Saturday, October 10, 2015

What Susan G. Komen Can Teach the Gun Violence Prevention Movement

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” (Source Unknown)

When I heard of the tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg last week, my first response was sadness, followed quickly be a sense of resignation That tragic scene is one we have seen played over and over again.

In response the media talking heads, as well news outlets across the country, began discussing what we can do about these shootings. Pro-gun advocates were quick to respond with their mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” so don’t blame the guns and don’t step on the 2nd Amendment. Republican candidate Ben Carson even said we should train and arm kindergarten teachers. Democratic politicians, including Pres. Obama and Hilary Clinton, expressed their sadness and outrage, and called for changes in this or that legislation, while the pro-gun advocates politicians insisted we have enough laws that just need to be enforced. It all sounded so much the same as after every other highly publicized shooting.

Umpqua Comm College Victims

And as I expected, over the past week I received a flurry of emails from all the gun violence
prevention groups I am part of, encouraging me to share their outrage and write my representative, sign a petition, or send a donation to help their efforts to stop this insanity. My Facebook page and Twitter feed were filled with links to articles, charts, and videos expressing how ludicrous the gun lobby’s argument is, yet how much they control the politicians with their campaign contributions. All of us this is true and sincere, and yet, this predictable response of the prevention community also seems a bit insane: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

While the incident in Oregon got national play for a few days, every night in cities and communities across the country the same violent scenario plays out on a smaller, less noticeable scale. Young people, particularly young men, are killing each other at an alarming rate with guns acquired illegally through straw purchasing. Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Oregon shooter, acquired his guns legally, which raises serious concerns about the background check system in this country. The unnamed young man who killed another unnamed young man last night on some city street acquired his illegally through the straw purchasing process. Yet both are joined by the reality of living in a gun-worshiping culture that ultimately benefits the firearms manufacturers and dealers who reap the profits from both the legal and illegal gun market.

Then just yesterday there were shootings at colleges in Flagstaff, AZ and Houston, TX . As I have taken in all of these events and the predictable reactions on both sides, I have realized that the insanity is not just with the gun lobby, the insanity is with the gun violence prevention community too. We keep responding the same way, hoping for a legislative response that isn’t going to come. So we have to come up with another approach, another strategy, because the one we’re using ain’t working.

Last weekend in Philadelphia, the Komen Foundation (formerly The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation) held its annual Three Day Breast Cancer Walk raising over $2.7 million in one weekend. This is just one of hundreds of such walks held in communities all over the country. In the spring there will be the Race for the Cure and several more millions of dollars will be raised. If you have ever been to a Komen Foundation event, you know they are more than just a walk or race. Komen events are a production, a rock concert, where you the participant are the rock star. Every participant is robed with pink shirts, hats, scarves – you name it. There are jumbotrons with media folks talking up the event to the whole metro area. There is loud music and dozens of sponsors handing out free goodies. There is a high energy MC pumping up the crowd, and when you finish your walk or run, you are publicly congratulated for your effort. It is a masterfully orchestrated event designed for maximum impact.

While the Komen Foundation has raised all sorts of money for breast cancer research and care, they also have made breast cancer an issue of public concern. Professional sports teams wear pink shoes and arm bands, celebrities tell their stories, and political leaders show up pledging their active support. Why?—because Komen has spent huge amounts of money on social marketing, convincing you, me and the powers-that-be that we need to care about those suffering from breast cancer. They didn’t pass a bill, they didn’t just send an email blast; they changed culture and the way we think about breast cancer.

Public health advocates have declared gun violence to be an issue of public health, a social disease devastating lives in our society. However, we don't talk about gun violence as a terminal, social disease; rather it is debated as an issue of personal rights. Organizations like Komen have raised personal and public awareness about their public health issue, and at the same time changed the way we think about it. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation has done something similar for MS. Last weekend I was supposed to go on the MS City to Shore Ride, but it got cancelled due to storms. I knew little about MS before joining the race and raising money for the ride, but because I wanted to go on a long bike ride, I became a promoter of their cause; why couldn’t the gun violence prevention do the same thing?

Instead of raising money to change the mind of entrenched politicians, we need a popular movement for one of the most deadly public health issues of our time: gun violence.  We need to have thousands of people marching, biking or running for the cause of gun violence prevention. Since the NRA has got the politicians to defund research in the CDC, we should raise millions of dollars for research into how to reduce gun violence, to train local police how to look for would-be shooters, and support for the victims and families traumatized by gun violence. We should sponsor huge ad campaigns like did against the tobacco companies. I am imagining something much bigger, much splashier, with much more impact. Something on the order of the Million Man March for gun violence prevention where the focus is not on whether one does or does not own a gun, but how we can work to reduce the violence.

The group we would be primarily trying to influence would  be neither hardline pro-gun folks like those who showed up to protest Pres. Obama’s trip to Oregon to speak with grieving families, nor would it be folks like me who never owned a gun and never wanted to. Rather, the focus of this campaign needs to be those gun owners who like to hunt, and target shoot, or who have a handgun in their house safely locked away, but who also recognize the unfettered distribution of guns is not the way to go. We want to focus on those folks who are caught in the middle of the polarized debate, those who are deeply concerned about safety for their families, but don’t know if the answer is more or less guns. We need to big splash events like the Race for the Cure with t-shirts, celebrities and music, where the talking heads and the politicians feel compelled to show up, where sports teams can wear apparel that symbolizes the need to keep our communities safe and corporations put our logo on their public relations literature.

Where are the social entrepreneurs out there who have the grit and the experience to make the cause of fighting gun violence as popular as fighting breast cancer or MS? No one needs to decide whether they are for or against gun rights, but could work together to help victims and fund research on how best to reduce gun violence. My point is basically this: gun violence is public health disease rooted in a sick, violent culture. We need to address this problem at the root, we need to change culture.

Breast cancer has the Susan B. Komen Foundation and the Race for the Cure; AIDS has the AIDS Walk; Multiple Sclerosis has the MS “City to Shore” bike ride; Alzheimer’s disease has the Alzheimer’s Walk. What organization will be created to make the reduction of gun violence an event and a production, you can’t ignore and can’t stay away from?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What It's Like to be a White Guy

On the first Thursday morning of every month I participate in a multi-racial, multi-faith discussion group on race called NewCORE (New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity), an organization founded eight years ago after then-Senator Barack Obama’ landmark speech on race in which he called for a new conversation on race. The format for our group is pretty simple. Each month there is a “presenter” who tells his or her “race story,” while the rest of us listen intently, and then ask questions designed to draw more of the person’s story.  Soon the conversation deepens into an exploration of how we are seeking to live out our lives and professions in ways that fight racism and promote greater inter-racial understanding.

During a discussion a couple months ago, a white Jewish woman said: “I don’t have a desire to be a white male, but I have always wondered what it would be like to be a white male just for a day.” Sitting next to me was a African-American pastor who I have known for nearly 18 years, who turned to me in good humor and said loud enough for all to hear “Yea, Drick what is it like to be a white guy?”

I looked at the only other white male in the room (in a group of about 15), rolled my eyes, and said: “Well, in this group, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.” Despite that response, the question has hung with me these past two months, as I have wondered what my white Jewish female colleague and my black male friend would see or experience if there were put on my skin for a day.

Peggy McIntosh in her classic essay on White Male Privilege makes the point that one of the characteristics of privilege is that most of the time one is largely unaware he has it. Thus there are aspects of my whiteness and male-ness that  females and non-white males see to which I am just plain oblivious. Over the last twenty years or so, I have deliberately and consciously sought out relationships and learning events where I can be enlightened and reminded of the ways in which my whiteness and maleness gives me credibility and respectability others are denied. I have become sensitive to the ways in which I am given information or access unavailable to others. When the opportunity arises I have sought to call attention to the ways in which I sense women and people of color have been excluded. I have consciously worked to put myself in positions where I am under the leadership of or learning from women and people of color. I believe all of these efforts are positive, yet as my colleague Alexia Salvatierra often reminds folks, the very nature of privilege is that one has a choice as to whether or not to engage these issues. So I suspect that one of the first things my female and black colleague would notice is the extra choices my white male skin would give them.

I have become increasingly aware of how much in the normal course of the day, I am given deference, even without asking for it. I work with an African American woman, and often we will compare notes on how we were received or responded to, and consistently I am given special or positive treatment she is denied. Moreover, in my work environment I rarely walk into a room where the group is not dominated by white folks and run by white folks. In those instances where I am in a room dominated by people of color, I know implicitly it is the exception in that environment, not the rule. Over the past few years I have seen the administration of my university turn over to almost completely white men. With this group I have tried to use the power of my white maleness to raise ignored issues such as the exclusion of women and folks of color in places of power, or how the “diversity” we are so proud of is not consistently spread across the university. While folks don’t like to hear me say such things, I get a hearing, and I don’t have to fear being accused of playing the “race card,” whereas folks of color always have to weigh the risks of speaking up. So I suspect if my colleagues had on my white male skin they would see much more attention paid to their concerns and with a great deal more respect than they are used to.

However, the thing my colleagues could not get in a day of being white would be the entire history of my life as a white guy being told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that I am better-than, smarter-than, more well-connected-than and therefore more deserving-than others. Being given those messages (especially when you don’t know that is what is being said) leads to a kind of entitlement which I often feel, but I have learned I did not earn or deserve. I can look at any corporate board, or any table of leaders, or any list of outstanding citizens and see people like me. Despite all the talk about diversity and inclusion, white guys still run the world in their white ways.

Even the messages about my privilege can be twisted into a kind of superiority. I remember my parents stressing that because I had come from a  “good home” where I was loved and provided for, I had a responsibility to “give back to society” and help others. My parents not only taught that philanthropic spirit, they modeled it. The same message was stressed in the large, all-white suburban church we attended. Seemingly a good thing, it led me to feel like it was my “calling” to go an help the “less fortunate”, which has been the trajectory of my life since high school. I don’t regret following this path, yet even in that message there was the meta-message that I was better-than and that THEY needed the help, not me. Consequently, I have spent my adulthood seeking to reshape that message into a frame of mutual learning and mutual need, but every once in a while my “do-gooder” elitism emerges.

Unless my colleagues had lived a lifetime with that constant message of being just a little bit better than, I don’t know if they would have the inflated white male ego I sometimes recognize in myself. It is not who I am but it is the person I am told I am supposed to be, and it can catch me off guard at the strangest times. Being told and believing I have something to offer others is a source of inner confidence, but the more aware I become of my internalized racist superiority, the more I realize that confidence is sometimes misplaced.

I am fortunate to have friends and colleagues with whom I can discuss these things. I have groups like NewCORE, Training for Change, and workshops at Temple University’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership that help keep me humble and keep me seeking ways to be a more reliable anti-racist ally. I have friends, colleagues and students who regularly point me in the direction of authors they think I should read. I am fortunate to have these people and resources in my grasp. They keep me learning, growing, and humble.

Were it possible for my white Jewish female and African-American male colleagues to get inside my skin for just one day, they would not necessarily have the life history that white male privilege affords one. Nonetheless, I suspect there would still be lots of things they would see, feel, hear, and sense that I have yet to learn or become aware of. So what is it like to be a white guy? I have some idea, but there is still much I have to learn and ways I need to change. It will take a lifetime… and then some … to find the answer.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Pope Paradox

Pope Francis at Independence Hall

Like thousands of other people in Philadelphia I have been caught up in the frenzy of Pope Francis during his visit to our city. While I have not attended any of the live events, – his speech at Independence Mall, the Festival of Families, his parade through the throngs, and the Mass on the Parkway – I did have occasion to go into the city for a pre-Pope rally around justice issues on Friday evening and a Pope bike ride through the car-less streets of downtown on Saturday morning. Moreover, I have been watching with great interest the events surrounding him and his words to the faithful. (For those not in or from Philadelphia, the Pope has come  to Philadelphia in large part to speak to the Roman Catholic Meeting of Families, a triennial event lifting up the importance of family, which has brought thousands of people from around the world to the week leading up to the Pope’s visit.)

Pope bike ride
While I am a very “low church” Mennonite, I have been fascinated by this man at the helm of the most hierarchical church in the world who faithful Roman Catholics believe to be the spokesman for God. While I do not hold him in the reverently high regard that most faithful Roman Catholics do, I have found his outspokenness on immigration, concern for the poor, the importance of the family, and the dangers of globalized capitalism to be refreshing and inspiring. However, I think like most people, what has touched me most is his personal interest in the children, the broken, the forgotten, and the ignored.  When in Washington, DC, he turned down a lunch invitation with Congresspeople to meet with homeless folks. He spent his Sunday morning in a prison with the incarcerated. He made sure that the undocumented and immigrant got the choice seats at his speech on Independence Mall, and he listened intently and responded personally to the stories of families at the Festival. While mildly disappointed (but not surprised) that he did not take up the cause of women religious and the role of LGBT folks in the Church, like most, I found that I was impressed with his forthrightness, and willingness to “speak truth to power.”

At the pre-Pope rally sponsored by the PICO Network and POWER, I participated in a modified stations of the cross march, stopping to pause, reflect and pray at the Philadelphia Police headquarters, a Federal jail and detention center, a low wage service industry store, and the site where slaves of George Washington lived. At each site we lifted up issues and causes Pope Francis has discussed: police brutality, mass incarceration, exclusion of migrants from society, low wages, racism and oppression. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish speakers called us to continue our work of resistance to injustice and work for justice. We prayed, we sang, we listened, we marched.

Security checkpoint
One of many strange things about this weekend has been the high police and military presence. In order to secure the Pope’s safety, there is a virtual military state in downtown Philadelphia. Police, national guard and bomb squad personnel are everywhere. Individuals must go through security checkpoints to gain access to the downtown streets. Wherever the Pope goes he is surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service, Swiss Guard, black vans and police on bicycles as he smiles and waves from his Pope-mobile.

So I find myself with a bit of a Pope paradox. I do not appreciate the elevation of the male clergy of the Roman Catholic Church at the expense of others, but I am drawn by the powerful call to justice to the social teachings of the church and liberation theology orientation of Pope Francis.  The city has an air of peace, unity and serenity while it is dominated by military and security personnel. Mostly though, it is Pope Francis, himself, stopping his vehicle to kiss and bless babies, waving and smiling intently at all whom he passes, and taking time to listen to those fortunate few who have a chance to talk with him personally. Even while his robes, his throne-like chair, the royal Catholic  spirituality and the overwhelming presence of security surrounding him seems to defy the very spirit of Christ he is said to represent, at the same time his word, countenance, and interaction with people seems to embody that same spirit of Christ.

Sometimes the most important things in life are contained in paradox – an apparent contradiction pointing and embodying a deeper truth. If Pope Francis, the so- called “people’s Pope” can somehow communicate the radical truth of Jesus love and concern for justice, while challenging the power-brokers of governments and corporations, then he is a paradox I will embrace and continue to ponder.
Pope kissing Michael Keating, boy with cerebral palsy

[Pictures from author and Google Images]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What Goes Around Comes Around

I have been watching with horror and anticipation the drama that has been unfolding with the refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking refuge in Europe. I could not fathom what it would have been like for a Hungarian law enforcement officer to have to push people away from the trains that would take them to Germany. I was relieved to hear that Germany and Austria agreed to take the refugees and that Hungary provided buses. However, these are not the only migrants seeking relief. A week or so ago there were reports of people seeking to get to England from France by walking through the Chunnel that runs between the two countries. Then of course, there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States, whom Donald Trump callously stereotypes as thugs and rapist, but who like their European counterparts are simply seeking security, safety and a place to live in peace. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has challenged her European counterparts to help refugees in the right thing to do. I wish her well.

As I read and watched the news of this unfolding crisis, I was reminded of something I would say to the kids I worked with in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, when they would contemplate getting involved in the drug trade or seek revenge for a perceived hurt. I used to say: “You know, what goes around comes around.” In other words, what you do today will consequences down the road, and will come back to you.

Yes – the violence is the reason refugees are fleeing Syria and other countries. However, the violence is the result of actions taken 15, 20, even 50 years ago that have led to a divided and war torn area of the world. The U.S. and European coalition constructed to attack and destabilize Saddam Hussein has caused that area of the world to plunge into utter chaos. Western addiction to oil made that region an “area of interest” to attack and “defend.” Moreover, our blind and total support of Israel  has made that nation a threat and destabilizing force for all in the region. Now Saddam was a brutal ruler, and rulers like Assad in Syria, and the Ayatollah in Iran have been brutal.  Israel has a right to its own security and ISIS is a legitimate threat. So I don’t want to oversimplify things. Yet, if one were to step back, they could see that the events following World War II in that region of the world  and subsequent decisions by Western nations to intervene in those countries and have led to refugees flowing into Europe.

Likewise, in the United States a similar process is at work. In the 1950’s and 1960’s large fruit companies like United Fruit (now Chiquita) propped up puppet governments in exchange for control of the productive farm land, even when it displaced millions of people from their homes. In the 1980’s the CIA waged a covert war against governments in several Central and South American countries in the “fight against Communism.” These efforts left many countries like Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua impoverished and devastated. Then President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allowed U.S. companies to operate  there while paying subsistence wages, and avoiding safety and environmental regulations that existed in the U.S. However, while businesses and markets could flow freely between countries, no such arrangement was made for labor, so workers in the north and south ended up being impoverished and manipulated. Is it any wonder that people would risk their lives to come north just to survive?

Again, I don’t want to oversimplify. Obviously there are numerous other factors that come into play. However, beefing up the border patrol and building a wall simply avoids the issue. Choices that the U.S. leaders and companies made have come back to us. What goes around comes around.
One might be willing to forgive some bad decisions that looked good at the time but turned sour, if we were willing to learn from our mistakes. Instead our leaders build their wall, and blame the victims for doing what any sane person would do in order to survive and provide for their families. 

What is so troubling about statements made by would be political leaders like Donald Trump or European leaders like England’s David Cameron seeking to block the migrants from coming across the border, is that so many regular citizens agree with them. Let us imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or a young Honduran man seeking to enter the United States, and honestly ask ourselves: would we do anything different?

One of the American classic stories is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family from Oklahoma seeking to go to California to escape the Dust Bowl and poverty, in search of opportunities to start a new life. Like the refugees, like undocumented immigrants, they were vilified and turned away, blamed for their own misery. Steinbeck wrote that story to hold the mirror up to every American and ask – would any of us do any different?

 I have no simple solutions to migration crises around the world, but it seems that violence, manipulation, overthrowing rulers not to our liking, and then putting up fences and walls to keep the victims of actions out is not addressing the deeper problems. Perhaps our leaders need to read history and read Steinbeck, and then ask as Angela Merkel is trying to do – What is the right thing to do in the moment of crisis? However beyond that they also must consider what must we do differently to avert these crises all together. Otherwise we will continue to experience (without getting the lesson) that what goes around comes around.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Small Things and Simple Pleasures

This past week my work was extremely stressful. I felt, as I often do these days, that my responsibilities far outstrip by capacities to meet them. I feel beholden to my colleagues, my students, my friends and family members. I worry. I pray, I meditate, I remind myself of all my blessings, and then I worry some more. Sleep can elude me and I come to the end of the day and the week physically and emotionally spent.

While the nature of my work does not really end when the weekend begins, there is something about Friday that allows me to let down. However this week seemed extra special. When I came home last night my wife had cooked a simple meal: hot dogs, fresh corn, and beans and tomatoes from a friend’s garden. Not elegant, simple – yet so refreshing and delightful.

Then on Saturday morning as I often do, I got on my bike for a long ride along the Schuylkill River Trail and then off into the hills north and west of the river. In the beginning the air was clear and fresh, and lots of people were out walking, running, rollerblading and biking. The sun was bright but not harsh, and when I happened to ride through a shaded area, it was cool and invigorating. As often happens when I take my morning rides, I felt  sluggish at first and somewhat out-of-sorts, but after a few miles the endorphins kicked in and I felt alive and at times almost euphoric. At about mile 16 I was going up a long hill and though my legs had to work there was a rush at just being alive. At mile 28 I bent low and pumped my legs on a long straight stretch, and was aware of how fortunate I was to be strong and healthy enough to feel the rush that comes in such moments.When I finished after 32 miles, I felt tired but complete.

Part of the stress of my week is normal work stuff, some is related to changes taking place in my job leading to feelings of uncertainty, and a lot of it comes from considering the state of the world: the violence, the cold-hearted hatred of some leaders, the desperation of migrants seeking refuge and rescue, the poor state of our educational systems especially for the poor, and wars all over the globe. I wonder, as did many a psalmist where God is in all of this, is there any reason for hope, is there any point in trying to change things, and no clear answer comes. So I need these moments of simple pleasure not to escape these other things, but to balance them out.

As I rode my bike I was reminded of some advice the poet Ranier Marie Rilke gave to a young protégé in his classic work,  Letters to a Young Poet, where he describes what Buddhist writers call “mindfulness”, that attention to the wonder of ordinary things and taken-for-granted pleasures. He wrote:
Here in this vast landscape, swept by the winds and sea, I wonder if there is any person anywhere who can answer the questions that stir in the depths of your being. For even the best miss the mark when they use words for what is elusive and nearly unsayable. But nonetheless, I believe you are not left without a solution, if you turn to things like those that are refreshing my eyes. If you ally yourself with nature, with her sheer existence, with the small things that others overlook and that so suddenly can become huge and immeasurable; if you have this love for what is plain and try very simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent, and somehow more reconciling, perhaps not in your conscious mind, but in your innermost awareness.

Small things and simple pleasures are always available, if I simply take time to note them and then take them in.

[Photos taken by the author]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Peanut Butter and Family Culture

I grew up in a family of eight children: five boys and three girls born over the span of fifteen years. I am the oldest. Today my siblings and I are literally spread from the east coast to the west coast with seven spouses or partners, and fourteen grandchildren added to the mix. My mother died in 2005, but my Dad celebrated his 88th birthday this past January. Were my mom still alive, this weekend they would be celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Like most families we had our share of dysfunctions, but overall my parents created a happy and healthy environment in which to grow up. My dad was the traditional breadwinner and my mom a stay-at-home mom, although over the years she had many outside involvements, such as teaching swimming lessons, heading up a local candidate’s political campaign, running a clothing business,  and countless volunteer activities. Like many families, we had our unique rituals and idiosyncrasies. For the Boyd family one such idiosyncrasy had to do with food.

Last week one of my brothers texted  the rest of us with a picture of a unique Boyd specialty he was making: a peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich (on left). This precipitated a series of texts from all eight of us on our current feelings (some positive and others negative) toward this Boyd creation. The conversation then migrated to other sandwiches our mother often “treated” us to such as cream cheese and jelly sandwiches and something that entered the family lore after I left for college called the “Webster special”: an English muffin, layered with peanut butter, tomato, bacon and cheese grilled just enough to melt the cheese (see below). Like the sandwich which started the conversation, this led to comments for and against said creations and various adaptations that have evolved from our childhood. While we did not agree on our current attraction to these various delicacies, one thing was clear: our children, the next generation, generally had not gravitated to these Boyd specialties.

While on one level this conversation-by-text was a funny walk down memory lane, it reminded me of the way in which families shape us and make us who we are today. While my mother was not a great cook, she was a creative one, and there are many dishes or variations of foods that I have encountered few other places. Likewise there were words we used for certain acts, sayings, and family rituals. One such saying/ritual I remember was “FHB,” which stood for “Family Hold Back.” Whenever someone unexpectedly showed up at dinner time (which seemed to happen with certain individuals a great deal), my mother would say “FHB,” thereby indicating we needed to make room for our guest and take a little less food so there would be enough. While by no means did we suffer for this “sacrifice,” it taught me the value of generosity and hospitality. Another Boyd standby in my youth was something called “Family Night,” a sort of family talent show about once a month in which every child no matter how young or old was asked to perform for the group in some way by playing an instrument, reciting a poem, singing a song, describing a picture or performing a little play. As a result all of us developed an ease in front of groups which has served us well in our various vocations.

Today, my siblings and I, as well as many of our adult children, exhibit a wide range of political views, career paths, religious or nonreligious commitments and personal hobbies. When we get together there can be rousing debates and differences of perspective, yet at the same time there is a deep bond that connects us. When we gather, as many of us did in Oregon this past July, we find that time and distance has not broken the bond or the familiarity with certain ways of being that were bequeathed to us by our parents. My wife has commented on numerous occasions that there is a certain way of doing and saying things that seems to come over me when I get together with my family; I can’t deny the truth of what she is saying, nor do I regret it.

What I realize that there is a kind of family culture that I carry within me. In some ways I have sought to distance myself from that culture, and in other ways I have embraced it and sought to continue it. One thing is clear I can never escape it. In many ways who I am, what I believe, how I see the world, and the manner in which I live is a product of my family. In that way I don’t think I am unique. Most of us are who we are, for good or ill, because of the influence of the people who raised us, loved us and shaped us as children.

As I reflect on what would have been my parents’ 63rd anniversary, I am thankful for the peanut butter lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich, family night, “FHB”  and so much more that are part of who I am today, and that remind me of the blessings of family and the parents that shaped me.

[Pictures courtesy of Wint Boyd, Tucker Boyd and Hannah Boyd Vargo. The picture of my parents was taken about twenty years ago .]

Thursday, August 06, 2015

One Year Later

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
(Langston Hughes)

On August 9 the nation will remember the one year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darrin Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. When the event occurred I was vacationing with my wife in Maine, and the shooting did not make the evening news. Yet within a day, the nation and the world began to learn of a stirring taking place in Ferguson in a way that shook Black people to their painful soulful core, and led to an eruption that has continued to smolder. There were peaceful marches, overshadowed (in the media) by angry looting, and police dressed in combat gear reinforced by the National Guard. From the politicians and police there was a call for order and but from the communities of color around the country there was a call for justice. Officer Wilson was not charged, but that cry was not silenced and the call for justice continued to grow. 

Pretty soon, we were hearing other names like Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Eric Garner (NYC), Brandon Tate Brown (Philadelphia) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore). And there was Charleston and the Black churches burned in its aftermath. Just this past month Sandra Bland (Texas) and Samuel Debose (Cincinnati) were added to that list. There were a few retaliatory reactions such as the murder of NYC police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, and tensions between members of the Black communities and police departments in communities across the nation grew tense to the brink of breaking. And the movement that has come to be called “Black Lives Matter” emerged and continues to grow.

For many White folks this eruption of anger and frustration came as a surprise. We  Whites hadn’t been paying attention. We had seen glimpses like the riots after Rodney King’s beating and the marches after the death of Trayvon Martin, but then things slipped out of our view and we got lulled back to sleep. We thought that Michael Brown’s shooting was somehow unique, out of the ordinary, and a deviation from a racially peaceful norm, even though it was all too normal for Black and Latino men in this country. We didn’t understand the reactions of anger, frustration, despair and even hate, but that was  normal too in communities of color. Back in the ’90’s Cornel West had written of nihilism in many poor communities of color. In the 1980’s Peggy McIntosh had written about the “invisible knapsack” of White male privilege. If given a chance to tell their story, almost every person of color I have known personally has shared a story of being stopped, frisked, and harassed just for “driving while Black.” No this wasn’t new. What was new was that the anger got coordinated and organized, and reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point.”

I wrote recently of my sense that we are in a Kairos moment, a coming together of folks and forces that portend a shift in the tectonic plates of history. When these kinds of seismic shifts take place, it is unpredictable, frightening and chaotic. As I look back over the year since Michael Brown’s tragic death, I don’t recall a year of such social dynamism, since I was young person watching the Civil Rights and anti-war movement unfold in the 1960’s. People look back to the '60's with a nostalgic longing for the passion and the fervor, but we have forgotten how divisive, strident and unsettling life was then too. Just like now, folks in the '60’s didn’t know where would end up but they knew things needed to change; so too now.

One year from the events in Ferguson, we are no closer to really engaging the issue of institutional racism in our criminal justice system and our society in general. A lot of important leaders from the President on down have said some significant things, but the patterns of violence, degradation and exclusion have not changed. Far too many Whites deny they have any role or responsibility for addressing the deep cancer of racism built into our culture and societal structures. Others think it either useless or hopeless.  However, the Pew Research Center recently reported that there has been a significant spike in the last five years of Americans (43% to 59%) who think there is a significant problem with racism in this country. While among Whites that percentage is only 44%, it is much higher (17%) than only five years ago. Perhaps we Whites are slowly starting to wake up that America’s original sin cannot be ignored. Whether we get on board or not, the movement for change has begun.

I close by inviting you to listen to another Langston Hughes poem, “The Kids Who Die,” recited by Danny Glover and set with images from past and present. Written in 1938 in the height of Jim Crow, this poem has a haunting relevance. May we hear and not turn away. May we walk in Mike Brown’s memory, people of all races, ethnicities and creeds with our “hands up” toward that dream that has been deferred far, far too long.