Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricance Arlene

Amidst tremors from an earthquake on Tuesday and the impending hurricane this weekend, Philadelphia's schools experienced another shock wave when now-former superintendent Arlene Ackerman went on the offensive against those who forced her out of her position with a $950,000 buy out. While I was never a huge Arlene Ackerman fan, I had great respect for her as an educator. Her Vision 2014 plan and her attempt to help struggle schools through her Renaissance Academy program was a move in the right direction. West Philadelphia High School, the school with which I am most familiar, has been designated a Promise Academy this coming year and along with a dynamic new principal, a brand new state of the art building and an infusion of funds, the school was slated to get the kind of support services common in more affluent districts and a huge help to the students of this school. Now some of those support services have been cut back due to state budget cuts, but still the school continues to move in the right direction. I give Dr. Ackerman much of the credit for that happening.

Dr.Ackerman was quoted several times as saying "I'm an educator.I'm not a politician." Having attended a community meeting with her and watched her in action. I would amend her saying: she is an educator, but not a leader. She did not know how to work collaboratively with people; she chose to make arbitrary and one-side decisions. She asked for community input, but never seriously considered it. And when it came to working with political leaders to advocate for the school budget, she embarrassed the mayor and refused to communicate on even the most basic level with people she needed and wanted as allies. In this sense she was her own worst enemy.

After she had been released and given a $950,000 severance package, she not only had the gall to take the money, but then she went on the radio and blamed politicians, the SRC and her staff for her failures, never once taking responsibility for her own actions. She even urged parents to pull their students out of the school district, the district of which she was the chief executive officer! Given the generosity of the school district and some anonymous donors, given her so-called concern for students, and given her own failures as a leader, I would have hoped for more humility and personal responsibility and a little less spite. Effective leaders know that no matter what happens ultimately they must take responsibility for the organizations they lead. It is okay to call out people at certain points, but always it must be done with the pointing the finger at oneself too. Sometimes leaders know when to keep their mouth shut; that obviously is not a skill she ever cultivated.

What is most sad is that Arlene Ackerman not only shows no remorse, but at least publicly shows little insight into the dynamics of her own demise. Yes, Philly is a political town. Yes, it is a tough place to be a leader. Yes, the challenge of turning around a struggling urban school district is great. She should have known that going into her job three years ago. Apparently she leaves with no greater insight than when she came in, and instead leaves like a storm seeking destruction along the way.

Though Arlene Ackerman made some positive contributions to the educational system in this city, in the end we are much better off without her. Now we must pick up the pieces and try to move on. Hopefully, we as a community, and our political and educational leaders can show more reflective insight and humility than the woman they just fired. As an educational visionary she was a reasonable choice for superintendent, but as a leader she was a disaster.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Social and Family Causes of Gun Violence

I continue with looking Faith-based responses to gun violence. In this section I discuss the underlying causes of the gun violence issue in the United States.

When one examines the causes of gun violence, one must think of the issue on at least four levels. First, we must acknowledge there are any number of social and familial issues that predispose a person to respond to his/her environment in an overtly violent manner. Second, there are institutions, in this case the gun manufacturing industry, whose vested interest lies in selling as many firearms as possible, and other institutions, such as the media that routinely glorifies violence in films, TV shows, videogames and the like. Third, there is an economic and political system that can either restrict or permit the proliferation of handguns in local communities. Finally, there is a culture of violence that propagates the linkage between firearms, freedom, individual rights patriotism, manhood, and sometimes even religion. While for purposes of discussion, one can delineate each of these levels, in reality they are deeply intertwined.
I begin by talking about the social and family related causes. In the coming weeks, I will address the other areas.
More than a social problem, injuries and deaths due to gun-related incidents are a public health concern that has reached epidemic proportions. While the media and public image of gun violence tends to focus on urban youths of color, the statistics portray a more diverse picture. And while the gun lobby seeks to persuade the public that we are safer with lax gun laws, the data tells a much different story.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) approximately 50,000 people in the U.S. die each year due to violence related injuries. Approximately 2/3 of these die by suicide and 36% die by homicide (CDC, 2011). In a 2007 study of data on violent deaths from 16 states, researchers noted that of a reported 167,319 deaths, 56.6% were suicide, 28% were homicides, 14% were of undetermined intent, and  7% were due to accidents. Homicide is the second overall leading cause of death for persons ages 15-24, the third leading cause of persons ages 10-14, and the leading cause of African Americans in those age categories (ages 10-24) (CDC, 2008b).
 Among the suicides, 51% of victims used a firearm to kill themselves. Males were three times more likely than females to commit suicide and whites more likely than non-whites to commit suicide. Adolescents were about half as likely to commit suicide as adult over the age of 30 (Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
The data for homicides shows a similar pattern with some notable exceptions. Most victims of homicide (53%) were 18 years old or younger, and roughly a third (34.4%) of the victims were reportedly a friend or family member (this number could be much higher since 41% of the cases the relationship was unknown) while only 9.2% were reported to be a stranger or a rival. Males were 3.6 times more likely to be homicide victims than females. Non-Hispanic blacks were 52% of the homicides followed by Asians (10.5%) and Hispanics (7.25). Two-thirds of all homicides were committed with firearms, with men using guns 72% of the time (Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
In the case of suicide, the majority of victims were either depressed and/or experiencing mental health problems. However, mental illness was not a major factor in homicides. Overwhelmingly homicides were precipitated by a crime or occurred while a crime was in progress. Over a third (37.5%) involved some sort of personal conflict, and 20% of homicides involved intimate partner violence ((Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
The picture that emerges from this data is that the availability of guns is a significant risk factor for both homicide and suicide, and contrary to what pro-gun advocates believe, only a tiny percentage of guns are used against strangers, such as unknown intruders. In the overwhelming number of cases the victims of gun violence are personally known to their assailant (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004).  Whites tend to commit more suicides while non-whites are more likely to commit homicide, but both use firearms a majority of the time. In both cases men are more likely than women to use guns in a violent injury. Younger people die by homicide, while older adults tend to violent deaths at their own hands. However, in both suicides and homicides the overwhelming method of injury is by firearms, and in the case of homicide those firearms are used most frequently used against a victim who has a close relationship with their killer. The perpetrators are either contending with serious mental health issues, or are involved in a lifestyle that is inherently dangerous or life-threatening.
Because of the magnitude of the violence particularly among young people, the CDC considers interpersonal violence to be a matter of public health. The risk factors contributing to violence include poverty, access to firearms, substance abuse, dysfunctional family life, difficulty in school, and being either a witness or victim of interpersonal. Prothrow-Stith (2008) and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that these factors do not act in isolation but lead to a complex of causes that have the overall effect of decreasing the social capital of families living in economically depressed areas, thus decreasing neighbor-to-neighbor trust, and creating an environment of fear and suspicion leading to violence.
When speaking of violence in urban communities, one must see that in poor communities people deal with a multiplicity of factors both in their families and personal lives related to poverty. In attempt to cope with the stress, young people resort to either high risk lifestyles (related to drugs and crime) or feel pressured by their peers. They attend schools that offer substandard education and often are centers of violence themselves, and come from homes and neighborhoods where conflict is handled in a violent matter. Firearms, both legally and illegally owned, are plentiful. Such an environment can be a formula for the proliferation of violence and often is. These statistics do not consider do not account for those young people who are injured and seek medical care for violence related injuries, which can lead to lasting physical disabilities as well as emotional scars, not to mention the economic cost of addressing these injuries (CDC, 2008a).
As staggering as these statistics are, for many U.S. citizens gun-related violence seems a way of life that is intrinsic to human nature. However, a cursory review of data from other developed nations reveals that the immense toll of life due to gun violence is a uniquely U.S. problem. For instance one study based on data from the United Nations reported that the U.S. had 15.22 deaths per 100,000 persons, whereas the rate in France was 6.35, Canada was 4.78, Norway was 4.39, Denmark was 2.6 and Germany was 1.57. Not only did the rate in the U.S. outstrip all European countries, but also countries such as Zimbabwe (4.75), Cost Rica (3.32), Philippines (9.46) and Northern Ireland (6.82) (Krug, Powell and Dahlberg, 1998). Thus while the epidemic of gun-related violence seems unmanageable, one must recognize that gun violence is a uniquely American problem and that based on the experiences of other countries, the high rate of gun violence is not inevitable
Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2008a). Understanding youth violence: Fact Sheet. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
CDC (2008b). Youth violence: Facts at a glance. Atlanta: Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
CDC (2011). Violence Prevention: National Violent Death Reporting System. Retrieved January 21, 2011 at
Hepburn, L. & Hemenway, D. (2004). Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal  9, 4-17-40.
Karch, D., Dahlberg, L. & Patel, N. (2010). Surveillance for violent death – national violent death reporting system, 16 states, 2007. Surveillance Summaries, 59 (SS04), 1-50. Retrieved January 21, 2011 at
Krug, E., Powell, K, & Dahlberg, L. (1998). Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high and upper middle income countries. International Journal of Epidemiology 27, 214-221.
Prothrow-Stith, D., Stuart, S., & Wright, L. (2008, September, 26). Violence prevention: A public health mandate. Presentation at Eastern University, Philadelphia, PA.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gun Violence as a Spiritual Issue

During my recent sabbatical I researched and wrote a paper on Faith Based Responses to Gun Violence. In this research I studied the gun industry, the media, the NRA, the culture of guns and the way in which faith communities can and should respond. Over the next several weeks, I want to share the fruits of my research in hopes that a greater awareness of the hideous and twisted nature of the gun industry and the havoc it wreaks may move us to more concerted action. In light of the violent flash mobs in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and the riots in London, not to mention the random gun violence plaguing our streets, this discussion and the need for action is as urgent as ever.
In this first segment, I set out my case (that will be developed further) that at its heart the struggle over gun policy in this country is a deeply spiritual issue.

 On January 8, 2011 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several other people were shot by a lone gunman during a political town meeting in a Tucson, AZ shopping mall. The next day I posted a blog advocating for stricter laws on the sale and carrying of guns. In response to that blog a friend of mine who lives and works with young people in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia sent me a link a brief news article recounting a shooting in midday outside a local store (WPVI, 2011). My friend made no comment, but his point was clear. Even as the nation responded in shock and horror at what had happened to Rep. Giffords, literally thousands of shootings go unnoticed in urban communities all across the nation.
While much of the discussion following the Giffords incident focused on the polarizing political rhetoric which may have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner, few Democrats and no Republicans dared to speak up for greater regulations on the sale of handguns. As Dick Polman noted: “The [gun] issue is off the national agenda because Democrats have been rendered mute by their terror of the gun lobby” (Polman, 2011).

The confusing response to the Tucson shootings highlights a continuing paradox in the ongoing debate on the place of firearms in American life. Numerous academic studies have documented that the proliferation of firearms increases the likelihood of those guns being used against innocent. National groups like the Brady Campaign for Gun Violence Prevention, and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns have sought to inform the public about the linkage between lax gun laws and death and injury by firearms. High profile shootings have occurred in surprising places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Tucson. Even so polls show that the public remains deeply divided on the issue and the gun lobby continues to make advances in easing access to guns from local ordinances up to the Supreme Court.
Why is there an apparent disconnect between vigorous efforts to limit regulations on handgun sales and the voluminous data showing the danger the presence of firearms presents citizens? Why do gun violence prevention groups have continued difficulty convincing the American public and political leaders of the need to pass laws limiting and regulating the sale of handguns? How have the pro-gun advocates been so successful at dividing the American public on this life and death issue?

The answers to these questions lie in the effective way in which the gun industry and  its promoters have tapped into basic American values  and created a polarizing climate of fear and distrust whenever efforts are made to regulate the sale and usage of guns. While gun-related violence continues to afflict communities across the country, the gun industry uses effective marketing strategies and image manipulation to obfuscate the issue and continues to record substantial profits and exercise significant political influence.
Viewed through the lens of faith, the struggle over gun policy in this country is a deeply spiritual issue, reflecting what the apostle Paul called a battle against “principalities and powers" (Ephesians 6.12; Romans 8. 38). Even so the institutional church has been largely silent and inactive on this issue. However, Christians and people of other faith traditions have begun to challenge the gun industry, realizing they are uniquely equipped and called to work for common sense laws and policies regarding the sale and use of firearms.

Subsequent segments in this blog will attempt to show how this is true, and how Christians and other people of faith, can make a difference.

Polman, D (2011, January 16). Talk about civility is fine, but where are the new calls for gun control? Philadelphia Inquirer, Section C, p. 1,6.July 5, 2010 at

WPVI-TV (2011, January 10). Three wounded by gunfire in Kensington. Retrieved 1/21/11 at

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Moving from They to We: Being Allies With Those Who Are Oppressed

"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together."
I recently attended my 40th high school reunion. I saw and talked with people I literally had not seen in 40 years. It was a rich and wonderful experience that I will cherish for a long time.  As is generally the case at reunions, most of the conversation consisted in catching up on the details of people’s lives: Where do you live? What kind of work do you do? Married? Kids? However, in a few cases the conversations became more personal and substantive.

I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, and so not surprisingly many of my former classmates had gone into business or professional work and had become quite wealthy themselves in the process. Yet, I was struck by the number of people who spoke of using their position and wealth to benefit the “less fortunate.” One friend had retired in his early 50’s after a lucrative legal career and now is supporting a number of non-profits. Others left their careers to actually work for non-profits. Another left business to go into ministry. One person had started a non-profit even as she continued her work. I heard of others who had turned their business surplus into foundations giving money or things such as clothing or furniture to needy people. These were sincere, good-hearted faith-driven people who were trying to live out their convictions amidst their significant financial success.

As I listened there was a question that kept stirring within me as folks talked about their efforts to help “the poor.” There was something in the language that troubled me; it was all about what we are doing for them. There was an inherent divide between we who have and they who do not. I left those conversations pondering how to move from talking about they to we? In other words how do we breakdown the dichotomy that creates givers and receivers, haves and have-nots.

An unidentified Australian aboriginal activist was once quoted as saying: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” What the poor and oppressed of the world need is not charity, but justice. They don’t need missionaries and do-gooders, they need allies.

Recently at the Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference, I heard Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, director of the Center for African American Studies at the University of Texas speak about “Seven Rules for Allies of the Oppressed”. I paraphrase them here for our consideration with my comments in brackets.

1.      Allies know it is not enough to be liberal; we must be radical enough to want to work to change the system. [As long as we seek to “help” others while maintaining our power and privilege, we perpetuate a capitalist system that has historically marginalized women, people of color, immigrants, and gays/lesbians. Charity is not enough, we need systemic change.]

2.      Be loud and crazy. [When women, people of color, or poor people speak out they are considered “hysterical,” ”threatening”, and “out of control.” Our position and privilege allows us the freedom to be loud and possibly heard.]

3.      Do not tell an oppressed person to be patient. [The poor and oppressed are always told to “wait,” but as Frederick Douglas said over 150 years ago, the powerful do not give up power willingly, it must be taken from them.]

4.      Recognize that racism, sexism and homophobia are structural. [The disparities that exist along racial, gender and orientation lines are built into the system, that’s why the system must be radically changed.]

5.       When called out about your racism, sexism, homophobia or other –isms, don’t cower in embarrassment, cry, try to cover, or accuse the other person of being unfair. Instead be grateful they took the time and had the courage to expose you. [This is a hard one for folks of privilege, but so true; I speak from experience as one who has been called out more than once.]

6.      Support alternative possibilities. [The rationale and strategies that created oppression will not resolve it; we need new paradigms.]

7.      Don’t work to make the world better for the oppressed. Instead work to create a world that we would want to live in with all others - a world that provides equality, dignity, humanity and justice for all people.

This week we saw the Congress and President pass legislation that further requires the poor of our country  to go without so the wealthy and corporations  can bear no burden. As  people of faith and conscience, we should be considering whose side are we on.

Will we continue to perpetuate a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many? 

Will we continue to perpetuate the myth that our system is fair and just, or will we choose to be allies with those that suffer?

Will we perpetuate the we-they divide, or will we see that our liberation is inextricably bound up with those who suffer poverty, discrimination, and oppression in our world?