Friday, June 26, 2009

Walking Richmond's historic Slave Trail For decades, Richmond, Virginia has been defined by its past: Capital of the Confederacy, hub of the African slave trade, linchpin of massive resistance to school integration. But a new story is emerging of communities collaborating, history being healed and bridges of trust being built through honest conversation. Karen Elliott Greisdorf reports on The Trust Factor, an Initiatives of Change National Forum held at the University of Richmond, June 4-7, 2009.

“We live in a society that expects the truth, expects trust, but we also live in a society that dwells on untruth,” said Ellen Robertson, Vice President of the Richmond City Council, at the forum opening. “As we have this dialogue on trust we must explore where we need to go and how we go forward together in trust with one another.”

The forum, which drew leading practitioners of conflict resolution, dialogue and community building from around the U.S. and abroad, began by examining the DNA of a Trustbuilder. Panelist Amy Potter, Associate Director, Practice Institute, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at  Eastern Mennonite University, discussed her intertribal reconciliation efforts in Sierra Leone and the sometime painful realization that the first stage of trustbuilding had to occur amongst the staff before they could call others to the same action. “We had to learn to be comfortable sitting with discomfort and ambiguity,” said Potter. “The longer you are at this work, the more you are confronted with the challenges of trustbuilding.”

Krish Raval, director of Faith in Leadership, and D. Paul Monteiro from the White White House Office of Public Engagement (Photo: Karen Elliott-Greisdorf)“Sometimes the divides that we think exist, the divides we draw, put people in boxes,” said D. Paul Monteiro of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “The divisions are not as great as we think they are.” The White House office was established to reach out to communities that aren’t traditionally consulted when policies are being made. “Many times we are talking about moral issues: there is a moral component to losing a home, health care, how we treat immigrants.”

Monteiro suggested that part of a trustbuilder’s DNA is comprised of listening and healthy disagreement. “It is important to engage with people who think differently and to disagree without being disagreeable. Engagement is where the magic happens.”

Krish Raval, CEO of  Learn to Lead and the Director of Faith In Leadership in England, followed Monteiro with a story that could be defined as magical by anyone who has been in the overwhelming minority at one time or another. Raval shared that Zahid, a young Muslim leader, and Phil, the head of a Jewish organization, struggled through their differences to build a friendship that eventually led them to one of the largest Jewish conferences in the U.K.

Out of respect, and ultimately trust, Philip found a place for Zahed to pray in the midst of three to four thousand Jews. The ultimate act of trustbuilding came when Philip stood outside the door as a buffer from fellow Jews who were less than supportive of Zahed praying. Raval said, “People are hurt and have legitimate concerns. Someone has to be big enough and bold enough to absorb (those feelings) and give it back as love.”

Dr. Syngman Rhee, International Chairman of the Institute for Strategic Reconciliation, learned about being bold enough as a young man from his work with Rev. Martin Luther Luther King who taught him not just to liberate the oppressed but to liberate the oppressor, too. In the following years, Rhee has made more than 20 trips to his native Korean peninsula to work for reconciliation there.

“A bridge has to touch both sides. People want us to be on their side,” Rhee said. “New history is made by people who are willing to touch both sides and to lie down. I am drawn to Initiatives of Change because it is a movement that recognizes the importance of nurturing the roots and bearing the fruits. Trustbuilding must be on a personal level and social level.”

A second plenary session entitled Building Bridges, Living With Integrity took the weekend’s conversation from the personal to the social level. Dr. Mishkat Al-Moumin, Minister for the Environment in the Iraqi transitional government and now an adjunct professor at George Mason University, worked courageously at the government level, but she also realized the power of impacting a whole generation of future trustbuilders. She started by building relationships with her students at Baghdad University, many of whom came from the environmentally marginalized Sadr city.

“I decided to start a dialogue with them about what it was like living in Sadr city where there are small factions of Kurds and Sunnis, but the majority is Shia” Al-Moumin said. “They all wanted the same thing: safe drinking water. The issue was about the basic needs of people. To understand that, I needed dialogue, patience and listening. That took a lot of effort.”

The dialogues culminated in women and men sitting together in one room to discuss the needs and Sunni and Shia coming together to do an environmental clean up. “They came to see me as a member of the community, even though I looked different and wasn’t covering my head with a hijab,” Al-Moumin concluded. “If you want to build trust you have to reach out and survive the first rejection. My responsibility was to reach out to them – it was not their responsibility to reach out to me.”

Fellow panelist Jeremy MacNealy, a business writer and law school student, echoed Al-Moumin’s emphasis on the environment and responsibility. “There is no future for business if there is no future on earth. Major corporations are beginning to realize this,” MacNealy said. “The question for corporations now is how to work towards a purpose-driven profitability. We need to keep them accountable. There is a deep moral crisis in the marketplace and we need to have courageous, compassionate conversation.”

“A courageous conversation is to admit you were wrong,” said Tom Silvestri, President and Publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which once championed Massive Resistance to school integration. Over the past four years Silvestri has facilitated 25 Public Square conversations on issues ranging from immigration to affordable housing hosted by the paper. In this age of electronic news consumption and conversation in which we can be increasingly disconnected from one another, Silvestri has seen the challenges and triumphs of such conversations. “The process is open for manipulation, impatience, people making points. Many have a fear of face-to-face communication, but we are insistent that this has to be face- to- face, because when you’ve not ‘been there’ you should listen and learn.”

Gail Christopher, Vice President for Programs W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Photo: Karen Elliott-Greisdorf)

Dr. Gail Christopher came to Richmond to listen and learn and in return gave her fellow participants a great deal on which to reflect. As the Vice President for Programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Dr. Christopher shared in her keynote remarks that after a 20 year internal journey of organizational development, work and dialogue on diversity issues the foundation committed itself to being an anti-racist institution. “But I thought you can’t just be anti something, you must be for something,” Christopher said, “so we are working for racial equity. We envision a nation that marshals its resources to ensure that all children have an equitable and promising future – a nation in which all children thrive.”

While some national commentators and citizens have suggested that we are in a post-racial America because there is a black President in the White House, Christopher said “it would be a great mistake to act on that because there is a deep psychological opening and we must seize the window of opportunity to bring racism to an end in America. We still have the privileging of one group based on physical characteristics and the demeaning of another. Is it just about black and white? No. Permission to denigrate based on pigmentation has spilled over. We have given ourselves permission to ‘otherize’. Speaking as a physician, DNA does not determine, it is simply information. The DNA of trust is about information and the way that information is expressed.”

Before taking to the podium for her keynote address at The Trust Factor, Dr. Christopher took part in the forum’s Healing History site visit, which included the historic Slave Trail.. Because her father had been born in Richmond, she spoke of “walking in the steps of my ancestors in a very direct way. I am struck by the importance of Richmond based on the history and the dedication of people here committed to going the distance…The city has played a critical role in the country in being the embodiment of the problem; it could be the embodiment of the solution.”

While the role of formal dialogues and the benefit of conversations cannot be overestimated, Dr. Christopher recognized the passion and the purpose of this forum when she said, “So much of this work of trustbuilding is recognizing the core humanity beyond words.”

Download Breakthroughs newsletter for full forum report

The Trust Factor is part of an ongoing series of training activities and conferences designed to share stories of trustbuilding and hope and to equip people to move forward as trustbuilders.