Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Omar Beasley to run for the Board of County Commissioners: Let Change Begin

I smell the scent of revolution in the air. Those tired of business as usual have decided to take matters into their own hands. It reminds me of a James Baldwin quote. “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The first to step forward to face the possibility of change is Omar Beasley. Beasley has informed me that he will file papers to run for the Board of County Commissioners on today. From all accounts, Durham’s Commissioners race could see a clean sweep of the current board. Even longtime Commissioner Ellen Reckhow is in jeopardy of facing the wrath of Durham’s voters.

Beasley’s decision to run for the office isn’t fueled by the dysfunction among members of the current Board of Commissioners. “I thought about running during the past election,” he says. “I wasn’t ready to run. I had to do some work to prepare myself.”

Beasley says he had to spend time listening to voters and doing more service before moving forward. “I considered a run for city council ten years ago,” he says. “I decided that the type of change I wanted to make required me working as a commissioner.”

Beasley is a bail bondsman. He says his work within the criminal justice system awakened a passion to make a difference among those falling through the cracks. “We have to do something to improve our educational system in Durham,” he says. “We have to use our resources in a way that will make a real difference.”

Beasley was born in San Diego, California where football and track opened doors for him to continue his education. He moved to Durham to attend North Carolina Central University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history education in 1996. His work as a bail bondsman has always been about helping those caught up in a demoralizing system. Beasley kept looking for more to help build lives beyond helping people get out of jail.

I met Beasley when he was a student at NCCU. He attended the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church when I was pastor there. He came to me when he was struggling to ascertain God’s will for his life. He felt a deep calling to work with youth. I mentored him as he processed through what that meant. I travelled with him to Jamaica to perform his marriage ceremony. I know his wife Tanisha and celebrate their life and love as a couple determined to live with integrity.

Beasley once came to me with a vision. He wanted to form a track club for youth. “We have the Durham Striders,” I told him. His response revealed deep insight and dedication. There was something about him that inspired me. He gets it, I remember thinking that day.

“There are too many kids who need what they do,” he said. “There are too many kids to limit the work to one group.” He went on to help form the Carolina Elite Track Club. He is also the Assistant Track Coach at Jordan High School.

I spoke with Beasley about the endorsement process in Durham. “I’ve gone to Durham Committee meetings,” he told me. “Many of the people don’t know me.” He’s an unknown running for office. He lacks a solid endorsement from the Durham Committee, the People’s Alliance or Friends of Durham. Getting one of the established political action committees to give him the nod may a difficult task.

It’s the reason I’m willing to vouch for Beasley. He has my endorsement. Why? Because he has done the tough work needed to prove his worth. He is willing to listen and understands what matters most – the people he will serve. I give Beasley my endorsement because he is a rare breed among those who run for office in Durham. He’s young, insightful, dedicated and determined to make a difference.

He’s not doing it for himself. This is his calling. Let change begin.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Chat With Author of Duke Study

Photo: Herald-Sun/Christine Nguyen

He’s not a racist. He simply didn’t know any better. That’s the impression I left with after my chat with Peter Arcidiacono, one of the authors of a controversial study that has damaged race relations at Duke University. Last week the Rev-elution shredded the study for making assertions that make one wonder about the underlying motives of the authors.

In that blog (The Ghetto Side at Duke) I questioned why the authors would use the decision to shift academic major to gauge performance. “By arguing against the merits of black academic performance by using academic major as a variable, the authors of this study have created an academic caste system that the university may have difficulty in unraveling,” I wrote.

My primary contention with the study is it being attached to a case on affirmative action before the U.S. Supreme Court. Arcidiacono reached out to me due to the public perception that he is aligned with the people arguing against affirmative action. He wanted to set the record straight that his agenda is not to dismantle affirmative action. I met with him to discuss his concerns.

I began with my issues related to the study as an unpublished work. Given it has not been published and hasn’t been reviewed by his peers, how did it land in the hands of those connected to the Supreme Court case?

Arcidiacono informed me that it was pulled from the website that presents his unpublished work. “It’s the way we do things in the field of economics,” he informed me. Given the time between completion of work, and the publication of that work, it is posted on the internet to give peers a chance to review before it is published. “People in the field of economics don’t have problems with the research.”

I discussed with him my personal concerns that his work is being discussed prior to publication which gives the impression that it is endorsed by his peers. He informed me that it has been rejected once due to what was called a lack of relevancy.

“This is the most talked about work I have ever done,” he says. Maybe the people at that journal were afraid to step into that can of worms.

Despite the local talk about the study, it has failed to receive the official endorsement as a credible study among those within his field. I informed Arcidiacono that having a conversation involving a study that hasn’t been peer reviewed assumes credibility of his research. The truth is that hasn’t happened yet.

I moved from a discussion involving the significance of the work given a lack of peer review to the matter of motivation. What is it that stirred his interest in this subject matter? He indicated that the decision is rooted in what he considered to be a lack of credible research on either side of the affirmative action issue. He felt it critical to delve into how the gap between white and black achievement is impacted after students enroll in elite universities.

It is his contention that the findings of his study expose the limits of the university in supporting students once enrolled opposed to a deficiency among the black students enrolled at Duke. Students enrolled with the intent of pursuing certain academic disciplines are set up to fail due to a failure of support from the university.

“Are you saying those students don’t deserve to be at Duke,” I asked.

“No, I’m saying the university needs to support them in achieving the interest they had when they enrolled.”

We discussed the implication within the program he teaches. There are few black students and no black professors. By failing to support black students who enroll with an interest to pursue a degree in economics, the university creates a culture that fails to offset the disparity between black and white students within that field.

Arcidiacono pressed to convince me that the findings of his study are more of a critique of the failures within the Duke system versus a question of the intelligence of the students enrolled. If they enroll with an interest to pursue certain fields of study after being accepted with academic credentials below white students; it is the responsibility of the university to establish systems of support to assure that they will achieve their goal.

“Do, you understand why the study is painful for black students to read,” I asked. Arcidiacono’s response made it clear that he was clueless. I had to help him understand.

Black students on campuses like Duke have to contend with the perception that they don’t belong. The judgment that they aren’t as smart as white kids is rooted in a history a race and racism that we have not yet overcome. The study exposes the gap between white and black achievement in a way that feeds the hunger among those who contend a white person was robbed a seat due to an unworthy black kid who took their place.

Arcidiacono, and the other authors of this study, failed to ponder how it feels to walk in the shadow of the Duke legacy while many feel you have no right to be there. They need to be there – he responded. We simply need to help them be successful.

How do you do that without drawing attention to the disparity? I had to ask that question after he informed me the university doesn’t want to deal with the conclusions of the study. How do you establish a system of support for black student without bringing attention to the need for the support? Do we want to give those searching for evidence to prove the unworthiness of black presence the ammunition to shoot them down?

What does that do to the self-esteem of those who enroll with pride related to their acceptance? Do you want to tell them they lack the intelligence? Should we establish a remedial program that brings further attention to that disparity?

We then discussed the social implications related to this type of research. The role of research is to measure and expose the validity of our assumptions. Some of that research is rendered within a context of historical anguish that both compromises and hinders the way the public engages with the study. As viable as some research may be, some things can’t be heard because it is too painful to hear.

Why is it painful? Because no matter how you state it, the conclusion asserts the limits of the subject of the study. You may argue the university needs to do more, or you can suggest that black students lack the same level of preparation. It all feels the same. Black folks don’t deserve to be here.

So, I’m willing to concede that Arcidiacono is not a racist. With that being said, the findings of the study have racial implications, and they hurt deep.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mitch Daniels Republican Response Proves He Doesn't Read

I enjoyed the opening of Mitch Daniels GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. He commended Obama for being a good father, husband and leading the charge to rid the world of Osama Bin Laden. I was beginning to think the Governor from Indiana was willing to depart from the antics that has hindered the progress of our nation. Then it happened.

Daniels conjured the memory of Steve Jobs. He made a comment about that last name – Jobs - and how it was fitting to have that name given how many jobs he has created to support the American economy. He talked about how government needs to encourage businesses like Apple by not loading them down with high taxes. Shame on Obama for fueling a class war. Shame on Obama for blaming the deficient on the rich and forcing them to pay as much in taxes as million and billionaires.

The problem with Daniels comments is it followed an article in Sunday’s New York Times. It told of an exchange between Obama and Jobs last year. Obama was at a dinner in Silicon Valley last February when he asked Jobs what it would take for iPhones to be made in the United States.

“Those jobs aren’t coming back,” was Jobs response, according to the NY Times. Not long ago all Apple products were made in America, but now all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products sold last year were made overseas.

In using Jobs as an example of how low taxes and incentives foster an environment that encourages businesses to create jobs, Daniels proved he didn’t do his homework before making his speech. One would think that someone would have slowed his roll before making a statement that could be used later to bite him in the ass.

Or maybe his pro business position isn’t as much about creating work for those in our own back yard. Maybe, in the minds of those stuck on reducing the deficient at all cost, the loss of jobs in America isn’t as important as allowing companies like Apple to make as much money as they can, even if at the expense of the American worker.

The NY Times article makes a good argument for why Apple decided to take their show on the road. “Last year, it earned $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sach, Exxon Mobile or Google.” It simply isn’t financially viable for Apple to move those jobs back home.

“Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” the article quoted Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House. “If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.”

“A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day,” the NY Times reported.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” an executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

The Foxconn City plant in China employs 230,000 people, many working six days a week and 12 hours a day at the plant. Foxconn Technology has facilities in Asia and Eastern Europe, and in Mexico and Brazil and is responsible for assembling 40 percent of the world consumer electronics for companies like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony. An official at Apple says they can employ 3,000 people in one night.

“We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive said. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”

Republicans have argued that business opt to leave American soil due to regulations and taxes. The NY Times article paints a different picture. Companies are manufacturing services abroad because doing so increase profit. One could argue that this is a variable of extreme regulations. That may be true if you’re willing to have workers function in sweat shops.

What Daniels failed to concede are the numerous implications related to the article in the NY Times. His comments showed a lack of sensitivity to how jobs in America are being lost as companies take advantage of the benefits of using factories on foreign soil. Obama addressed this issue in his State of the Union address.

The least that Daniels and other Republicans could do is face the elephant in the room.

Last I checked, the elephant is a Republican mascot.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno Dead: Sad is the Only Word

Photo from ABC News

Those who knew him best say he died of a broken heart. In 2010, when asked why he wouldn’t retire, he said he was afraid he might die if he walked away from the work he loved so much. There is only one word to describe the death of Joe Paterno-sad.

What makes the death of Paterno so heartbreaking is the way it all ended. After coaching 46 seasons, becoming the winningest coach in major college football, he was handed a package via a carrier with a phone number. He called the number and was told the trustees at Penn State had decided to fire him. His wife called back to give her thoughts on how they handled her husband’s termination.

The sadness of Paterno’s death is impacted by the bitterness caused by one lapse in judgment. He lived by what he called “Success with Honor” and carried that torch for 46 years. The tarnishing of his character was due to mistakes made by others. It was the mistake of one of his coaches that forced him out. It was the mistakes of those he trusted to investigate allegations of child sex abuse that did him in.

Recently, Paterno admitted he didn’t know what to do. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. It is easy for those standing on the outside of it all to claim they would have contacted the police. Certainly I hope that I would if placed in that situation, but it is possible that I, like Paterno, would have trusted those who know what to do to do the right thing. “I wish I had done more,” he said.

What makes this all so sad is how Penn State handled the last days of Joe Pa’s life. From all accounts, no one from the administration reached out to Paterno after he received his pink slip over the phone. There was no tribute in his honor before he took his last breath. The university he loved so much never thanked him for giving so much back.

And he gave a lot back. He was told over the phone despite contributing over 4 million dollars to Penn State. Yes, he should have contacted the police. There is no doubting that. The sadness in his death is in how the mistakes made by others can tarnish the legacy of one who has given so much.

It’s sad that Jerry Sandusky released a statement. “This is a sad day! Our family, Dottie and I would like to convey our deepest sympathy to Sue and her family. Nobody did more for the academic reputation of Penn State than Joe Paterno," Sandusky said in an email through his attorney. "He maintained a high standard in a very difficult profession. Joe preached toughness, hard work and clean competition."

"Most importantly, he had the courage to practice what he preached. Nobody will be able to take away the memories we all shared of a great man, his family, and all the wonderful people who were a part of his life."

It’s sad that Sandusky failed to understand that his release of a statement harms the family and reminds us of how his actions led to the tarnishing of Paterno’s reputation. It’s sad that people get punished for failing to police those they trust. It’s sad that all the good one has done is forgotten due to the bad someone else has done.

Those close to him say he died of a broken heart. Given all he stood for, that’s enough to kill a person with a heart like the one he shared.

It’s sad that we get judged not only for what we do, but for what we do related to the people we trust.

Sad is the only word.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ghetto Side at Duke University

Photo from BET.com

Just when I was prepared to throw away all those race cards, I find reason to keep a few in my back pocket. After years of grappling to get past the notion that I’m only in the room because I’m black, a study conducted by faculty at Duke University argues black students aren’t able to deal with the rigor of those tough academic majors. In other words, they take classes in the ghetto at Duke.

One is left questioning the motivation behind the study. Why would a group of professors go about the task of researching the merits of black folks being in the room? The answer is simple. The paper is part of a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by opponents of affirmative action. The report, “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Difference in GPA and Major Choice,” found that among students who enrolled with an interest in majoring in economics, engineering and the natural sciences, 54 percent of black men and 51 percent of black women changed their major to the humanities or another social science.

That’s compared to the 33 percent of white women and 8 percent of white men who switched majors. The study assumes the switch is made because they are less rigorous, require less study and have easier grading standards.

Professors Peter Arcidiacono, Kenneth Spenner and graduate student Esteban Aucejo argue that “attempts to increase representation [of minorities] at elite universities through the use of affirmative action may come at a cost of perpetuating underrepresentation of blacks in the natural sciences and engineering.”

In other words, it’s not enough to consider the GPA of black students. According to the study, the success of black students at Duke must be evaluated based on their academic major. The authors of the paper suggest that the switch to easier majors is the reason the GPA of black undergraduates is similar to the GPA of white students. Black folks can’t compete in a world where they have to take the tough classes. Time to pull out one of my cards.

The measuring of the black intellect is an old game. In 1994, Harvard psychologist Richard J. Hermstein and political scientist Charles Murray, published The Bell Curve. The controversy of the book involved sections in the book in which the authors wrote about racial differences in intelligence. They write in chapter 13: "It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences." The book fueled a national debate on the issue of race and intelligence.

By arguing against the merits of black academic performance by using academic major as a variable, the authors of this study have created an academic caste system that the university may have difficulty in unraveling. There are real programs, and there are easy programs. Are the big wigs at Duke willing to accept that the findings of the study ultimately call into question the academic strength of the programs on the other side of the tracks?

The study also implies that black students make changes due to struggles in those tough programs. Their GPA should be cast aside because they failed to compete in those real programs. Is it possible that a few of those students changed their major because they found a true passion in the humanities? How many of those students went on to pursue a PhD?

It’s dangerous whenever a person delves into the matter of race and intelligence. It is even more harmful when the motivation for the research is to invalidate intelligence due to a political agenda. This research is not about the decisions of black students at Duke. It is a ploy to nullify their right to be in the room.

I say no to placing merit on a few academic programs over others. I say no to measures of black student achievement based on an assumption that they can’t handle the heat. I say no to Duke University for failing to stand by programs in the humanities that this study attacks for being less than the rest.

I want to throw these cards away. But if it smells like a bigot and sounds like a bigot, well, you know the rest

Friday, January 13, 2012

Journey Back to the Heart: DCIA Anuual Meeting

I will never forget my last thought before passing the torch as President of Durham Congregations in Action. I spoke about the organizations role in moving the city past the issues that divide us. It was the day after I made a similar speech at the Martin Luther King Triangle Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. There, I spoke about dreams deferred.

“Where is Carl,” I thought as I made my speech at the DCIA Annual Meeting. Something didn’t feel right. Carl Washington, my best friend, wasn’t there. Washington, the former director of the Department of Parks & Recreation, stood with me during a season of struggle. He, along with Steve Chalmers, former Chief of Police, had tutored me in the work of community organizing. We worked together in helping to build the North East Central Partners Against Crime project. More than any of that, Carl was the one who carried me through a combination of personal troubles.

When I returned home I received a call from his wife. “Carl is dead,” she told me. “He died while jogging…” My head was filled with silence as the tears consumed me. I carried that pain through the night. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to preach. I couldn’t even think.

I made my way to the office the next morning. The first order of business was handling a phone call from one of the deacons. They wanted to meet with me about the jar of condoms placed on my desk by an employee at the Health Department. It was enough to fuel their interest of ridding the church of my leadership. It was too much for me to bear. Carl wasn’t there to listen. The pain consumed me. A part of me was lost, little by little.

The following week I gave Carl’s eulogy. I used a line from Og Mandino’s book The Greatest Miracle in the World. Mandino told the story of a ragpicker. I told them Carl was a ragpicker. He had a way of finding rags and refining them. I was one of those rags.

What followed was a retreat. Pain can do that. I retreated from DCIA. The memory of that night was too much for me to take. I retreated from the NECD project. In many ways, I retreated from the work of the Church. I walked in that space like a zombie in search of a place to die. My intellect and charisma were enough to keep me entrenched in the work, but I knew the truth. It wasn’t the same.

I returned to DCIA last year after Spencer Bradford, the executive director, met with me to discuss my getting involved again. The climb back into my calling has stirred so many memories – some good, mostly painful. The faces in the room have changed over the years. What hasn’t changed is the significance of that message I gave when I stepped down as President.

It’s a message about the bonds we create beyond race, class, faith claims, gender differences, age gaps or sexual orientation. It’s a message about the power of authentic unity and the claiming of the worth of every life. That message hasn’t changed.

What has changed are the people in the room. Some have moved away. Some have died. Some are getting older yet continue to serve the best they can despite the limits caused by age. And, others have lost passion for the vision.

Those who lost passion due to personal pain, like me, need to come back. Where are they now? Have they given up or are they too tired to keep trying?

No more excuses. It’s time to serve again. Back to the heart

DCIA’s Annual Meeting takes place on Tuesday, January 24 at 6:00 pm. It will be held at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (82 Kimberly Drive). The keynote speaker will be William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in Goldsboro, NC. Barber will be speaking on the role of faith communities in fighting racism in 2012. The dinner is $14 per plate, and reservations need to be made by January 19, by calling (919) 688-2036, emailing dcia@dcia.org, or in person or by postal mail to the DCIA office, 504 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham, NC 27701. Payment may be sent in advance or made at the door (checks should be payable to “DCIA” and noted for the 2012 banquet).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Ar-Rahmaan installed as Pastor:The Journey of a Female Minister to Find her Way

Willeta J. Ar-Rahmaan (left) and Richele James with Carl W. Kenney II (The Rev-elution) at the celebration of Compassion Ministries of Durham 8th Anniversary)

She would sit in the back of the church each Sunday. Unlike many of the others who gathered for worship, she failed to reflect the spirituality of those enamored with visible praise. She didn’t stand during one of those electrifying songs that triggered memories of how God carried us through many dangers, toils and snares. She didn’t shout in the middle of a line in my sermon to denote a connection with the thought uttered. She just sat in the pews. Unnoticed. She just listened.

My first thought when she came to my office was her name - Willetta J. Ar-Rahmaan. She told me her story. “I’m Muslim,” she said. She was there, listening to my words. I watched as she made her progression from the balcony, to the back row on the first floor, to closer to the front, and then, she made that last step.

“I’m called to the work of ministry,” she told me. Her announcement came as no surprise. I recognized something different after that first encounter. Yet, a still cried. There was something about the message of love and compassion that compelled her to move from the safety of the pews into the work of ordained ministry.

I continued to watch her grow. She would call me and share being caught between her life as computer geek employed by IBM and the work in ministry. “I want to walk away from my job, but how can I when I have to eat.” I listened as I felt the pain of her struggle to walk within her calling. I listened and watched as she completed her Masters of Divinity while maintaining her job at IBM. She commuted from her home in Charlotte to attend classes on Saturday’s at Virginia Union in Richmond, Virginia.

I listened as she endured the deep-seeded sex discrimination within the African American Baptist church. She watched as men were promoted to the work of ministry while she was passed by despite her theological training and willingness to serve. I could hear the frustration within her voice as she prayed for a place, any place, to use her enormous gifts and graces.

“Leave the Baptist,” I instructed her. “Why remain in a place that fails to affirm you.” I was then and am saddened now by that admission.

I watched as she made the move I suggested. She contacted the District Superintendent to begin the process. She enrolled at the Hood Theological Seminary to take courses on Methodism. It seemed like the perfect union, although she would take a cut in pay.

Fast forward to Sunday, January 8, 2012. On yesterday, she was installed as Pastor of the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Newton, North Carolina. Sadly, I couldn’t make the trip due to my need to be in Durham for worship service. If there, I would have made comments to her congregation. I would have spoken about how proud I am of her for pressing on despite the barriers in her way.

I think of other women who have fought to find their way within structures unwilling to share space. I pray for all of my daughters in ministry who remain faithful while men and women refuse to concede the power of their voices. When I consider the women who have moved on to obtain their Maters of Divinity from congregations I led, I’m amazed by the numbers. Willetta, Richele James, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Vanessa Enoch. Karen Thompson, Edna Stephens, Teddra Bynes, Denise Bland-Jones, Ivy Hooper, Katia Wilson, Prinn Deavens and Connie Pope. That’s twelve out of the thirty-six women who have entered ministry under my leadership.

Willeta is the third to be called to lead a congregation. Both Teddra Bynes and Karen Thompson, like Willetta, had to leave the Baptist to make it happen. Karen, who was ordained under my leadership, has led congregations with the United Church of Christ. Teddra is an Episcopal priest. Four other women planted new churches – Arlene Chavis, Daryl Bowick, Pat Lee and Shamiele Alston– all are Pastors of churches they started in Durham. Three others, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Vanessa Enoch and Katia Wilson, hold PhD’s and serve in the academy.

There are 65 men and women who have entered ministry from the work I have done in Durham, NC. Many of the men have been appointed to lead congregations within the Baptist church family. Others have gone on to organize new churches. Sadly, not one woman has been called to serve within a Baptist Church. Each has been forced to either organize a new church, change affiliation or teach religion at a seminary or divinity school.

This is of concern when it comes to the promotion of theological training within mainline faith traditions. It is saddening that so many have opted not to pursue the benefits of theological training. I’m burdened at the numbers of people being led by pastors who have not taken time to ponder the truths they teach week after week. Shouldn’t we demand of our leadership a level of training consistent to what we expect from other vocations? Or, should we assume that the Holy Ghost feeds truth to those empowered with spiritual gifts?

Women have been forced to prove their worth in ways beyond the men who share that sacred space. Some give up and do it their own way. Others keep pressing, waiting and praying for a chance to use those gifts God has given. So many female clergy become battered along the journey of self-discovery and affirmation. Don’t give up Richele. Hold on Cheryl, Sandra, Joyce, Regina, Connie, Valerie and the other women waiting to find a place.

As you wait, thank God for Willetta. She made it! Beyond her past. Beyond her gender. Beyond all that stood in the way – well done Pastor Lettie. Well done.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Durham Arts Council Under Attack for Not Supporting Artists

Baltimore Blues is the work of King Kenney

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to artist lately. My passion to know more about how they feel is rooted, in part, to my son taking the leap of depending on people to buy his work. It also has to do with my being an artist. It reminds me of a line from “Hustle and Flow”- “It’s hard out here for a pimp.” Well, it’s hard out here for an artist.

It’s always been hard out here, but things have become increasingly more difficult since the economy took a turn for the worse. My second novel hasn’t sold like the first one, and I’m clear it has a lot to do with people pinching those pennies the best they can. Those artists are telling me about how they scuffle to stick with their passion. They have to decide between creating masterpieces and paying the rent.

The worst part is a lack of resources to inspire them to keep on keeping on. Each person I’ve talked to has the same complaint. They want to know more about the purpose of the Durham Arts Council. They are disenchanted with the lack of support coming from the organization established to promote and support the artists in our community.

I’m told the council is set up to support its own infrastructure while leaving very little for the artists. Other than the Emerging Artist grant, they say they are left with no more than a few chances to showcase their work, and that comes with a price. They have to pay to participate in Art Walk and Centerfest.

“I paid to be in the last Art Walk,” one of the artists told me. “I lost money because no one brought my work.”

I’ve heard that from King, my son, and others who have chosen not to participate in Art Walk for that reason. The point isn’t to throw darts at the Art Council, but to bring attention to the perceptions of those who create the work. These views are reflected among both visual and performing artists. Many base their opinion on a comparison of what is done in other communities.

A good example is the New York City Artist Homestead. I first heard about the program after Sima Flower, former owner of Peacefire Gallery in downtown Durham, moved to New York City. The Homestead offers a variety of incentives to those who make a living with their art. Check out their website at:

Here’s the list of incentives on that website.

1. Inexpensive Historic Structures And Raw Space Available - as well as vacant lots and other structures owned by the City of York Redevelopment Authority.

2. Zero Interest, Forgivable Loan Of $5,000 Per Artist - a panel will jury five visual artists homesteading in City of York in 2006, judged on quality of work and/or business plan. Once homesteader lives in home for five years, loan is 100 percent forgivable.

3. Architectural fees up to $3,000 - for services of York City architects per artist/homeowner for best five visual artists homesteading in 2006-2007.

4. Residential Tax Abatement (ReTAP) - on value of improvements of new construction and/or new residential construction.

5. Waiver of Permit Fees. - as well as vacant lots and other structures owned by the City of York Redevelopment Authority.

6. Free Promotions: - Art reception with local artists at local galleries, free website listings, listing in the Downtown York visitors guide, and feature on White Rose Cable Television.

7. Free One-year Memberships - to the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, YorkArts, York County Heritage Trust and YMCA.

8. Free Gym Membership with unlimited fitness and aquatic classes - for one for one year courtesy of YWCA. Annual value of $453.

9. Sparky and Clarks Roasting Company - Welcome Basket of Coffee and Promotion Products.

10. Starving Artist Stipends Restaurant Discount Cards courtesy of - York's Downtown Restaurant Coalition.

I couldn’t fight the urge to list all the incentives. Shouldn’t artist in our own city have access to some form of support? They need more than a building they don’t use, with an infrastructure paid for by the city and other grants. The money needs to feed those who need it the most rather than a staff committed to giving the illusion of supporting the arts.

That’s the word coming from the artists. Don’t shoot the messenger, deal with the perception.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

DSS Dispute Requires More Than a Re-Vote to Fix

I’m confused by the recent decision to set Gayle Perry’s salary at $129,000. Perry, interim Social Services director in Durham, was hired by the Board of Social Services on July 27 after board members axed Gerri Robinson during the same meeting. On Monday, board members decided to approve Perry’s salary after hearing a report that concluded the board may have violated a state law.

After what can best be described as an old fashioned shouting match between the two black male board members (as the young folk say, SMH) members of the Board of County Commissioners decided to hire an attorney to evaluate the way Perry was hired. Perry was a member of the DSS board the night Robinson was fired and she was hired. Jimmie Hicks, Jr., the attorney hired to review the matter, says the hiring of Perry is a conflict-of-interest due to her being a member of the board that appointed her to serve.

Board members decided to approve Perry’s salary at Monday’s meeting due to the conflict regarding the way she was hired. The recommendation passed 5-0, leaving an unresolved issue on the table. What has been established now that an attorney hired by the county has substantiated the claims of concerned citizens? Hicks stated that it is his judgment that the action lacked criminal intent; however, the lack of intent doesn’t settle the concern that it was wrong.

Hicks‘ findings have been passed on to the District Attorney. By violating a state statue those involved face criminal charges. The breach is punishable as a misdemeanor. The board’s conduct related to this matter sends a clear message that they want to clean their hands and keep it moving. The re-vote on the salary was designed to repair the lousy handling connected to the hiring of Perry. Since it wasn’t legal, they had to vote again to make it right.

Obscured in all of this is how Perry reaped the benefit of a salary that was disbursed after an illegal vote. By stating there was no malcontent intended, the attorney for the county and members of the board expect this to go away after Tracey Cline, Durham’s district attorney, decides not to press it any further. We’re expected to treat the handling of that July meeting as no more than a hiccup.

Sorry folks, it’s not that simple. This is a complicated matter that needs to be placed within a context that allows us space to view this beyond the emotions that strip people of good judgment. The war, and I call it that for a reason, among members of the Board of County Commissioners led to the appointing of an attorney and an internal audit. Now that both reports have been released, it’s critical that actions be taken to bring credibility to the way the board functions.

If the law was broken, albeit unintentional, what can be done to right that wrong? Keep in mind that Robinson lost her job at that meeting, and she has filed a lawsuit against the county. The internal audit undermined the allegation that fueled the movement to remove her. Commissioner Joe Bowser has cited poor morale and high staff turnover as reasons for Robinson’s termination. The audit found that staff turnover is no higher than with previous directors.

Does this mean Robinson lost her job based on hearsay? Can we conclude there was a lack of documented evidence to substantiate the board’s decision? If that is true, combined with the illegality of the meeting, it will take more than a vote to approve a salary and a hand slap from the DA to make this one go away.

I’m incensed that no one on the board had the insight to suggest that maybe Perry should not be maintained given the way the vote was conducted. If her initial appointment is undermined due to a conflict-of-interest, her continuing to serve is clouded by that first vote. As sad at that may be given the great work she is doing, someone has to pay for the misdeed of July 27.

The vote to hire Perry was illegal. I suppose it’s acceptable when those involved don’t know any better.

The bad news is that doesn’t work in the court of law. I tried that the last time I got a traffic ticket. It cost me 300 bucks.