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 Drawing on numerous interviews and historical documents, long-time resident Dr.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.