Friday, September 4, 2015

New Orleans, LA“How to speak truth to power and speak in love; how to speak truth in ways that unite us”: this is the challenge facing New Orleans, said Mayor Mitch Landrieu as the city marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He was speaking to 200 community leaders convened by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as part of its America Healing priority.  Described as a Day of Community Engagement for New Orleans, it featured six-hour “healing sessions” with small groups led by a team of 24 practitioners drawn from 15 states; Tee Turner and I from Hope in the Cities were part of that team.

Landrieu highlighted the significant reconstruction after the devastating storm as well as the work still to be done, but also he noted that resilience is not just about buildings. “Everything we do should foster diversity, inclusion and growth.”

“We have to change. Katrina did not cause all of our problems…The inequities were generational in the making and will not change overnight,” said the mayor. New Orleans symbolizes the challenges facing America’s cities. “What makes us different is that we are facing them directly.” He praised the work of the William Winter Institute in Mississippi which is leading Welcome Table dialogues in New Orleans. He referenced his apology as mayor for New Orleans’ prominent role in the slave trade. And he indicated the need to move Confederate monuments to a more appropriate place. “We have to do it because those monuments are not really about the people sitting on them.” Of the work of healing he said, “It’s not complicated. It’s just hard.  We want constructive engagement, and we must do this in love.”

The mission of the Kellogg Foundation is to support families and communities in creating conditions in which all children can thrive. Its president and CEO, La June Montgomery Tabron, said “America Healing is much more than an initiative….We learned that if we did not deal with issues of trauma and healing nothing else mattered….Not only children but all of us need to be healed….It will not always be comfortable, but you will find, as I did, that it will be transformational.”

Isabel Wilkerson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, keynoted the day. “Some people look at the book as history,” she said, “until they turn on the TV. We have been shaken to our core as to what we are as a country. We are truly at a point of reckoning.” She said “We need to tell the story of our common experience that binds us all….You can change the laws but unless you reach the hearts of the people for whom the laws are written you really don’t have strong laws.” She spoke of the “unspeakable loss” to America of the talent of generations of people who were not able to choose what to do with their lives, but also the loss to the ‘beneficiaries.’ “They suffered a spiritual loss far greater than what can be done to the body. Think of all the wondrous things that have not been done because we are all down in the ditch….We have never tried as a country to come together as human beings to share our common narrative. The last frontier is the human heart.”                                                                  

Healing Group 8 - New OrleansIn each healing session participants shared personal experiences which had caused them to feel or know that they had the power and capacity to thrive, rebound or succeed. I had the privilege of co-facilitating one group with Benny J. Shendo, Jr., a leader of the Pueblo people and a member of the New Mexico state senate. He recently started a community development project in his home pueblo, building houses in the traditional adobe style using local materials. Our group heard powerful stories of family and community: stories of courage, of sacrifice, of faith, of persistence and of innovation. We also considered what it would take to make New Orleans a place where all people are valued equally.  

Ambassador James Joseph, who served in President Carter’s administration and who was US ambassador to South Africa during the Clinton administration, closed the day by addressing the centrality of community in the public narrative, the importance of symbols, forgiveness as a way of empowering the victims of violence, and the many dimension of reconciliation. He pointed to the “fractured sense of US community” and the need to “bring into balance the rugged romance of individualism with the caring, supportive common good.” Quoting Howard Thurman, he said, “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.” He also warned that reconciliation without justice would not be sustainable. There was much focus, he said, on people of color forgiving, but very little on the need for economic reconciliation.

Dr. Gail Christopher, the visionary behind America Healing, invited the attendees to imagine what America would look like if we were to end the "absurd hierarchy of human value…We think it is very fitting that America begins to heal in this great city.”