Monday, January 15, 2018

Finding our moral compass

Some years ago, my colleague Audrey Brown Burton, a founder of Richmond’s racial healing movement, made this statement about hope: “Hope is spiritual and social. It is not just futuristic. It is a powerful word and concept. The more we say it, the more we become it. This is an identity for us. We become hopeful in a spiritual sense, and we apply this identity in the social fabric of this community.”*

I was reminded of this at a Hope in the Cities Advisory Council meeting earlier this month as we took time to reflect on the question, “What gives you hope as we enter 2018 in the midst of so many very real challenges that we all face personally, as a community and nationally?”

The question provoked some surprisingly deep conversation. Among the hopeful signs we shared together were friendships, children and grandchildren, the demonstration of grassroots engagement in the Virginia state elections last November, people becoming more aware that they can change things, the power of resistance, less complacency, the action of women, people in faith communities willing to stand for their convictions, significant shifts in jurisdictions that have previously held out against change, racial healing in our own lives, physical recovery, and the power of relationships. Also, the realization that we don’t have to know all the answers – it is enough to take one step.

Our new governor, Ralph Northam, set a hopeful tone for 2018 in his January 13 inaugural call to Virginians to find their “moral compass.”  “It can be hard to find our way when there is so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate, and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problem,” he told his audience. “We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And its time to summon it again, because we have work to do.”

At times the moral compass calls us to be truth tellers. Along with the governor’s remarks, the January 14 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried articles that highlight two such truth tellers. Richmond’s new superintendent of schools, Jason Kamras, pledged to talk about race. “Race matters in this world, in this country, in this district. And we are going to talk about it.” At a school board retreat leading into the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Kamras, who is the first white superintendent in decades, asked board members to read King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” According to the newspaper report, he said, “The work we are going to be doing here in the Richmond Public Schools is undoing the 400 years of injustice.”

In a commentary, Dr. John Moeser spelled out in detail the record of explicit racial discrimination in Virginia after the brief Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. In 1902 the state adopted a new Constitution designed to disenfranchise African Americans. In one stark example, the arcane literacy test reduced the number of black voters in Jackson Ward, one of Richmond’s largest black neighborhoods, from 33,000 to just 33. In the ensuing years Richmond made repeated attempts to prohibit blacks and whites from living in the same neighborhoods. African Americans whose homes were destroyed by urban renewal and highway construction could not get loans to move into neighboring white neighborhoods. Many ended up in public housing projects, all of which were concentrated in a small area of the city. Not surprisingly, Richmond’s schools are largely populated by black and Latino children from low income families.    

But the newspaper also carried a story that gave a glimpse of positive long-overdue change. After decades of resistance, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors agreed to extend bus service from downtown Richmond to Short Pump, a major commercial hub. Most new jobs as well as shopping malls are located outside the city limits, yet until now it has been virtually impossible for anyone without a car to reach them. Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson noted, “I still don’t understand why it is like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump.”

Moeser writes that the suburban counties surrounding Richmond now have rapidly growing poor communities from many countries. “What city neighborhoods experienced for decades is now being visited upon suburban counties. Resistance is all too common.” He asks whether we can create sustainable welcoming communities where the needs of everyone are met. The answer, he says, is yes, we can create such communities. “The other question, however, is much more challenging: ‘Do we have the political will to do it?’”

Governor Northam noted that Richmond was a seat of the American Revolution but also a giant slave market. “Our history is complex in Virginia. It included the good and the bad. But no other place on earth can claim it. This unique heritage endows us with a responsibility to shape the future – to leave this place better than we found it.” In the same vein as my friend Audrey Burton, he called hope “a well-spring of energy to fight for a better tomorrow, no matter the odds.”

*Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Making democracy function

In 1908 a socially conscious and ambitious young pastor from Allentown, PA, overcame deep resentment against his colleagues and decided to lay aside his ego by admitting his own wrong. The simple but difficult decision to ask forgiveness and start the change process in his own life was the spark that led to a movement that today undergirds reconciliation and social transformation efforts across the world – including my own city of Richmond, Va.

Known first as the Oxford Group, then Moral Re-Armament, and today Initiatives of Change, it has inspired other movements along way, most notably Alcoholics Anonymous which is rooted in Oxford Group principles. 

Frank Buchman believed that every individual could be a catalyst for change. There was no need to wait for others or to waste energy on blame and recrimination. It was as he put it, “the ordinary man’s opportunity to change the world.”

Reading Buchman’s speeches from the late 1930s and 1940s, I am startled by their relevance for today, in particular his challenge to America at a time when our democracy is threatened by partisanship, racism and greed. Speaking to students and faculty at Oglethorpe University in June 1939, he said, “The danger of our age is that we fail to listen. We talk, talk, talk. The answer is listening.” And this was before the age of 24-hour cable news! “Everyone wants to illuminate America,” he remarked, “but many want to do so without installing an electric light plant.”  

As the storm clouds of war gathered in Europe in January 1939, he called for a moral and spiritual revolution that would challenge both right and left. He described a “prejudice-free level of living,” which stands for “a common denominator of immediate constructive action for everyone, above party, race, class, creed, point of view or personal advantage.” (New Year message given at request of the British Press Association)

In 1943, with American forces fighting across world, Buchman was ahead of his time in thinking about the future of democracy. “Moral Re-Armament [now Initiatives of Change] creates the qualities that make democracy function. It is simple nonpartisan, non-sectarian, non-political.” It gives to everyone the “inner discipline” they need and the “inner liberty” they desire. (Mackinac Island, Michigan, conference center, July 1943)

What is the inner discipline and liberty that Buchman was describing? Over the years he had developed specific tools to guide his personal ministry and his program outreach. He believed that spirituality could not be divorced from the highest moral imperatives “in a day when selfishness and expediency are the common practice.” Tolerance has become the norm in recent decades, but with the daily headlines of irresponsibility on Wall Street, sexual harassment in the workplace and an opioid epidemic, it might not be a bad thing to review some basic guidelines. Relativism is actually in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect and equality and with calls to tackle corruption or uphold human rights. Buchman held up standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love as benchmarks for personal and public life.

Second, he found that regular times of inner listening or “quiet times” as he called them could provide accurate information and practical insights for action as well as personal guidance and renewal. In his speech at Oglethorpe he said, “A great new revolution came into my life when I began to listen to God every morning.”

He was speaking in the context of his Christian faith but the belief in an inner voice, a higher power, or the power of conscience is universal. Throughout history religious leaders and philosophers have striven to define the ultimate values in human behavior. Gandhi called purity of life the highest and truest art. Mohammed made selflessness and service to those in need watchwords of Islam. Jesus told his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Buchman believed that this approach to personal and social change could build for democracy “an unshakeable framework of actively selfless and self-giving citizens, whose determination to bring unity cannot be altered by any beckoning of personal advantage and who know how to pass along to others the panic-proof experience of the guidance of God.” (Mackinac 1943) He was prophetic both in his diagnosis of America’s need and his vision for what this country could become. 

All quotes are from Remaking the World, the speeches of Frank N.D. Buchman (Blandford Press 1961)   

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The place to start

I often get ideas for blogs while working in the yard. This morning, battling some particularly stubborn wiregrass, I thought about Steve Bassett, one of Virginia’s beloved singer-songwriters. 

In 1993, as our Hope in the Cities team was preparing a national conference in Richmond, we had the idea to ask Steve to write a theme song. My colleague Rev. Paige Chargois and I drove out to his home in Cartersville. We sat on the front porch and talked about our vision that the conference would help to start “an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility.” Steve listened carefully and after a while he said, “I think I’ve got it.” A few days later the phone rang in our campaign office and Steve was on the line singing:

I’ll start with my heart,
That’s where the future is.
I’ll start with my heart,
There’s healing when it gives.
I’ll start with my heart,
The differences end in there.
That’s what I’ll do to get right with you,
I’ll start with my heart.

In those few lines, Steve encapsulated the core of Initiatives of Change and its work of Hope in the Cities: the willingness to start with ourselves rather than point the finger of blame.

We have become known as a leading exponent of dialogue across racial, political and religious lines. Cricket White, our lead facilitator for many years, believes that the most powerful moment in any dialogue occurs when someone takes responsibility for what they or their group has done to create or perpetuate a problem and is able to claim responsibility for it in front of the other group. “It changes the whole dynamic because the other side knows already. It’s not news to them!”

We have seen this to be true in countless encounters such as with Muslims and Evangelical Christians or with grassroots leaders and business executives.
The refusal to be limited by a victim-perpetrator paradigm sometimes provokes a reaction. But the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman put it bluntly: “The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own back yard. What I seek to eradicate in society …I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this.”

No matter how convinced we are about our point of view, no matter how deeply we feel the wrong of injustice, we are unlikely to engender change by “continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions,” to borrow a phrase from columnist William Raspberry who once described America as “a nation of bad listeners.” 

There are many ways to describe the work of Hope in the Cities. We teach skills of facilitation, walking through history and creating shared community narratives, understanding white privilege, implicit bias, and the use of data. But at its core is the ability to create a space where individuals feel welcome and find the courage to make an honest inventory of their own lives, to search deeply into their motivations and to identify personal blockages – or what my early mentor John Coleman called “excess baggage.”

This honest introspection is not for the fainthearted. My 1985 documentary, The Courage to Change, illustrates how it has formed the basis for our work since the beginning.   

Cleiland Donnnan, a well-known personality among the Richmond establishment as the leader of the Junior Assembly Cotillion, was deeply affected by one honest conversation: “I saw clearly my own false pride in my ancestors and all those beautiful plantations along the James River. Standing out like a bolt of lightning was the hurt and pain and suffering of slavery. But most of all, the seemingly small slights stood out – my own arrogance, slights, my thinking that the blacks in the East End had their place and I deserved my place in the West End of town.”

For Audrey Burton, a veteran African American organizer, the challenge was “to reconstruct my model, to become free of hostility, anger, hate and frustration… It was a spiritual transformation, not an intellectual one. Rather than constant confrontation, I learned to be quiet, to reconnect. My behavior and language changed. Way down, deep inside, God called me by name.”

Such moments of transformation lead to new relationships and to inspired action. The demonstration of radically changed lives and the often unexpected partnerships that can result, have done far more to transform racial dynamics in Richmond and other communities than exhaustive analysis, exhortation, or advocacy.

The essential first step is the willingness to say with Steve Bassett, “I’ll start with my heart.”  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reflections on a missed opportunity and the need for respect

I have been watching the struggle for democracy in Turkey with concern and some sadness, recalling a wonderful week that my wife and I spent there while on sabbatical in 2005. It was our first and so far only visit to that fascinating country which bridges Europe and Asia. For centuries it has been a meeting place of diverse cultures and a crossroads for trade.

Our hosts were Zeki and Cigdem Leblebici. Zeki is an architect and Cigdem taught social psychology at the Ismir University of Economics. They were generous hosts to us in a small town near Izmir and introduced us to various aspects of Turkish life. Izmir is a bustling, modern city with a large busy port. In the bazaar we drank strong Turkish coffee and sampled a specialty called “and kokorech” which is grilled sheep intestines – actually quite delicious! We also sampled a dessert made from chicken called “tavukgeysu.” We took the ferry across the wide bay and rode in one of the fifteen-seater vans that are the most common form of public transportation. They go everywhere and seem to be very efficient (we could use something like that here in Richmond!). Although American troops had invaded Iraq two years earlier, the war never came up in conversation. Our interactions everywhere were marked by warmth and good humor.

Turkey is a vast and dynamic country of 70 million people with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. The Turkish language has no relationship to Arabic and few Turks speak Arabic. Their roots are in Central Asia and have more in common with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although nearly all Turks are Muslims, the country had followed a secular path since Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in the early 1920s and the liberation from European colonialist influence. But since the advent of Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented government, the country has become divided over the role of Islam. In Ismir, all the young people we saw wore Western dress.

After years working internationally with Initiatives of Change, Cigdem returned to Turkey to pass on her vision for her country’s role in the world to a new generation. She asked us to speak to her class at the university about our work in Richmond of trustbuilding and honest conversation. It was a lively and talkative crowd. However, we noticed that open discussion about politically controversial topics was often guarded.

At one point we asked, “What would you most like to see different in your lifetime?” At first they were quiet. Then one said, “For Turkey to be in the European Union!” Others immediately voiced similar hopes. It was clear that they regarded themselves as part of Europe rather than Asia. In those days Turkey was negotiating membership with the EU. (About 46 percent of its exports go to EU countries and 38 percent of its imports come from Europe.) Sadly, its efforts met strong resistance and Turkey’s relationship with Europe has become more strained over the years as Erdogan pursues more authoritarian policies. At the same time, Europe now looks to Turkey to help ease the refugee crisis.

I don’t know to what extent the EU’s lack of welcome played a role in Turkey’s shift away from democracy; but I do wonder how different its current situation would be if European countries had been more farsighted and had not missed the opportunity to build a solid relationship with a country that has so much to offer the world.

Above all, the young Turks we met longed for respect. “Turks are always looked on as second class citizens,” said one. “I want to see an end to this. We want to be truly independent, not reliant on other countries.” “Better human rights” was another wish. One student asked, “Is the US really supportive of Turkey or just using it for strategic aims?”

Sadly, Cigdem died a few years after our visit. I often think of that interaction with her students and hope that their dreams will one day be fulfilled. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Statues and Statutes

Monuments are on the move. Hallowed statues erected to perpetuate the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy which for decades seemed untouchable are suddenly under threat of eviction. Symbols of racial supremacy disguised as symbols of heritage are being called out for what they are.  

A groundswell of righteous anger – fueled by the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. On May 18, New Orleans dismantled a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the last of four contested Confederate monuments in the city. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists protested the planned removal of another statue of the general from a downtown park. My friend Mike Berry, a pastor in Annapolis, Maryland, is part of a coalition aiming to relocate a sculpture of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the notorious 1857 Dred Scott Decision, from its prominent position in the Maryland State Capitol. Apparently there are more than 700 Confederate memorials across the US, some in unexpected places such Arizona which became a state half a century after the Civil War. Over the past two years at least 60 symbols have been removed or renamed.

In perhaps the most courageous and profound statement by an elected official, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans comprehensively deconstructed the mythology surrounding monuments that “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror it actually stood for.” Of the generals he said, “They may have been warriors but they were not patriots.”

The US is not alone in debating how to deal with historical symbols of white supremacy and colonialism. In April 2015, South African crowds cheered as the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town. (He survived a similar attempt at Oxford University.) Protesters smeared white paint on a statue of King George V at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal. Paul Kruger, the Boer military hero and president of the South African Republic (Transvaal) from 1883 to 1900, was painted green.

Why do physical memorials matter and why do they stir up such deep emotions? Why do groups cling so tenaciously to historical memories that gain almost mythical proportions? Margaret Smith writes that group identity and maintaining the group “story” provides psychological security. “Regardless of the material benefits a person derives from group membership, the person will have a strong psychological proclivity to support certain narratives to keep her own psyche intact.” Although Smith is writing about Northern Ireland, the same dynamics apply in the US.    

For minorities and groups that have been oppressed, the fact that current inequities are linked to the racial hierarchy glorified in monuments to guardians of slave states is a primary cause of rage. Such groups “live with a twofold curse,” says Smith. “First, the substantive ills that they are forced to live with are at least in part the result of their traumatic or unjust history; but second, the very account of that past that has entered the memory of the majority of people in the society erases or obfuscates their trauma.”[i] 

Reframing the narrative is an essential part of racial healing. Until now, conversations about changes to Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue with its imposing memorials to Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been muted, but Mayor Stoney recently announced a commission to study ways of "giving context" to the statues. A greater focus for the city over the past two decades has been to uncover untold history, such as the extent of Richmond’s role in the interstate slave trade as well as African American resistance and resilience. While there are different opinions about the scale and emphasis of a memorial and heritage site at the place where up to 300,000 women, men and children were sold at auction blocks, there is broad agreement that this major part of Richmond’s history must be told fully. 

Equally important is the recognition of the contribution of the black community to American life. The addition of tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue, and the upcoming unveiling of a statue of the nation’s first female bank president, Maggie Walker, in the historic Jackson Ward district are good first steps. Also powerful is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the State Capitol commemorating the protests which helped to bring about school desegregation.

To what extent should we remove all visual reminders of unpleasant history? Those of us who are committed to racial healing and transformation may need to decide where best to devote our energy.  

My long-time colleague in this work, Ben Campbell, says that there “two massive artifacts of the Confederacy which need to be completely dismantled.” He highlights the Richmond Public School system which was “deliberately segregated by the state 45 years ago and has been under-resourced and mercilessly attacked ever since,” and our public transportation system, “once the envy of the world” (Richmond had the first electric streetcar system in 1888) “but now confined to just 5% of the territory of the metropolitan region.”

Statutes are as important as statues. Should priority be given to the removal of symbols or to the dismantling of policies that continue to discriminate and perpetuate inequality?

Many would point to the Dillon Rule, which, as interpreted by the Virginia General Assembly, means that local governments only have powers that are specifically conferred to them by the General Assembly. It is ironic that a state which prides its place as a birthplace of American democracy should maintain such an apparently undemocratic approach to local government.

The inability of the city to increase its property taxes through annexation, the refusal by the region’s leaders to consolidate the school districts in the early 70s, the resistance to affordable housing in county jurisdictions are all impediments to a healthy and equitable community. Some bold new thinking is needed. In 1996, Chesterfield County Supervisor Jack McHale and Richmond City Councilman Tim Kaine discussed publicly a regional wealth sharing or growth sharing proposal. Under this scheme, 40 percent of local taxes revenue on a new business coming to the region would stay in the locality in which the business was located and the remaining 60 percent would be shared equally among the other jurisdictions. The ideas did not get much traction at the time but surely this is the kind of fresh approach we should encourage.  

The profound structural changes needed in the Richmond region (the city aims to reduce poverty by 40 percent by 2030) demand the support of a broad coalition that crosses traditional barriers of race and class. Removing or changing statutes, policies and institutions would involve a massive effort involving people of vastly different backgrounds and even political beliefs. As in the Civil Rights era, we must appeal to conscience and to the highest vision. Would the time and effort required to unhorse General Lee contribute to this larger task of coalition building or would it be a distraction?  

Many years ago, the veteran Washington Post correspondent William Raspberry warned the fledgling Hope in the Cities network of the trap of failing to distinguish between problems and enemies. A focus on enemies “diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.” A good question to ask is, “If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problems be nearer to a solution? People respond more favorably to being approached as potential allies."
I long for the day when Monument Avenue will reflect the true glory of Virginia: the men and women of all races who fought for liberty and justice, not those who betrayed the nation in the cause of perpetuating a system of white supremacy.  
But our main goal must be in the words of Dr. John Moeser to build “an inclusive city where every person is valued and no one is left behind; where all of our neighborhoods are neighborhoods of opportunity; where our schools are no longer segregated but filled with children from every level of income and who acquire the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for college or for living wage entry-level jobs; where our businesses are known for excellent job-training and a solid record of hiring Richmond residents; where innovative social enterprises comprised of worker-owned businesses are created and financed by our foundations and anchor institutions; and where public transportation links the interior of neighborhoods to major commercial and industrial thoroughfares in the city as well as the surrounding counties.”
Richmond is now taking a leading role in an emerging national process of Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. Narrative change is a necessary foundation for healing and repairing our social fabric. But we must focus on statutes as well as statues.

[i] Margaret Smith, Reckoning with the Past, (Lexington Books, 2005)