Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sean Taylor: 21 Means Change

I’m headed to the mall to purchase a number 21 Washington Redskins jersey. It will be the first and only jersey in my closet. That thug life look is not the image I want to reflect. I want the jersey to honor the changes Sean Taylor was making. Taylor was killed during an invasion at his Miami home.

From all accounts Taylor’s life changed with the birth of his daughter 18 months ago. His bad boy ways had landed him in trouble on and off the field. He was suspended by the league after spitting in the face of a player and had a history of gun-related legal issues. Having a baby changed all of that.

Antrel Rolle has known Taylor for most of his life. The two played football together at the age of six for the Homestead Hurricanes and went on to play together at the University of Miami from 2001-2003. Rolle, a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, says Taylor was being targeted for more than three years.

During an interview with ESPN, Rolle said Taylor lived scared everyday of his life while in Miami. “It was not a burglary under any circumstances,” Rolle said. “Lot of people knew Sean. There was a lot of jealously, lot of envious people. A lot of people he no longer hung out with.”

Miami-Dade police are still investigating a link to a Nov. 17 break-in at Taylor’s home, in which police said someone pried open a front window, went through drawers and left a kitchen knife on a bed. If Rolle’s assessment is correct, the death of Taylor may provide a glimpse at the struggle NFL players have in pulling away from the thug lifestyle.

Close to a year ago, Broncos’ cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting following an argument at a Denver nightclub. University of Miami defensive lineman Bryan Pata was sot to death in November 2006 several miles from Taylor’s home. Then there’s the brawl with Adam “Pacman” Jones of the Tennessee Titans at a Las Vegas strip club where three people were shot.

After that incident, Robert Susnar, co-owner of the Minxx Gentleman’s Club, told ESPN “the NFL is starting to look like an organized crime family, and I find that objectionable.”

Sad is the jealously that brews hostility among those frustrated because of their own condition. Rolle said there are jealous people who targeted Taylor. People he once hung out with before the birth of his daughter. Could it be they reaped the benefits of Taylor’s lifestyle until he decided to rid himself of all the bad that came with hanging with the boys? Could it be that separating oneself from the thug life brings consequences that those on the outside don’t understand?

Of course all of this is speculation. For now no one knows who shot Taylor. We do know his life had changed. We know this wasn’t the first break in at his home and that a knife was placed on a pillow. Burglars normally don’t leave weapons on pillows. It was a warning.
Taylor died at the age of 24. “It’s hard to expect a man to grow up overnight,” said Clinton Portis, the star running back with the Redskins. "But ever since he had his child, it was like a new Sean, and everybody around here knew it. He was always smiling, always happy, always talking about his child."

So, I’ll wear number 21 in honor of Taylor and his desire to change. I’ll think of him on Sunday when I preach my sermon. I will think of him the next time I watch a football game. What will I think? Change is a good thing, but it’s much better when you don’t have to deal with the pain that comes with change. There are so many people who refuse to let it happen. They would rather see you suffer with them than to grant you the space to become the man God wants you to be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Durham: A Self-Portrait

Steve Channing’s documentary, Durham: A Self-Portrait, gave me cause to reflect on my purpose as an advocate, minister and columnist. A few days after seeing it, I was informed by a friend that I have a reputation for burning bridges. My friend’s words stunned me due to the great ends I have taken to build rather than damage relationships since coming to Durham.

Durham: A Self-Portrait gave a historical account of race relations in Durham. It was noted that while things were out of control a few miles down the road in Wilmington, North Carolina, blacks and whites had formulated a system that maintained harmony in Durham. Throughout the years blacks and whites have discovered a way to coexist. Central in maintaining the peace was the emphasis and power of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

The documentary examines how John Merrick, founder of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, used his connection with the Duke family to position himself as the owner of a company that would grow to become the largest African American owned financial institution in the nation. Merrick played the race game to convince whites in Durham that life for all would be better as long as the blacks stayed on their side of the tracks.

Merrick, C.C. Spaulding and other leaders of the African American community helped maintain accord by crafting a wedge between the blacks on the Hayti side of the city and whites on the other side of the tracks. African American leaders kept the poor, uneducated factory workers in their rightful place. They were the voice of the city, and tension was minimized due to the confidence whites had in those leading African Americans

These leaders espoused the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. The key to success among African Americans, in their opinion, could be found in each person pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This perspective was embedded in the Puritan work ethic which held to the promise of The American Dream. For those who work hard, blame no one and trust in God, success is a certain outcome.

Merrick, Spaulding, Aaron McDuffie Moore, James Shepard and others were examples of the fulfillment of the dream among African Americans. This notion redeemed whites of any obligation to assist African Americans beyond the end of their enslavement. It discarded any inference suggesting the significance of any policy formulated on the basis of racial indifference. Sadly, Durham is a rare community that has long denied the presence and dominance of systems created to deny the mobilization of a group due to their race.

Durham has played the race game. The elite blacks were charged with the task of keeping the poor and disgruntled blacks in the rightful place. They were entrusted with the obligation of convincing them that any shortcoming they face was the consequence of their own limits, and that race had nothing to do with all of the doors slammed in their face.
This brings me back to the charge presented to me by my white friend related to my reputation as a person who burns bridges. I was quick to note the difference between a politician and a prophet. Politicians operate out of a desire to convince as many people as they can. Prophets are given the charge to expose injustice. By definition, a prophet can never stand on the side of a particular agenda. We are called to remain free from the causes of others.

His comments deal with a matter even more difficult to embrace given the significance of race. At the heart of it all is the uneasiness white people feel when a black man has the bravado to refuse to stand on their side of the fence. It is rare for African American leadership to function completely free from the power of white privilege. People are taken aback when a person can march to their own drum and speak the truth from their own perspective.

John Merrick learned to play the race game. It involved giving the white man what he wanted to free himself up to get what he wanted in return. Those who rose to power in Durham learned to play this game. Sadly, may continue to play the race game. There is a difference. Those who haven’t gained from the game elite blacks play, no longer respect those reaping the benefits of playing the game.

As much as we would love to celebrate the history of our fine city, we should stand back from it all and ask some pressing questions. Like, what happens when a black man refuses to shuck and jive in a way that honors what white people desire? Will he be minimized? Will he be invalidated for refusing to play the race game? Will they be promoted? Will people listen to what they have to say? Will they be recognized for their prophetic voice, or will they be called trouble makers while those who smile, sing and dance to the tune of those with power get pats on the back and compensation to authenticate the way they function.

Durham: A Self-Portrait. It’s sad how we have been fooled.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Time to handoff to Jim Brown

I was wholly disgusted when I read the “Comprehensive Gang Assessment” prepared for the city and county of Durham by Deborah Lamm Weisel and James C. Howell. They were paid $60,000 to tell us what we already knew and gave little guidance on what it would take to reduce gang activity in Durham.

I’m dismayed due to the way Durham has historically dealt with gangs and in how we continue to function as if we have no clue as to what it would take to solve the problem. For the past ten years I have been yelling like John the Baptist in the wilderness begging people to wipe the sleep from their eyes and take a look at what is happening before it is too late.

Instead of creating well conceived strategies to shift the tide, we pay a few academics to study the problem, spend a few years evaluating the study, pull together a committee to design solutions, call a meeting of power brokers to raise some money and, after a few years, hire a staff to implement the recommendations. By the time we get to the stage of execution the study used to fuel the discussion is long outdated.

I have seen this process used over and over again in Durham. From the years of planning that went into the now defunct Youth Coordinating Board, which promised to be Durham’s fix all solution to youth service delivery, to the long gone community resource center housed in the former Holloway Street Elementary School, Durham is good at planning for the short haul while being weak on envisioning beyond the next wave of leadership in government.

I’m fed up with meeting to talk about ways to fix things. I’m also disgusted with all of the programs created to mend our youth gang problem. The truth is most lack substance, creativity and access to those we need to reach. In other words, those involved in gangs aren’t participating, for the most part, in these programs. Most of what we do is all hype.

I’ve noticed a disconnection between most program models and the youth served and their parents. Many models are operating with assumptions related to the economic conditions of the families being served. As hard as it may be to believe this, not all gang members come from poor families. An obstruction to productive outcomes is, to a large measure, the result of building structures that force youth and their families to fit into a specific definition.

We’ve been seduced into believing all gang bangers come from homes where dad is not present, where there is a cycle of incarceration within the family combined with substance abuse and meager academic preparation. By pitting all within these neat pockets many are lost along the way.

That’s why I called Jim Brown last week. The Hall of Fame football legend has dedicated his life to empowering individuals to change of their lives and achieve their full potential. Since 1988, Amer-I-Can has made a major impact in communities across the nation.

“We infiltrate gangs by finding the talented in the gangs and offer them a jobs,” Brown told me last year during a conversation. “You get the best in the gangs to work with you.” One feature of the program, and therefore a powerful weapon in accomplishing this task, is that 95% of the Amer-I-Can staff is composed of former gang members and/or ex-convicts. Brown effectively contributed to the Los Angeles Bloods' and Crips' gang truce and helped keep peace among rival gang sets during the Los Angeles Uprising.

That’s what’s missing in most of the programs created to address Durham’s youth problem. The experts at the table lack the understanding and access to those most impacted by the issue at hand. Brown has the star appeal that will draw youth in, and, once in, he has a curriculum designed to help people make the changes.

The objective of the program is to cause one to examine their past conditioned behavior patterns and to systematically apply proven methods to overcome behavior that negatively influenced their lives. It’s a comprehensive approach that does what most programs overlook-it begins by enhancing a person’s self-conception.

Youth get involved in gangs because they’re convinced it’s the best option available given their limits. Academic enhancement fails when the student can’t make the connection between performance and outcomes. Once they buy into the notion that they are less likely to succeed academically they make decisions to nurture their tarnished self-esteem.

Giving a student options to bolster poor academic performance is needed, but none of it works if that student fails to believe it will make a difference. Amer-I-Can begins on the inside. It’s a spiritual process that helps youth and their parents take ownership of the unlocked power within them. That’s what’s missing in Durham. We need more than program models. We need to rekindle the flames of imagination within our youth.

“Reverend, we have been making a difference for 20 years,” Brown said. “All we need are the resources.”

If Durham can find $60,000 to pay for a study, certainly we can find the resources to bring Amer-I-Can to our city. Amer-I-Can gets at the root of the problem. If you’re interested in learning more let me know.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Day at Orange High School

“I don’t think I can go to college,” the words came to easy. Tameka Chambers, a student at Orange High School hurled those repulsive words in response to my question-who wants to go to college?

“Why would you say that?” I attacked back. There’s not much in the world that I detest as much as a young person limiting themselves based on a self-imposed constraint.

“My attitude gets me in trouble,” she said. “I keep getting kicked out.”

“Don’t ever say that about yourself,” I attacked back, holding back the rage that forced me to fight back the tears. “For you to say that about yourself is to say that all that I’ve achieved can not be done in you.” My words triggered a reflection on how far God has brought me since my high school years. I wanted the students to locate the same faith that has landed me work as a professional writer.

I was there to speak to students for career day. My friend Jae Peterson is a teacher at Orange High School over in Hillsborough, NC. At her request, Anne Jelinek, the career counselor, contacted me to speak to students about my work as a journalist and novelist. My day started at 8:45 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. I went back and forth between classes taught by Peterson and Sally Satterfield.

Tameka’s comment took me back to the frustration I felt while in high school. I shared with each class a moment of transformation in my life. After dropping out of school, Mr. Battle, my school counselor, showed up at my house one day to take me back to school. While sitting in his office he rearranged my class schedule. He refused to allow me to fail.

For two hours each day I served as a student aid for the American History class that combined English and history. I took great pride in serving my teachers from the previous year. I learned some things about teaching that have served me well over the years, but there was more to what Mr. Battle did. Every day, for an hour each day, he placed me in a room and forced me to write. He told me to write feelings down. There’s more. He introduced me to Thomas McAfee, a professor at the University of Missouri, to begin a mentorship.

Battle, Ms. Westerfield, Coach Fred and my other teachers at Hickman High school saw something in me. They saw promise. They refused to allow me to fail. They witnessed my sorrow after the death of my sister and came to my rescue. They saw potential in me and went above and beyond the norm to protect me from the destructive behavior that was jeopardizing my future.

I told the students my story. Then I made a confession. “They saw a great writer in me,” I said. “They believed in me, but it really didn’t matter. You know why? Because I didn’t see it in myself.”

I wanted to drive that point home. After reading an essay written by a student in Sally Satterfield’s class, I asked him an important question. “What are you going to do with your words? Your words are power. Lives will be changed due to your words. You are walking genius. What will you do with your words?”

He told me he lives in a group home. The years of misery caused by his surroundings had limited his perspective. “Your words can be written wherever you live, and your words can take you places beyond what you see.” I prayed for the spirit of Mr. Battle to move in that moment.

I was escorted back to Jae Peterson Creative Writing class. The first face I saw was Tameka’s. She stood before the class to introduce me. In the middle of he introduction there was a confrontation with another student. “Shut up in listen,” she demanded.

The student removed himself from the classroom after an emotional outburst. “I can go home and smoke one. I don’t need this shit..,” Were his last words as he walked out the door. Peterson did her best to calm the situation. Was this the reason for my coming? Had God placed me in this space to touch this hurting youth?

I stepped out to speak with him. I gave him a lesson on respect. He agreed to return to class. We can’t help them if they’re not in the room. Something may have been said to spark a change. You can’t catch the fire unless there is a match to start the heat.

I left all of the classes with a challenge. I begged them to create. I admonished them to start a blog, to put their thoughts out there for people to read. To use writing as a way to get the feelings out, to grow and inspire.

Yesterday I opened my email. Words from an angel appeared before me. A wonderful gift from God posted the first words on Jae Peterson’s class new blog. As I read her words the tears flowed. The spirit of Mr. Battle was with me that day.

“I think Mr. Carl Kenney is a great speaker. He had lots of thing to share with us. He reminds me of myself, and I feel like if he can get though hard time and struggles then I can to,” Tameka wrote “He showed me to not pay attention to what everybody has to say and just to look at them and laugh. Cause the people that I have problem with they are not going to be there when I get my diploma. Now I should look forward to going to collage even if I think I'm not going. I should just have faith in myself. That's why I feel like MR.CARL KENNEY is a great speaker. He helped me to believe in myself!”

When I get my diploma-she wrote. I believe in myself-she wrote. Those words inspire me. Those words remind me. Keep writing Tameka. I’ll be there on graduation day.
Support Jae Peterson's Class by reading and commenting on their blog at:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Time on the Mountain

I had to take a break from writing. For the past week I have put my blog on the shelf while processing a number of personal issues that made it difficult for me to focus. I had to travel to the mountaintop to spend a little time alone with my God. It has been hard for me to come back down into the valley, but there is work to be done.

My time away has given me cause to consider the importance of balance. All of that time dedicated to processing social matters has left me drained due to the pain felt after writing about the chaos all around us. I’m reminded of the basic tenants of my faith. My love of the Quaker theologian Rufus Jones compels me to find the spark of God within every person. The throbbing of my spirit has challenged me to love beyond my own capacity.

This love that I carry is greater than anything I have previously felt. In a strange way, God has taken me to new heights of spiritual reflection. It comes out of the frustration related to contending with those who develop opinions based on their own imagination. I have been harmed by the ways others perceive me. I have allowed the aggravation of years of exertion to immobilize me. My deep sadness reminds me of the significance of the mountain. Lingering among the broken too long can shade the truth of God’s work.

My tears have dried up now. The mending of this broken heart has provided me the strength to return to the valley. It was lonely on the mountain. There I was forced to hear God’s voice after being confused by the words coming from people who say they love me. So much of what I have carried forced me to operate behind a shield of strength. Often, I listened to others while contemplating my own pain.

Those lonely nights of isolation introduced me to my true self. Paul Tillich spoke of the God beyond the God of our understanding. The God beyond the teachings of the Church. Beyond the inspiration poured into our spirits when the choir sings an old hymn. God is found beyond the gist of our claims. When none of what we’ve maintained produces the outcomes we desire-God is found there.

My sorrow is rooted within the context of both personal and communal pain. I’m fed up with reading and writing about young men and women cast into cold rooms with iron bars due to poor decisions. I’m tired of driving through neighborhoods, chock-a-block with brown and black skinned people, where death and dismay fills the air. My heart is broken by the disparity between those who have versus those who have not. The wealth of some juxtaposed against the poverty of others feeds a resentment within me that brews my tears.

There, on the mountain, I asked those hard questions. Why God? When God? How God? Where God? No answer fed my interest. No fire to point the way. No cloud to beg my praise. I shouted to my God, I’m tired of meeting with people to discuss these matters. I’m tired of hearing the same solutions while living with the same outcomes. Does anyone care that our children are suffering? Am I the only one willing to place my neck in the guillotine to take the risk for a cause?

Yes, the community I love keeps me on my knees. I pray for the broken in my midst, but there’s more. I too am broken. I too need some semblance of hope. Years of fighting and writing, preaching and teaching, praying and meeting, protesting and believing have drained me of all my strength. After being thrown out, stripped, discounted, downsized and battered-the wounds have left me in spiritual intensive care. I couldn’t find the words to write. I lacked the hope that has inspired me over the years. My passion emaciated to a pot of bleeding tears.

Faith is found in these moments. There, alone to question the work we do, God speaks. Inspiration comes in remembering the journey of our faith. I was reminded of other days like this. The reminder of the last whiff of weed sparkled will to move again. There, on the mountain, I remembered the smell of cocaine and the blood flowing from my noise after using too much. The memory of the heroin gushing trough my tender veins and loss of memory after a weekend binge dug deep into my throbbing spirit.

All is not lost. Too many challenges overcome to retreat to the land of empathy. This is the reason for my passion-a life of brokenness transformed into a vision filled with possibility. In my quest to find a way to survive, there are others, like me, in search of the road less traveled. Mine is to help them find their way.

To rise on top of the mountain while glaring at the world below presents a new perspective. It is ours to lead them to this place of refuge. This is the place of rejuvenation. Here we find presence and peace. You can’t lead them if you never visit this place. For those who toil in the valley, there is a place to restore after the bombardment of ones dreams. We can’t stay long. The work is down in the valley.

I’m back. Let’s get ready for this work together.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bell versus Stith

Thomas Stith scares me. As much as I respect him for the fire shut up in his bones, I’m afraid that he’s more mad scientist than friendly family doctor. Tuesday’s election to determine who will lead the city of Durham as Mayor is a fight for the spirit of the city. Will we continue down the path of building bridges or will we, under the leadership of Stith, see the unraveling of collaboration as we have come to celebrate.

With all the bad that has hit the front pages of our local newspapers, life Durham, NC is much better today than when I first arrived in 1988. One of the truths related to life in Durham has been the tension our local governments have received for the mishandling of public funds. This coupled with an expanding achievement gap between black and white students, drop-outs and youth violence, Durham constantly fights the perception that it is the worst place to live in North Carolina.

Stith claims that he offers a fresh approach to the recent handling of government affairs. He offers an alternative to Bill Bell’s reckless management of a city that has been cited for the handling of a smoky yard-waste fire in the summer of 2006, the failure to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards, and the treatment of the Duke Lacrosse case. Stith contends that his management style will force more accountability.

The contention that Durham is in need of change can’t be refuted. At issues is the job performance of City Manager Patrick Baker. Bell has been open in his critique of Baker, and has acknowledged that his job is on the line. More critical than Baker’s performance is a reasonable assessment of the assumptions we make related to the role of the Mayor.

Bell has offered a more hands on approach to the office. Prior to his tenure, the Mayor served as a glorified member of the city council. Bell has taken a more active position and, as a consequence, is under attack for the way in which he has shifted the function of the office in Durham.

Stith’s attack of Bell paves the way for an even more active person in the office. His evaluation of Bell assumes the role of manager of the City Manager and all supervised by the City Manager. Are we prepared to support a mayor with the power of those within a more mayor centered system?

Stith scares me because of what I believe to be important limits placed on local government. His attack of Bill Bell assumes a role that will provide the office even greater control in the management of city government. The mayor will be elevated above that of the City Manager, and will, in many ways, assume the position and authority of the City Manager.

It is easy to blame the mayor for crime problems, issues with EPA, yard waste and a police department investigation when there’s the presupposition that the Mayor is directly accountable for all of these. If the management of city government is a marriage between the council, city manager and department heads, then an evaluation of all activity involves a critical examination in how all have impacted outcomes. If however our view of management places all outcomes in the hand of the Mayor, we have, as a consequence of that claim, altered the way we understand the infrastructure implored to manage local government.

I’m not quite ready to make those assumptions. I do appreciate a more active Mayor, but I’m not prepared to give the Mayor authority that changes the way are city is managed. That scares me.

That’s why Bill Bell gets my vote.