Sunday, August 13, 2017

When extremism is not actually extreme [Because White Supremacy]

Originally published on Medium

The thing about extremism is it gives us someone to point to who isn’t us. Who can be an “other,” and be set apart. Someone or set of someones on which to place all the attention and blame. The danger in that is that it can throw us off the real problem, the present and persisting danger.

There is a meme going around with the photos of the torch-holders that I’ve been dropping into conversations. It shows two of the same photo, on one the torch-holders have extreme labels. like “terrorist,” “racist,” “hatemonger,” etc. On the second photo the torch holders are labeled as everyday people like “loan officer,” “guidance counselor,” “future prosecutor,” etc.

The violence and hatred happening at the rallies is ugly to watch, hard to process (for some) and a hot mess. The day to day manifestation of people who actively and passively subscribe to the beliefs highlighted at these rallies is where the deeper damage is done.

People like loan officers, guidance counselors, nurses, teachers, etc. are “gatekeepers” of sorts. They can make accessing the daily needs for life easy, and they can make accessing those basics hard. Their instincts, beliefs and biases impact who gets treated with more compassion, who gets the benefit of the doubt, who gets told about or encouraged to go after opportunities, who gets invited to the event, etc. Just taking those additive examples one can see how this matters. Add the negative possibilities — who gets told they aren’t capable, who gets told they aren’t in as much pain as they say they are and therefore denied treatment, who is routinely not given the benefit of the doubt — and you can understand how trauma happens, how frustration builds, how self-esteem plummets, how biases and prejudices become self-fulfilling prophecies.

That is the poison plaguing our culture, our country, my city. It’s been going on for so long (hundreds of years) that many don’t see it, can’t sense it. The mechanisms set up to perpetuate it are designed so well that it does not take a conspiracy theory, malice or even intention — much less a rally — to keep it going. It thrives on silence, inaction, complacency, lack of knowledge and lack of understanding. Doing nothing, learning nothing, considering nothing new is the number 1 way to keep the inequities, injustices, divisiveness, segregation and trauma going strong.

As reactions to the rallies unfold, I see many people using the words “White Supremacy” for the the first time. The pitfall is to see that phrase as one of extremism, to only equate it to these rallies and to the dudes holding those Target tiki torches. It has been helpful for me to learn about the difference between White People and the ideology of the Supremacy of Whiteness (said another way, White Supremacy). The idea was born when we described what legally made a US Citizens as “free white persons.” When we made laws allowing the government to take away land from people or categorize people as property based on their non-Whiteness. We have spent enough time making laws about who gets and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out based on skin color, religion and gender that it is an undeniable part of our cultural identity. There is only one group that has never had a law made denying them something or categorizing them specifically based on their skin color and gender. This is what sets up the idea that Whiteness is the bees knees, the ultimate ticket, in some way, supreme. This is why Whiteness was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court multiple times as people with non-white skin or non-Christian religion sought to attain the legal category of White.

We can’t just hit reset, we can’t just start over, we can’t just call it even because we have to undo what was done. That starts with recognizing what was done and the realities of its reverberation today. The depth of the ideology we upheld/hold by law.

These torch-bearers are a problem, but not the problem. There is a very real, present and persistent danger. While it is described with words that we’ve been socialized to hear as “extreme,” (White Supremacy) the ideology (the idea that Whiteness is the ideal and somehow superior) that some ascribe only to the extreme actions of these rally-ers is basic, daily, silent, real and crippling our society’s ability to function. It is not an outlier, it is currently the predominant engine driving our culture and it is everywhere.

It is de facto segregated schools and neighborhoods.

It is the disparity in sentencing between cocaine and crack.

It is the reaction to the opioid crisis versus the reaction to the crack epidemic.

It is the prison and the non-profit industrial complex.

It’s traumatizing to people of all colors (yes, even White people), it’s expensive, it’s divisive and it stunts our growth.

“…equity, with the emergence of a new racial and ethnic majority — long a matter of social justice and morality — is now also an economic imperative by describing the components of an equity-driven growth model and acknowledging that a true social movement is needed to achieve equity.” — Policy Link [read as much research as you can stand illustrating this realty] 

We cannot sustain the hate but more importantly we cannot sustain the momentum of the ideology baked into our culture. As long as it’s “them” or “those people” and as long as they are “extreme” outliers to be shamed and condemned we continue to sustain it. We each and all along the continuum must be open to how our daily actions or lack of actions do more damage than a mob of tiki-holders ever has and ever will.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Ignore St. Louis' racial divide at your own peril [Because math]

Originally published on Medium.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few weeks about the “why” of addressing institutional racism to stakeholders who don’t believe it to be “the” or even “a” problem. I haven’t quite come up with the most concise language, but I guess it just comes down to numbers.

St. Louis is 47% black. Say, to be conservative, half of them experience racism regularly and/or believe it to be a real phenomenon that impacts institutional decisions and people’s lives. Let’s say, to be conservative, half of the rest of the people who live in St. Louis are either also of color and/or are foreign-born, have a spouse/relative/adopted child who is in that half of the 47% or have worked in a field, had an experience, studied and/or simply believe those who’ve told them that they experience racism on a regular basis and that it impacts institutional decisions and people’s lives.

This would mean that, to be conservative, half the people who live in this city believe that race is a social and economic strategy used to control resources and power on purpose and that there are very real implications of said use and that the only way to turn the tide on that (move toward equity) is to interrupt that pattern and stop doing things that we previously maybe didn’t notice were inherently inequitable. Again, conservatively, half the people who live here also believe, because of many rankings and our long list of disparities when it comes to race, that St. Louis has an extra bad problem with this, and that in order to be an awesome city where people want to live (well, half of the people), we have to deal with it. Half the people (conservatively) believe the Delmar Divide, the state of North City, accredited public schools with only 30-some% of kids reading at grade level is not an accident or by happenstance, they believe it is by design and that to change it we have to design differently. On purpose.

The communication strategist in me looks at that (conservative) reality and comes to one conclusion: Regardless of what you believe, enough people believe systemic racism exists that it’s a real thing that it must be understood, considered and addressed.

Go out into public and say something that doesn’t take that (conservative) 50% into account, and you might well be out there not just pushing 50% of people away, but making actual enemies of them. It’s like the jokes where someone is speaking another language and because they get the verb tense wrong they are actually saying the opposite of what they mean and/or grossly insulting the host. You get the picture.

This article about the upcoming vote on Proposition 2 (the proposed MLS stadium financing) is what prompted this post. In particular, its discussion of the community benefits agreement, which I posted about yesterday.

I know a number of people who know SC STL investor Dave Peacock personally, people I know and trust. I also know how interviews and articles go. Those two things have me offering the benefit of the doubt while I simultaneously feel almost sick about the following passage:
Peacock is also concerned about the message it would send to future investors if city voters reject the proposal. “If I’m a developer and I see a bunch of people vote ‘no’ on the first community benefits agreement, why would I do another one?” 
You can read the article as well as my post and the comments to see the pros and cons put forth surrounding the community benefits agreement (including a lack of public input and funding to an org without a physical presence in the city). I have felt, from a communications standpoint, that the weight being put on “what this will do for kids” in the whole Prop 2 campaign has been disproportionate, uncomfortable and a disconnect from the details of what’s actually in the community benefits agreement (and what’s actually going on in our city). To build a narrative that then threatens the “chance” of future benefit agreements on the acceptance of this one feels a step too far. Not to mention how that could be read and interpreted by the (conservatively) half of the people who have the frame and understanding of the “haves” and the “have nots.” I am also willing to believe that what he says is true, but it doesn’t change the way it reads, given what I also know to be true.
After appearing throughout the city while promoting the soccer stadium proposal, Peacock said he’s discovered “how divided we are. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know how you bring these divergent views together to try to get something done.” 
It was that passage that drove me to write this post. Because it’s spot on. It no longer matters if you agree or believe that our city’s history with racism and segregation are holding us back. Enough people do that it’s real. Can we accept that for some “real” means failing schools and a forgotten neighborhood, for some it means living in a city full of heartbreak and for some if means not being able to get done what you want to get done because (conservatively) half the people you need on board subscribe to a different reality.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Requiem "progressive" [Because lessons]

Originally published on Medium.

This article, Talking past each other? Two sides of the Democratic party maneuvering to control agenda, finally pushed me to articulate my main takeaways from the events of the last week. The themes have been circling my thoughts, solicited and unsolicited conversations and unlimited comments threads for the past week, so I am not sure it was the article itself, as much as reaching a point where these thoughts needed to get out of my head.

1. The last month has officially rendered the descriptor “progressive” as useless here in St. Louis.

From the aforementioned article, linked above:
“To hear one side tell it, Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary highlighted a growing movement in city politics in which energized progressives are steadily advancing their agenda of racial equity and economic justice into the forefront of the public’s consciousness.”
Nope.

I can give you a long list of people who are interested in “steadily advancing [an] agenda of racial equity and economic justice.” I can guarantee you that they don’t all identify as “progressives.” I have also watched them all fighting each other over [insert issue/POV here] for the past 4 days. I can also guarantee that they aren’t all going to show up for a protest action against policy brutality, they aren’t all going to support bike lanes, they aren’t all going to use words like “White Supremacy,” and they aren’t all going to use words like “Black Liberation.” But some of them do each of those things.

So maybe the term still has some use, but mainly just for those who would like to dismiss what is actually many groups coming together on behalf of truly changing the course of St. Louis.

2. It was a group made up of all those disparate realities (and more) and who share a desire for racial equity and economic justice who turned last week’s election on its head. By that I mean the following:

  • The last publicly available traditional poll showed their candidate in 4th place, 22 points behind the lead candidate. 
  • When people challenged the fact that that poll was limited to land lines and therefore was not registering the impact of the weeks of ground-work the disparate groups had been doing on behalf of their candidate, someone with knowledge from inside the lead candidate’s campaign stated publicly that “the numbers we have include cellphones. [Our candidate] is winning. By a lot.” 
  • Outcome shows that the ground-work done by those disparate groups 1) was not detected by traditional means and 2) resulted in their candidate coming within less that 2% of the lead candidate. 


3. To pit “regional growth” against “an agenda of racial equity and economic justice” is to move deck chairs around on the Titanic.

It’s really hard to do business in this town. Our Chamber, our economic development entities, our CVC, our universities — they have an uphill battle attracting businesses, talent, development, etc. Why? Because enough people find insurmountable issues with public schools, poverty, racism, crime, etc. We can yell at each _other_ about lots of things, but until we address racial equity and economic justice for actual real, [see previous 60+ years of outcomes]. A forward-looking economist will tell you that “growth” leads with investing inward. So will a good couples therapist.

All this to say that: what bucked all traditional methods by 17 points was a growing set of multiple groups who, for different reasons, understand that without racial equity and economic justice, this city can’t grow.

To reduce that to “progressives” versus old line Democrats or a bunch of whiners who randomly vilify [insert thing you take personally here (i.e. police, development incentives, stadiums, white privilege)] is to a) risk having them overtake you and/or b) misunderstand that we need them to ensure that this city can grow and most importantly c) see that folks who didn’t back their candidate also care about an agenda of equity and economic justice, so really, more of us are on the same page than are not.

I hope that we can recognize what’s happening for what it is and harness it for what we so desperately need.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tldr: I’m voting for Tishaura Jones on March 7th [Because reasons]

Originally published on Medium.

Let me start by saying that this election cycle has given me hope. In December, I was clear that for me, there was something at stake in the coming months.
“Here’s what I’m going to need us to do, St. Louis. I’m going to need us to take a good strong look in the mirror and make a decision…I’m asking us to claim this as our rock bottom, and I’m asking us to treat the Spring elections as though our life depends on them. Because it does.” 
“…Nothing is more systemic than policy and the way in which our city runs. In addition to the opportunity to elect a new mayor, as of this writing, there will be races in 9 of the aldermanic wards (only odd are up this year). These campaigns, the issues raised and how they are framed, the public’s engagement, how we hold our press and leadership accountable — this is a litmus test for whether or not we are ready for a new version of ourselves.” - Me, in December
February Me feels like we’re doing pretty well on the test. I have seen engagement and passion and commitment and energy spreading like nothing I’ve witnessed in St. Louis. This could just be the view from the seat I have this time around, but based on so many conversations and the building shift over the past two years I think it’s more about the fact that enough of us are taking this movement seriously.

I also want to be clear that the 5 major democratic mayoral candidates have truly impressed and moved me. In all the ways in which St. Louis has its own special brand of things, putting yourself out there to run for Mayor of this city is not a small consideration. My familiarity with the contours of the physical, emotional and social toll the work I’ve been doing has taken on me, I can only begin to imagine what the past year has been like for the candidates and their families. And in the face of that toll — or maybe as a result of it — the amount of growth between the debate at the end of January and the forum last week was audible and visible in the majority of the candidates. Regardless your ultimate opinion of the content and choices, each has heard criticism and praise and has deepened their learning and ability to convey ideas and issues critical to our city’s growth. I truly thank each of them for their service and sacrifice on behalf of St. Louis.

Of course, because they are all human and in politics, each candidate has their flaws, each their past votes or actions which could invoke side-eye up against their current campaign promises. There have been enough articles written, papers served and money tracked that any given supporter has enough fodder to lead us all in a Twitter-fueled chorus loop of “but their emails!!” between any two given candidates. As I’ve said many times, St. Louis does not have the luxury of expending its energy on FB comment battles and Twitter wars. St. Louis does not have the luxury of holding each candidate up to a mirror of perfection. St. Louis does not have the luxury of spinning our wheels on who should and should not get out of the race.

St. Louis has work to do, reality to get uncomfortable with and change to make if it’s going to thrive. It needs a Mayor who:

  1. is not only unafraid of doing things that have never been done before, but who has a track record of doing so #Unflinching
  2. has the support of everyday people here locally who care passionately about and/or whose lives depend on change #ThePeoplesCandidate
  3. has a national, active platform and network of advocates and supporters behind them when they begin to ruffle the Status Quo #National

There is only one candidate in whom I’ve seen all three of the above live and in action, and that is Tishaura Jones.

I’ve said to a number of audiences that the work I’ve been called/lucky/crazy enough to do for the past two years has resulted in an opportunity to listen, engage, reflect, get feedback, adjust, and repeat with and between St. Louis’ citizens, non profits, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, elected officials, activists, philanthropists, educators, media, etc. I’ve done the same with people in all of those positions in other cities and/or who transplanted to St. Louis and/or who left St. Louis for somewhere else. I have seen, witnessed, and experienced disparate corners of this city’s psyche that few are able to see at the same time. It is through that lens that I am clear on what St. Louis needs to truly have a chance at delivering on its potential:

  1. #Unflinching Doing what we’ve been doing — or slowly and safely evolving from it — will continue to result in the same disparities we’ve seen for 50+ years. Disparities that are tied to population loss, persistent crime, $14 billion in unrealized GDP and infant mortality rates like that of a developing nation. The inertia of Business as Usual must be interrupted intentionally and directly and on purpose. Yes, it will ruffle feathers and people will be aghast AND that will be nothing in comparison to what we lose if we don’t.
  2. #ThePeoplesCandidate Empowerment of the people who choose to or who have no choice in living here is an absolute and unavoidable piece of changing the tide and the perception of St. Louis. We cannot market, polish or spin the reality of what life is like for a large number of people who inhabit this city (see disparities and outcomes mentioned in #1)
  3. #National St. Louis has long been known for being overlooked for national money, national opportunities. This means that if major regional systemic change is to happen, it is left to be funded locally. As the Status Quo controls funding streams (directly or indirectly), and major systemic change is often perceived as a threat to the Status Quo, it’s no surprise we’re still looking at the same disparities decade after decade. Some of the most disheartening moments I’ve had since moving back to St. Louis 12 years ago have been learning the detailed backstories on so many opportunities for major shifts in multiple topic areas that have died on the vine because when they truly started to move toward change they were choked by suddenly unavailable funds and support. 
This is what has led me to be clear that the election of Tishaura Jones is an opportunity that St. Louis cannot afford to pass up.

  1. #Unflinching Tishaura Jones has implemented new programs, initiatives and ways of doing business that directly address some of our region’s most intractable legacy issues. She’s taken fire and continued with more. That is the muscle she has been developing.
  2. #ThePeoplesCandidate Tishaura Jones’ campaign started with the people. Strategic ploy or not, the Draft Tishaura movement preceded her public candidacy by 7 months. Her list of endorsements is made of organizations closest to the needs of our region’s most vulnerable, individuals on the forefront of St. Louis’ momentum toward a new and prosperous story, and people and organizations who have been on the front lines of fighting for — and winning — change in St. Louis. There is no question to whom Tishaura Jones would be most loudly held accountable.
  3. #National Before Tishaura Jones’ now-viral letter, donations were coming in from all over the United States. Since then, national endorsements have made clear that more than just locals are rooting for St. Louis. At this point, her loss would be another opportunity for St. Louis to be painted as uninterested in shedding its past and doubling down on more of the same.

I can do math, so in no way do I feel like March 7th is a lock. However, I’ve spent my career in the business of understanding communities of all types and over the past two years have gotten a crash course in the community of change. What I see coming together on behalf of a new story for St. Louis — and coming together for Tishaura Jones — gives me more than hope. It’s showing me — and many others — a tangible example of what’s just within reach.

Nicole Hudson
St. Louis City Resident, Ward 17

PS: Right! Aldermanic races, very important for all of the reasons above! I only know two races personally, but I apply the lens above to those as well. With the process for reduction from 28 to 14 kicking off with the 2020 census, we should be taking the longview. For me that means Joe Diekemper in the 17th. Shout out to Lindsay Patton in the 19th, Dan Guenther in the 9th, and Megan Green in the 15th.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

It’s not about race. It’s about power. [Because history]

Originally published on Medium.

If you feel like “everything is (made to be) about race,” regardless of what angle you’re coming from (living it, sick of it, disagree with it), know that you are right and it is by design. It is not partisan, it is political.

That last sentence: it is not about democrats or republicans, liberals or conservatives, it is about rule, control and strategy. Getting caught in the “this side vs that side” of it is part of the strategy. It creates circular arguments and circular energy because a quick browse through history shows all political parties in this country have always used the tool of race to control resources and power.

Race is also not a black-white binary. That is false. That is also part of the strategy. Another false loop for us to get caught in and to distract our energy. A quick browse through history shows that the tool of race has been used to make policy to extract, re-direct or gain resources from most non-white groups. Not just two or three times. Consistently. One will also find legal battles of people from many races (ethnicities) seeking to be legally white, in order to have access to resources and rights reserved for those who attain that label.

It is also not a pure binary of white and non-white. That is another loop and distraction. Some people who were not white 200 years ago would be white today. People who are white are not immune from the impact of racism. This is another falsehood that keeps us chasing our tails and fighting each other instead of for an equitable society.

It is a tool to reinforce a binary that has little to do with race and everything to do with power and control of resources. This of course has huge implications for outcomes along the lines of race, but is not, at the core, about race. It’s about power and control of resources be all means necessary. Race being a consistently successful tool. Impacting everyone who is not at the center of that power and control of resources. White, non-white or otherwise. I know that’s a fine nuance. I continue to grapple with how to articulate it well.

Race has always been, in this country, a political and economic tool to control power, resources and “social order.” That is how we are where we are today. Immigration bans are not new. They have always been one of the racial tools we use to control power and resources here in the United States.

We are 500+ years into this practice. That leaves us in a place where we are left with some pretty real and devastating results. Entire groups of people who at varying intervals, through various different sets of tools, had cumulative wealth interrupted and re-distributed, suffered cultural setbacks through rhetoric reinforced by courts and law, were victims of government sectioned extermination, were unprotected from targeting by other groups, etc., all impacting the ability to access the American Dream.

This leaves us in a place where generations of people of all backgrounds do not know this long history, are unaware of this pattern and do not understand this construct, only that life looks different for them than it does for others. This is how we end up blaming each other, having little tolerance for each other, blaming ourselves.

This means that even if we started treating everyone equally today, if we treated “race” as the false, malleable construct it is, equity would continue to elude us. The use of the tool of race continues to serve its purpose, the desired results continue to roll out. It is working. It’s on auto-pilot. Pretending it never happened and we’re blind to it will not correct our course. Understanding deeply the playbook and how we have been impacted by it is the only way to a correct diagnosis. A collective and accurate diagnosis is our only hope for a true shift and real evolution.

We are in luck because what we are experiencing right now is impossible to miss or to ignore. The actions are textbook, pre-written, well studied historically.

We also have the opportunity to educate ourselves and each other in a way that has never before been possible (re: modern technology). To learn deeply how these patterns have shaped our individual and cultural group realities. To heal individually, within and across-groups. To bear witness to realities that look nothing like ours. All work necessary to work together against the real force that keeps most of us on this hamster wheel of infighting, blame and disempowerment. This work happens offline, but our online present offers entry-points and expanded exposure that has not previously been part of this historical pattern.

Please do not hear me as saying race does not matter. My point is to get to the root of how it has been used and why it matters, and that understanding how all that correlates to the outcomes so many movements are pushing against is critical to truly turning the tide for good and for real. Understanding it also makes the parallels between movements clear, and movements working together is also critical.

Please also do not hear me saying that other isms do not matter. Gender, sexuality, ablism, mental health, etc have all also been used as tools to control power and resources. No doubt. Of them all, the race construct — because it is made up and therefore fluid and malleable — is the one where the cracks show up the most clearly and is therefore the most stark lens through which to understand the construct. That we feel such a tension between groups and across groups is part of what keeps us putting our energy in the wrong places and keeps the machine going.

Please also do not hear me saying that the pain and hurt of racism and other isms is not real. The realness of that pain drives the search for blame and reason. The cause is all there in our history — and now clear in our present.

I am hopeful that the clarity of today intersected with the information at our fingertips can lead to a long overdue true evolution toward equity.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

We are St. Louis [Because movement]

Originally published on Medium.

Here’s what I’m going to need us to do, St. Louis. I’m going to need us to take a good strong look in the mirror and make a decision.

I get that national politics are in a dramatic state of flux, I get that global warming is real, I get that the rash of celebrity deaths has blown everyone’s mind. But this isn’t about anyone or anything else. This is about us.

There are a ton of cliches I could use; about people in glass houses, about starting with your own closet — they all come down to the same idea: we’ve got to fix us, we’ve got to strengthen and heal us before we can grow.

Not dramatic. See all of the numbers about everything over the past xx years. Sorry.

In short? I’m asking us to claim this as our rock bottom, and I’m asking us to treat the Spring elections as though our life depends on them. Because it does.

Dramatic? For some, probably; but for many, long overdue. Herein lies the crux of our largest obstacle.

It was a quick trip to Chicago last week that triggered all of this in my brain. My feelings about Chicago have always been in reflection to St. Louis and NYC but this trip, driving through many different parts of the city, I found myself really looking at Chicago. Chicago has racism, Chicago (and the state in which it resides) has governmental issues, Chicago has issues with public education, no one would dispute that Chicago has issues with crime. But Chicago has not lost half its population over the past 50 years.

St. Louis has lost half of its population over the past 50 years. Half. Take that loss of population and spread it out across 28 wards.

My frame of thinking took a huge shift. First, what are we actually doing if we’re not doing it together, collectively, equitably and in alignment with each other — which I’ve always been deeply invested in but now see with more clarity and urgency. Second, the solutions and disparities and opportunities we’ve been strategizing and working on — how are they sustainable if not enough people want to live here?

Yes, many cities have the same issues we do. And we are infinitely more at risk for these same problems because of who we are.

There are some great, nationally recognized things happening in this city. There is growth happening in this city. This city is laden with opportunity. For some of us.

Those same things described above, to some, are a constant reminder of what is not for them or accessible to them. Those same things described above, absent equal attention to our deficits, double down on our weaknesses.

That disconnect is what is killing us. The more some successes are lauded, financed, prioritized and doubled down on while other plans languish, don’t get made or are ignored — or even worse, thrown symbolic scraps — the more vulnerable and damaged we become.

Let me say this another way: this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. This is about consistent outcomes that we cannot debate away. It is about our inability to accept that the problems some of us face are problems for all of us and to act accordingly.

This disconnect plays itself out in all the ways we see and grapple with its symptoms: our schools, our transportation, our justice system, our crime, our regional growth, etc. The root cause of each of our symptoms is our refusal to act as one city and work together on behalf of us all.

Acting as one does not call upon us to give the same to everyone. It does not call upon us to be more charitable to those in need. This calls upon us to focus first and directly on the part of us that is most vulnerable and most at risk. It calls us to act in ways that are sustainable, regenerative and systemic. This — and only this — will make us whole and return parts of us to full thriving mode so that we can collectively become stronger and grow.

The damage and lost gains wrapped up in this disconnect — this inability to solve for us as an “us” — is what I reference when I say “rock bottom.” In order for any of the awesome things happening here to take off, in order for the great systems-level social entrepreneurship breakthroughs occurring here to benefit St. Louis, we need. To. Grow.

We need the people who are already in this city to be able to thrive and grow their neighborhoods and families. If that can’t happen, more people will not choose to build their lives and families here. Without that shift, we are on a hamster wheel. Without more people staying, growing, thriving and investing here, this shift does not happen for St. Louis in a way that matches our potential.

Why is this more critical for St. Louis than for other cities? Why should St. Louis be expected to figure out what the country is far from figuring out? Why is now a pivotal moment?

All together now: St. Louis is deeply and uniquely divided. From the history of the state in which it resides to the reality of its 28 wards that don’t map to its myriad neighborhoods; healing and wholeness are not possible without acknowledging our well documented separatist reality. That’s all without even bringing in racial segregation. That’s leaving St. Louis County out of this for now (start the healing from within — healthy partners make healthier relationships!). Our lines divide and conquer our ability to scale and maximize solutions and investments. “Best Practices” come here to be obliterated.

Racial segregation is in our bones. The number of supreme court cases that have to do with race that originate or move through St. Louis is no mistake. We took over two decades years to adhere to Brown v. Board (school desegregation) and ultimately only did so under threat of the creation of a unified district. We are also so paralyzed by the disparities and disconnect between our black and white citizens that our understanding of equity is myopic and exclusionary of our immigrant communities. I know there are a bunch of people who don’t think this is a problem anymore. Unfortunately, no set of regional outcomes exist to support this belief — not to mention the lived experience of many people of color who have lived in or had experience with St. Louis.

The cycle of awareness in the wake of Michael Brown, Jr’s death opened a door. The national momentum fed the local momentum in a feedback loop. While some are still narrowly focused on the symptom of citizen-law enforcement relations (which is critical), the continued energy has held the space to widen the conversation to root causes of structural inequity and systemic racism. Locally, we have a growing population of people at varying levels of power and influence who understand these concepts and acutely what it means for St. Louis in the context of the two points above. This is why we are at a turning point.

Anyone who’s been around St. Louis for decades, working in politics, social services, civic infrastructure, race relations, can tell you that there’s always been a thirst for systemic change. There have always been efforts and momentum and they come and they go. They go because those who are leading, pushing, and stretching get tired, get blocked, don’t get supported, and/or leave.

What we have on our hands now is a movement — in concert with what’s happening nationally, but so very uniquely our own (see: everything above) and so very critical to our ability to grow.

That is both our opportunity and our risk.

It is a movement because a critical mass of people are leading, pushing, stretching and aligning. The level of emotional and intellectual investment, awareness, knowledge of St. Louis history and complexity, systems thinking, compassion, passion and empathy that are necessary to have the type of impact and momentum that is in motion is intense.

These people and this intensity are the only way forward through to the wholeness and healing that must take place in order to turn the tide on the decades of outcomes that are synonymous with St. Louis — to shift and change the default experience that people have with our city for generations to come.

And this is what brings us to the Spring elections.

Nothing is more systemic than policy and the way in which our city runs. In addition to the opportunity to elect a new mayor, as of this writing, there will be races in 9 of the aldermanic wards (only odd are up this year). These campaigns, the issues raised and how they are framed, the public’s engagement, how we hold our press and leadership accountable — this is a litmus test for whether or not we are ready for a new version of ourselves.

Should the next four months be business as usual, the part of us who’ve seen so clearly what’s at stake will be forced to consider that St. Louis is not capable of change. The people leading, stretching and pushing will be faced with what it means to pour what it takes into a city that isn’t interested in healing and growing.

Yes, people always come and go and come in and out of engagement. This will be different. To lose who and how and what has come together over the past few years would be falling off the wagon in the most devastating of ways.

Some of us won’t realize anything has happened. Some of us will consider it par for the course. Some of us will mourn the type of break-up where you know you’ve left everything on the table, but also know that to stay would have been an act of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results). We’ll know that breaking up was what we had to do to preserve our own ability to stretch and grow and thrive.

So back to that mirror and that pivot point and these elections. On behalf of all of the parts of this body that make up this amazingly beautiful, complex, segregated, stubborn, brick city dripping with potential; let’s take a long hard look in the mirror and be the type of brutally honest that turns everything around.

Don’t just see certain parts of the city in the mirror. Stare long, hard, and deep at the reflection of the city as a whole. That’s who we are. That’s us. That’s we.

We’re broken. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s dangerous.

So is changing, but the alternative to not changing is scarier, harder, and leads to more pain and brokenness.

We inherited a lot of this. It’s not all our fault but seeing it and not doing everything in our power to change it is 200% on us.

Most importantly, we’re worth it, and we’ve got what it takes; more so than most places in this country. We have more positive within our grasp than we do negative but we have to decide to take hold of it. We have to commit to us. All the parts of us.

So what do I practically mean? This is the part where I am expected to list out specific action steps. But honestly, what I’ve learned to be true over the past two years is that when talking about change of this magnitude it is less about what and more about how. In order to see the shifts that would make St. Louis whole, we have to be different. Only that will trigger the specific action steps that make the most sense to you. Adopting a frame of commitment to the healing and growth of all the parts that make up St. Louis is a great place to start. Here are some other thoughts:

Learn about the history of this awesome city. Yes, the past is the past. And, you cannot accurately treat for an ailment without a proper diagnosis. Understanding what we’re working with will make us better at using our energy efficiently to get us well.

Find some people or organizations who deal with local policy and follow/support/learn from/amplify them. This election season is going to bring them out of the woodwork. Who is writing articles or blog posts about proposed policy and how things are run? Who is holding candidate forums? Who is attending hearings and public meetings and asking questions? There’s always an element of doing your own homework and deciding where you stand for yourself — I’m not advocating following blindly, but you just might find your way to a solid bandwagon or two.

Get involved in St. Louis elections. Whether it’s an aldermanic race in your ward or an issue on the general ballot, find a lens through which to learn and explore all the details and sides of things. At a minimum, hold those asking for your vote accountable to all of St. Louis and what their commitment is to making sure it heals and grows. Don’t limit your engagement to the folks running — watch and ask and hold accountable all elected officials as the issues of this Spring’s election are debated and discussed.

Learn about systemic and institutional racism. This is different stuff than individual acts of racism. It is about policy and law and how it intersects with opportunity for people based on race. It is not about black and white. It’s about the “ruling class” and “everyone else.” If you don’t believe this is an important aspect, think of it like going to a professional development course for how to interact with and recruit a target audience that’s important to your business. Buy it or not, it’s critical understanding to live up to a commitment of being part of the “us” of St. Louis’ whole.

Talk to people about their experiences and real issues. Many of us were taught not to talk about money and politics in polite circles. More than ever, we need to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about the details.

As for me, I’ve decided that I’m going into 2017 with this frame of density and growth. My conversations and work and personal experiences have led me to the opinion that people don’t stay in/move to the city because “schools” (I use quotes because that’s code for many things), because of “safety” (more quotes on purpose) and because of segregation and racism (no quotes needed). To me, the conceptual strategy is education equity and integration of neighborhoods (which of course has roots in systemic racism). The practical strategy is how we equitably and in partnership with those already living there grow our low-density/ high-poverty neighborhoods sustainably and systematically.

There are some best practice public safety basics where St. Louis needs attention, but if we are not turning the tide on the environments that statistically align with high crime outcomes we’re not changing anything. This means schools that aren’t “chosen” (more quotes!) by families but default, free of many of the policies and practices that statistically align with the school to prison pipeline, and neighborhoods that are connected and self-sufficient. Poverty rates in high-poverty neighborhoods are outpacing growth in our rebounding neighborhoods.

Sorry, I know. More facts. I’ll stop.

That’s how I’m doubling down on us in 2017. How about you?

PS: All you non-city folks reading this are not off the hook ;). What does your backyard look like and how does the success of the region’s center impact your future?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Our Lives Become the Stories That We Weave [Because chapters]

Originally published on Medium.

The story we’re living in America started long before we were born (and in all the myriad of ways in which different people came to be here, on this American soil).

In the documents that organized this land they were clear about who it was for: free (land owning) white men. This is the foundation on which we were built. This is the preface to our story.

Major chapters include the way in which our founders arrived and settled: by re-branding the existing inhabitants as savages and reducing the “savage population,” through policy, law and force. Systematically displacing them and redistributing their land to free, white (now more easily land owning) men.

The chapter on Bacon’s Rebellion, how our founders understood early the importance of systematically separating the dont-have’s and pitting them against each other in order to secure their own place in the ruling class.

The chapter on how the country was built: chattel slavery and immigrant labor. Major highlights in this chapter include the difference between chattel slavery and slavery elsewhere, and the way in which we allowed the Chinese to come build our railroads (without their families) and then passed law once the railroads were complete to exclude additional Chinese immigrants. More policy, law and force.

The chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Brother against brother, families split over issues of economic freedoms (because when people are property, while humanity might be an impetus, in the end it is a structural issue of economics). A fragile peace held together only by military force. Military force that crumbled in a deal made by the ruling class to settle a contested election.

The chapter on how “race” does not exist, has no scientific or biological basis. However at the same time, has woven itself into our laws, or policies and our identities. And even there we are inconsistent on what is race and what is culture and what is appearance and what is ethnicity. And at the same time erasing it all is impossible.

And so many other chapters in between.

This is our story, America. We don’t learn to connect these dots in school and we are fond of stating it’s “in the past.” And in being in the past it is _in our fabric_. If you are surprised and shocked at the past year and its outcomes, I welcome you to dig deep into the fabric of our American Story. It will bring you peace in that you won’t feel so blindsided. What we see today is a direct result of everything that came before. This is our American truth.

I don’t say any of this to dismiss the shock and sadness that I know some are feeling. I don’t say any of this to shame or blame or say someone is right and someone is wrong. And to be clear, this is not about a candidate, this is about yesterday’s opportunity for us to see the Will of the People demonstrated in real time, state after state after state.

The story is playing out exactly how it was designed to play out. And it will continue to do so until we write a different story.

We can only have a chance to write a new story if we are clear about what came before and how it wraps us in truth today.

From where I sit, I see the preface of this new story. It started decades ago and this latest chapter is an opportunity for more writers to come to the table.

Let’s keep writing.