“We’re at the risk point.”

Version 2On the Road to DC: Boulder, CO (2) — Frank Alexander is director of the Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services—an agency whose work is often celebrated by the left and impugned by the right. In a state where 80% of the local elected officials at the county commissioner level are Republicans and 20% are Democrats, Frank’s department has had to bridge these two different mindsets. Here are some excerpts describing their approach.

Reducing separation
“We look at things like welfare as a handout because we’re so attached as humans to our concept of being better than the other. We’re so attached to our sense of superiority—we’re intellectually superior; we’re financially superior—that we see people who are struggling as inferior. And so we look for the simple explanation that justifies our sense of superiority.

“If we continue to justify our own sense of superiority by demonizing the other, the separation between ‘us and them’ grows, and our ability to justify decisions that will harm the other increases because we don’t see its impact on us.

“But if we reduce that separation, then we realize that the harm that we are perpetrating by our continued ability to bury problems is going to come back to us. And I think that’s what we’ve been really trying to do here, is change that dynamic.”

Combining brutal honesty with unbelievable optimism
“There’s a paradox that has driven a lot of my life’s work. On one hand, we have to be brutally honest about what’s actually happening. We can’t delude ourselves as to the actual things that are occurring in our world and in our communities and ourselves right now. There’s got to be a level of science and evidence and brutal honesty.

“At the same time there has to be an unbelievable level of optimism and hope. Those two things together can allow us to move forward.”

Doing work for one another
“I do believe what’s going to be required is that more of us have to be focused on alleviating the suffering of each other. I don’t think there’s a pathway to greater understanding and awareness without actually doing work for one another.

“One of my favorite phrases is, ‘I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack.’ We don’t get to take any of this with us. All we’re doing is borrowing it. Whose lessons are you taking from those who came before you? Who are you learning from, and what are you doing while you’re here, and what are you leaving for the people coming up behind you?

“I think it’s so basic. We’ve gotten away from the basics.”

We’re at the ‘risk point’
“Everybody makes a decision at some point whether they’re going to hang in through the conflict, or not. And I think it feels like right now we’re at the risk point. The level of disgust is so high that people are not hanging in there with each other through their disagreements. And they’re using that excuse to further disengage or further demonize or further be disgusted with one another, as if the other somehow is the manifestation of all things evil and we’re the manifestation of all things good.

“I think we have to reverse that process, because there is nothing there for us. I mean, that is a wasteland.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of strong leadership from people. People are going to have to become a much greater version of themselves to get us through this.”

“We actually do care about and love our country.”

img_2863On the Road to DC: Washington, DC — On the day of Trump’s inauguration, we met two American university students, both Muslim. They’d been at the inauguration all day holding signs saying “Muslims for Peace,” and inviting passersby to stop and chat. We spoke with one, Sarmad, a 21-year-old from Centerville, Virginia. Here are edited excerpts: Continue reading

“I support the wall.”

img_2765-1On the Road to DC: Natchitoches, LA — Chris Arnade, photographer and storyteller, did a piece not long ago on the role of McDonald’s restaurants as small-town community centers. It was a series of photos and quoted snippets from people in struggling economic circumstances who had, despite geographic and social differences, all turned to McDonald’s as a place to gather. The concept spoke to me, especially in the context of my own conversation mission. After more than a week on the road to DC, our sampling of the country still felt monochromatic, and we wanted to get further outside the bubble we were purportedly popping.

And so, in that spirit, we pulled off I-49 at Natchitoches, Louisiana to look for some lunch, and some spontaneous conversation. The immediate off-highway options were the usual fare, but nestled in between a Wendy’s and a Popeyes, in a town with a very small Latino community, was a newly opened family-owned Mexican restaurant called El Patio. Curious, we poked our heads inside.

Our waitress’ name was Edie, a young thirty-something who had come to the US from Venezuela, and we struck up a conversation in Spanish, as she had only recently moved to Louisiana from Miami and was still learning English. She helped me find what I was looking for on the menu, and we exchanged some pleasantries.

By the time we were done with our meal, the place had cleared out and I felt less guilty about taking up Edie’s time. Assuming I could predict her answer, I asked in Spanish, “So what do you think about the political climate here? If and when you think about it?”

She clarified, “You mean, what do I think about Trump?”

“Yeah, sure. Let’s start there.”

She looked left, looked right, and then leaned in so as not to be overheard by any of her Mexican co-workers. Then she stunned me. She told me if she wasn’t on a visa and could have voted, she would have voted for Trump.

“Okay. Interesting. And in a word, why?”

“He seems like the best choice economically.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

She looked miffed, as if my question didn’t read as sincere. “Well it’s Trump. He’s a very successful businessman.”

I asked Edie about the immigration issue, expecting to hear a concession on the subject, but again, she popped my bubble.

“The wall seems like a good idea. I support the wall. A country has the right to know who enters its borders. I’m here legally. I have my papers, I stood in line. So did my brother. People are coming in from Mexico illegally all the time. Why should there be a shortcut there? In Venezuela, we want to know who is coming in to our country. It’s fair for the United States to want the same.”

“I see. And what do you think about Trump, the man?”

“A little too aggressive, in my opinion. Not very presidential. Almost like a dog, always barking and trying to fight.”

“But you don’t mind that?”

“I mind, I think some of the things he says are wrong, but things he plans to do could be very good. People voted for him to make the economy better, and he knows business.

“But ‘the lady’ [Hillary] was no good. She never spoke to me. She never touched me. She was everything I think of when I picture a smiling, typical white lady.”

She went on for a short while on that subject, hitting on some of the favorite digs against Hillary Clinton—specifically that she was disconnected from the struggle of the working class—all while referring to her as “la señora,” or simply “the lady.” But Edie had work to do and we had taken up enough of her time, so I thanked her for sharing her thoughts with me and wished her well.

We said our goodbyes, but before leaving she asked me a question in return. She wanted to know what we thought of Trump, and by ‘we’ I took her to mean all Americans. “We’re divided,” I said.

“Well, that much is clear,” she replied.

“Until we bring love back, this world gonna be messed up.”

Version 2On the Road to DC: Birmingham, AL — We met George Rudolph, a Vietnam war veteran, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. The park is kitty corner to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 four young African American girls died in a bomb blast planted by the KKK.

One of those killed was Addie Mae Collins, the sister of George’s wife, Sarah, who was also seriously injured. The event is considered a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

I walk up to George, whom I’ve never met, and ask if he’ll talk to me. His response is instantly friendly. I tell him about our ‘conversation road trip’, and ask him his thoughts on Donald Trump.

“Well…he won the electoral vote; that’s what he won. He didn’t win the popular vote. Hillary got that. [So] he might be president…but he ain’t none a’ my president.

“Man, any time you get up on a table and say you can grab a woman in her private parts…what give you the right to do that? But people still voted for him. So, my thing is, I wish him well, but he ain’t none a’ my president.

“When Obama was in there in the White House, man he had class! I ain’t never seen him all riled up, gettin’ mad or hollerin’ at somebody. This man [Trump], hell, he gonna be known for that if things don’t go his way! See, he’s used to havin’ his way. He got all that money. 

George walks us toward the church, and toward a memorial sculpture called “The four spirits”—a tribute to the four girls killed in the ’63 bombing. 

“You know about that church over there? Them girls got killed. One of them girls was my wife’s sister. Let me show you, I’m gonna show it to you.

He points to the statue of the girl sitting on the bench.

“That’s Addie Mae. That’s my wife’s sister right there. “

Then he points to a photograph embedded in a stone bench, also part of the memorial.

“That picture you see on the end, right here? That’s my wife. Her name’s Sarah. My wife survived that bombing. She was in the church that morning when that bomb went off and four girls got killed. She lost an eye in that bombing, but she survived it. Now she suffers with PTSD, just like I do from Vietnam.

“See, that was a powerful bomb. I was in church, I was in church on the south side, and when I heard that explosion, man, I said ‘God, no!’ And later on I thought, ‘how could anybody live through that?’ But she did; Sarah lived through it.

kelly-ingram-park-dogs“There’s a lot of history down in this park. You see in this park, this is where…I don’t know if you heard of Bull Connor. He was the chief of police. He was the one that was givin’ the orders, turnin’ the dogs loose, and the fire hoses. He’s ridin’ around in a white tank, turnin’ them dogs on men.

“A lot of history here in this park, and over there in that church.

“This is a historical landmark. President just signed it, it says ‘Historical Landmark’. You are here in a historical place. If these grounds could talk…a lot of people…a lot of blood was shed here.”

I ask him what advice he has for people who disagree, to help them come together.

“Well, they’ve got to have love, see? If you ain’t got no love in your hearts… you got to have love.

“I can’t hate you for your color. You can’t hate me for my color. See, the Creator don’t look at color. He look at that heart.

“We must love each other. Until we bring that love back, this world gonna be messed up. You got to have love.”

“I got to love you. Then I got to forgive you. You see, that’s another thing. We got to have forgiveness. You hear me? You got to have forgiveness.”

“Walkin’ around hatin’ you, man…how can I hate you and say I love Him who I’ve never seen? You got to have love, that’s what’s lackin’.

“People don’t have love in their hearts. They just got hatred. All this killin’ is senseless, like right here in Birmingham…we set a record with homicide, man. People just doin’ this killin.’ And it’s wrong.

“When I went to Vietnam, I didn’t like that. I didn’t volunteer for that. The only thing I know is I got a piece of paper saying where I got to go.”

George turns away to hide his emotion.

“You see that’s another thing. What is war good for? War ain’t good for nothin’. Sendin’ some young man over there in Iraq or Afghanistan…what is the purpose? What are you accomplishing, being over there? Nothing. Then when you lose a loved one, then that family is messed up.  They lost a son or daughter.

“So we got to have love, man. We got to have a whole lotta love. That’s something I think Trump is lacking. You know he got that money, and the arrogance, and he figure it’ll be his way, where he gets to say ‘you fired!’

“It’s gonna be rough, man! But I ain’t gonna look at that inauguration. I ain’t even gonna look at it. There’s a lot of hate goin’ on there. The KKK ain’t never went nowhere, but they comin’ out now, ’cause you see Trump is talkin’ their language.

“Like I say, that man’s in charge (points upwards). The president elect can’t do no more than what He let him do. ‘Cause that money can’t save him. You can’t take that money with you. That money there to help people. You can’t put it in that casket.”

Our conversation starts coming to a close, as other people call to get George’s attention.

“You say you gonna drive up there? So you gonna be there for the actual inauguration, that day, you’ll be there? That’s gonna be something to see. Well, you be careful, you and your son.”

We end the conversation with a hug, and I thank him for being so responsive to me when I walked up to talk.

“Yeah, that’s what it’s all about.”

Now, in writing up this conversation, I’m reminded of a quote from Maya Angelou:

“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”