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?