major political and religious figures worldwide are coming out in favor of marriage equality and rights for all. Desmond Tutu was recently quoted saying that he would not worship a homophobic god, and Pope Francis stated that he does not judge gay people. Many nations around the world recognize marriage between same sex partners, most recently Brazil, New Zealand and France.

Inevitably, the political climate regarding gender and sexuality diversity is changing. The tides are turning as more and more people are realizing that marriage equality is a major civil rights movement of our time. Once marriage equality is achieved perhaps it will be easier to address other differences. People of diverse religions and sexualities will work together to address such challenges as poverty and mass incarceration in our country, without being judged on their god or whom they love.

Labels to assign a small group of characteristics to a group of people are harmful. To label all gays as “bad" or to say being gay is antithetical to being a “good Christian” is tantamount to equating all Christians with the Westboro Baptist Church which propagates hate, or all Muslims with jihadists. They are inaccurate stereotypes that divide and damage. No sole group of people has a monopoly on the basic human tenets of respect and faithfulness and no group has a more moral high ground on which to speak about sexual exploitation and abuse. Selflessness, love, purity and honesty are characteristics that are held (or not) by individuals, not groups.

In order to create trust and foster respect, people of different beliefs need to stop generalizing and start getting to know individuals. We should all be judged on the content of our character, not on our sexuality or on our religion. There are fine Christians who are loving and respectful of differences, just as there are gays and lesbians who are caring and believe profoundly in God.

Initiatives of Change, through its Hope in the Cities program, has a model for inclusive and honest conversation on race relations. I would like to explore how this same process might be used to heal the damage and rift between the gays (or anyone not straight – bi, queer, trans, etc) and some Christians. We need honest conversation, personal responsibility, and acts of reconciliation.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A radical vision for personal and social change

At the Healing History conference in Caux this summer, I told a story about my father. A number of people came to talk with me about it afterwards, so I decided to include it in this blog. 

In 1935, as a young unemployed shipyard worker in Scotland, my dad encountered an idea that propelled him beyond the inherited doctrine of class war. Students from Glasgow University, who were involved in what is now known as Initiatives of Change, presented him with the possibility that a radical shift in the motives and behavior of people could lead to a new social and economic order. Initially skeptical, he was convinced when they introduced him to an industrialist who put people before profit. This vision of personal change linked to social justice led him to devote his life to bringing a new perspective to the international labor movement. He was still passionately engaged in this until his death at age 97.  

In post-war Europe, my dad went to Germany in support of a sustained effort to provide a moral and spiritual foundation for a reconciled Europe. Much of this effort centered on the key German coal mining and steel region of the Ruhr where the trade unions were largely under Marxist control. Debates went on late into the night. “We would speak for one hour; Marxists would respond for an hour; then we would have to speak for another hour,” Dad recalled. Many of these dedicated Marxists came to believe that the philosophy of Initiatives of Change was a logical next step in their revolutionary quest as well as an alternative to the excesses and exploitation of capitalism.    

In March 1949 my father visited Hans Böckler, the president of the new unified German Trade Union Federation, in his home in Cologne. Böckler had been deeply impressed by a forum attended by 190 leading industrialists, hosted by Dr. Heinrich Kost, the head of the German Coal Board. Kost had opened the meeting by saying, “Gentleman, it is not a question of whether we change, but how we change. It is not for us to wait for Labor to change. Change is demanded of us.” 

According to my father’s report of the conversation, Böckler said, “Some people hold the doctrine that you have to change the system in order to change society. That is, of course true, but it is only half the truth. People must change drastically like those men who spoke at Kost’s meeting. Both must be done, and you fight for both. I am convinced of that.” 

A few months later, my father chaired an international forum at the Caux conference center at which Böchler delivered his carefully worded conclusion: “When men change, the structure of society changes, and when the structure of society changes, men change. Both go together and both are necessary.” * 

The recent conference in Caux, which focused on healing and equity and where we heard the call for personal transformation as well as justice, seemed a good moment to recall this prophetic insight. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Twin strands of honesty and hope

Picture this scenario: An armed 17 year-old black male follows a white man at night on the suspicion (based largely on his skin color) that he has criminal intent. A struggle ensues – the black man says he was attacked – and a shot is fired. The white man is killed. When the police arrive they question the black man, return his gun to him and do not press charges. Only after a public outcry does the case go to trial. The black man is acquitted.

The unlikelihood of this scenario went through my mind when I heard that George Zimmerman had been acquitted by a Florida jury of second degree murder in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin. (Zimmerman is a Latino of mixed racial heritage; Martin was African American.) The verdict will confirm the widely held belief that the life of a black person is worth less than that of people of other skin tones. The Stand Your Ground laws in effect in many US states reflect America’s obsession with violence, individualism, fierce protection of property rights, and – above all – fear of the non-white male. Legal scholars note that the Second Amendment was originally written to preserve states’ slave patrol militias, which was necessary to get Virginia's vote in ratifying the Constitution.

"Justice involves claiming a shared, mutual humanity," writes john powell from the Berkeley School of Law, in the opening sentence of his latest book, Racing to Justice: Transforming our Conception of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. powell’s statement could be read as a commentary on Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal, but it could well serve as a summary of a remarkable three-day international forum on Healing History in Caux, Switzerland, which brought together an array of racial justice advocates, healing practitioners, scholars, faith leaders and government officials to address the pathology of racism through the lens of healing, equity, and community.

While the largest delegation was from the US, significant groups came from Africa and Europe as well as South Asia and Australia. As Rajmohan Gandhi remarked, “the fallacy of human hierarchy has wounded and humiliated millions…every part of the world has felt the whiplash of racism.” The conference combined arresting data with powerful personal stories. Participants not only discussed together but built relationships as they chopped vegetables, washed dishes or made beds. Caux is a living community.

As I flew back across the Atlantic I reflected on some of what we heard and learned. 
  • “We need to be in the business of changing our belief system...asserting our true humanity as equal human beings," said Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Rajmohan Gandhi quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” 
  • We learned that ending false hierarchies makes good business sense. “Experience shows that racism is bad economics,” said Tim Carrington, a journalist and development specialist who worked with the World Bank in Africa. “Race has led America to make non-rational economic decisions,” according to Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC. Noting that the US imprisons more of its citizens than any other county he said, “Emphasizing prevention makes more economic sense than emphasizing punishment.”
  • We learned that the human brain processes 11 million bites of information every second but we are conscious of only 40 of these at best. “Only 2 percent of emotional cognition is available to us consciously. The process of ‘Othering’ occurs in our subconscious network,” says john powell. 
  • We learned that place matters. According to David Williams of the Harvard School of Public Health, a national study of the effects of segregation on young African American adults found that the elimination of residential segregation would erase Black-White differences in high school graduation rates, in unemployment rates, and in earnings. It would also reduce racial differences in single motherhood by two-thirds. 
  • We were urged to exert citizen power. Mee Moua, a former state senator from Minnesota whose family came from Laos as refugees, told us, “If you don’t make room for yourself on the table you will be on the menu.... We have to make ourselves relevant to those in power.” We need a “racial impact assessment on every piece of public policy before it becomes law.”
  • Empathy drives public policy. Stories have the power to move people. How can a movement to uproot belief in racial hierarchy tell its stories in such a way that actually impacts structures? We were reminded of W.E. B Du Bois who wrote, “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have… been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.” 
john powell, who led a packed workshop in Caux on “unconscious bias,” concludes his introduction to Racing to Justice: “Can we stop focusing simply on transactional moves we see as winnable and start working for the transformation of the institutions that perpetuate suffering? Can we speak to people’s deepest needs – to feel a sense of connection, to feel love?”

In the final conference session, Scott Morris, the founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis, which serves some 60,000 uninsured people concluded, "The daily work of justice and mercy are the tools needed to create a city of good abode."  Committing ourselves to this task is the best response to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death.

Perhaps the days in Caux saw the start of a global conversation on racial healing and equity that reflects what Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, called “the twin strands of honesty and hope.”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

From Civil Rights to Human Rights

The international conference that opens this week in Caux, Switzerland, to address healing history and racial equity could not be more timely.

More than 70 Americans will attend the forum which comes on the heels of the ruling by the US Supreme Court to invalidate key articles of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The stampede by several states to pass more restrictive voting laws immediately following the news of the SCOTUS decision is the clearest possible evidence that federal oversight is still needed. Since voter fraud is negligible the only real goal can be to lessen the electoral influence of minorities.

By not updating the law and thus leaving it open to challenge, Congress has been derelict in its duty. A case could be made that rather than continue to focus only on southern states, reporting requirements should have been applied more widely to include states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Better still would be uniform electoral laws for all states and a standard voter ID card mailed to each person at age 18.

The earlier ruling which challenges Affirmative Action was more expected. It has been obvious for some time that higher education admission policies need re-thinking. Affirmative Action played a vital role in giving access to people of color but it left the underlying factors of unequal grade school education untouched. The most disadvantaged of the population have not benefited nearly as much as those in middle and upper income levels.

Issues of poverty, affordable housing, health care and access to public transportation require bold public action. As far as criminal justice is concerned, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, says the civil rights movement has “allowed a human rights nightmare.”

The conference in Caux will no doubt debate some of these issues. Is this the time to move from a focus on affirmative action to racial equity? While jealously guarding hard-won civil rights, could we build an unstoppable momentum for human rights for Americans of all races and classes?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Equity gap is more than minority issue

I recently returned from Tulsa, OK, with my colleague at Hope in the Cities,  Tee Turner. For the past four years we have delivered workshops at the national symposium hosted annually by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. Tulsa, like our hometown Richmond, is working to overcome denial of its racist past, in particular, the 1921 destruction of the black business community by white mobs – often described as the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history.

This year’s conference focused on the structural inequities that persist in America and which are largely the result of racial history. David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute opened the event with a powerful data-based illustration of discriminatory policies that have led to separation and inequality. Blatt focused particularly on the wealth gap (as opposed to income). Starting with the seizure of resource-rich Native American land though Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act, “US history is replete with state sanctioned efforts to appropriate wealth from people of color," he said. He went on to note that, beginning in the 1930s, the government introduced a national appraisal system that explicitly tied mortgage eligibility to race.

A clear message of the symposium is that “wealth is where opportunity lies and we must reduce the barriers to raising assets.”  One graphic statistic: In Oklahoma, 40% of Hispanics, 23% of blacks, and 6% of whites are “unbanked.”

Peter Edelman, who served in Clinton’s administration and who teaches law at Georgetown University, emphasized the dramatic growth of poverty in the US over the past decade. How is it possible that 46 million people rely on food stamps in the richest country in the world? Without the current government programs, another 40 million would be in poverty. A major factor is the steady reduction in jobs that pay a living wage as well as the breakdown in family structure. A single parent with a low paying job results in a child living in poverty. 

Edelman made it clear that an attack on poverty must be multi-dimensional: “Anyone who says it's all about structure is naive, and anyone who says it's all about personal responsibility is naive.” He also reminded us that the majority of poor people are white, so the remedy for poverty must be across the board. This supported Blatt’s key thought that "changing the equity gap can no longer be thought of as only a social justice or minority issue.”

The workshop that Tee Turner and I presented described the Unpacking the Census project in Richmond, VA that connects history to data as a means of educating and mobilizing broad support for action to address poverty and to correct the effect of public policies that have tended to divide people by race, class and political jurisdiction.  

Tee and I attended a workshop by Jessy Molina, whose Atlanta-based organization. Welcoming America, works with “receiving communities” to build relations with immigrants. Welcoming  America uses story-based dialogue to break down stereotypes. One participant reported that “putting a name and a face to an issue changed everything for me." Jessy says the dialogues encourage people to “lean into discomfort” rather than avoid it.

A highpoint of the symposium was a public town hall conversation between James A. Forbes, Jr., senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, and Donald W. Shriver, Jr., emeritus president of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The two eminent theologians – black and white southerners – reflected on America’s racial journey as seen from a lifetime’s experience. 

They reminded us that the Civil Rights Movement and consequent federal legislation brought enormous economic benefit to whites and well as to blacks in the South. Yet, today, said Shriver, “the parts of the country with the poorest people have the governments with the least intention to do anything about it."  I was struck by Shriver’s call for “research on how segregation was the cause of soul impoverishment for all.” Forbes remarked that “a whole lot of white people were suffering post-traumatic stress after Obama’s election.”  He concluded, “We need to commit to America being a place where all God's children have a place at the table.”

By 2018 “minority" children will be in the majority in the US. There is a significant increase in multiracial Americans. For me the most inspiring part of the symposium was a panel of talented and visionary young leaders from many racial and ethnic backgrounds who discussed their experiences and hopes for the future. In their view, everyone is needed to build the new America. Said one, “You wouldn’t build a house by only consulting a carpenter.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Living life the way it’s meant to be

Our granddaughter Lucy was baptized on May 19 in New York. It was a wonderful ceremony featuring a booming organ, a full-throated choir, and an abundance of incense. Lucy took a keen interest in all the activities. She is a delight: gorgeous red hair, a mischievous smile, a curious mind, a happy temperament, and a strong will. Although she is not talking yet it is already obvious that she will have lots to say!

Almost as fun as watching Lucy is watching our son Neil as a father. I know that he and his wife, Eloise, are going to be terrific parents. This month I have been thinking of my own parents, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on May 14, 1998, just one year before my mother died. Lucy is named after her.

My mother’s distinctive laugh could be heard across a crowded room. Although often in pain in her later years I never once heard her complain. She radiated welcome to any who entered her home. My (usually) optimistic nature is – I am sure – inherited from her.

My dad came from a working class background in Scotland, quite different from that of my mother whose father was a businessman in London. His lifelong passion for social justice, which burned strong all his 97 years, inspired my own work for racial healing and equity. Together, their greatest legacy to me was the belief that God has a design for the world and that every person can find his or her part in it. On their golden wedding anniversary I wrote a song for them and I share it now in tribute to them:

In a world of broken promises and houses built on sand,
Some people never seem to doubt the rock on which they stand.
So let me introduce two friends who have that quality
Of people who are living life the way it’s meant to be.

Oh what a pair! They have dare, they have flair!
Folks like this bring hope everywhere.
With faith and commitment, they've got the equipment
To build a love for everyone to share.

A Scotsman and English lass together found their dream,
Their bold creative spirits like two strongly flowing streams,
And as they came together, the sparkle you could see
Of people who are living life the way it's meant to be.

And as the years go rolling by they know where they belong,
In times of joy and times of sorrow keep each other strong.
And they have taught a simple truth that means the world to me
These people who are living live the way it’s meant to be. 

Oh what a pair! They have dare, they have flair!
Folks like this bring hope everywhere.
With faith and commitment, they've got the equipment
To build a love for everyone to share.

© Copyright 1998 Rob Corcoran

Thank you Mum and Dad! 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reintegrating lives through story

“Our brains are wired for story,” says Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "Hearing a story changes you forever even if you don't want it to," says Lewis Mehl-Madrona of the Clinical Psychology Program at the Union Institute and University.

The power of storytelling in our personal lives and its impact on policy was the common thread for a three-day conference last month in Asheville, North Carolina.  Racial healing practitioners, advocates, academics, and leaders of major civil rights organizations gathered for "Reclaiming the narrative," the third annual America Healing conference convened by the Kellogg Foundation as part of its racial equity program.

According to Gail Christopher, the theme was chosen “to acknowledge the glaring omission of the stories of our nation’s collective history and the impact of that omission on today’s national narrative….(and) to open the door and share the untold stories to create a richer and more reflective narrative of our collective human experiences.”   

As in previous years, we spent the first day in "healing groups" led by 40 experienced racial healing practitioners. I partnered with Carol Babelle of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans in facilitating one group. We all remarked on the depth of personal sharing. Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams opened the day with a moving reflection. “America has a lot of healing to do,” she said, noting that hate erodes the spirit. 

On the second full day the conference heard stories of systemic barriers to equality in education, health care, and criminal justice – and how they can be overcome. Especially striking was the growing sense of common cause between African Americans and Latinos and people of other ethnicities as the country approaches landmark immigration legislation. One person said, “If we can come together and succeed on this issue we can go on to address other issues.” But as Ben Jealous of the NAACP cautioned, “If our new majority does not have a vision for poor whites we are never going to get there.”

I was fascinated by a panel on the final morning on the power of storytelling to impact the health of individuals and communities. Lewis Mehl-Madrona said, “The fiction of race has imprinted itself on our bodies.” But stories can also have a healing effect. According to Wayne Jonas, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University who heads the Samulie Institute which supports scientific research into the healing process, “reintegration with the past” results in enhanced immune systems and better overall health.

Jonas, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Medical Corps with the U.S. Army, has conducted research on Marines suffering from post-traumatic stress. He says, “We have a medical system that almost entirely focuses on cure and says let healing happen on its own.”

According to medical research, the very act of telling our stories to others or even to ourselves can have a measurable positive therapeutic impact. It is also the case that our communities can reintegrate themselves as we learn to tell our different stories.

Some of the important take-aways for me:

  • We need to teach people how to be quiet and listen.
  • We need to discover the story behind the opinion: how did the person we are with come to hold a particular view? 
  • The most important narrative is the story we are constantly telling ourselves.
  • It is hard to reconcile the need for storytelling with the media focus on 140 characters!
Gail Christopher closed the conference with a moving story of her own physical healing – and she related it to the healing of America.  Born with a painful eye condition, she underwent more than 20 operations as she grew up. One day she cried out to God in her despair, “and in that moment I heard a voice as clearly as I hear my own voice now:  ‘Love your eyes as they are loved.’ I hated my eyes, but I went to the mirror and looked at my eyes with love. The pain disappeared, the pressure normalized, and for the next 30 years the pain was controlled without medication….

“We must learn to love ourselves and to extend that love to all other human beings in the overcoming of racism.”

Monday, April 29, 2013

A portrait of grace and courage

Last week Susan and I saw the movie '42.' It is the story of Jackie Robinson who, in 1947, became the first African American to play Major League Baseball.

If you want to see a story of courage, grace and persistence, this is the film for you. The narrative is compelling and the cast is outstanding.

Chadwick Boseman is entirely convincing as Robinson. He obviously studied Robison's trademark base-stealing runs, and his portrayal of dignity under virulent and unrelenting abuse on and off the field cannot fail to move. Equally touching is the quiet but unflinching support of his wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie. In today's era of fallen sports heroes it is nice to see such integrity in professional and family life.
Harrison Ford is perfectly cast as Branch Rickey, the executive who signed Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was a religious man ("God is a Methodist") who takes his faith seriously. He tells baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, who is resisting Rickey's effort to break the color bar,  "One of these days, you’re going to meet your maker, and God’s going to ask you why you didn’t let Jackie Robinson play baseball, and you’re going to have to say, ‘because he was black,’ and that might not be a sufficient answer."

But as a shrewd businessman, Rickey also understands the fundamental truth that money is green, not black or white. Racism is not just evil, it is an economic loser.

Anyone who thinks racism was confined to the Deep South will be startled by the unvarnished portrayal of prejudice in New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A teammate confides to Robinson his nervousness about playing in Cincinnati so close to his home state of Kentucky. But as the crowd boos and shouts racial epithets he walks across the field and puts an arm around Robinson's shoulder: his family is in the stands and he wants them to see. 

One cannot see '42' and not draw some parallels with Obama's experience two generations later. Although the disrespect is now cloaked in questions about citizenship and religion rather than an overt racial attack, the underlying strategy is the same. Its particular cowardice lies in the knowledge that the target cannot respond in anger.

We saw '42' in a packed movie house with a diverse and multi-generational audience in Richmond, Virginia. At the end everyone applauded.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Notes from Punta Cana

We disembark in bright sunshine and walk towards the welcoming thatched roofs of the Punta Cana airport in the Dominican Republic. A chaotic scene unfolds inside as five flights have arrived almost simultaneously from the US and Canada and there appears to be only two functioning staff at the immigration desks. A long line snakes slowly through the airport under the thatched roof and ceiling fans. Time takes on a different dimension.

A large and obnoxious American in line behind us loses patience. "Who the hell's in charge here?" he shouts (in English). 

After a few anxious minutes searching through the many hundreds of bags we find ours standing alone by the airline desk – perhaps someone has taken it by mistake and returned it to this spot. 

As we drive into town we chat with our cheerful driver. He ran his own business until the economic downturn. Now he runs a cab for the real estate company and hopes for better days.

Along the road, in between the many beautiful all-inclusive resorts, there are quite a number of half-finished constructions, evidence of a tourist-driven real estate frenzy which has stalled.

Our "home away" condo is part of a quiet and attractive development just ten minutes walk from the beach. This walk requires negotiating a road full of buses, vans, scooters, mopeds and motor bikes (the favored form of taxi). The sidewalk is under construction which makes the short journey an adventure.

We make our daily base camp on the beach in front of a restaurant away from the main resort areas. The owner supplies us with Dominican food of red beans, rice, and goat – enough for two meals. By the end of the week he says we have become friends for life. Along with dinners of paella and seafood we get special side dishes and small shots of Mama Juana, a Dominican concoction of rum, red wine and honey(to aid digestion!) Our waiter says he spent 19 years in Toronto. We agree that the weather here is better.
After many entreaties from the owner of the neighboring gift shop we purchase a necklace and a carving. The manager says next time we are to visit his home in Santo Domingo. His daughter is in the US.

Slightly removed from the resort area we are able to get some glimpse of everyday life. The tourist industry has generated considerable employment. Many have come from Haiti, an eight-hour bus journey, to find work here.

Relations between the countries have been strained for many years. Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for two decades in the 19th century and Dominicans still celebrate their independence from Haiti as well as that from Spain. In 1937 Dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the killing by Dominican troops of thousands of Haitians living and working in the border areas. Their bodies were thrown in the aptly named Massacre River. The history of the massacre was largely ignored until last year when members of the Haitian and Dominican diasporas living in the US led a ceremony at the border to remember the massacre and address its legacy. Hundreds of Dominicans and Haitians met on opposite sides of the river and floated candles in the water.

Yet prejudice remains. Recent policy changes have classified Dominicans of Haitian descent as foreigners rather than citizens. One observer writes of a “deep-seated racism in Dominican society which affects dark-skinned people in general and Haitians and Dominico-Haitians in particular.”  

It is interesting to see how tourists interact with the local population. Some national groups have gained a reputation for rudeness. When the sun goes down and the Europeans and North Americans retreat to their all-inclusive resorts, we see the Dominicans enjoy the beach and the water. Our days here are too short for anything but superficial impressions. But we are glad to connect with a few people and to discover something of the warmth, hospitality, and humor of this country. We are sorry we don’t speak enough Spanish to discover more.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A time for courage

In 1974, a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court (Milliken v Bradley) allowed suburban schools in Detroit, Michigan, to be protected from a metropolitan desegregation plan. It set the pattern for a national trend that enabled local jurisdictions to act as “racial Berlin walls,” according to Tom Pettigrew, a leading researcher and social psychologist. 

Forty years later, a bankruptcy lawyer has been appointed by the state of Michigan as an unelected emergency manager for Detroit, which experienced a 25 percent population drop in the past decade and is facing daunting financial challenges. A higher percentage of children live in poverty than in any other large city in America.

Detroit is a graphic example of the interaction of race and poverty and it demonstrates what many urban experts tell us: fragmented metropolitan regions do not thrive. It is impossible to build a healthy region with a deeply segregated school system.

Last month Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and  a prolific author on the topic of school segregation, was in Richmond, Va,  to kick off “Looking Back, Moving Forward: a Conference on Race, Class, Opportunity, and School Boundaries in the Richmond Region.” 

Like Detroit, the Richmond region resisted school integration and a Supreme Court decision struck down the proposed merger between city and surrounding county systems. Today the once largely white counties have a vastly more diverse population and there is a growing tendency to re-segregate by race and class within school districts.

“We have never had a long-term commitment to integration except in a few places like the US Army,” said Orfield. One of his core arguments for integration is that “if you concentrate disadvantage in schools, you create machines to perpetuate poverty.”

Case studies from several cities (Louisville, Hartford, and Omaha) provided some hopeful pointers. Suggestions for Richmond included cross-jurisdictional magnet schools; a regional dual language (English-Spanish) immersion school; or a school created by one of the universities. We also heard that citizens need to exert pressure on their elected officials at the state level.

The conference was largely driven by the conviction of Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who teaches educational policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and who was a classmate of one of our sons in middle school. She is co-author of a new study examining school enrollment in Virginia from 1989 through 2010

Law professor Jim Ryan noted that citizens must accept responsibility for choices they make and not look to courts or other outside forces for solutions. “It really comes down to political will.”

An example of courageous citizen action was highlighted by Richmond School Board Vice Chairman Donald Coleman. He praised some young professional couples who chose to live in the city’s east end and to enroll their young children in the local elementary school – where most of the students are black and from families below the poverty line – and are working for its success.

Four young couples, graduates of the University of Virginia, decided to live out their Christian principles and belief in community development by investing their families in northeastern Church Hill. The men had been housemates at college. Two are doctors, one a pastor and another is a financial adviser.

Romesh Wijesooriya, who is interim chief of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “My greatest vision is that people with resources, people without resources, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, could live together and go to school together. There would be homes for old folks, student apartments, and single-family homes in the same community. Businesses would be thriving there. I get pretty pumped. There’s a ton of barriers and a ton of hurt and a lot of brokenness, but also a great potential for hope and healing.”

Richmond, like Detroit and every city in America, needs more people with this kind of vision and commitment. It’s a time for courage.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

After 52 years, an apology

My colleague Tee Turner calls it “the most pure act of reconciliation.” The historic apology by the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights struggle, made national news.  Lewis and fellow Freedom Riders were brutally beaten by a mob after arriving at Montgomery's Greyhound station in May 1961 while the police stood aside.

Tee witnessed the apology during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage organized by the Faith & Politics Institute, March 1-3.  

Police Chief Kevin Murphy presented Lewis with the badge off his uniform as a mark of honor, saying that the police department had failed in its duty to protect the civil rights activists. Lewis, clearly moved, said it was the first such apology he had received.  

The pilgrimage began at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where Governor George Wallace made his notorious “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” in June 1963, protesting the enrollment of two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone. John Lewis grew up in Alabama, but had never before visited the campus. He said he was overwhelmed by seeing the place where Wallace made his stand.

With 300 participants and 27 members of Congress, the annual bi-partisan pilgrimage was the largest ever and included Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. The Richmond Times-Dispatch  quoted Cantor: “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of so many pivotal moments in the civil rights movement… I felt it was important to make the trip to Alabama to honor the sacrifices of patriots like John Lewis who stood on the front lines making them possible.”  

The pilgrimage took place as the Supreme Court is considering challenges to the Voting Rights Act introduced by President Johnson following the Selma to Montgomery marches.

I was pleased that the newspaper highlighted the significance of Cantor’s presence, noting that Virginia had led the movement of Massive Resistance to school desegregation. “Virginia may have shunned the visible excesses of Alabama and Mississippi and others, but a genteel disposition coincided with a legacy of cruelty and hate. With tyrants always it is thus.” Strong words from a newspaper known in earlier times for racially prejudiced editorials.

Tee Turner says he was moved to hear Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who was 13 in 1963, describe life with a man who was a respected judge, a kind father, and an image of the South’s defiance. She said that the events of that tumultuous time were never discussed in the family. "My father owed me a conversation, an explanation of what he had done, or at least share with my sons why," Kennedy said. She made the trip to Tuscaloosa to "stand as testament to change" and to give her sons the conversation that she never had with her father.

Tee comments that Kennedy’s words show the trans-generational impact of decisions on both oppressor as well as the oppressed.  Summing up his Alabama experience, Tee says he saw a “remarkable level of ownership of the ugliness of history.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

Trust that transcends race, class and culture

Trust is not built on personal likes or dislikes. It is not a sentiment or an emotion. It is built through shared commitment, shared risk, and willingness to work through difficulties. It is possible for people to hold divergent opinions and still trust one another. 

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when we celebrated the life of a dedicated member of the Initiatives of Change team in Richmond, VA, who died aged 90. Diademia Scarlet Blair – known as “Demie” – was a native Richmonder who grew up in the era of segregation and who was part of early efforts to bring blacks and whites together after African Americans won political power in the 1977 city council election. Together with her English husband, Terry, Demie hosted numerous occasions for diverse groups in her gracious home.

She  was a devoted friend to Muriel Smith, the great African American contralto who created the role of Carmen Jones on Broadway and who lived her final years in Richmond.

In 1993, when Hope in the Cities led a national conference, “Healing the Heart of America,” Terry and Demie organized the opening banquet for more than 700 people complete with personal hand-addressed invitations and individual place cards. 

Demie was a perfectionist. She had high standards. I recall a conversation with the hotel catering manager when she inquired whether the grapes to garnish the fish entrée would be peeled!

Demie maintained her conservative political views throughout her life. She was not slow to voice her opinions and she and I sometimes disagreed. But we learned to appreciate each other and became good friends as the years went by. 

It was notable that four well-known black community leaders attended Demie’s funeral. More than one had clashed with her as they had worked together in the Initiatives of Change team. Yet they shared with Demie a commitment to "model the change" they wanted to see in society, a commitment that was stronger than any personal hurt or resentment. When the time came to lay her to rest, they wanted to be there to honor her. One of them said she respected Demie as someone who had the courage to “always speak her mind." It spoke volumes about a quality of trust that transcends differences of race, politics, culture and class.

Demie was always unflinchingly honest about her own need for change. Honesty is the first step in building trust. As I wrote in my book, Trustbuilding, “Trust depends on the authenticity of our lives, our openness, and our willingness to start with change in ourselves.”

Monday, February 4, 2013

Trust in the justice system

Fairness in the justice system is basic for maintaining trust in any country. But there are two systems of justice in America: one for the very rich and powerful and one for the poor and powerless. 

It often seems that the larger the crime and the more powerful the offender, the less likely it is that the criminal will see prison time. On the flip side, our prisons are crowded with poor young men, mostly minorities, most of whom have committed comparatively minor offenses. 

Not a single senior executive in any of the banks involved in precipitating the financial crash has been prosecuted. Even in cases where banks have engaged in blatantly criminal activity, such as HSBC which was fined $1.9 billion for money laundering for Latin American drug lords, no one in a leadership position is behind bars. The biotech giant Amgen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling a misbranded drug, and was fined $762 million, the largest such settlement in U.S. history. Yet, this same corporation, which has 74 lobbyists in Washington, used its influence to gain a massive benefit at taxpayer expense by inserting a provision into the recent “fiscal cliff” legislation as described in a recent New York Times story. 

It’s shocking that people (yes, according to our Supreme Court, corporations are people) who have committed illegal acts on this scale can dictate legislation in Washington. Even more unfair is the fact that executives walk free after admitting crimes that would have landed a young black male in prison for decades.    

A few days after this story broke, I saw The House I Live In a stunning documentary on the disastrous “war on drugs” and its devastating impact on minority communities. Since 1971 we have spent $1trillion on this misguided campaign and there have been 45 million arrests. As a result, 500,000 people – mostly black males – are currently in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Until 2010, this draconian approach imposed a five-year mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (sold on the street largely by blacks). The Fair Sentencing Act eliminated this mandatory sentence and reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine (used largely by whites) required to trigger some federal penalties from 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio.

In an earlier blog I referenced Michelle Alexander’s book,The New Jim Crow,  in which she traces the criminalization of a whole class of people, driven in part for political reasons. Poor whites, she says, felt “socially demoted” during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities. As a result of the drug war, hundreds of thousands of minority males are disenfranchised and excluded from the job market. 

Now prisons have become big business. Communities vie for the jobs and economic benefit they bring. Meanwhile, we have a large section of the population that is increasingly excluded from participating in society. The House I Live In raises the disturbing possibility that our prisons will become places where America warehouses this group for profit. Great work on this important film by writer and director Sieugene Jarecki and executive producer Danny Glover.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A commitment to complete the journey

"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody," said Obama in his inaugural address on Martin Luther King’s holiday. The word "poverty" was scarcely uttered during the election. Candidates of both parties constantly claimed to be champions of the middle class, but few – if any – policies were suggested that might have an impact on America’s most intractable problem. 

So the announcement last Friday by Richmond's Mayor Dwight Jones of a plan to battle poverty in his city could not be timelier. After nearly two years of work by several task forces, an anti-poverty commission has released its report.  “This is the first time in the history of Richmond that a comprehensive effort to address poverty holistically has ever been done,” said Dr. John Moeser of the University of Richmond, in a front page story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Nearly 50 percent of the city’s population is classified as poor, near-poor or at risk of falling into poverty, according to the report. About 35 percent of Richmond households have an income below $25,000 a year. Much of the poverty is highly concentrated – the result of policies that resisted school desegregation, constructed a highway through the black business district, denied mortgages in certain neighborhoods, and crowded several public housing projects into one small area of the city.

A key recommendation of the report is investment in workforce development programs for low-skilled, unemployed and underemployed, and the recruiting one or more major employers capable of creating large numbers of jobs. Other priorities include a regional rapid-transit system to link the unemployed with jobs in the suburbs, and redevelopment of the city’s public housing without displacing residents.

Moeser comments, “It’s one thing to write a report. The hard work is accomplishing something.” Few people deserve more credit for generating public conversation about poverty than Moeser who has been an indefatigable educator and advocate for the cause. It was partly due to his urging that the mayor launched his anti-poverty commission at a Hope in the Cities forum in April 2011. In a blog last year I reported that Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities had trained a team of volunteer facilitators to present a DVD featuring regional census data compiled by Moeser on “the new realities of race, class, and jurisdiction.” It shows the extent to which poverty has become a metropolitan-wide challenge.

Special kudos should go to Thad Williamson, also of the University of Richmond, who teaches leadership and philosophy, politics, economics and law. Williamson has conducted several public forums with Moeser. He played a central role in the work of the commission and was charged with drafting much of the report. Richmond owes a huge debt of gratitude to these two scholars.

Moving the commission’s recommendations from paper to reality will require sustained citizen engagement. Some of the proposals will require courageous political leadership. Voters must tell elected officials that they will support policies that make it possible for large numbers of people to break out of the poverty trap. As the Mayor told a Hope in the Cities forum of community activists and volunteers, “You will be the advocates for the ideas to become a reality.”

I hope that Obama will hold fast to his convictions that “Our journey is not complete until all children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, know they are cared for.” Will Richmond show how one community can make a start?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Embracing a bolder vision for our economy

David Frum, who worked for George W. Bush and authored Why Romney Lost, tweeted that the “’real fiscal cliff story” is “how the entire American political class convinced itself that unemployment is no longer worth thinking about.”

Indeed. Although unemployment remains stuck at 7.8% (a far larger percentage is underemployed), and most economists agree that unemployment and lack of purchasing power are the biggest threats to healthy economic growth, there appears to be no stomach for bold visions to put people to work. While the nation’s bridges, roads, sewer systems, gas lines, and power grids are decaying or suffering from severe overload, millions of people are unable to find work. 

Many who do have jobs struggle to support their families on paychecks that have not kept pace with living costs; and workers who are earning good wages now could lose ground as a result of increasing attacks on unions in several states. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25. The recent congressional deal reinstated the payroll tax which will take a bite out of even this meager wage.

According to a report last year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time worker must earn $18.25 per hour in order to afford rent and utilities on a modest two-bedroom unit without spending more than 30% of income on housing costs. By contrast, the American renter earns, on average, just $14.15 per hour.

Congress has redefined the middle class as individuals earning up to $400,000 – a laughable assumption for the vast majority of Americans. Median household income is $46,000. But we should not be surprised that elected officials are so out of touch with everyday life since 47 percent of House and Senate members are millionaires (67 percent of the Senate).

Although the U.S. prides itself as a classless society, we are becoming stratified according to wealth and are increasingly less mobile than other developed nations. About 62 percent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts; and 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

In September 2010, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich offered some insights into the challenge of recovering from the recession. The real problem, he wrote, has to do with the structure of the economy, not the business cycle. The crisis began decades ago when technology made it cheaper for American employers to use low-wage labor abroad or labor-replacing software here at home than to continue paying the typical worker a middle-class wage. The economy kept growing but hourly wages flattened and the median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.


Reich continued, “American families kept spending as if their incomes were keeping pace with overall economic growth. And their spending fueled continued growth. How did families manage this trick? First, women streamed into the paid work force. By the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home (in 1966, only 24 percent did).

“Second, everyone put in more hours. What families didn’t receive in wage increases they made up for in work increases. By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.

“When American families couldn’t squeeze any more income out of these two coping mechanisms, they embarked on a third: going ever deeper into debt. This seemed painless — as long as home prices were soaring. From 2002 to 2007, American households extracted $2.3 trillion from their homes.

“Eventually, of course, the debt bubble burst — and with it, the last coping mechanism. Now we’re left to deal with the underlying problem that we’ve avoided for decades.”

Some observers say that Obama’s Affordable Health Care plan is important, not only because it gives access to health care to millions who are currently uninsured, but because it is may help to reduce the wealth gap. Eduardo Porter wrote in the New York Times on September 25 that the plan, “which levies new taxes on the wealthy to expand access to health care for the near poor, seems on track to become the biggest increase in government redistribution since the Johnson administration.” The Tax Foundation finds that Obamacare will raise taxes by $52,000 on average for families among the top 1 percent of earners in order to finance $250 to $2,000 worth of health benefits for the poorest half of American families by 2016.

But the U.S. must embrace a fundamental restructuring of our economy. Continuing the current race to the bottom in wages is a recipe for becoming a third-rate society. Our political and business leaders as well as every other American must invest in a vision of a high skills, high wage economy. This will mean heavy investment in education at all levels, a vast rebuilding of infrastructure, and a commitment to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

This will require bold, far-sighted leadership but it should not be a partisan issue. The best of conservative and liberal values are needed. Such a vision would do much to restore trust in America’s social contract.