Saturday, March 04, 2006

About the Act of Honoring ... .

Been thinking about the role these rites and ceremonies play in our lives. Thinking about a letter received recently from a very successful member of my community -- one who is paid thousands of dollars to advise and counsel in financial circles all over the country but who told me with obvious pain how little he feels valued at home.

I thought about any number of local young people's sports teams that have placed at the top of their field in arenas, fields, and courts across the country but were unknown and undervalued where they live and have to fight for the subsidies that are so essential to their continuance.

Except for a perfunctory ritual played out on occasion at city council meetings where little plaques are presented and bows mechanically taken, little heed is paid to all those who bring glory to their community; and there are so many who are so worthy.

Learned recently that former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, whose family originally hailed from Arkansas, is the child of World War II homefront defense workers and grew up in North Richmond -- having attended elementary and high schools here in this city. I learned it by sheer accident when going over some vintage photos with a member of a Richmond African American pioneer family who had them in her collection. How could this city not have made some notice of this? Should her picture not be prominently displayed on the wall of Peres Elementary School for every student to see and be inspired by?

This is the city where great bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy McCracklin, T-Bone Walker and blueswoman Big Mamma Thornton made their big break and elevated the status of this important American music to the top of a cultural revolution in music that had its birth here in this community during the war years. Yet there is no marker to celebrate those contributions. Not a blues club in sight nor in any future plans that I know of.

And, most of all, there is the giant of industry, Henry J. Kaiser, whose innovations in ship-building re-shaped the Bay Area and quite possibly won the war -- yet it took an act of congress to mark this as the place where it all happened and to begin the historic preservation process that is now the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front National Historial Park under development. The city, itself, made little attempt at claiming its rightful role in one of the epochal events of the 20th Century. The structures that now make up the park have lain rusting away for 60 years, awaiting demolition when we could get around to it. They only remained through benign neglect until Congress acted to preserve them for the telling of the story of World War II for the nation.

We're racing against time and the redevelopment agency to preserve those structures still-existing -- before the bulldozers of progress and the giant claw machines begin to replace them with more "rooftops," more "units," cover more ground with concrete parking lots, in the ongoing ritual of covering the past with the unknown future and losing the lessons we so sorely need to learn in the process of city-building.

The practice of taking on only those projects than can pencil out and find completion within the tenure of any current city elected official works against the best interest of the communities they represent. Master Plans that span decades demand a commission (not yet created) charged with long-range planning -- kind of like a mini-supreme court with members appointed with unlimited terms of service. It just might take such a strategy to get Richmond past its life of always hovering on the brink of disaster. Maybe it's the ghost of those 24-hour days when folks slept and worked in 3 shifts and rented out their beds that never cooled. Maybe it's the carryover from having completed 747 ships over a 4 year period. Maybe we can pause now and see where we are -- honor those who brought us this far, and celebrate the new leaders among us. I think, sometimes, of returning to Berkeley where I always had such a strong feeling of the future and the possible. Here in Richmond the struggle to preserve and grow from the past is burdened by the constant sacrifice to short-term gains -- a legacy from the war years when time was such an overwhelming force? Could it be that it's worked its way into our civic DNA?

Wondering now why all this comes up for me today? It surely has to do with feelings of being overlooked, maybe? Though it doesn't appear to me unexpected. It's the norm, I think. There are bigger questions here than bruised feelings; of that I'm sure. Over time I've enjoyed much appreciation for my work and am blessed with an enviable reputation for service. I've been affirmed in so many ways, and it continues. No, it's not for want of praise or appreciation. Then what?

Maybe it's because when I look around I see lack of fulfillment expressed in so many ways. So many good people doing such good work -- and going without recognition and unable to ask for it because that's so awkward to do. So much emotional energy is wasted when we don't take the time to acknowledge one another; energy that provides the strength and the will to do the work of community-building that is so vital to the quality of life in any human enterprise. I see the frustration expressed by those stalwart passionate ordinary citizens who attend city council meetings; doing their best to call attention to civic problems, support the work of city staff when warranted, chastise offending members of city council, but (if you look closely) are almost always speaking for others whom they believe have been overlooked or unappreciated.

I'll think of this as justification for the ceremonies of appreciation and recognition that I'll participate in soon. It gives me a context in which to function. And -- it may be one of those truths that women have always known... .

Photo: Left to right: Starr King School for the Ministry President Rebecca Parker, honoree Dorothy Patterson; me, making the presentation; and President Arliss Ungar of the Board of Trustees. Dorothy is receiving her honorary doctorate after a lifetime of service with the UU-Service Committee, worldwide. This is on the occasion of the Starr King commencement ceremonies at the San Francisco Unitarian-Universalist Church.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A dash of reality -- and "a prophet in her own home town ..."

After days on end of trying to feel humble in this spate of such unanticipated acclaim, I've come face-to-face with just how fragile all that is, and how transitory at best.

After receiving the materials from the National Women's History Project (banners, posters, booklets, bookmarks, balloons, placemats) all proclaiming the importance of the ten of us being honored, I tried to figure out just what to do with them.

  • First took a poster to Reid's (our store in Berkeley) where my family immediately taped it proudly to the front door for all of our customers to see as they entered.
  • Then another went to the Berkeley Arts Magnet School with Alyana (10) and Tamaya (8), my proud granddaughters, to share with their 2nd and 4th grade classes. I plan to visit with them after all the hoopla is behind us.
  • Slipped one onto park superintendent Martha Lee's desk surreptiously at the end of a work day.
  • Presented the mayor's office with another (just down the hall where my friend and former co-worker from Loni Hancock's office now sits as the mayor's administrative aide.) There was no response from the mayor; a woman. I didn't notice at the time -- but today I thought of it.
  • Presented one to my friend, Tom, which he has subsequently framed and hung for me to see the next time I'm there.
  • Drove to the office of the Main Street Initiative where an excited Executive Director Ramona Braxton-Samuels received another and added it to the stack of NWHP catalogues I'd dropped off earlier.
  • Stopped by the Richmond main library where I left catalogues for their Women's History Month display.
Now what to do? I'm thinking that a real celebrity would have called a press conference, right?

Oh yes, packed up a poster, bio-booklet on the honorees, and a catalogue and mailed them off to son, Bob, so that he wouldn't feel slighted -- though I had mixed feelings about doing so -- and I'm not at all sure what that's about. The self-promotional aspects bothered me and still does.

As the time draws near and there's need for decisions to make about travel arrangements, etc, I've become really nervous and having some problems about the worthiness of it all, I suppose. Tom would like to attend the event in Los Angeles on the 19th. He knows that I hate to fly and would like to have us take the train down on Friday, visit the Getty Art Museum on Saturday, and then the ceremony on Sunday at the Autrey. Martha (my boss) and her mother would like to attend since this all coincides with a family gathering at their home in Pasadena. My son, David and his family are considering traveling down as well. Not sure yet about Bob, but that's a possibility.

I've been offered the opportunity to be honored not only in Southern California, but to travel to Washington, D.C., for the festivities being held at the Hay Adams Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue on March 22nd, as well. Lifetime Television is picking up the tab for that event, and the National Park Service would surely benefit by the public relations aspects of it all.

See how huge it's gotten by now?

Well, relax.

Yesterday I decided to drive down the hill to the nearby campus of the Contra Costa Community College to present the last of my large lovely colorful posters to the college president (whom I know casually) along with some catalogs from NWHP. I called ahead to see if he was in his office and he was. I noticed some discomfort but couldn't attribute it to anything when he said, "...I didn't know, Betty. Would you be willing to come to our Women's History Month Celebration on Saturday, March 11th at 3:00?" I was so busy mumbling something about how I'd hesitated to bring this in before, but that I'd finally decided that it might be important for the young women at the college to know that important things sometimes happen to ordinary people ...", it was lame but true. I then heard him ask if I'd be willing to come and speak to some groups and I happily agreed.

Within an hour or so there was a call from him asking if I had a picture they could use in their publicity for the upcoming event (and again he apologized for not realizing that I was an honoree). If I didn't have one, would I be willing to come in to have their graphics department take one for their purposes? I agreed. This morning I did that -- though my photos now look more like my mother than like me - or so I imagine... .

It was only then that I realized (when someone mentioned that those posters were hanging all over the campus) and that no one had recognized me; the penalty for using a 20-year-old photo, maybe? (We'd been asked to submit a favorite picture.) But my name and birthdate were there under my picture. My picture is prominently placed on the posters, no one knew who I was and -- even if they did -- I was only important in the aggregate. It was the ten that mattered, not the one. And there's an appropriateness to that. No one had noticed that a local woman was being honored nationally, and that it was no small thing. Everyone is a little embarrassed, even me.

Today in the mail a letter arrived from the college president with all of the information about their Women's History Month celebration -- with a packet of tickets listing the names of the women being honored -- and an apology that my name was not among them. They didn't know. His letter in part says:

"...We are terribly sorry we did not realize you had been nationally recognized at the time we developed our invitations. Had we known, we would have included your name among the list of honorees. However, we would be honored and graced by your presence if you would attend our sixth annual Women's History Celebration program on Saturday, March 11, 2006. We have included you in our program and would like to present you with a special award..."

Sincerely yours,

McKinley Williams,
Interim President

There it is. The ego adjuster. I needn't have worried. Life does have its way of getting us into line when occasion demands.

For reasons unknown, I find his letter reassuring. I'm far more comfortable in the aggregate.

Photo: Speaking my "thank yous" before an audience at the Contra Costa Community College Sixth Annual Women's History Celebration. This was a week prior to the events in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hope I'm not just "making words," because this jambalaya of a life that I'm living at the moment defies description ...

Attended an economic development workshop at city hall on Friday. Every high roller in the region was in the room. The main event was State Treasurer Phil Angelides, my favorite gubernatorial candidate, who was here to introduce the city to his "Green Wave" program that promises to bring an economic boom to the state through energy-saving programs involving the introduction of new businesses designed to address our need to commit to a changing commerce to reflect concerns in re global warming. It all made sense. California is the sixth largest economy in the world. Change has historically sprung from what happens here and spreads to the rest of the country and the world. We must address global warming independent of what happens in Washington. Angelides spelled out a plan for starting that process. I'm convinced that he is the leader that I'd like to follow this November. The job now will be to move him from his position of defending capital punishment to one that will accept a moratorium.

On Friday afternoon I drove to Mendocino immediately after the workshop and on Saturday morning attended the Mendocino Democratic Club breakfast where, again, I heard Angelides speak. On Friday he spoke as the state treasurer. On Saturday morning I heard his campaign speech for the first time. There was almost no repetition. That was comforting. He has more complexity than might be expected from one honing his message for the Primary.

During the period of schmoozin' that followed his talk (during which he introduced his wife and daughter who were present), I was able to approach him for the few minutes that it took to say, "...hello, I'm Betty Reid Soskin. We met yesterday in Richmond. I'm also the former field rep for Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, and, I was a recent demonstrator at the gates of San Quentin in protest of the 3 recent executions. I'm aware that you're on record as supporting capital punishment. I want to know whether you're in support of the moratorium?" He was obviously not comfortable with my directness, but to give him credit, he held my eye-to-eye contact without flinching. He then broke his gaze -- looked down and said, "... I think that I need to tell you that I'm alone in my house -- my daughter believes in your cause." I knew now that I had a strong ally who was close to him and loved -- and that at some point this might not be a lost cause. I will work for his election and hope that his position will soften on this most critical issue. I don't have the power or the clout to bring that about, but I know enough others who are close enough to him to influence his position.

In addition to his staff, In Richmond he brought along CalPERS (the state retirement program) and CalSTRS (another) in combination with foundations and developers and financial advisors in a workshop designed to introduce that world of investors to this city that is poised on the brink of a period of renewal that will rival that of WWII, I think. There are opportunities everywhere one looks -- and entrepreneurs are arriving by every means possible. The room was crackling with the vibrations of opportunism and competition.

We three who represent the park staff gave no presentation -- it was not our time -- but I had a chance to renew old friendships with that world of financial enablers and it felt good. My head immediately turned to planning our next leadership tour to include that world -- I'd almost forgotten.

Noticed something else, too. There they were, Landon W. (San Francisco Foundation), Joe G. and James N. (forgotten the name of their multi-million dollar development enterprise); John T. (Sr. Director of Cushman & Wakefield); et al, all with warm greetings (kisses all around). I've never been in a position of needing to use any of their services so they are just Landon, Joe, James, and John; though they represent access to millions and millions of dollars in their professional roles. Do I need to think of them differently now that I'm hoping to help to expand the role of the new national park in this city? There's great need for historic preservation, restoration of historic sites, and youth programs around this history that gave the city its second birth -- and may provide the economic engine that will drive its third. This will be a new role for me. Wonder if I can make the transition?

Am waiting for one more announcement of a candidate who will enter the governor's race soon, but meanwhile -- will continue to think about how to relate to the candidacy of Phil Angelides. The 'til now undisclosed candidate is relatively unknown in the political world, but is one with a strong and vital message that resonates deeply for me. When she announces, I'll have some adjusting to do in my own thinking about just how much I'm willing to compromise.

You may be of the opinion that it hardly makes a difference about just how much power a single voter has in the process. Not so. I firmly believe that one can effect the shape of change in critical ways. We may not be totally responsible for that judge's decision to halt the last execution -- but I don't hesitate for one minute to take credit for it. If I've lived up to my own principles and acted on behalf of them -- then I claim the right to assume that I've been rewarded by fate. If I didn't believe that I couldn't get out of bed in the morning ... and then how on earth would "The World" manage?

Photo: State Treasurer Phil Angelides speaking informally with members after his talk at Mendocino Democratic Club breakfast.