This time last week I returned from the USA – a giddy eight flights and two weeks of work and immersion into some of the country’s civil rights history, as CARE contemplates setting up programmes in America.
I’m still absorbing all that I saw and heard…
From talking to activists outside The White House the day after I arrived; to discussions with colleagues in D.C. about CARE’s future presence in Nigeria, where we are aiming to build the resilience of those affected by ongoing humanitarian issues there; through to time in Atlanta with my incredible team, exploring ways to lift up the opportunities for innovation across CARE’s network; before pausing for a weekend’s moment of Southern Decadence in New Orleans, a city whose authenticity and openness (in more senses of the word during that particular weekend, and which requires it’s own discreet blog post) to diversity and to humanity really are as creative and appealing as one imagines they could be; followed by road tripping up and into the State of Alabama, for more planning sessions at the fabulous Goodlight Studio in Birmingham, and a whistle-stop dive into some of the iconic civil rights moments of the 1960s, which unfolded in this infamous part of the country (from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, to visiting Joe Mintor’s garden displaying thirty years of work in bringing to life historical events in his garden, through the medium of scrap metal and every day objects); all of which culminated in a final leg in Montgomery, meeting the team at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) and hearing from Lecia Brooks and Richard Cohen at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, privileged encounters (amongst others had that week with lawyers, journalists, pastors and advocates for change) offering up precious, honest and heart wrenching insights into the social justice journeys that so many generations across the “Deep South” have been experiencing, each story a momentary platform to quench the individual (and increasingly collective) thirst for action which pulsates through the corridors of these justice-focused institutions, and through the determination of those who inhabit them on a daily basis; until, with my last 24 hours to spare, I flew up to Connecticut, to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest of friends, whose son, my godson, Sam, and I played pool whilst, trading insights about the speeches of Martin Luther King, taught at Sam’s high school, and equipping him and his peers with knowledge, in a way that left me more inspired about how this next generation of power holders and decision makers, of mothers and fathers, of politicians and business executives, might be gifted the intuitive sense of how their fingerprints and footprints can have positive meaning and a place in future history books, as they embark on their own life missions to become their best selves…
Headline surfing this morning, landed me on an interview with Spike Lee, about his new film BlacKkKlansman and I watched the palpable sense of rage unfold in Lee’s answers, particularly around how global governments, including his own, are stoking the right wing fires of political persuasion.
With the dark accompaniment of so many global news channels ready to fan these flames and paper over the cracks of corruption and exploitation, what are we to really do and feel and believe the future holds, when it comes to ensuring the values we believe in, and live out, are the right ones?
In many ways, my time in the USA offered up a “full circle” experience in the face of this question: during my first few days in country, the foreboding politics of this particular genre of time jarred and stifled my thoughts; until I was then grounded, as always, by the perspectives and insights of my peers; after which, a sensory sky rocket was lit during the New Orleans weekend, itself an explosion of diversity and of how things should be; starkly contrasting to the proceeding five days of immersion across Alabama.
And then I found myself playing pool with my godson, Sam.
Sharing this broad, beautiful and flawed space we all find ourselves inhabiting will forever confuse and challenge and inspire.
My real sense, of what feels like endless speculation on my part over the last ten years (my eldest is 10 years old this week and so, perhaps, this is no coincidence) is that we have a duty today and everyday towards each other, in some shape or form. In how we connect, in how we value and in how we behave with one another.
This mini odyssey in the USA only served to reinforce that, along with the complexities attached to how this plays out.
Many have landed on the conclusion that love, tolerance and understanding are our strongest of tools. I am not here to challenge this, per se. That compassion, and the ‘content of one’s character’ – to quote King – and being true to one’s self, are part and parcel of living out the right values are not, for me, up for debate. Indeed, my trip helped reinforce why these values are so powerful, for one because they help combat the feelings that, biologically, exist in each of us, which can lead to the oppression of others and that can result in hurt and pain and destruction.
Overwhelmingly, the stories I listened to in Alabama made me angry. Stories both from the mouths of those who addressed our group, as well as viewed in various curated archives preserved, like amber, in art form now – such as at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also know as ‘The Lynching Museum’) or at EJI’s own museum, which hauntingly yet quite beautifully, brings back to life the era of public segregation, and prior to that the agony and suffering caused by the practice of slavery.
The experience of reading, watching, feeling and taking in this barbaric and brutal recent history, as I have no doubt could be invoked in other countries and contexts around the world, is an emptying one.
And as it should be.
Through the EJI and others, the lives and the stories of the many hundreds of thousands of men and women and children of colour, trafficked from Europe or domestically throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sold between families and institutions, predominantly across the Southern States (Montgomery itself being home too nearly 500,000 slaves at one time) and subjected to inhumane forms of torture, confinement and corporal and capital punishments, are being told.
Fast forward to the modern day reality faced by young black men, in these same States, generation after generation – where one in three will be arrested in their lifetime and where thousands, today, either sit on death row or are facing life in prison without parole – and it is hard to let go of that anger.
Each chapter of the book provides page after page of saddening and thought provoking stories. In one, a 14 year old boy, named Ian, was caught up in a random shooting incident with the police. No one was hit or injured and yet Ian was incarcerated for life for the role he played (cajoled as he had been at the time into joining two other older teenagers to carry out a kidnapping). Ian had been handed a gun by the older boys and he fired at the police in the shootout.
He was so small that, upon entering the adult prison, Ian spent the first eighteen years of his prison life in uninterrupted solitary confinement, for fear of what would become of him in the main prison. Eighteen years living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in wardrobe. Ian has now been locked away for the past 32 years and is receiving support for appeal due to the efforts of the EJI.
In 2018, the laws in these States continue to prejudice men and women of colour. Discriminatory behaviours of the past remain.
In embracing equality, we are also, it seems, encouraging platforms for others to embrace hatred.
Many of Martin Luther King’s public speeches and calls to action are emblazoned in the EJI museum and elsewhere (indeed, the world over) and his oratory will forever mark a moment in our history where the power of equality stood firm. The image of water being one we saw adopted to moving effect during our trip. Used to reflect healing, progress and strength and inspired, in part, from King’s adaptation of the Prophet Amos’ line: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
That my godson, and my own daughter’s, formative years somehow connect with what it means to promote equality is, to some extent (although, clearly not exclusively) out of my hands. Nor should Sam and his peers feel the full burden of official ‘adulthood’, two years from now, with some kind of simultaneous inheritance of society’s continued inequalities. And, yet, young people who experience a childhood of any form of privilege must one day have the chance to cherish that. Their eyes open to it.
It seems to me that only through generational, tectonic shifts of form and attitude and resolution, will we ever move the dial on any of the social spectrum’s we currently use to diagnose the underlying causes of injustice and poverty.
Bryan Stevenson believes the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but injustice itself. At CARE, and since 1945, our commitment to support people in crisis, and to be resolved in our continued fight to tackle gender inequality, in all its forms, defines our very core values. For other social development entities, their choice of influencing agendas might be holding to account multi-national corporations, or challenging the more recent resurgence in right wing extremist groups. There is room for all us in this arena and we can and must collaborate.
As CARE contemplates how to intervene meaningfully in the USA, bringing to bare our learning from 93 countries, our theories for how change occurs, and joining others in addressing societal issues, for the policy maker and advocate, Ayanna Presley, at the heart of all of these spectrums lies a plain and simple vision, which is that: “Those closest to the pain, should be closest to the power”.
To draw a line under this post, I offer up Presley’s statement for you, my (very patient) reader to consider.
And I would suggest that, again, we each have a role to play in turning this vision into respective life missions. Each and every day, over and over again, moment by moment, encounter by encounter: gestures, thoughts, actions, being.