Thursday, December 21, 2006

Observations on a theme that may explain the disembodied rage I sense in my city and others like it -- and that's killing more of our young with each day ... .

: Re: Research Theme: Rhythms/1
Date: Mon, May 11th, 1998 8:21 PM
From: Cbreaux
Message-id: <>

Mike: I recall commenting some years ago that it was my perception that the Black Movement had become suicidal. It seems beyond doubt to me that the rage and self-contempt that lies beneath the machismo are being destructively played out at some subconscious level. When one thinks of the confusion that must underlie all that ferment -- the fact that one is legally and morally prevented from acting out the anger against those who would wield the clubs against you - or to attack those faces that pretend to support while unable to completely mask the deep fear of you that they feel ... . The obvious answer may be to internalize the hatred and wait for the end. But no one processes all that
intellectually, so self-destruction is predictable and increasingly a fact of life in our communities.

Maybe the drugs -- imported to your neighborhoods (as you really believe) by those who would use crack cocaine to pacify the ghetto -- make the days livable at least in those few moments right after the last hit. But the hopelessness is there in the few minutes
between hits and you're aware, once more, that you are needed nowhere on earth.

Often your mother -- in the effort to provide for her younger kids -- has had to turn you out onto the streets when you've aged out and are no longer covered by the family's welfare check. Your indequate schooling has prepared you for nothing that will support you or your girl and her child. You cannot compete with the regular check Uncle Sam provides each month to take care of them both. If you choose to participate in her life at all, that assistance will cease and neither of you will be capable of sustaining yourselves on the minimum wages offered by Macdonalds. The only place where your street smarts are useful is in the drug trades -- the only visible avenue to independence; but even that's a blind allley. You
know that your life expectancy is limited and that death or prison will be the only ways out. The only option you can see, often, is who to take with you ... .

Then, you find that you
are needed after all. Society has now created the grandest state and federal human warehousing program in the world. It has created a huge bureaucracy that feeds upon itself through an industry that provides others with jobs in security, supplying denims, towels and sheets, and guns and uniforms for those hired to guard and to punish you -- and a stock market product that now places the prison industry high in the Dow Jones daily ratings, the morbid effects of privatization. Thirty thousand dollars and more per year are now being spent to contain and control you -- someone few wanted to educate. Yale or Harvard will have to get in line -- the prison system has first dibs on all those dollars, and on your life.

Then the day comes when you're walking down the street or hanging out on the corner with friends -- shooting (no more than) the breeze. There are five of you just getting through another day. Someone approaches on the sidewalk, walking toward you. That person avoids eye contact. About 50 feet before you're close enough to smile reassurance, he/she crosses over to the other side, obviously in fear. What that person
doesn't know is that this is the sixth (10th?) time this has happened to you this day. And only an hour ago you were followed throughout the clothing store where you stopped to buy a new oversized hooded black sweatshirt and some new shades with the cash left over from your last drug transaction. The store detective followed you doggedly fully expecting you to lift something and for the action to begin. And that store detective doesn't know that you were the All-Star center on the highschool basketball team last year (before you had to drop out because you passed the age to be counted in the family as a welfare recipient and they couldn't afford to keep you at home any longer -- and you're on the street), and that you've become the provider for your family, supplementing welfare checks through street deals in the underground economy.

...and you can't go home to confide in your young "wife" because for her, too, you're now a liability. The social worker may find you there and your baby's welfare will be threatened.

...and you have absolutely nothing ... in ... the world ... to ... lose.


This has been the longest hiatus from being online than ever before in life ... .

And what have I done with the time, you ask?

So much, but mostly I've rediscovered myself from other eras while cleaning out boxes and crates of "stuff" accumulated over a lifetime; yellowed into umbers on newsprint guaranteed to escape this life maybe even before I do. Fascinating writings that leave me wondering why I didn't realize my ability to put into words so many (what turns out to be) really profound thoughts and concepts.

I've found enough brief pieces of "Bettyness" to fill this blog for weeks to come, and I'm delighted to have had the time to find them after all of the years of unbelievable busyness. Perhaps I have need to give thanks to my frustrating Internet provider after all. Without this extended period of being offline -- it all might have continued to sit in piles in the backs of drawers, file cabinets, and closets never to have seen the light of day until I died and it was all gathered up and tossed by those with little reason to explore them for whatever value they might hold.

Many were written in short pieces to online "strangers" in Seniornet who became so important me throughout the 90s and beyond. Because of the limitations of space on bulletin boards I developed a kind of talent for brevity that seemed to lack nothing by way of meaning. It is this that most impressed me as each was revealed in the exercise that started out as a kind of absent-minded effort to cut down on the clutter of paper that was becoming impossible to live with.

Unfortunately, the pile of to be tossed trash was a total failure as I began to read and re-read clippings and brief personal essays. The answer may be that I can toss them as I type them here, right? That way I'll have the best of all worlds by holding on to the best of them and cleaning out the clutter at the same time.

Maybe I can find even photos to go with them as I post ...

Fortunately, most are dated though there is no way to get them into sequence at this point. But since my blog has been a hodgepodge of impressions written and experienced out of sequence anyway, someone else may someday give the notes some order. Maybe not. But it won't matter since I'll be long gone and perhaps someone will have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that time is meaningless anyway -- and that the only thing that matters (as I've always known) is this moment; . now, and that all else is illusion.

Hmmmmmm .... .

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What a technological nightmare!

I've been offline since November 12th when I changed my plain DSL service to one that combined with my home phone. In the process I lost both services. The problem apparently was that there are so many layers between my computer and the network that services all that -- that it was impossible for either the broadband service that leased the lines or the company that they sublet the lease to -- to touch the wires.

My credit card was charged -- and at my insistence -- a credit was issued mid-problem, but only for half the time I was offline. About 18 hours on "hold" overall over the past month -- with someone probably in New Delhi or somewhere in Bombay -- two technicians who came to my home on 4 occasions -- who could identify the problem but could not touch the wires (due to that lease) -- and, finally, one who was willing to cut through the confusion and DO something yesterday (12/9) to restore my service after only a few days short of a full month!

I sent a blistering email to the original service provider (on their monthly bill announcing my ($104.00) charges for the transfer) only to receive a curt reply that "...if I wanted to contact anyone with my complaint, I would need to go to their website and fill out a form that would handle the matter."

This morning I spent about an hour online -- reading my accumulated emails and responding -- when the DSL went out again and I found myself talking to myself. Ten minutes ago, service mysteriously returned and I'm taking advantage of the time here by explaining to anyone reading this blog to know that I haven't died (a real possibility at my age) nor am I incapacitated in any way -- except by the magic(?) of technology.

'Tis a fragile thing, indeed, this wonder called the Blogosphere et al. At times like this there may be reason to wonder just how far advanced the human element has come -- and whether or not we're able to control this magical power we've concocted for the edification of the world. This past month has shown me just how far we still must travel before any of this can be taken for granted.

What if I were on a battlefield instead of sitting here in my comfortable den with no lives counting on my ability to remain in communication?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"There is nothing that's wrong with America that cannot be cured by what's right with America." William Jefferson Clinton, inaugural 1993.

No truer words were ever spoken. These mid-term elections of November 7th proved the strengths of this country beyond all else.

A week ago I shared the cynicism and fears of my countrymen and women everywhere between our oceans. Those fears were eating into the fabric of my being and were so all-pervasive that they dimmed the fears of global-warming (I'll not live long enough now to be effected, anyway) and added to feelings of impotence against the forces of change that were destroying our Constitution and eating away at all of our institutions.

Before I climbed into bed at around midnight (with local races still undecided), I knew that once again the Union had been saved from itself, and that (as in the Civil War) the nation had risen to its full potential in a radically changing world -- and this time -- without bloodshed or anarchy.

If anything tells the story of "Democracy," surely the way we conducted the recapturing of governance from those who would have trashed all that is "holy" and "inviolable" proved that the system works beyond a shadow of a doubt. They were vanquished resoundingly! They've been de-fanged; de-toxified. The mockery they attempted to make of our institutions has been turned against them in a demonstration that defies the cynics -- even the one that lies within me.

There was nothing more satisfying nor more ironic than to see the Republican candidate in a razor-thin race with the Democrat in Virginia -- where there were electronic voting machines -- and no way to recount the votes! No paper trail. The devices set in place (quite possibly) to capture yet another national election turned on itself and destroyed the destroyers!

We've come out of these last seven dark years even stronger as a nation-- with a better Congress that has wrested the gavel from those who have defiled our image before the world.

Best of all, we've proven that the American Dream continues to live to be emulated justifiably, and may yet regain the respect of the family of nations.

I will never live long enough to fully understand just how close to the edge we had gotten ... and maybe that's just as well.

Besides, those now in power in Washington are many super-ordinary Americans whom I've met over time; first time woman Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (from San Francisco), Rep. George Miller (whose office is less than a mile away from my apartment and with whom I've had occasion to interact over the years and who will now be House Chair of the powerful Education Committee; Rep. Pete Stark, a former member of my Unitarian-Universalist church and now head of the Committee on Health and Human Services; Sen. Barbara Boxer, from just right across the Bay in Marin County and slated to become Head of the Environmental Committee, etc. The "Government" now seems really quite human and "real" and accessible in ways that state government became to me while serving as a field rep to two members of the California State Assembly. That's a great feeling. Wish everybody could have it for just a little while. For now you'll just have to take my word for it; we've (all of us) won.

Has there ever been a stronger argument for our form of governance than the way we rose in great numbers to challenge that which was destroying us? The fact that each generation must reaffirm our principles and rededicate itself to the fulfillment of the promise of our founding documents makes for an inconsistency that at times is threatened by ambition and lust for power among a few. Turning the "Ship of State" around is cumbersome and time-consuming when we run aground from time to time, but we've shown that the corrections are built into the system and that -- with enough faith and patience and the unwillingness to be dissuaded from principle -- we can continue to thrive and to hold out the torch of freedom to those who would willingly follow.

I fully subscribe to the argument that Democracy is an evolutionary process that cannot be imposed at gunpoint. I believe those now in power fully understand that, and that we will begin to see the re-emergence of an honest respect for other forms of governance while we set an example for what might be by our living model of what is possible among the peoples of the planet.

And ... thanks to our new institutions (, People for the American Way, the ACLU, Progressive Democrats, etc.) we've rarely seen a time when our roots were grassier!

All is well.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

If only I could shut off my telephone and allow the answering machine to screen my calls ...

but that's a luxury that I can ill afford -- given the fact that Dorian is out there living on her own in the community and one never knows ... .

So it's two-and-a-half-rings then the short pause that tells you that you're receiving a recorded message. "Hello, this is Senator Hillary Clinton," or, "Hello, this is Bill Clinton", or, "Al Gore here," ad infinitum. And I hang up unceremoniously in the middle of their message. And so it goes, hour after hour. It's diabolical! I'm becoming rude to the live local voices that are calling in support of various ballot initiatives or candidates for school boards or council seats and it troubles me. I know these are often young people doing their all for change and all I'm being asked to lend is my patience. So now I must add guilt to my confusion and frustration.

I've sent every penny that I can possibly afford -- mostly online to MoveOn.Org and People For the American Way and the ACLU and individual candidates across the country who are being supported by the national Democratic Party led by Howard Dean. I fully approve of the way he is restructuring the party. My pockets are hanging inside out now, and I'm beginning to feel helpless against the tide that I'm praying will bring a Democratic tsunami on Tuesday. But I'm all used up, guys. No more calls, please. I've never given so much to so many, not over all the years. I'm guessing that this is true for others who can ill afford it but who sense the dangers of doing or giving any less. We cannot afford to take chances with the future of the nation. The lives of the world may be at stake. Hyperbole? No. I don't think so, as wildly crazy as that may seem.

Everyone I know is involved in this election. The stakes have never been higher. It's difficult to think past next Tuesday ... .

But I'm off to a celebration this afternoon for Richmond's African American pioneers -- a birthday party for Mrs. Ermastine Martin, a fascinating woman I've come to know only through her oral history. She was one of the 75 interviews conducted by the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

Maybe I can influence a few votes ... .

Photo: Plaque at the foot of the Monument to the Little Rock Nine. It's a quote by Elizabeth Eckford, one of the students who dared. (Click to enlarge.) There is a quote from each of the students.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My very first visit to a presidential library ...

I really should have scanned one of the great photographs we picked up at the gift shop. They show this amazing cantilevered building that appears to hang over the Arkansas river as if suspended in air at one end. It is an architectural wonder. But my scanner is acting up and I'm not savvy enough to deal with it. The top floor is the apartment where the Clinton's are housed when they occasionally return to Little Rock, and where (according to our guide) actors Ted Danson and Arkansan and Clinton close friend, Mary Steenburgen, his wife -- were guests only the week before our visit.

But I've not yet mentioned our National Women's History Project workshop. It was held in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Arkansas, a beautiful campus composed largely of red brick ivy-covered buildings in a forest setting. Trees are everywhere in Little Rock, and one is instantly aware of mature landscaping -- so unlike much of San Francisco Bay Area (too-fast-growing) where -- except for our spectacular ancient forests -- urban trees are still young and often threatened by fast-changing physical environments. I saw far fewer of the "lumpy" industrial parks that are so common in the Bay Area, and far more neighborhoods where huge tree canopies met in the center of the streets, providing cover against the summer heat, of course. The spaciousness of lots, the old southern home designs with sweeping front porches and expanses of lawns gave one the sense of safety and peace. And -- oddly enough -- there is an almost total absence of fences. (Why do I hear in my mind's ear my grandmother saying, "... call your daddy to supper, he's out there on the gallery." Would that be the word in New Orleans?)

Grassy lawns flowed each into the next without interruption. I have a pet theory that we lost something invaluable when the tract designers began to eliminate those verandas and front porches. Losing them turned community life inward and no longer placed families out there facing one another on hot and humid southern evenings. There was little need for community policing when every home on the block had a grandmother or grandfather swaying on a hammock or chatting over a glass of lemonade on every front porch. With entire families gathered around a table radio or board games in full view of their friends and neighbors, interdependence was assumed and embraced.

I thought about that again since arriving home and noticing again the construction styles we've come to see as "friendly". No young woman could ever hide a black eye or bandaged arm for long, nor could children get more than a few houses toward home in tears without someone interceding. We elders still remember those days, and click our tongues against our dentures as we watch today's developers building what the trades call "defensible spaces," (what a concept!) while they omit the most vital parts that support collective life - the forward-looking, community-friendly front porch.

But that's not telling you about our workshop where Lucy and I presented to a group of women from many parts of the country -- our material on our park and its brief history and the events that created it. We showed our short videotapes; made a few comments then took questions from the floor. We hadn't really prepared much since we were both filled with facts and feelings held so near the surface from the sheer force of the excitement we live in every day that we're spending learning about and sifting through -- with a community -- what is now one of the nation's newest urban national parks.

I think that our enthusiasm for our subject must have captured our audience since the questions were relevant and it felt as if we'd only started when 90 minutes ended with our audience taking time to linger a bit before leaving. We met some interesting women that I'd love to have had more contact with -- but we had only two days (and a few hours) and our visit to Little Rock Central High and the visit to the picturesque riverfront open markets and the Clinton Library plus the Central High 9 student memorial were still ahead of us. Besides, we'd arrived at night on Thursday -- checked into our rooms at the Hilton -- spent all of Friday at the university -- and seen little of the state capitol until Saturday. We would leave for home on the 4:30 flight.

It just means that we'll have to find some reason to return, right?

Now ... if I can just find some legimate reason to visit Atlanta ... another dream yet to be realized before dementia sets in.

I keep wondering when ... .?

Photo: Remember to click on this thumbnail for the enlargement.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

It has been an unusually busy week in an uncommonly busy life -- but I still seem to thrive on the intensity of it all ... .

On Thursday evening my (mentally retarded) daughter, Dorian, and I got together to attend the bi-monthly artist's reception at NIAD (National Institute for Artists with Disabilities). She had several pieces on exhibit and was anxious for me to see her new works.

Since she's moved into her own apartment across town, I've tried to keep some distance between us while she adjusts. I must admit, though, that she's been far more successful than I at the adjusting. It has always been important for us that I allow most contacts between us to originate with her. That way she doesn't have the feeling that I'm constantly worrying or checking up on her; that I don't trust her to handle her freedom or make the right choices in this world of risk and hazards. And, of course, she often takes risks and makes wrong choice -- as do the rest of us. I only call her at those times when I'm unable to keep my concerns in check. I suspect that much of my busyness comes from my need to remain distracted for her sake. Were it not for my work and all-consuming activism, her welfare might be at constant risk of my ill-placed motherly interference. We've struck a good balance, I think. Were I to die tomorrow, she would not be destroyed by the loss. Meanwhile, our cellphones serve as a new high tech umbilical cord -- and I'm grateful for their place in our lives.

The women's blouse above has been an important piece that she's devoted several months to. It is brilliantly beaded with her signature whimsical images of cats and kittens, and has been sold for $250, a real affirmation of her status as an artist. She has sold a number of pieces this year with half the sale price going to NIAD and half into her bank account. She is confident, productive, enthusiastic about her way of life, with a solid anchor in the "Outsider Arts" community. For that I am eternally grateful to the enlightened and unbelievably-patient NIAD staff of artists and teachers.

The same evening, a bit later, I attended another of the historian Donna Graves-created "Memories of Macdonald" activities. This time it was a "Talking About Macdonald" evening at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.

This was, oddly enough, a companion-piece to our experience at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock last week. Teens from the EBCPA presented an evening of their video work that grew out of oral histories they'd collected from the small merchants and other elders along long-deserted Macdonald Avenue -- when it was the main street of Richmond. They were wonderful, and were followed by 6 of the Center's drama students who had taken audiotapes of those interviews and created monologues which they performed to a delighted audience. They were marvelous!

Now -- over a single week's period -- I've experienced those five Little Rock Central High kids from their Memories project, and now the local version. I'm more determined than ever that we bring those powerful young forces together sometime this spring. I'm finding resonance to that idea among our staff. The idea originated with my travel companion and colleague, Lucy Lawliss, and has now bloomed into a real possibility.

Then, yesterday, another of our great bus tours of multiple park sites in the process of restoration or at least recognition -- happened -- this time for foundation representatives who might be interested in helping in the co-creation of Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park, along with the city of Richmond, the Rosie Trust, the Redevelopment Agency, and the National Park Service. It was another smashing success with the vision now radiating out into the larger community through work that I'm feeling more and more an essential part of. The shared excitement grows with each day, and the city is becoming deeply engaged in the learning and sharing of its history. That was made apparent at the EBCPA where a full house of nostalgic elders and fascinated youngsters traded stories on Thursday evening. It again surfaced yesterday when I watched potential funders drop their cynicism and really begin to see the potential for a new image for a city so long scarred by destructive times that were never faced up to or reconciled.

Photos: The top photo Dorian describes as "My Angry Painting," (about 4'x5') was done in oils over the past months since she's been on her own. I've no idea what inspired it, but the fact that she can express those feelings and recognize their genesis is great, I think. The second is described in the paragraphs above. (Double-click on it for a clearer look at the detail.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Not sure why I was so struck by this sign in the Central High School cafeteria ... .

but I found myself wondering how those prices would compare with those in our West County school district?

Central High (in comparison) appears so well maintained, so proud, so beautiful architecturally that it's hard not to assume that it is also the wealthy school home of well-to-do children. Not so. Its student body is 50% black, we were told, and by the looks of this list of prices -- just kids of ordinary means. By contrast, the highschools in our district resemble windowless prisons, with iron gates and security guards and metal detectors and surveillance cameras (in some cases), and the ambiance always of guardedness at all times. None of those things were visible at Central. The contrasts are stunning. I'd forgotten what schools were like in my youth, and what they're still like in the more affluent suburbs of the Bay Area.

I found myself wondering if the fact that Little Rock has found reconcilation by clearly marking the place of shame in its history and owning its past appropriately? It was wracked by horror and outrage almost fifty years ago, but (as in South Africa) faced its problems viscerally, found re-direction through strong leadership over the next decades, and moved on. That beautiful bronze monument to those children on the Capitol mall; the re-naming of streets to incorporate its newfound heroes; radical changes in unfair civic policies, all served to emancipate Little Rock from its racist past. That generation of elders created a better more accepting world for their young.

Maybe the lesson for us was that I now see a clear reason for the creation of that monument to the African American homefront worker in troubled battlescarred Fourth Street Park in the crime-infested Iron Triangle in Richmond. It would be the place marker and could allow for the belated facing-up-to and reconciliation that has never occurred here in the place where the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties may have been born. Maybe that's what is needed.

We, as a nation, have never really come to terms with slavery and its centuries-old scars that have now claimed yet another generation that's doomed to continuing hopelessness and degradation. This may be what Little Rock discovered in that place in 1957 when it "touched bottom" on the site of Central High leaving nowhere to go but up. Maybe the violent street deaths we're experiencing in this city -- currently rated the most dangerous in the state by far -- is that bottom place for us. Maybe we can find a way to rekindle the hopes and dreams of the grandparents who settled here during World War II who might then transmit some of that to the young.

Maybe we can do that together as the kids at Central High are doing through their Memories Project online -- by bringing that panel of high school students from Little Rock to show our youngsters how that's done. I'm sensing some interest among members of our staff to do just that.

I believe that we've already begun that process through Donna Graves (historian) and her "Memories of Macdonald" project that is bringing some of that to the surface even as we speak. That work is being done under the auspices of the city's redevelopment agency, the Richmond Museum, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, and the Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park.

It's a beginning. Maybe even the beginning.

We'll see.

Photos: Sign posted in Central High's cafeteria. The photo to the right is of the reflecting pool at the entrance of the school. It was recently restored to its original beauty by the National Park Service. There is a fountain at the lower center that will be restored soon.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Forty-nine years later ...

I wasn't prepared for finding these larger than life-sized bronze statues honoring the 9 courageous black students who -- in 1957 -- braved the forces of segregation, the Governor of Arkansas and his State Guard, and dared to enroll in Little Rock's Central High School as the first black students to try. The figures stand tall on a mound beside one of the state buildings at the Capitol. Below these figures are plaques with words of wisdom by each.

Experiencing the sight of this wondrous tribute less than 24 hours after being in the audience at Arkansas University (the site of the National Women's History Project Conference), where five young students combined to present a description of their memory project. Two of the five were African American girls, one was young girl who was born in Zimbabwe but raised in the US, and the remaining two were teenage white boys. Together they are creating and maintaining a website devoted to the memory of the events of 1957 that resulted in the closing of the schools in Little Rock for two years. (I hadn't known about that.)

Their website is known as the Little Rock Central High Memory Project. I'll look up the website and list it here when there is time to do so.

The sensitivity with which these young people explored their subject with us was emotional for us all. They had each interviewed their parents and grandparents about those events as well as neighbors and friends. Fifty years later and through great social turmoil, minds and behaviors have softened and changed dramatically. One of the white youngsters spoke of his mother sharing with him the fact that while still in school she had had an deep friendship with an African American male classmate. She had yielded to the pressure of the southern context in which they lived and they'd parted at some point in the relationship. She married his father and life went on. It was a dramatic revelation for a mother to make to her son, but was indicative of the kinds of revelations that have come from the memory project.

I thought about those kids we'd heard the day before as Lucy and I visited the monument. I thought about Minniejean Tricky who also made a presentation and who was one of the 1957 enrollees who had suffered the awfulness and who had been eventually expelled for spilling a bowl of chili on one of her tormentors in the cafeteria. Minniejean is now a grandmother, with a movie of her life now available on DVD. Her beautiful daughter, Spirit (ironically), is now a Park Service Ranger on the staff of the Central High National Park.

I now dream of the day when (with proper funding) we might bring that team of present-day Central High Memory Project kids to a Richmond High School or the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts to interact with our kids who have such difficult challenges to cope with. So many are ill-prepared to cope with the day-to-day hopelessness of their lives here in ths troubled city. What an astounding feat that would be if it could be managed. The only problem is that where the schools in Little Rock are still integrated 50 years after these events that so drastically shaped change, those of the city in which I live have re-segregated so totally that I'm not at all sure that what the Little Rock kids would have to teach us can be heard in our school environment. I am so aware of how much regression has taken place simply because we've not owned our history nor have we invited reconciliation, together, as a community. The National Park -- while it's being co-created by the city and the NPS -- should and will become the vehicle for doing just that, hopefully.

Now I understand the fervor in the voices, and the clasped hands of those Arkansans who gathered together on the lawn of the State House on that the night that the Clintons and the Gores and their young families received word of their winning the right to lead the nation from the White House. I remember how I stood in my living room on the West Coast and cried with them as we all sang and swayed to the strains of "We Shall Overcome." We believed in these youthful leaders. Little Rock has, indeed, overcome, though a closer look might well reveal that there is still some moppin' up to do. But for the most part we should all applaud Arkansas for doing what appears (still) in much of the country -- impossible to achieve.

Now I'll see if I can pull up the website of that remarkable Central High program so that tomorrow I can begin to find ways to bring some of that home ... .

Just maybe ...

Tomorrow I'll need to drive by the Fourth Street park campout against street violence -- to see if they still exist. Then I'll try to get back into my role as community outreach worker for the National Park Service. I'll make a major attempt at incorporating the experiences of the past three days in a way that will continue to give meaning to my days and purpose to my life.

Then I'll get back to finding some way to get that Faustian bargain going that will grant me another five or so years of wholeness and sanity.
But if not ... .

So be it.

Photo: Five Central High students making a presentation of their Memories Project before the conferees of the National Women's History Project at the University of Arkansas. (Click to enlarge thumbnails.)
Never in my wildest dreams ... .

would I ever have believed that I might someday visit a historic site that I still remember so vividly -- but at a time in life when I've now lived long enough to see the end results of the sacrifices made by the young people who lived it.

The experience at Little Rock held so many surprises that I'm not sure that I can find the words to describe it. But I owe it to those brave young souls to try.

Central High School will celebrate the 50th anniversay of the transforming events next fall. Since that time the site has become a part of the National Park System with a reception center under construction across the street, and full staffing already in operation.

While this magnificent structure continues to be a fulltime racially integrated high school (9th through 12th), it also is serving as a national park with ongoing tours ("...though we're careful to not interfere with those times when the bell rings and kids are moving from class to class ..."). The students and faculty know that they are playing a continuing educational role in the nation's history, and it shows. The buildings are meticulously maintained with gleaming tile floors, and everything "company ready" at all times. But mostly the curriculum continues to reflect the lessons of the times when Governor Faubus defied presidential orders to desegregate. Oh that we in the west had come to terms with the changing world as well. Any illusion that the west was ahead in this struggle disappeared somewhere on that walk through the halls of Central High.

Signs of the progress made under a very young 3-term Governor Bill Clinton are everywhere in Little Rock. A visit to the Presidential Library on Saturday dispelled any leftover feelings of resistance to the Clinton legacy and -- in its place -- came a strong feeling that I would do almost anything to extend the influence of that young couple, warts and all!

There is a replica of the oval office on the second floor of the Clinton Library with the huge round conference table (made by the manufacturers of the original in the White House), with each impressive high-backed chair bearing a bronze plaque on the back of which is the name and position of the cabinet member. In the spirit of exorcising long distance -- I sat for at least ten minutes in the chair to the immediate right of the president's chair that was marked, "Secretary of State." Laughed to myself as I imagined Condoleeza Rice in it and imagined myself cradling a voodoo doll to stick pins into -- out of sight under the table -- from that very chair! To my left sat an African American woman tourist seated in the chair from which Bill Clinton would have held forth. That looked okay to me -- perhaps not so strange at some future time. She looked perfectly comfortable in her assumed role of head of state; and didn't need a doll to prick. We all listened together from our seats of power as the guide described the room and its functions.

There's is so much to tell about this brief two-day trip, but let it suffice to say that in that busy presidential library, at least 50% of those silently reading words in the exhibits and listening intently to the interactive displays were people of color. Being surrounded throughout the city of Little Rock were the signs of just how deeply those young Clintons effected the times of their reign in the governor's mansion.

I came back shorn of all resistance to the possibility of Hillary running for the presidency, and of a Bill Clinton as First Husband. I'll work out the details with myself as we approach 2008, but I think you can enter my name in the supporter column. All of the hope I'd felt when Clinton and Gore stood on the steps of the governor's mansion in Little Rock when they won the presidency and vice-presidency returned in a rush when I saw blow-ups photos of that event. I recalled the feelings of exultation that flooded the country, and of how revived were our feelings that the torch had been passed to another generation; that of the Vietnam tragedy, and of all of the lessons learned by so many.

I realized how much I missed them and the hope they brought to us all.

I brought back a little card from the library store that says, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." The statement is from his inaugural address.

The library was a reminder of how impoverished we've become as a nation -- in terms of articulate and memorable presidential utterances.

How have we come to this?

Came home late last night and woke to the rantings of the Sunday morning pundits. Among them was a replay of Senator Barack Obama's interview in which he admitted to having presidential aspirations for the 2008 elections. Wondered as I listened if this isn't a brilliant stroke of Democratic strategizing (from the Progressive wing), to move Hillary to the Left? Obama is young and smart with a strong sense of balance in his political career. He expresses a rare humility. He is truly an amazing leader who someday (2012?) will surely be in serious contention for the top of the ticket. After much thought, I think that I'm about as ready as he probably is to see a woman head the ticket in 2008, and to allow the sharp Clinton team to re-enter the presidency in order to unify the party and the country -- while he prepares himself with more experience to continue the legacy of democracy as it aspires to be. I'm not sure I want to see anyone I care about to be placed in the position of having to right what is now so terribly wrong with our nation and the world at this point. Obama is surely aware of the advantages of having the Clinton's precede him in office, and another six year term in the Senate would provide the experience he'll need to succeed in office.

Yes, I firmly believe that someone is using the spectre of introducing a legitimate competitor for the nomination from the Left to draw Hillary Clinton away from the Right of Center positions she's being lured to embrace in the quest for the presidency. If you'll recall, it was Bill's move to the Right (called Centrist) that insured his second term to the dismay of the Republicans and to those of us who formed his base. It was this that so disappointed us. The debate will be enriched by Obama's being out there as a threat to Hillary's ascendancy to the top. It almost worked for the Republicans as they at one time seriously considered the candidacy of Colin Powell. That would have come from the Left Wing of the Republican Party -- and they were defeated. Watching this unfold over the next two years will be fascinating, right? But at that time the nation toyed with the notion of a man of color as world leader -- and accepted the possibility. We'll be ready for consideration of Senator Obama, I believe, with fewer reservations.

I believe that it will take the strengths of a Hillary Clinton and the boldness and audacity of a First Husband working in concert with her to wrest us from the mountain of international and domestic problems we've suffered over the past few years. Through their combined efforts (we had them both during his terms of office), we may begin to regain the international esteem that has been lost, and just possibly, the self-respect we've begun to question at home.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

We take the show on the road ... .

Lucy, Cultural Resources Manager for four national parks in the East Bay Area; and I, Betty, Outreach Specialist for Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park (phew!), are honored to have been invited to conduct a workshop at the annual conference of the National Women's History Project -- this year to be held in Little Rock, Arkansas, the weekend of 19th, 20th, and 21st of October. We will have 90 minutes to meet with and inform women from across the nation about our work.

It was last year at a similar event held at Mills College in Oakland, that I was first exposed to this incredible organization and -- as the result -- was named one of the ten honorees, nationally, for the year 2006. At that time I appeared on a panel of six remarkable women from different disciplines and areas of achievement -- but purely as a replacement presenter because there was no one else from our park who was free to represent us. I'm sure that this is the reason that -- though hugely honored by the recognition and the trips to Southern California and Washington, D.C., that followed -- I've never felt quite firmly set in my own shoes, and just barely deserving. Silly, I know, but nonetheless a bit insecure. This year it will be different. I am firmly identified with my work, and certainly confident in my ability to inform others about it.

However, all that is to say that -- while there -- Lucy and I have been invited to visit Central High and to meet the staff there. One of the presenters at this year's conference was also one of the students who courageously dared to enroll during those tortuous years of social change in the Sixties. What an honor to meet this valiant veteran of this pivotal struggle in the quest for civil rights!

I know that Dr. Joycelyn Elders lives somewhere in Arkansas (Little Rock, maybe?) and wouldn't it be beyond my wildest dreams if she were also at the conference? I so admire her candor and her irreverence, and would love to meet her.

As a little girl, she lived in North Richmond and attended local schools. It's been a silent dream that at some point we can invite her here to meet with the children at Peres Elementary in that troubled part of the city -- to inspire them with her presence. Maybe we could install a portrait somewhere in the building and have her cut the ribbon or whatever it is that one does to hang a portrait (undrape?). But even more importantly, she lived for a brief period with the family of Charlie Reid (yes, an uncle by marriage) and one of her close friends was/is Charlie's daughter, Ivy, a relative and good friend and contemporary. I'd love to deliver Ivy's best wishes while I genuflect before this icon of our times, to assure her that we've not forgotten.

Just maybe .. .

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Yesterday brought another wildly successful Leadership Tour ...

and I'm no longer feeling at a loss to understand why it happens the way it does. Much of the success can be credited to really good planning, but there's one piece that I'm not certain how to replicate. At some point I'm going to run out of "150 of Betty's closest personal friends." Almost everyone on these tours have been people with whom I've had some relatively close connection at some time in the past, either through my work or through my years as a faculty wife at the university; from across the counter in Reid's Records in South Berkeley; from the almost 20 child-rearing years in suburbia; or through political connections over many years and in many places. I suppose it would be possible for a younger less socially active careerist to duplicate this feat, but it won't be easy. I've now lived so long that there are times when I feel as if I've now met everyone within a 50 mile radius. The entire population of my state is beginning to look vaguely familiar, and I'm only half-joking.

While feeling particularly successful this morning (yesterday was my 85th birthday), and extravagantly rewarded for the past several weeks of planning, I'm nonetheless already concerned about the question of legacy. It's surely possible for the work to continue without me. It must. I worry, though, that I've not been able to adequately articulate just how one would go about recreating the formula that's proven so exciting.

I surely won't live to see it, but I can and do envision the path that this national park will take in its future development. I worry that those around me -- from a community so scarred by its poor image -- won't think large enough -- and will lose this chance to take its place on the world stage as a major player as a destination.

I think that one can make a good argument that it may not have been Betty Freidan and her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, that emancipated women from the shackles of patriarchy, but Henry J. Kaiser and the homefront World War II demands of 1941 that set in motion the irresistable force that released us into a new future in partnership with our husbands and fathers for the first time in recorded history. A strong argument can be made that the Civil Rights Movement wasn't born in Freedom Summer of 1964, but on July 17, 1944 when the tragic explosion at Port Chicago that lost 320 navy men, 202 of who were African American and the resulting refusal to load those floating arsenals and the subsequent mutiny trials that served as the catalyst to change. The important role the Bay Area and this city played also might provide some reflected glory if it were recognized that it may well have been from the modest 20-room (blacks only) International Hotel on South Street just off Carlson Boulevard that the eloquent C.L. Dellums along with A. Phillip Randolph and their unionizing of the Sleeping Car Porters reached the White House and shook Washington -- and created waves still felt in labor circles. Or that in the next generation after the great war, the children of those displaced and abandoned wartime workers gave birth to the Black Panthers, the more militant change agent that reshaped the way black youth saw themselves and the world; a movement that swept across the nation from the shanty-town of North Richmond -- and gave birth to a new national black pride. And that -- from those same years a little girl, the daughter of homefront workers from Arkansas, attended local schools in North Richmond, and years later rose to become the Surgeon General of the United States under President William Clinton -- sassy, irreverent, brilliant, Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

On the guided tour yesterday I found myself wondering just how that complex set of multiple stories can ever be captured and shared in any meaningful way without trivializing them? How is it possible to communicate just how powerful are the forces that were brought together here in this modest working-class town? How on earth can we get folks to see the importance of exposing the wounds suffered mid-20th Century as an essential element in the healing process? And, how can anyone ever be convinced that the answer is not to be found in denial of our differences, but in strengthening those places where each of our cultures is unique so that we add to the whole and don't find ourselves continually defined through racial and cultural integration as a kind of generic-never-quite-the-real-thing Americans?

Perhaps one day we'll see an entire fleet of brightly-painted small buses carrying tourists through a series of culturally-specific tours -- each dedicated to the telling of a part of our complex and exciting national story. The Japanese, African American, Italian, German, Women, etc., stories can be told through visiting the many sites that hold those memories still. The industrial triumphs of Henry J. Kaiser are well known and surely must continue to be explored as the backdrop to all that followed -- but as the story of the winning of the war. The story of the ensuing two decades of social upheavel and continuing progress set in motion by World War II -- may be equally important to the story of the winning of the peace, something that continues to be illusive in the world. The secret that led to Richmond's ultimate survival and celebrated diversity may be hidden somewhere in this city. It may not yet be well-understood, but I believe that most of the community is aware that -- over the decades -- we've begun to re-write the rule book, and that our strengths lie in cultural and racial diversity and mutual respect, and that integration is now defined in new ways not dependent upon the giving up of our differences - but the sharing and celebrating of those variations with pride and dignity.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Another inconvenient truth ... .

Over the past few weeks I've been struggling to find an answer to a question that continues to plague those good souls who are wanting to learn just why it is that so few people of color visit the national parks that are urban, pastoral, relatively affordable, astoundingly beautiful, and all places of wonder. The percentage of those of us who are missing from the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the national forests, the hallowed battlefields of the Civil War, etc., in comparison to our white friends and neighbors is thought-provoking and -- until yesterday -- defied reason.

It was a week or so ago when a co-worker came to my cubicle to announce that the city manager's secretary sent word that she wouldn't be able to participate in next week's bus tour after all. The mayor was with us on the last outing and this time our city manager and two of the mayor's aides were to be among the 28 "tourists."

The manager and his staff were scheduled to be with us last month -- plus a member of the staff of the city clerk -- and all had to cancel at the last minute due to an extra-heavy work load associated with the following Tuesday being the day of the last council meeting before a month-long hiatus.

Elizabeth stood at my elbow with Sue's message and followed it with, "...I told Sue that if they have a group in their office who'd like to take the tour at a later time, I'd be happy to take them." I felt my face fall and my blood pressure rise-- and I hoped she hadn't noticed. "No!" These were my tours. I planned, choreographed, and cast them with great care. I spent weeks pulling each one together after carefully going over names and profiles on each from a list of guests who had mostly self-referred into my process. Long before each tour the bus has been overbooked and no recruitment needed. I couldn't tell her just why that was. I couldn't explain to her why I felt so adamant, so territorial. I realized that she couldn't possibly understand because I'd never stopped to articulate what I was doing; what were the elements that made them so powerful; and why simply piling people into a van and driving past places they're driven past their whole lives would have any meaning to anyone? And do I really know the answers to any of those questions?

I've intuitively resisted the urge to do special tours made up of any one part of the community. I'd cast each with a few city officials, artists, one or two news reporters, heads of departments and/or commissions, community activists, a few elders who'd lived this history, a couple of teens (in one instance), a few civic "agitators" with no portfolio but a great love for the city, a balance of races and cultures, commercial developers and entrepreneurs, historians, UC Berkeley interns, educators, etc. When someone once suggested that I create a tour for only the members of the city council, I refused. I'd quickly learned that the casting of the characters on these tours was the critical component in creating the magic that each tour delivered. That magic was embedded in the people on the bus. Their enthusiasm literally takes over early in the process as those with the memories would see some structure, street corner, road sign, etc., and stand up in their seats and aggressively take over the narration from Naomi with her bullhorn standing at the front of the bus -- our ranger and tour guide. Their enthusiasm is irrepressible!

When one considers that these community people in this reasonably small city (about 91,000 -- the size of a Super Bowl crowd) have been driving and walking past these same deteriorating structures for the past half-century, at least, it is small wonder that this kind of excitement can be re-awakened at all.

We purposely use a small bus (28 passenger) so that we can engage in one-on-one conversations but that can be easily turned into a single group at any point along the way. Those conversations are lively and -- in some cases -- marked by a quality of sharing of the history of the times that can be reached no other way. Each tour has been different, but similarly successful, with each generating the roster of folks from which to create the next tour.

Those animated conversations carry all of the "lost conversations and untold stories" that the history books have left out. They allow the human interest bits to rise in importance as people recall the way it all looked "back in the day," when Macdonald Avenue was a bustling main street with 9 movie houses, major department stores, a bowling alley, with "...the shipyard hiring hall over on Tenth Street, and "... where the USO stood but, "where black servicemen couldn't go," and "...the dance hall in the Winters Building that was only open for whites; and "...the Park Florist that used to belong to the Japanese families but they got taken away to internment camps;" and, "... Atchison Village was built by the Maritime Agency for whites but it sits on the agricultural fields across from the Mexican Baptist Church -- gardens created by and for the Latino community;" and "...and there's that place at the railyards where Native American workers were allowed to live in boxcars by the Santa Fe Railroad through a special arrangement because of what they'd contributed to the building of the railroad across the nation." The history rolls out as if yesterday from those who lived it and from those who carry the legacy in their genes from that heroic generation of Rosies and homefront workers that this new national park was created to honor.

There are still problems in this city, but one of them is not the fact that they haven't overcome the racist legacy of being a tiny insular company town owned by Standard Oil (now Chevron-Texaco), born in 1905 and re-created in 1941 for the purpose of defending the nation through its herculean ship-building feats. This is an American city to be proud of, if the criteria for judging is its well-distributed political power across the racial divide despite a legacy of segregation left by the war years.

These bus tours have drawn an even number of blacks and whites and is beginning to reflect others of color and ethnicity. Richmond has shown a proven ability to absorb and assimilate its newcomers as Sikhs and a large community of refugees from Southeast Asia have arrived (now 30 years ago) and as a Latino population escaping lives of poverty below the border grow in number -- much as African Americans escaped the hostile South in 1941.

Richmond is characterized by being a city of newcomers; strangers who've found their way here for a variety of reasons. The great legacy is in the fact that a city of 28,000 became a city of 101,000 almost overnight only 62 years ago. A city of strangers brought together charged with the mission to find ways to work together by whatever means necessary in order to save the world from tyranny. The sharing of the stories of how those who came before are of great value to those whose entry is more recent. The Laotians (in the person of Torm Nompraseaurt) may learn on Friday from African American (Simms Thompson) that 62 years later, against all odds, he has survived and maintained a place for himself in this city -- and from a casual conversation that might not ever have happened until now.

That's what's beginning to occur in these limited 4-hour bus tours. Doors are being opened between races and classes and long-suppressed conversations are being facilitated, finally.

This week will bring our sixth tour since they were initiated last December. Over 100 hundred local "tourists" have participated. I made an informal audit a few days ago and learned that exactly half of these city folks have been from the white community and half from black, people of all economic levels and fields of interest -- with a smattering of Latino and Asian in the mix. I'd say that was a bit of magic when we consider that they each came into the process, individually and voluntarily.

Articulating what is happening may be difficult, but there is no denial that something magical is in process and that it's coming - not from those deteriorating structures that we're driving past; not from the guides or from the little guidebooks we're providing -- but from the hearts and souls of those in the seats who are sharing in the rediscovery of our national history. I long for the day when we can slip four or five outsider tourists to quietly witness this sharing of history between Richmond's people. Now that's civic engagement. Do you suppose that anyone ever used eavesdropping as an acceptable feature? May be something to think about... .

The best we can do is to provide the environment in which the magic can happen. I've often stated that -- if the bus is too full -- I am willing to step away and rejoin the group at the end of the tour. I firmly believe that my work has been done when the list is finished and the casting complete. I trust the magic to unfold as folks retrace their steps back through time and share the journeys with one another.

Why are people of color not visiting national parks? That's easy. Forget about color. Our parks are visited largely by the middleclass. The truly wealthy own their own getaways. The truly poor have neither the means nor the education to appreciate what these great national parks could mean to their quality of life. We'll never convince the homeless of the virtue of sleeping under the stars. If this (as I suppose) is a question of economics, then our job is to move more people of color into the middleclass, right? A no brainer. Looking closely at the hiring policies of the National Park Service might be a good place to start. I'd want to work toward the day when the percentage of non-whites visiting our parks is equalled by their numbers in the work force. Ironically, that may be the truth of the percentages seen today, but in the wrong direction. The NPS's hiring procedures is what determines those numbers. This is where the middleclass has its beginnings.

... the other "inconvenient truth."

What a strange mindset ...

There are periods in these declining years when I have flashes of insight that are so blinding that I'm not sure whether I'm truly seeing behind the obvious or simply fooling myself. It's not as though I feel that I'm simply smarter than those around me; or that age plus experience has brushed away the doubts that shadowed my youth because of a lack of a formal education; but instead I find myself wondering why others can't see what it is that is so obvious to me? Is this something that comes with aging; a given? A gift? Foolishness born of advancing senility?

It comes in different forms and probably is a function of that growing sense of urgency that's creeping into prominence a bit more with each day. Sometime I find myself grinning to no one in particular on the drive home from work -- recalling some crazy incident that happened during the day -- and wondering why humor now has moved to the forefront in my arsenal of defenses. Maybe that's true for us all, and why Keith Olbermann's style of delivering the awfulness of each day's news works so well for me. I must be home by five o'clock each day to watch that critical first half-hour; the items that precede "Now let's play oddball!", and rarely if ever any longer watch the local news. The local body count no longer interests me. It's only then that I'm able to turn to CSPAN to get the raw material that forms the basis for Olbermann's pieces. Olbermann creates a protective layer that enables me to allow the daily ugly truths into my awareness with a feeling that I can handle it now. His commentaries are worthy of Edward R. Murrow's best efforts -- and his ability to probe the minds of his well-chosen guests invariably meet my own points of curiosity and deepen my understanding of the issues. But it is his sense of irony -- his light touch -- that allows me to absorb his meaning and messages and find ways to act on new information that in the hands of someone less deft would leave me paralyzed with numbing fear.

But I'm rambling ... and not expanding on that first paragraph ... but it's where my mind went and I can think of no way to connect these thoughts at the moment.

More later.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A busy week with little time for writing or even reflection ...

First for some corrections: My colleague, Lucy, is married to a biologist who (after hearing about our tree) took himself to the center of town for a look. He was able to determine that the tree was an exotic; a Cedar of Lebanon. It stands high above all other trees in the plaza and he judges it to be perhaps a century old.

Another colleague, Michele, who is the city's Arts Manager, upon hearing about our find drove to the mall to see for herself what the excitement was about and in so doing, met two older African American men with whom she spent some time chatting. She learned that, indeed, they had been visiting this tree since boyhood (they're now quite aged), and were decrying the fact that the benches had been removed only last October by the police department. "We have to stand up now, so we can't spend much time here anymore... ." How sad!

She also noted that they referred to the Cedar as "The Tree of Knowledge." I'd somehow transformed it to "The Wisdom Tree" in my memory and we need to now change back to the name these men used. I ran into Jerrold at the Point Richmond Street Festival yesterday and he confirmed this. This continues to speak to a long and honored tradition and surely for the need to restore this giant to its former status as one of the important anchors and protectors of the old downtown.

As the city staffer in charge of Arts and Culture (which includes the Arts Commission, the Advisory Committee for Public Art, and all things related), Michele immediately saw the need for removal of the signs of prohibition, the possibility of restoring seating, large story photographs of the area before "progress" intervened; a mural on one of the walls, and the need to talk with the police department right away to see how much of this is feasible. It was her feeling that the police chief who is newly-appointed, will see the light.

Meanwhile, I visited with the executive director of the Main Street Initiative (the nonprofit working with others to rehabilitate the city's central core), to tell her about what we've found, and to let her know how grateful we are for the fact that her organization and the Richmond Police Department had cleaned up this alleged "hot spot" and that -- now that several months had passed since their actions took place -- the city and the park can now reclaim the site and redirect its use. I'm hopeful that no one will feel uncomfortable or criticized for trying to make this troubled area safe for the patrons of the shopping mall. She showed no signs of annoyance and promises to share our wondrous find with her board at their next meeting.

There is talk about the possibility of trying to interest some local writer of children's books to create one about our Tree of Knowledge. Someone has suggested that it might be wonderful to have each of the many schools in the school district plant a Tree of Knowledge on their own sites -- perhaps on Arbor Day.

Our Cedar embodies so much that is relevant to the reclaiming of history. There are surely environmental issues; its name carries biblical references (important to the black community); and, "Lebanon" hints at today's headlines. There's something very timely in all this, wouldn't you say?

Wish I had another ten years to spend at this. The City of Richmond and the National Park Service will be co-creating this park over time. There are many such discoveries waiting to be revealed -- "The Untold Stories and Lost Conversations" -- if only we continue to sharpen our listening skills and carefully monitor these old/new paths that have been ignored for the past century.

The next phase will be that of engaging the community, industries, corporations, neighborhood councils, etc., in discussions about what it means to be a Gateway City for a National Park. Can you imagine how exciting this can be?

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Wisdom Tree -- the sad tale of a forgotten legacy ...

When first assigned to West Contra Costa County as Dion Aroner's aide, I learned about the Wisdom Tree during one of those rubber chicken suppers. The tall bronze former boxer sitting at my elbow was a man who'd lived his entire life in Richmond and was now a successful corporate executive with an embracing warmth. Jerrold Hatchett was sharing a story that held true importance to him. This was in no way an idle conversation -- and it stayed with me through recent years. Today it rose to the surface in a new context.

"Have you seen the Wisdom Tree over near FoodsCo," he asked? The place he was describing was the busy strip mall that serves the Iron Triangle -- with
the usual complement of stores found in low-income shopping areas (Walgreens, FoodsCo, Hamburger King, a few small independent stores, the Goodwill clothing store, and one specializing in oversized menswear of today; a doughnut cafe, manicure/pedicure shop operated by a Vietnamese couple, etc.). Though familiar with the shopping mall, I couldn't recall seeing the tree. I could see many trees there-- in my mind's eye.

He went on, "...for many years this has been the meeting place for men in this area. Oddly enough, in the morning, Latino men are gathered there and in the afternoons, African American men come to share their stories and boasts." I recall that we laughed when I suggested that it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the morning crowd weren't seen as socializing -- and the afternoon group as loitering. Not far from the truth, I think. Abou
t two weeks ago, at the "Memories of Macdonald" event at the Richmond History Museum, a woman from Atchison Village (located at the end of Macdonald Avenue) had mentioned the Wisdom Tree to those taking oral histories. Here was confirmation to Jerrold's dinner tale.

Earlier in the week, as preparation for adding walking tours of the historic district to our plans for fall -- Naomi (park ranger), Donna (historian), and I met in front of the Winters Building in the heart of the Iron Triangle; map in hand designating the structures in the area that would be noted on our upcoming tours. This would be our run-through of the path we might follow. Today we would rely upon Donna (who'd done extensive work on the downtown mapping of historic sites) to inform us.

We spent the next hour walking and learning (St. Mark's Church, the lovely and well-maintained school district administration building, past all of the redevelopment agency-owned abandoned commercial buildings; the post-war post office, the no-longer standing Elks Club, the union hiring halls for the shipyards, and the old hotel on the corner of Harbor Way and Nevin; it was fascinating as we moved back in time in this city whose soul I've had such a difficult time finding.

When we reached Bis
sell Street we found ourselves across the street from a fairly recently-built housing development, "Memorial Gardens," I believe. The site had once served as the site of the Veterans Memorial (no longer standing). The small neatly-kept homes were on the backside of the strip mall from which they were separated by an attractive ornamental iron gate. Behind the gate stood -- it must be -- the towering and majestic cypress known as the Wisdom Tree. We would make our return trip on Macdonald Avenue and visit this great monument close up before leaving the area. It would be interesting to see who was gathered there today. The great tree dominated my thoughts -- and as we made our way to the front of the mall it was impossible not to recognize it. It stood taller and darker than the rest against the intense blue of the late-morning sky.

We crossed the busy parking lot to where it stood all alone except for two large trash dumpsters standing against
the wall nearby. Despite the fact that the mall was filled with shoppers, not a soul was standing in her shadow. None of the life that I'd expected to find was here. The really lovely backdrop that framed her was that ornamental tall iron gate, and the ground surface was red brick and welcoming. Flanked on each side were small businesses; one was the coffee and doughnut shop that begged for sidewalk tables with folks hunched over board games and conversations under those lofty branches -- but there were none.

As we approached the reason became clear. There were several very prominent black and white print signs emphatically stating, "NO LOITERING, NO DRINKING, NO BEGGING; SUBJECT TO FINE!" and signed by the Richmond Police Department.

This beautiful tree must have a plaque to mark its significance in this community, I thought, and immediately my mind began to nibble at just how that might be done. Could it be reclaimed from the degradation and abandonment? Surely -- from its age and beginnings, this tree had been witness to stories shared by veterans of the first world war and beyond. This marked the place of our sons and fathers, quite literally.

We stopped in at the Main Street Initiative offices nearby. This organization is charged with the economic revitalization of the old downtown. I learned from an agitated executive director that there had been drug dealing and fights and ... and... and... and it was quite clear that there was another story here and that it wasn't a pretty one. But, after I drove away I wondered if she was even aware of the tree's history as a part of the lore of downtown, the memorial garden, or what it has meant to generations of men who claimed it as their outdoor living room? I'd forgotten to ask. Did today's police department know what they'd done?

Yesterday the story took on even more significance. Lucy and I had lunch with the head of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, a woman who grew up and attended school within a few blocks of that tree. She's never heard of the Wisdom Tree, but after a few minutes of chatting she remembered that -- when the strip mall and the housing development behind it were planned, the previous owner of the site had insisted upon an agreement that everything else could be cleared, but that a single tree must be left standing. Yes. It had to be the Wisdom Tree. This completed the story. There were now three independent confirmations. This giant must be reclaimed. The children must know about it. A plaque suitable to its stature and place in this community must be installed. The park can do that, I think.

I found myself wondering where the older men gather to tell their stories and make their boasts these days ... and, were the younger men and boys given an alternative to this magical place, or were they simply dispersed as undesirables who tarnish the image of the neighborhood simply by being visible while being non-white and idle?

Will it be possible to reclaim this living history? I'm wondering how many generations of men claimed this space before it came to its slow inglorious end as a community resource? When did we begin to be ruled by fear? We learned from the executive director of Main Street that people were afraid to pass that spot now. Why? Could those fears be groundless because the lore was lost and -- because even those who gathered there no longer remembered why? Would they not insist upon their right to congregate if they knew that they are acting in an honorable tradition? Is this then, a lesson in the importance of knowing our history?

...and just how does one reclaim this significant symbol of social history and help to give the city back its soul?

There's a metaphor here, but I can't find it yet ... .

Do you suppose it's related to the rights we've started to relinquish to those who would control us -- in exchange for their protection against known and unknown dangers? Is this what that looks like, on a local level? Are we giving up those things that give life meaning, needlessly? Could some ceremonial recognition of the Wisdom Tree and its story allow us to look at that possibility and reconsider? Is this an example of the Ashcroft/Cheney syndrome, maybe?

Perhaps that's it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

On the private creation of reality ... .

I attended the monthly dinner meeting of the Richmond Downtown Task Force last night. Several things caught my attention that seemed so crystal clear that I cannot imagine that others hadn't picked it up. Though there are times when I truly believe that -- if one can reach these advanced years with an intact mind added to a wealth of experience, piled on top of the growing sense of urgency -- clarity of thought is a given. My agile mind cuts through the garbage like a knife through butter, leaving only the purist of impressions. Last night was such a time. (This balances off the times when I stand in the middle of an aisle in the supermarket wondering what in hell I came here for ... .)

As you've undoubtedly read over time, Richmond is reputed to be the most dangerous city in the state with a crime rate that rivals cities twice its size. But is that really true? Gun deaths from suspected gang warfare is surely a factor, but it appears to me that ordinary crime stats compare pretty closely to those of other comparable municipalities.

Gathered together for this meeting were nonprofits, corporations, merchants, agencies, that are located in the crumbling historic downtown area known as the Iron Triangle, an area deemed a "hot spot" by the press and the police department. This was reaffirmed by a recent summit meeting hosted by Senator Don Perata that involved the mayors of Oakland and Richmond to seek ways to address the problems -- and, on the eve of an election campaign in which both mayors are running for office, of course.

Last night I noticed that the first presenter was a representative from the Richmond police department who gave a comprehensive report on reported criminal activity over the preceding month plus the year-to-date. He circulated sheets of statistics that gave breakdowns of types of crimes reported, whether or not there were arrests (prostitution, robberies, aggravated assaults, vagrancy, etc.). After he completed his report other agencies and organizations stepped up to update their activities -- related to economic development and/or new projects in the making.

After an hour or two the meeting's last presenter stepped up to give an update on a program being conducted at San Quentin prison involving men who will be returning to the city after completing their sentences -- and ways in which they are promising to work with the city to try to curb street violence by walking the hot spots in the effort to turn youth away from a life of crime. The program is being funded by the city and involves a number of members of the clergy as well as local police and probation officers.

There it was. The meeting started and ended with the group focussed on criminal activity. To the extent that we create our reality by giving prominence to particular aspects of our lives -- this city is constantly reinforcing the worse possible self-portrait. I could not imagine a more damaging climate in which to try to support or grow community or in which to try to bring up children.

Over a long lifetime in public service of one kind or another I've seen this phenomenon repeated, but never to this extent. Police reports normally appear in small town newspapers on the back pages as a simple presentation of data for those who wish to have it for one reason or another. In Berkeley those stats are available from the desk of the public relations officer. I'm not sure that -- for their size -- those cities experience more or less crime, but I do know that criminal activity is not what defines them.

Suppose, instead of concentrating all of creative energy on defending against it by "...adding 20 more policepersons to the department," we added ten well-trained playground and community center staff and ten school counselors to address the deeply-cut recreation and school district services? In this district one school counselor services 1500 students; an appalling situation. That would be my first line of defense against the kind of street violence we're facing now. Troubled kids could be identified earlier (I'm thinking middle schools) and remeditation might be possible. But since there are even fewer mental health specialists than counselors ... .

Community centers are seriously understaffed to the disadvantage of a restless and underserved generation of youngsters. With 49% of non-white children dropping out of schools by the 10th grade and no job-training possible for lack of programs of amnesty for less serious crimes -- what's happening on our streets was painfully predictable. Given the fact that 1 in 4 black and brown males are imprisoned in this state -- one might assume that these are quite possibly the "absentee" fathers who are so maligned by the rest of us for being unavailable to their children.

I also feel some reluctance to create a career path through crime as in the case of ex-offenders becoming teachers and negative role-models for kids in place of those who've succeeded within the system. Tough love sometimes creates no more than tough people so desensitized as to lack compassion and empathy for others. The efficacy of such programs has yet to be proved since most die after brief trials from lack of funding and/or fear from the communities in which they function. I think that some conferring with institutions like the Ella Baker Center in San Francisco might offer guidance that could be helpful in seeking answers to whether these programs are truly practical in addressing such problems without creating more.

In addition, I listened to an on-air discussion yesterday (speakers from the conservative Heritage Foundation) extolling the successes of welfare reforms that were enacted under the Clinton administration. They cited the huge reduction in welfare dependency, but nowhere did anyone mention how many have fallen into an underground economy fueled by the drug trade. But then how on earth would that be measured? I suspect that the percentage is significant, and that no one in that debate would have been interested in exploring just what that means in the mounting trauma of families and their children growing up in the inner cities of my state and others. Maybe that's why our fears so dominate these meetings that are so infused with crime stats.

I think that it might have been my own blindness in yesterday's meeting that caused the refusal to see their reality -- as I stubbornly managed to cling to the optimism and sense of empowerment that my work provides day after productive day.

Am I simply being naive, or, maybe just old and increasingly out of touch ... ?