Monday, July 14, 2014

It's time to listen to "those" people

I sat and listened as a group of well-intentioned religious leaders discussed ways to make a difference.  The burden of the moment began to tug at that part tired of enduring processes with no end in view.  The myriad of problems stacked on the table made it appear no way could be found to break through the massive wall of division in Columbia, Missouri.

I've been down this road before.

Only two black men sat at a table to discuss issues that impact poor, black people in Columbia and throughout Missouri. I was one of them. The people at the table brought varied levels of power and privilege to discuss ways to help "those" people. Yes, "those" people.

How can we help "those" people?

I closed my eyes one last time and prayed to remain silent.  I couldn’t. The rage linked to living and working in Columbia left me devoid of the strength to remain mute.

“Columbia doesn’t have a black community,” I said.

“Yes there is,” the people in the room responded.

“There are no blacks on the Columbia City Council.  There is no black radio station.  There is little black representation in the press.  There are no black businesses in downtown, and few that don’t cater services exclusively to blacks,” I said.  “A community within the context of the larger community is minimized when it lacks the power to impact change.”

I pondered the teachings of Paulo Freire, “the trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.”

Freire was an influential leader in the critical pedagogy movement.  Freire taught that education should create space for the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, and, through that process, overcome the conditions leading to their oppression.  Freire believed the oppressed must participate in their liberation.

“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors,” Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

It was a point that those in the room needed to hear.  Although they came with a sincere desire to make a difference for those hindered by policies and systems of subjugation, true liberation demands the input of those not in the room.

“You mean well,” I continued.  “You are here for the right reasons, but the people who need to speak are not here.”

I continued to share the consequences related to their absence.  I told them they are not present because of a lack of trust rooted in a long history of racial divide.  I told them people are unwilling to come to the table because of the process used before they arrive.  Those with power and privilege make decisions, and then come to the broken for an endorsement.

How do we break that cycle?

We must empower those who feel they hold no power.  We must equip them to take ownership and control of an agenda that will improve their condition.  They must lead the way.

Yes, we must listen.  We have nothing to say until we have adequately listened to the voices of those in need of liberation.

Steps have been taken to begin this process.  For the next few months, members of Columbia Faith Voices will be listening to the people.  We will begin with the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association.  We are asking for permission to attend your meetings.  We only won’t to listen.  Our promise is follow your leadership.

We will listen to other communities.  In doing so, we stand with you in collaboration.  We bring the power of our privilege to demand you will be heard.  We bring the power of our faith and the clout of our votes.  In listening to you, we will learn more about ourselves.  We’re asking that you teach us.  Teach us about the conditions that limit your progression.  Teach us how we, each of us, have stood in the way.

If crime is your concern, teach us how we can help.  Help us yell for you.  No, help us yell with you.  Teach us how to yell.

My vision for empowerment is simple.  I envision a massive collaboration between faith communities, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, county, city and state government, law enforcement and citizens.  I envision a bottom up approach to human service delivery and community development.  I pray for a work led by the people that will lead to the advancement of all of Columbia citizens.

I’m seeking a new model for community development that begins with listening. 

Columbia Faith Voices is on board.  Speak to us Douglass Park.  We are waiting on you to lead us in the transformation of your community.


Back to silence.

1 comment:

  1. When we can stop talking about how to help those people, and start thinking about how we're all people who need to help and be helped, and start truly seeing the people who stand next to us in line and live across the street or across town -- when we start opening our homes and our businesses and our churches and our organizations by opening our hearts and minds first, then maybe things can be different. It's not about fixing "them." It's about fixing all of us, and it's about stopping with the "us" and the "them." Or that's how I see it, anyway. I'm glad you were there to bring some reality to the table, Carl. I always learn from your words.