Saturday, January 21, 2012

I may finally be coming to terms with having become a "public figure" ... .

The role is an awkward fit, and sometimes an inconvenience -- particularly when I find myself in the checkout line at the Safeway supermarket on the way home from work and in uniform.  The admiring glances stolen by young girls stiffens my spine a bit, and quickens my step through the aisles, but I'm not confused by the differences between respect for the flat hat and for the elderly woman under it.  The National Park Service has earned its honors as "America's best idea," (a la Ken Burns). It's when the local PBS Channel has aired the documentary, "This is Us," for the umpteenth time the night before, and men and woman from my generation feel their spines stiffen in reflected glory of one of their own still being in the game ... and getting away with it after all these years ...  then a different sort of effect pops up; equally complimentary.  But at the end of the day, "celebrity" wears thin, and hunger pangs begin to take their toll on the old psyche as I try to decide what shape my pasta will take this day, and which spaghetti sauce -- and a new-found weariness creeps into my smile and it comes less easily as I begin to feel watched ... .

You can imagine the feeling last Wednesday as I stood before an interracial audience hosted by the African American Leadership Network of Safeway Stores at their corporate headquarters in Pleasanton. I'd been invited to be the speaker for their observance of Dr. King's birthday.  As I was escorted to the Green Room in their grand auditorium, I learned that the day's presentation was being televised for the entire Safeway television (nationwide?) network, so that those who could not attend would have access to the hour-long program "On Demand" from the archives wherever they are and whenever they wished.  Wow!  What one earth did I have to say that should warrant such coverage?   Surely it's time to pay closer attention to preparing my remarks, and to stop depending upon the power of memory.  Did I not owe my hosts more than that?  But since my improvised talks have always been enough, could I not be risking whatever success I'm experiencing by simply sharing my truths as I  recall them -- and not becoming so self-conscious that something of value gets lost?

The experience was unsettling enough that -- as I was grandly escorted to the car laden with a huge bouquet of about two dozen long-stemmed yellow-red-tipped-petaled roses and two tickets to the new Tuskegee Airmen film, "Red Tails,"  I somehow failed to notice that their portable mike attached to my belt with the wire clipped to my lapel, was hidden under the armful of roses.  This was not discovered until I was back at my desk 40 miles away in Richmond and a colleague called attention to my strange "jewelry."  (It was returned in the morning.)

In February I will be guest speaker at IT&T Corporate Headquarters in San Ramon.  Maybe by then I'll have come to terms with this public person I've gradually become ... but I don't believe we have time enough for that to happen.  Maybe this is a case of "if it ain't broke don't fix it."  Maybe it's a mistake to try to become who they think I am.  That might be very difficult to accomplish at this late date.  I'd need another lifetime to figure out just who that is.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It was the fifth Annual Day of Service in my Richmond community -- in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday ... .

I'd been invited by Doria Robinson, the director of Urban Tilth, the lead nonprofit on the Richmond Greenway project, to "say a few words" at today's ceremony.  

Arrived early to find things in the usual chaos so typical of volunteer organizations, but it was friendly chaos of the kind that delivers positive outcomes rising from well-intentioned strangers coming together in a common cause.  There were young people, children leading parents; elders lending advice when needed; members of the City Council led by the Mayor, the Vice Mayor; environmentalists sprinkled among members of uniformed National Park Rangers as well as Forestry Service folks.

I was struck by the fact that here was that future that Dr. King had sacrificed his life to bring about.  We -- in one of the nation's working class under-employed and over-foreclosed cities where barred windows and protective fences are the common denominator --   we are living right smack in the middle of it!

The Greenway runs for about 2 miles along a long-abandoned railroad bed now developed into broad walks and bike paths where the community made up of several school sites nestled among modest low-income homes and showing hints of seeds bursting into a premature spring and (finally) maturity in some of the perennials from earlier plantings.  The Greenway is blossoming with gardening projects of various kinds on land ceded by the city for the purpose.

There are flower gardens with ornamental plantings which need no excuse for being except the pure art of providing color and "spirit"; vegetable gardens that provide work for volunteers and free food for tables of anyone in need, and medicinal herbs introduced from older cultures.  Today, about 400 folks from every age, race, and ethnicity joined in the effort by planting 60 donated fruit trees in the Edible Forest; planted hundreds of native plants, and built wooden boxes for raised beds -- necessary where soil remains contaminated from WWII war-related industries.  And, I was invited to do the "first dig" in the soil for the planting of a mighty Legacy Oak Tree  (expected to stand for at least 250 years) that will stand among them.  What an honor!  As an example of Civic Engagement (code words from the Park Ranger's Manual), this was priceless.

Richmond and communities like it across the country -- cities with challenges rarely experienced in the suburbs -- are most often depicted as "communities of need."  Rarely are they viewed as living laboratories where diverse communities are in a constantly changing grand experiment -- testing the meaning and efficacy of "democracy" with newly-arrived immigrants adding the element of "hope" where it needs renewal for the disaffected, disenchanted, underprivileged and under-served who have found refuge here over many  generations of struggle.  You won't find members of the 1% here; the system is working just fine for them.  It is in these communities that this system is tested and challenged and often found wanting.  It is out of our discontent that change is born and generational adjustments are made.

Today I saw "Democracy" in all its glory actualize the King Dream of years ago.  We did what every generation must do -- what nation's around the world are rising up at the risk of their lives to achieve -- we are re-creating democracy in our time.  Every generation must do so.  Ours is not presented to us on stone tablets nor handed down by powerful family dynasties.  It is dynamic and must be critiqued and challenged constantly if we're to sustain the freedoms spelled out in our founding documents.  It's messy and chaotic. There will always be false prophets, flat-earthers, disbelievers, but we will prevail despite their lack of faith in our institutions.  You want neat?  Then try a dictatorship.

Dr. King's greatest gift to this nation may have been his insistence -- through personal acts of civil disobedience -- that this was/is the highest form of patriotism.  

Today's diggers and planters define who we are, not the crime stats we're constantly defined by.  Those Marines who so horrifically desecrated the dead by their unspeakable acts no more represent me than do their counterparts in an earlier time define our white citizens of today; those who came in family groups with picnic baskets to celebrate the brutal lynchings of blacks in the deep South.  Unfortunately, such unenlightened folks will always be with us.  But it is we, and not they who define Democracy.

We're seeing the "rockets red glare" of that re-creation in the Occupy Movement.  I truly believe that, and I'm beginning to worry that it is being derailed by those who don't recognize the signs nor understand the powers of our process of governance... .