Saturday, December 10, 2016

More than a vision, an imperative

Final day at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

The final day of the TRHT Summit starts with a presentation by Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, who directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. He lays out some of the major cleavages in the country. One is the rapidly shifting demographics. By the end of the decade minorities will be a majority of the workforce. (But net migration from Mexico is actually negative partly due to lower birthrates.) Interestingly, Pastor says “racial anxiety is strongest in regions where demographic change is not happening,” e.g. the Rust Belt. There is also a growing social distance. Racial segregation has decreased in urban areas but income segregation is increasing. Cities are becoming whiter, while suburbs are more diverse but they don’t have the necessary social service infrastructure. Another factor is the racial generation gap. The median age for Latinos is 27 compared with 56 for whites. “Whites don’t see themselves in this younger generation,” says Pastor. 

Pastor also notes that regions that work toward equity have stronger and more resilient growth for everyone. “For example, San Antonio introduced a sales tax to support pre-K education for disadvantaged kids. The leaders of the Chamber of Commerce supported it because they saw it as an investment in the future.”  

The rest of the day is devoted to taking the TRHT guiding principles and the recommendations of five design teams (narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law and economy) who have developed papers over the past several months, and begin to imagine how they might be applied in communities across the country. 

The Richmond group convened by Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities includes representatives of Richmond City Council, the Office of Community Wealth Building, Bon Secours Health Systems, Richmond Hill Community, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the American Civil War Museum and the University of Richmond. Other groups are here from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Buffalo, Dallas, as well as Mississippi, New Mexico and Michigan. Each group spends five hours together working through the process and beginning to develop plans for first steps.

The guiding principles include a commitment to an accurate recounting of history, which has been largely told by the dominant groups in our communities. An atmosphere of forgiveness must be cultivated and people of all backgrounds encouraged to tell their stories without fear of recrimination. Equally important is a clear and compelling vision with ambitious but achievable goals with progress regularly assessed. The process must be fully inclusive, reaching out to non-traditional allies. True healing requires the building of trust; divisive rhetoric and blame and adversarial proceedings are unlikely to produce an atmosphere in which healing and transformation can occur. This transformation must be seen in some form of reparative or restorative justice and policies that foster systemic change.  

Richmond has taken important steps to acknowledge its racial history and to engage a wide range of citizens in honest dialogue. There is a significant network of individuals and institutions who have built relationships of trust – perhaps more than most cities in America. All of the Richmonders at the summit agree that the time is ripe for another major step forward that would enable our community to truly overcome the structural inequities that are the result of the belief in a human hierarchy based on race. In the coming weeks we will be consulting with our various constituents as well as reaching out to new allies as we develop a plan. One resource that may be useful is a business case for racial equity developed by Kellogg. 

The summit has been a time of intensive work, with the daily program starting at 7:00 am and ending at 9:00 pm with scarcely a break. No time to enjoy the beautiful Carlsbad surroundings! But there is a sense of urgency because of the divisive rhetoric of the presidential election and the alarm at what may lie ahead with the incoming administration. 

“This week has proven to me that we can do it!” says Gail Christopher as we wrap up the summit. “It is a vision, but more than a vision it is an imperative.” She announces that Kellogg and its TRHT partners – with a combined reach of more than 200 million people – are responding to the need to bring a different spirit to the country before the Inauguration, by calling for a National Day of Healing on January 17. More details coming soon!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The house that racism built

Day 3 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

After a day focused on personal racial healing and relationship building, we focus today on healing the wounds of our society that result from our inherited belief in a racial hierarchy. David Williams from Harvard’s School of Public Health shares data showing the devastating impact of racism on health outcomes for people of color. His presentation entitled “The House that Racism Built” provides overwhelming evidence drawn from multiple studies. 

He highlights residential segregation as America’s “most successful political ideology.” It impacts schools, employment, transportation, public safety – all of which impact health. “It is a truly rigged system based on skin color.” In a city like Richmond, Virginia, there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between some neighborhoods. Studies show that eliminating residential segregation would result in eliminating disparities in educational achievement, employment, and health, and would reduce by two thirds the number of births by single mothers. Discrimination also leads to feelings of disrespect and to stress that causes health problems such as high blood pressure. Williams recalls W.E.B Du Bois’ remark on “the peculiar indifference to black suffering” in America.

Surveys show that white Americans operate with a very different narrative. One in three reported they were “troubled” by Obama’s election, and because a black man is in the White House they are less willing to support efforts to further reduce inequality. “Research shows that we think with our hearts,” says Williams, therefore we need to develop stories that will “break through the empathy gap.”  

Salin Geevarghese, deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, says, "Just putting data out there does not mean that people will draw the right conclusions. We have all witnessed the power of narrative to make data come alive.”

Throughout the day we hear powerful testimonies and reports from teams of community organizers, civil rights activists, academics, and racial healing practitioners who have been working on visions and potential strategies to develop new narratives, to overcome separation and concentrated poverty, to create equitable opportunity and fair economies, and to reconstruct a legal system that delivers justice for all. It is intense and challenging. The energy is high. Panel discussions reflect America in all its racial and ethnic diversity.

As the father of a Georgetown University alumnus, I am particularly interested in the contribution of President John De Gioia who describes the university’s efforts to address its racial history. He notes that America’s universities were complicit in establishing the notion of racial hierarchy. “The very idea of race is the product of colonial scholarship.” However, he stressed the role of higher education in providing a place where we can have “the most rigorous discourse on the most challenging issues.” He expresses alarm that funding support by states for higher education has dropped on average from 65% to 35% and in some states it is less than half that. “We are not providing the level of commitment to public education that is crucial at this time.” Civil society, of which higher education is a vital part, is the “bulwark against authoritarianism.” He says we need a new conversation in America “about what it means to belong here as a people.” 

Much of the conversation is set against the backdrop of the incoming Trump administration and the anticipated assault on voting rights, legal justice, fair housing, and protection for immigrants. However as someone remarked, one result of the election is that there is now a transparency around the discourse on race: “We need to own that space.” And, Gail Christopher reminds us, “You can stand up for values without having a political conversation. These are human rights values. We need a movement that truly stands up for what we believe to be right.” 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The power of story

Day 2 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

“Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we hear,” says Gail Christopher as we embark on a “day of healing” at the TRHT summit. “Today is about stories…When we form a circle we suspend the hierarchy…we are not here to judge but to create a safe and sacred space.” 

We pause to celebrate the remarkable forgiveness ceremony that took place at Standing Rock just twenty-four hours earlier where military veterans made a heartfelt apology to Native people for military action taken against them for centuries. Rituals of forgiveness, says Christopher, can give rise to “heartfelt commitments to change conditions.”

An important step in the healing process is to overcome false narratives that define us. So for most of the day, the entire conference is divided into groups of 20 to 24 people. Each “healing circle” is facilitated by two experienced “healing practitioners” who invite the participants to share a personal story about a time when they overcame, challenged, changed and/or stood up to what they felt was a false narrative about themselves or their identity group, and how that moment influenced them or changed their life and/or the lives of others. It is a powerful experience that one of my colleagues describes as a process of slowing down; of showing up as your authentic self; and of deep listening and being listened to without judgement. 

Later in the afternoon several members of a team working on guidelines and recommendations for a racial healing strategy discuss their experiences of racial healing with the whole conference. They include Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaska Institute, Jerry Tello of the National Compadres Network, Lloyd Asato of the Asian Pacific Community in Action, and Mee Moua of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Some important steps in healing highlighted in the team’s recommendations:
  • Let the voice and spirit of the community be your guide. Listen to the communities and consult with them; ask what they need; seek their ideas and visions and reflect back what you have heard.
  • Validate the practice of racial healing and recognize those who are doing healing work in your communities. Seek guidance and support from those who have done this in other communities. There are many people and organizations who have developed racial healing practices, history walks and rituals, as well as dialogues, community trustbuilding and community organizing. Map these resources, learn from them, amplify them and make connections.
  • Develop a racial healing practitioner network and affirm the necessity for healing by creating healing spaces for ourselves and others. Pay attention to reflection and to self-care, to relationships in our own homes and family life, as we try to heal our communities. Avoid a hierarchy of woundedness. Support each other.
  • Our work is centered on dialogue and connectedness. Recognize that the healing process is for everyone, both the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • Look for ways to connect racial healing to efforts for equitable public policy. Highlight the importance of connecting stories to data as a way to reach people emotionally as well as intellectually and to mobilize them for action in effecting needed structural change.

Tomorrow’s agenda will focus on some of the key areas for where change is needed. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The power of love

Day 1 at the Truth Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

“In Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation the power of love is leveraged to transcend the power of fear,” says the visionary leader of this initiative, Dr. Gail Christopher, senior advisor and vice president at  the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She is speaking at the opening of a summit that has convened 570 leaders from across the country representing racial healing and justice organizations, faith communities, corporations, academia, government and the arts. 

Fifteen of us have traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to Carlsbad, California, to take part in this historic event. I will be blogging regularly as we experience these days together. On the first evening the attendees are welcomed by Stan Rodriguez of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Lipay Nation. “Hear with your heart,” he tells us. “We are the ancestors of the ones who are to come. What legacy are we going to leave them?” 

Kellogg’s president and CEO, La June Montgomery Tabron, recalls the words of its founder that the only change that is permanent is the change that emerges by the force of the people. And she inspires us with Nelson Mandela’s powerful insight that “No one is born hating another…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  

Gail Christopher calls this event “a dream come true…. In this time when there is so much anger and pain, we will together project a different energy into the discourse.” Explaining TRHT, she says (I am paraphrasing here): What do we mean by truth? It is in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (Of course the founders only meant white men.) Our goal is to bring forth the potential of our democracy for all to be respected and honored. Healing means to move beyond denial to recognize the fundamental fallacy of racial hierarchy and its monumental cost and to come face to face with our true humanity. In the human body, healing takes place naturally when the conditions are right. It is the same in this work: healing comes with trustbuilding, building relationships, creating a new narrative. The transformation is expressed in ending our separation and segregation, reconstructing our legal system and building an economy open to all. “Systems produce exactly what they are designed to produce. The inequalities are there by design.”

Former Mississippi governor William Winter, now 93, but as feisty as ever, is interviewed by Tsi-tsi-ki Felix, a journalist and news anchor with Univision. Winter says of the TRHT initiative, “This is the most important thing that any one of us can be involved in, without exception. We must learn to live with each other.” He says we must renew our determination not to allow the progress in racial justice to be reversed. 

Winter recalls a segregationist governor claiming at a political rally, “If I am elected there will not be any more integration in Mississippi.” A supporter standing next to Winter cheered loudly. “I said to him, ‘You don’t really think he can do that?’ ‘No, but I just like to hear him say it!’” Winter observes that Americans “can get into a lot of trouble when people succumb to believing that which is not so.” 

Winter says that in his travels as one of the commissioners serving President Bill Clinton’s One America initiative in 1997 and 1998 he found that everyone, regardless of race, class or politics,  wanted four things: a good education for their children; a fair shot at a job; a decent house on a safe street; and to be treated with dignity and respect. “Why can’t we devote energy to making these aspirations a reality?” 

The former governor, known for his educational reforms, grew up in “the most segregated corner of the most segregated state in America.” But he had a father and a mother who “taught me not to hate anyone or be unkind to anyone and to try to be fair.”  A pivotal moment was his experience in the newly integrated officer corps in World War II. “I was with very able African American officers.” But on buses in southern towns he got to sit at the front while they had to it at the back. They could not eat at restaurants or go to the movies together. “I said, these things have got to change.” 

I end today reflecting on Gail Christopher’s reference to the concluding words of Lincoln’s immortal second inaugural address: “With malice towards none, with charity for all…” By this he meant love for all, says Christopher. “We are not going to allow this country to descend into hate. We will stand in the presence of divine love to heal the nation.”             

Friday, November 11, 2016

The healing we need

As the full dimension of the Trump victory became apparent, a veteran strategist remarked, “My crystal ball has been shattered…Tonight data died.” After a sleepless night, I struggled like many others to come to terms with the shocking turn of events. How was it possible that someone so unqualified for the presidency could defeat the most qualified candidate in decades?

Trump owes much to the moral collapse of the Republican leadership who abandoned principles for political expediency, and to the arrogance of Democrats who took their base for granted and failed to reach beyond it. There should be serious soul-searching among the media giants who profited hugely from Trump’s ascent. He in turn received billions in free promotion through disproportionate coverage. Media gave virtually no consideration to matters of policy. They grossly underreported the underlying concerns of voters and relied heavily on polls and punditry.  

The biggest take-away from the election is that much of America lives in parallel universes. The mindset and daily realities of those on the east and west coasts are worlds apart from those in America’s heartland. And while the thriving and increasingly diverse major metropolitan regions across the country are largely Democratic strongholds, the vast rural areas and numerous small towns, many of which face declining economies and opportunities, are less diverse and strongly Republican. 
Much has been made of “working class” support for Trump. He won significant support in the rust-belt where the effects of globalization are felt most keenly. But the median income of Trump voters in the primaries was $72,000 while Clinton’s was around $61,000. Issues related to culture, values and identity were greater contributing factors. After all, if Trump was truly leading a working class movement, why did an overwhelming majority of African Americans and two-thirds of Latinos vote for Clinton?  
Racial anxiety, or, as a Pew Research Center survey found, concern that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens US values,” appear to be the most common indicators of Trump support. White nationalism is a more accurate description of the movement. From the outset of Obama’s presidency, the backlash against the first black man to occupy the White House was vicious and sustained. Put in the context of similar backlashes in Europe, what we may be seeing is reaction to the end of 500 years of white colonial domination.

Our young people are experiencing the deepest and most lasting wounds. The memory of this brutal campaign will not be easily erased. A Muslim friend says that for months before the election her children were reporting racial taunts from white kids in affluent county suburbs. A Latino leader whose son attends a Jesuit school in affluent Silicon Valley told me that a boy came into class this week chanting, "Build that wall, deport them all!" Children who have grown up with Obama as a role model are confused and traumatized. Across the country thousands of young people who feel betrayed have taken to the streets in protest. 

Besides race, Trump tapped into a deep-seated male chauvinism and misogyny. Had Clinton behaved as crudely towards men as Trump did towards women she would not have survived a day in the primaries let alone in the presidential campaign.

But despite all this, we must also recognize that many white Americans do feel genuinely bewildered, lost and left behind in a rapidly changing world. Cultural, social and demographic changes as well as economic stress cause anxiety and a crisis of identity. Middle-aged white males are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers compared to every other group.   
Liberals, particularly the college-educated elite, must share blame for the deep polarization. As one commentator observed, they failed to foresee the political shockwave and have virtually no understanding of the worldview of Trump supporters. Within the white community the gulf between so-called “educated” and “working class” voters is as great as the racial divide. Charles Camosy writes in the Washington Post about the “monolithic, insulated political culture” in most of our colleges and universities. 

Liberals have often been guilty of bigotry against conservative religion and against rural and poor whites. Conservatives are not wrong when they resist what they see as a decline in moral values and family life and the crudeness of our entertainment industry. Democrats have been reluctant to recognize that many Christian evangelicals who may differ with secular liberals on issues such as abortion could be strong allies on racial justice issues. America is a vast and complex country and defies easy stereotyping.
Supporters of Trump and of Bernie Sanders are rightly in revolt against the corruption of Wall Street and Washington, DC. Above all, millions of Americans want their voices to be heard. The election result was more a shout against the establishment than a vote for Trump. Democrats and Republicans would do well to listen carefully.

There is much talk now of the need for “healing.” Clinton’s concession statement in which she pledged to help Trump be a good president was a model of graciousness. Democrats should follow her lead. Trump praised Clinton and says he wants to be a president for all the people. After his attacks on Muslims and immigrants he has work to do, and those Republican leaders who first denounced and then supported him must hold the new president accountable.

Obama displayed class and dignity by reminding America – and the world – that the peaceful transfer of power by the ballot and not the bullet is a hallmark of this nation. His remarkable welcome to Trump at the White House prompted the president-elect to call him “a very good man” and to add that he would seek Obama’s counsel.

Healing will not be easy. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, could play a key bridgebuilding role in the Senate. He is well-liked and trusted by members of both parties, and he combines a strong faith with a passion for racial justice. As a representative of an increasingly diverse southern state, he understands the importance of history and tradition as well as the reality of changing demographics.   
The trustbuilding work of Initiatives of Change USA with its focus on race, reconciliation and responsibility has never been more relevant. The core principles of its manifesto issued in 1996 as a Call to Community could form a basis for the healing that America so desperately needs. They include a commitment to listening carefully and respectfully to one another and the whole community; honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities and refusing to stereotype; building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone; and holding ourselves, our  communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.

Initiatives of Change is partnering with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and more than 130 other organizations to develop a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process for the United States. Perhaps the shock of the election will jolt Americans enough to take a fresh look at our assumptions, prejudices and insularity. We might take a break from social media and talk with our neighbors. Perhaps we are more ready for honest conversation than we realize.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Addressing poverty from the inside out

Mother Teresa once remarked that the “greatest disease in the West…is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” She went on to say that the poverty in the West is poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. 

Physical poverty is real in America. In a city like Richmond nearly 40% of our children experience it every day. And 15 million children across the nation live in families below the poverty line. It is America’s shame and a topic that scarcely surfaced in the presidential campaign. But Mother Teresa was pointing to a deeper truth. 

In a sobering column, Growing Up Poor in America, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the home of a 13-year-old boy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who has three televisions in his room, but there is no food and no books in the house. “The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana.” 

Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, documents the different experiences of families navigating changing economic times in his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio. In Putnam’s youth, kids of different income levels played sports and interacted socially together; “civic engagement and solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.” Today Port Clinton is “a split-screen American nightmare in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that dissect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits kids from the right side of the tracks.” 

Putnam writes that “an unexpected consensus has begun to crystallize across ideological lines that the collapse of the working-class family is a central contributor to the growing opportunity gap.” A child with a mother in the bottom educational quartile is almost twice as likely to live with a single mother as a child whose mother is in the top quartile. Putnam’s carefully documented case studies track the experiences of children from well-educated middle-class families and contrasts them with the challenges facing kids whose parents have a high school education or less and are struggling economically. 

Putnam acknowledges that changes in the economy are important contributing factors in the weakening of family structures. Unemployment, underemployment and poor economic prospects discourage marriage and stable relationships. But he also notes that gender and sexual norms have changed: “For poor men, the disappearance of the stigma associated with premarital sex and nonmarital birth, and the evaporation of the norm of shotgun marriages, broke the link between procreation and marriage. For educated women, the combination of birth control and greatly enhanced professional opportunity made delayed childbearing both more possible and desirable.” 

President Obama, in a thoughtful review of “unfinished business” for the Economist, highlights the need to address rising inequality. While most economists focus on technology, education, globalization, declining unions and falling minimum wages, he believes that “changes in culture and values have played a major role” in widening the gap. He notes that in previous decades “differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels – at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organizations.” 

As a society we are communicating very mixed messages to our children. This is particularly evident on college campuses where students enter what one professor calls “a culture of moral, emotional and social chaos.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol is a factor in 97,000 cases of sexual assaults annually among college-age students. A drunken fray by Michigan students caused more than $400,000 in damage to their vacation hotel rooms. Harvard - one of the world's most privileged institutions - cancelled the the rest of the season of the men's soccer team following revelations of a so-called scouting report that rated the sexual appeal of their female counterparts. Is it any surprise that graduates from our universities display selfish and irresponsible behavior when they get to Wall Street? 

The elevation of tolerance as a primary virtue can leave people adrift without any guidelines for personal conduct and public action. If there are no objective moral benchmarks, how can anyone claim that one value is superior to another? We see a growing social consciousness on issues such as women’s rights, and the need to protect the environment and to fight corruption; but relativism can end up actually being in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect, equality, and honesty.  

To return to the starting point for this blog: poverty is a moral challenge for the richest nation on earth. Liberals and conservatives should find common cause in addressing it. But as Kristof writes, “Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society’s irresponsible self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.” 

We must work at structural change and “inner” change at the same time. We need just policies and personal responsibility. One without the other is unlikely to be effective. We must hold ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Snapshots of the America I know and love

It is just 10 am but the mercury has already climbed to 85°F as we arrive at our favorite little beach where the York River estuary spills into the Chesapeake Bay. On a grassy park area, Latino boys are playing soccer. Under the few big shade trees large family groups – Latino, African American and Asian – prepare the mid-day meals. Tempting aromas waft from grills. 

As we relax in our beach chairs after a swim, members of an African American Pentecostal church conduct a baptism, wading into the warm waters, while high school seniors in bikinis stroll by. A few yards away, an older white man is fishing. A black army veteran with a yoga mat stops to say hi. It all seems far removed from the picture of a country seething with anger and fear conjured up by Donald Trump.

I have spent the past three decades engaged in efforts for racial healing and equity. I am acutely aware of the injustices that continue to deny too many people of color – as well as white folks – the opportunity to thrive, and I am angry that a society as wealthy as ours still allows so many hard working Americans to live in poverty. I have written extensively about these things. But this blog is about the hopeful side of this country, the America I know and love. 

While deep divisions do exist, most of America is not about to erupt in riots. At our annual neighborhood National Night Out picnic, people of all races and ages mingle happily with officers from the city sheriff's office. In a contrast to images from Ferguson and Baltimore, the newspaper reports that in the days since the Dallas shootings community groups and individuals in predominantly minority communities have delivered pizza and cookies as well as thank-you cards to Richmond police. Richmond is not alone in this regard.    

Despite the partisan gridlock in DC, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans actually agree on major issues such as the reality of climate change, the need to address inequality and to establish sensible gun controls, as well as to properly fund education. There is an overwhelming desire to limit the power of money and corporations in politics. 

According to a 2013 poll, 87% of all Americans (including 84% of whites) now approve of interracial marriage. In 1958, when the question was asked only to whites, it was 4%. Many commentators have remarked on the diversity of America’s Olympians, particularly the black, white, Latina and Jewish female gymnastics team. 

In another hopeful sign of growing awareness, in a polling analysis conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction with the Northeastern University School of Journalism, a majority of whites acknowledge that racism still exists, and that it creates bias in structures such as the criminal justice system. Also, in a poll last year, 53 percent of whites said more changes need to be made to give blacks equal rights with whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier. 

I think back to the early 80s soon after we arrived in Richmond. We were attending a city-sponsored July 4th concert in our park, accompanied by a young black friend in what was an almost entirely white audience. To our shock, the conductor returned after the interval decked out in a Confederate uniform and as the band stroke up “Dixie” the entire crowd leaped to its feet shouting and cheering hysterically. We remained seated; I could feel the fear in our friend. Such a scenario is unthinkable in Richmond today. A typical July 4th concert crowd is notable for its diversity.  

Two final snapshots: 

Susan and I are taking our usual early morning walk around the park. A vehicle carrying a young black couple pulls up alongside and the driver rolls down the window. 
“Are you guys brother and sister?” he asks.  
“No, actually we are married,” I replied. 
“Looking good!” he smiles, and drives off.  
The fact that a young black man – a complete stranger – feels comfortable to interact like this with a white couple is testament to a growing comfort and confidence across racial lines.

Returning to the US from an overseas trip, the officer greeting us at the immigration desk may be of any race, religion or ethnicity. He or she may have come to this country even more recently than I. 
“Where have you been?” the officer inquires.
“Europe, attending a conference and also visiting family.”
“Family is good. Welcome home.”  

We have a long way to go to make this country truly a home for all of its people. But I am with President Obama when he says, “I’ve also seen, more than anything, what is right with America.” 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The hard work of democracy

Susan and I landed at London’s Heathrow airport the morning after the Brexit referendum. Back in the US, Democrats were conducting a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to shame their GOP colleagues into allowing a vote on a measure to reduce gun violence. On both sides of the Atlantic, the political elites seem paralyzed and out of touch with key sectors of the electorate. Large numbers of Americans and Brits feel they are not being heard. There is anger and frustration with elected leaders who are self-serving, unresponsive to real needs and (in the case of the US) controlled by lobbyists and moneyed interests.      

Yet, paradoxically, on both sides of the Atlantic, constituents often vote against their own self-interest. In Sunderland in northeast England, the “Leave” campaign won 61% percent of the vote despite the fact that the region is a large recipient of European money and is home to Britain’s largest car factory from where Nissan exports duty-free to the continent. In the US, since the days of Reagan, the GOP has succeeded in winning the support of many white blue collar workers even while Republican policies have helped to widen the rich-poor gap.  

Healthy democracies depend on a well-informed public. Electorates in the US and the UK have been very poorly served by media obsessed with ratings and sensationalism. Responsible media might have exposed Trump as a fraud much earlier. But recent events demonstrate that humans are often influenced more by emotion that by rational argument. We may ignore data but we will resonate with stories; indeed our brains are wired for story. Stories are what make us human. They give meaning to life. They form our identity. 

Stories of course can distort how we remember history. After the American Civil War, the humiliated Southern states developed myths depicting a heroic past and erected monuments to the Lost Cause. It is a universal trait among people with an uncertain future. As Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani political scientist and journalist observed, they “affect distorted engagements with the past. They eschew lived history, shut out its lessons, shun critical inquiry into the past…but at the same time invent an imagined past – shining and glorious, upon which are superimposed the prejudices and hatreds of our own times.”   

Listening to post-referendum radio interviews with UK voters, I was struck by the many references to sacrifices in two World Wars and to pride in Britain’s past by those who support leaving the EU. America reflects a similar pattern where older working class whites seem to long for a return to the good old days. Those good old days, of course, were better for some Americans than for others. In the 1950s, a white middle class (many of whom started from humble beginnings) grew rapidly and built unprecedented wealth as a result of the GI bill which enabled them to become homeowners, but blacks were largely excluded by discriminatory bank lending policies. Federally financed highways allowed whites to escape to the suburbs, while minorities were trapped in the inner cities. School segregation continued for decades even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision. 

Current demographic trends show that Americans in increasing numbers are choosing to live in areas populated by people who share their political and cultural views. And we rely on media sources that reinforce our biases and prejudices. In both America and Europe, cultural and generational divides are becoming more evident.   

What can be done to address the growing threats to responsible democracy in Europe and the US? Joyce McMillan wrote in The Scotsman newspaper a few days before the referendum result, “Only a move towards a modern form of social democracy can find the answers we need."  While few of us may be in positions to affect policy directly, there are steps that any of us can take. Here are a few for starters: 

We must all get involved in the exercising of democracy. At the most basic level this means voting at the local, state or county and national level. While 75% of 18 to 24 year-old Britons favored staying in the EU, only 36% actually bothered to vote. Democracy is hard work and requires more than debates on social media. As Bernie Sanders discovered, “momentum” is not enough.    

We can consciously choose to put ourselves in places where we hear the stories of people of varied life experiences and views. We don’t all have to agree but we can all learn something from people who think differently. Instead of contributing to the fragmentation of society we can choose lifestyles that tend to build community. Try actually talking to our neighbors and spend less time on Facebook or Twitter.    

On both sides of the Atlantic we must acknowledge the hopes and the fears that are the natural response to rapidly changing social, economic, cultural and demographic realities. Globalization brings benefits while also demanding painful adjustments, but together we can build a shared vision for the future in which the contribution of everyone is welcomed and valued.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Leading with love

How can Initiatives of Change best contribute to healing the wounds of America’s history of racism? This legacy affects each one of us; it corrodes every aspect of our national life. The election season has revealed the depth of healing that is needed. According to a recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 49% of Americans believe that racism is “a big problem.”

I’ve just returned from Chicago where I spent two days with 30 racial healing practitioners convened by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. All of them lead organizations that do courageous healing and equity work in their cities across the country. This extraordinary group – African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American and European American – has come together periodically for six or seven years to facilitate healing sessions at the foundation’s annual America Healing conferences. It is a deeply moving and inspiring experience to be part of this team. We have become quite a close-knit family, with an unusual level of trust, honesty and vulnerability.

Over the past six months I have collaborated with Mike Wenger to collect highlights of the work of these practitioners as well as lessons from truth and reconciliation efforts in several US communities and in Australia and Canada. I first met Mike when he was deputy director of President Clinton’s One America initiative on race. Our survey and the Chicago meeting are part of the preparation for the launch of a national Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) process.

TRHT differs from many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in several ways. The emphasis is not on identifying victims and assigning blame. The goal is to understand and to overcome the false notion of a human hierarchy based on race. Its visionary leader, Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for TRHT and a senior advisor at the Kellogg Foundation, says, “A lot of people want to focus on the consequences of racism but we want to go to the belief system. We want to keep focused on the desired outcome: the equal value of every human being.” There are so many experiences of oppression, but this is not the “oppression Olympics.” We must go beyond merely focusing on our own group.  

The TRHT vision is huge (as Bernie Sanders might say). It will be a multi-year effort that must include every sector. Already, more than 100 organizations and thought leaders have signed on. Vital for its success, it seems to me, will be the full engagement of those whose views have been shaped by very different life experiences. For example, it must welcome the contribution of more socially conservative Americans as well as business leaders.      

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cautions against “liberal arrogance  the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.”  As a self-confessed liberal he writes, “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

A more conservative columnist, Ross Douthat wrote of the current political scene: “On the one hand there are liberals determined to regard Trumpism as almost exclusively motivated by racial and cultural resentments, with few legitimate economic grievances complicating the morality play. From this perspective, the fact that Trump’s G.O.P. has finally consolidated, say, a once-Democratic area like Appalachia is almost a welcome relief: At last all the white racists are safely in the other party, and we don’t have to cater to them anymore.

“On the other hand, there are left-wingers who regard Trump’s support among erstwhile Democrats as a sign that liberalism has badly failed some of its natural constituents, and who fear that a Democratic coalition that easily crushes Trump without much white working-class support will simply write off their struggles as no more than the backward and bigoted deserve.”

However misguided or alarming its expression, the rise of populism in the US and in Europe reveals deep frustration and pain that political establishments have failed to address. As Douthat writes, liberals across the world see “a widening gulf between their increasingly cosmopolitan parties and an increasingly right-leaning native working class.”

The Trump phenomenon, while deplorable, highlights this reality. An effective TRHT process must speak a language that connects with groups who feel their voices are not being heard.

IofC is a partner in the TRHT process which will roll out publicly in 2017. Our pioneering work of honest conversation and racial healing in Richmond can be an important resource. Of particular interest is our track record of enabling communities to walk together through their shared history and to connect with unlikely allies across political, religious, class and racial divides.   

The group in Chicago recognized that the American story is complex and defies easy stereotyping. There are evils that must be confronted and acknowledged. But we should be cautious about seeking any one "truth." Truth does not belong exclusively to any one political or cultural viewpoint. We are all on a journey of discovery. In the words of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

In this era of rapid demographic, cultural and economic change, anxiety is natural. And while much of this change is inevitable and may ultimately be positive, no change feels good to those who fear that they will be left behind. A TRHT process must show how the belief in human hierarchy hurts all Americans how all Americans will benefit from overcoming it. 

Above all, as Gail Christopher reminds us, “We must lead with love."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Building a container

History shows that revolution is hard work. The founders of this country, having ousted the British, fought bitterly among themselves over state and federal jurisdiction. And their descendants had to endure a bloody civil war and a century of racial segregation before true democracy was achieved. 

Bernie Sanders has inspired millions with his radical vision of a more equitable America, but has yet to articulate a strategy to achieve it. In 2008, Barack Obama swept to victory on a wave of hope and a belief that this nation could set a new course, no longer bound by outworn concepts of race. But we seem more divided than when he took office. In an earlier decade, the “Reagan Revolution” called for a country less constricted by government regulation and more rooted in individual freedom and responsibility, a "shining city on a hill;" yet under his administration the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 and Americans are still in deep disagreement about government's proper role. 

The difficulties facing social change efforts are evident globally. The Arab Spring that began with so much energy and optimism has not proved sustainable. South Africa is discovering that ending apartheid has not ended racism or economic inequity. Countries of Eastern Europe, liberated not long ago from the grip of the Soviet Union, are erecting fences to block migrants and are retreating to narrow nationalism (as is most of the continent).   

So what kind of leadership is needed for effective, long-lasting efforts for change?  

Syngman Rhee, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, escaped as a young man from North Korea, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and devoted his life to reconciliation. He highlighted one key factor: “However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

Hugh O’Doherty, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says the key question is how to create that container. He told a group of aspiring community facilitators in Richmond, Virginia, that many of the biggest challenges facing society require adaptive change. Technical challenges can be solved by experts but adaptive challenges require new learning and new behavior. “There is no promised land, " he warned. "There are lots of snake oil salesmen. There is no road map. It can feel profoundly dangerous.” People are always looking for a leader, for an authority figure. The leadership challenge is how to connect people to a purpose that will make them willing to take the risk of moving out of the status quo and staying in the “learning zone.” An effective facilitator of change must be a “non-anxious presence when all there is is anxiety.” 

Staying with this metaphor of the container and the demands of leadership, a few further points occur to me. 

A strong container requires everyone to take responsibility. We cannot look to one leader to show the way, however visionary and persuasive he or she may be. As Syngman Rhee put it, "One stick does not make a strong fire." 

Nor can we be content to point the finger of blame. It has been said that the most reactionary people are those who demand change in others yet refuse to take an honest look at their own attitudes and behaviors. We all have work to do. 

The container must be built to last. Millennials demonstrate passion, compassion and creativity. They sometimes show less willingness to invest in long-term commitments. Successful economic and social revolutions are usually the product of decades of patient, persistent work.     

The container must be a place of welcome. It must be flexible enough to include potential allies who bring different life experiences. At times it may be intensely uncomfortable. But the most-needed reforms in our communities require courage and trust-based collaboration by individuals who have the vision to call out the best in others.   

The container must be able to nurture the inner life. My former rector, Bob Hetherington, was among the thousands of students who traveled to Alabama in 1965 to support the campaign for civil rights. “Those were heady days,” he recalls. “But the forces of darkness were stronger than we imagined. We thought that if we worked harder we could bring in the Kingdom of God. People got burned out. We stopped saying our prayers. We did not renew our spirits.” 

By contrast, Charles Marsh writes in The Beloved Community, that in 1956, following threats to his life, King prayed at his kitchen table to "that power that can make a way of out no way." "Faced with the intransigence of white 
resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required." In those early days the movement "pursued a form of discipleship that was life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”

Vision, persistence, courage, self-awareness, and a spirit of inclusion:all these qualities and more are needed to build the container. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The quiet inner drama

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights the re-emergence of religion as a global force. “What the secularists forgot,” he writes, “is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal.” Science and technology have taken us to unprecedented heights but they cannot answer the most basic questions of life. The twenty-first century has left us with “a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” 

Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, explores the connection between religion and violence. He notes that “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.” Religion becomes destructive when it is used to divide humanity into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad, the innocent and the guilty. 

“Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two – our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness. If there is evil in the world it is because of Them, not US. This mode of thinking leads to some of the worst crimes in the history because it causes people to demonize their opponents, see themselves as victims and convince themselves that evil committed in a good or sacred cause is justifiable, even noble.” This is altruistic evil.  

Although Sack’s book focuses on the emergence of extremist religious groups such as ISIS, I am struck by its relevance for America at this time. The use of religion as a battering ram in an increasingly polarized political environment contributes to the fracturing of our civic life. A sign outside an Iowa church exhorted its members to “vote biblically.” What are we to make of this? There is little information in the bible about democracy and voting.

The constant assertions of piety and devotion to God’s will by so many political candidates bring to mind Jesus’ admonishment, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” 

Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times column, “I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes.”

In today’s toxic political climate we risk labeling those on the other side as totally evil: liberals, conservatives, socialists, Wall Street, unions, immigrants, pro-life, pro-choice, government, or corporations. 

A few months ago I sat with some 15 people from different religious traditions discussing the role of faith in public life.  Among the insights that I jotted down were the following: 1) We need to rediscover the adventure of listening to people who are different. 2) Ideological differences are greater than religious differences. 3) We should focus on faith not as dogma but as lived out experience. 4) Conservatives need to talk more about social justice and liberals need to be more forthright about moral values and spiritual values.

Talk of following God’s guidance becomes dangerous when it is detached from clear moral codes defined in all the world’s great religions. Sacks reminds us that some of history’s worst tyrants claimed God’s authority. Unspeakable crimes have been perpetrated in the name of religion. ISIS is just the latest example.  

The movement of Initiatives of Change, which engages people of all faiths as well as no formal religion, has always advocated a search for inner wisdom, or the voice of God or conscience, tempered by universal moral benchmarks. As I write in Trustbuilders, this approach includes honesty about our failures, purity in our motives, unselfishness in our support of others, and love in our readiness to forgive and accept forgiveness.  

Friends can support us by having the courage to tell us the truth, however uncomfortable. Shining the spotlight on our own faults keeps us humble and helps to avoid the worst excesses. 

More important than public expressions of religion is what Sacks calls “the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Don’t flunk the “Job test”

Tim Kaine had stepped off a plane the previous night after a congressional visit to Vienna, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Ramallah. He was nursing a sore throat and was due for a root canal the following morning. But the Virginia Senator was determined to join Richmonders of all faiths and backgrounds in a show of unity in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment and xenophobia. 

 “We spent two and a half hours with the president of Turkey,” Kaine told a diverse gathering of 600 at Congregation Beth Ahaba. “His first question was, ‘Why is there so much hostility to Muslims in America?’ I was able to say to him, ‘Let me tell you about the event I will be attending in Richmond on Sunday.'"

“One of the most important things we can do for the world is to do what we do when we are at our best: people of different backgrounds working together,” continued Kaine, who serves on the Foreign Relations committee. 

“Nations around the world are looking at us and this is what they love about us.” When we go “off track,” he said, they are concerned. Our example speaks louder than treaties.  

President Obama made a similar point in his final State of the Union speech. “The world respects us not just for our arsenal but for our diversity and openness.” He also noted that democracy requires “basic bonds of trust between our citizens.” 

Those bonds are being sorely tested. Obama admitted his own failure to overcome political partisanship and that “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," adding that "a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” 

While some Republicans leaped to condemn the speech even before it was delivered, the official GOP response by South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, was more self-reflective: “We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.

“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.” Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, also took aim at extremists in her party."During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

Two days earlier in Richmond, Tim Kaine had also addressed the anger, anxiety and negative rhetoric dominating the public space: “So much of this is about suffering and when there is suffering people look for someone to blame.” 

He concluded his remarks by drawing on the story of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures who was tested by God almost beyond endurance as he lost everything, yet he remained faithful. “The question for Job was whether he would be true to his principles. And after 9/11 and Paris we can either blame others or see it as a test of our principles.” 

The challenge for us today, said Kaine, is “not to flunk the Job test.”