Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing.  To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence.  Some are my friends.  Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.

James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men.  Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way.  He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  I have something like that in mind.  I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.

In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age.  I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.

The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities.  By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.

People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes:  They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood.  They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me.  Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago.  Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”

People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.

I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me.  Already my interview schedule is burgeoning.  But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can.  So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories.   And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.

I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.

In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing.  Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective.  You’d expect the perspective.  They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions.  But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd.  They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters.  They face opposition that makes no sense to them.  They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.”  How could they?  But people do—under  the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color.  The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.”  For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out.  Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger.  They’ve seen this before.  They know how to take the high road.

Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue.  But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare.  ”This, too, shall pass,” they say.  They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.

The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths.  I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership.  In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him.  I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.

I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal.  I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair.  In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people.  Isn’t that how it should be?

No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.

 

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Acting Well in an Absurd World

I write this essay on the morning of the Clinton-Trump debates.  As the possibility of a Trump presidency grows in strength, sounds of confusion and the stink of fear have begun to fill the air.  How could a man who lies like a psychopath, who bullies and mocks and finds common cause with White Supremacists be our president. It makes no sense.  We must be living in an altered state of consciousness.

We have been lied to before.  Think back to our entry into the Iraq war, the Iran contra affair, Watergate, and the torture chambers that we transferred to foreign soil, lest they infect our own.  We have had presidents who have torn down what we thought was almost sacred—the New Deal safety net—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton readily come to mind—and helped to build a world in which the 1% own 50% of our wealth and god knows what percentage of the decision-making power.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the impact of the presidential campaign on us, moderate, liberal, and Progressive Americans who wonder how this could be happening to them, feeling like bystanders to a process that is out of our control.

I have studied the European climate during the rise of fascism and Nazism.  It was fed by extreme poverty and loss of life during World War 1, which, in turn, fueled the rise of Nazism and the concomitant anti-Semitism that almost wiped out the entire Jewish people.  For me, just behind the actual death and destruction, the worst part was that so many people just stood by and let it happen.  I don’t mean the time-worn and erroneous way that later anti-Semites described Jews as passively accepting their fate like lambs to slaughter.  I mean the millions of people who did not believe in fascism or didn’t wholly  believe in it, who were offended, but who did nothing to resist.

Now I am afraid that we are standing by.  Almost 70% of Americans dislike Trump and much of what he stands for but—and this is the point—I don’t believe that we are taking the threat seriously enough.  If we don’t, it may not be the “basket of deplorables” who are most to blame, it will be us.  As Albert Einstein famously warned, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

In the face of our own fear and confusion, it is hard to know what to do.  Many in the middle and on the left seem dispirited, depressed, just short of giving in to despair.  Genuine hope seems an illusion.  Others are in a state of denial.  Hillary Clinton will surely win in the end, they say, however timidly.  We are Americans.  We will come to our senses.  We can’t be this lax, can we?  This is just how political contests go.  They tighten up at the end.  The forces of good will come through in the end.

Alternatively, we whisper that Trump may not turn out as badly as he seems.  He’s just saying all those terrible things to win the votes of the Republican base.  Look at the influence of beautiful Ivanka and her new childcare proposals.  Maybe these “denials” will prove out and Clinton will win or Trump will turn out to be better than he seems.  Maybe, but are we willing to take that chance?

I know that this article will seem alarmist to many, extreme to some.  But shouldn’t we raise the cry, just in case?  We do need to organize.  We do need to fight our own despair and impotence.  We need to fight our way out of this nightmare.  The question, then, is how do we do that.  I know that the Democratic Party will organize.  I get several fundraising emails every day.  The “ground” troops are hard at work.  The ads are ubiquitous.  But that hasn’t worked so far.  The harder the Clinton troops work, the more they seem to be losing.  Trump continues to gain; and he is now tied.  When you continue to try one strategy—characterize Trump as an immoral lunatic who can’t be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—and that strategy does not work, you can’t keep repeating yourself.  You will lose.

We need to be heartier and more creative in the coming weeks.  We need to shake our confusion and despair.  Before we strengthen ourselves on the big stage, we have to raise our spirit, one person at a time.  Here are some thoughts about breaking loose.

When I start down that road to despair, I generally try to make sense of what’s going on.  I’ve been trying to do that for months and months now, and I can’t.  It makes no sense that Trump’s popularity grows.  I have written more than ten essays about the subject, trying to understand and not just condemn White working class voters, but I have failed to clarify things even to myself.  The political situation just seems absurd.

So I have begun to turn to the master absurdity, Albert Camus.  Camus, who wrote in the face of fascist and communist totalitarianism, simply began with the premise that the world is, in fact, absurd.  The absurdity that we face in the present day is not an aberration, it is our shared reality.  We cannot grasp it logically.  Theological explanations are not helpful: no amount of sin or the need for cleansing, for example, could explain the rise of Hitler.  Our moral compass just seems to spin.  As Camus would say, we live in a godless universe and Trump exemplifies that universe.  Sociology and psychology also bring us to a kind of dead end because explaining the horror doesn’t stop it.  What to do, then, in the face of this absurdity.

Camus’ philosophy is complex but here’s the simple version from his The Myth of Sisyphus that has sometimes kept me going.  Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again.  This sometimes characterizes the experience for those of us who have tried year after year to build upon progressive values.  We push the rock up the hill for a generation, then it comes tumbling down. Why, we ask, should we keep trying.

Camus tells us that Sisyphus is only freed from his despair when he recognizes the absurdity of his situation.  I suppose that goes for progressives like me, who might call ourselves realistic but who have in mind an idealized future just beneath the surface of our policy proposals.  What I feel when I fully acknowledge that the Trump surge may well win out, when I give up hope, even for a moment, is first terror that is soon, paradoxically, followed by relief.  I can stop trying to push the rock to the top.

By pushing and pushing, I had become robotic.  I had lost all creativity and, maybe even compassion for the people I want to help.  It was as though I had been closing my eyes and holding my breath, hoping that the nightmare would go away.  When I give up, when I stop pretending that the world is other than it is, and that includes a world with Donald Trump in it, I can breathe again.  With breath, there comes relief.  For a moment, I relax, as though the worst is past.   Relief is then followed by a sense of freedom.  There is no rock.  I can do as I please.  I can choose my future.

What do I choose?  I still choose to push the rock of progress up the hill.  But now, no gods are making me do so.  And maybe, free from the constant struggle, I can find more creative ways to get that rock up the hill.  A lever?  Jet propulsion?  I sustain my effort because there is nothing else that I can do that fits my values, that gives me a sense of meaning, that sustains my integrity. My struggle for social justice is selfish in this way.

Giving up the robotic struggle leads to freedom and freedom leads to possibilities for a better future because—and this I believe even if logic won’t verify it—the world demands that we strive towards freedom and decency, respect and equality for all.  It urges us forward like a mighty river.  It is the only path that is worthwhile. So we take it.