Friday, June 5, 2009

On knowing when to make a u-turn

Several seemingly divergent thoughts are roaming in my head today and so I thought I might find the threads of connection by trying to write about them.

The foremost is about an experience I had at work this week. To explain, it will take giving some here it is. We have been working with a neighborhood in our city that has identified a desire to develop some different ways of handling groups of kids who roam the streets and scare the residents. The subtext here is that most of the kids who scare people are African American and most of the adults who are scared (and angry) are working class white people. The neighborhood is in transition as the working class jobs leave the area and families of color who are trying to escape the violence of urban areas like Chicago, Detroit, etc. move in. So race and class tensions are very real and this is one place they are being demonstrated.

In that context, we have been holding weekly meetings with 20-30 adults in the neighborhood to talk about this problem for the last couple of months. This week, the neighbors were talking about what to do when you're driving down a street and a large group of kids is walking in the street blocking the way. The mostly white adults were stuck - recognizing their fear of confronting the kids, but being angry as hell about it.

At one point, they asked the African American man we had brought in as a guest participant what he does in those situations. His response was simple...I make a u-turn and find another route. On the surface, that sounds simple enough. But to me, it pointed out the way that white privilege can often blind us to obvious solutions. And I thought of this quote from Nezua again.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. <...>

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

And I also thought of this quote from H.L. Menken.

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.

I suppose its sometimes a good thing that we have embedded deep in our psyche as white Americans that we can solve any problem and remove any barrier in the process. But I also think that its possible that we are fooling ourselves with that into a kind of control scheme that places our desires above those of others we don't understand and blinds us to answers that simply let others BE in the process.

In the midst of all of this, I'm also thinking deeply about some of the work Obama is doing on our relationship with the Muslim world - especially through his speech in Cairo. Here's a fascinating point that Al Giordano made about it.

An interesting footnote (well, something much bigger than a footnote for millions of Muslim and Arab youth) is that ten leading Egyptian dissidents have been invited to attend the speech, including former presidential candidate and political dissident Ayman Nur and members of the banned “Muslim Brotherhood” organization. Actions like their inclusion drive a stake between Al Qaida and potential young recruits from the universities, cities and towns throughout the Muslim regions. No wonder bin Laden – who was raised and educated as a member of the elite in Saudi Arabia, the first stop on the President’s tour - is upset: the Arabian rug is being pulled out from under the future of his violent political prescriptions. In recent decades, groups like Al Qaida have thrived largely because the paths for peaceful means to political change and participation have been blocked by states like Egypt. If the invitation of the dissidents to attend Obama’s speech indicates a path back into democratic participation by legitimate critics and social movements in US-friendly but not-very-democratic states like Egypt (a prospect which remains to be seen) the siren call of violent opposition would soon become no more than a whimper.

That made me think about a recent u-turn we made at work and I got to wondering if Obama isn't doing something similar. In our case, we've had difficulty working with other youth-serving non-profits in our area that are run by people of color who grew up in the 60's and 70's during the Civil Rights era. Many see an organization like ours - run by a white woman - as part of the establishment to be fought against, and perhaps rightly so. But when we want to collaborate and learn...the door is closed due to what happened in the past and the assumptions they make in carrying that forward into the future. So at one point, a very wise person counseled us to make a u-turn...ignore those old battles and look for collaboration with the up and coming new leaders in the communities of color. We've done that with great success and are in the midst of working with young people of color to develop the future leadership in our organization.

Just how many times yesterday did Obama talk about not getting caught up in the past? I don't imagine that, as POTUS, he can make a u-turn and simply ignore the leadership in the Middle East that is caught up in old battles. But in the midst of having to deal with the current situation, I DO think he's once again demonstrating that he's playing the "long game." By that, I mean that I think he is playing for the hearts and minds of the next generation of the Muslim world. From some of the reports I've seen, the reviews contain a bit of skepticism, but are overall positive.

A strategy like this will take years to bear fruit. But if it is a plan that Obama sustains over his 4 (hopefully 8) years in office, I definitely think he's on the right track.

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