‘Society’ Archive

Keep Growing Detroit helps communities flourish

While I was at TEDMED, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Ashley Atkinson, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit.

Keep Growing DetroitI was thrilled to see a voice from Detroit represented among international leaders in health and medicine — and telling a good-news story at that.

The work this organization does isn’t just turning abandoned lots into community gardens. It’s helping neighborhoods grow stronger and more united.

Read the post I wrote about Keep Growing Detroit for Eclectablog.

[Photo by Ashley Atkinson]

A new greatest generation?

My father has been on my mind a lot lately. He was part of the Greatest Generation, and deserves every bit of credit for what he and those of his era accomplished.

But I’ve also started wondering: Could we be on the brink of a new greatest generation? We are at a crossroads in America. What President Obama called a “make-or-break” time for the middle class.

In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, on December 6, the President spoke about the dream of America, which has always been that people who work hard and play by the rules can achieve anything they set their minds to. My father, Alvie L. Smith, embodied that vision. He went from selling boiled peanuts on street corners in Savannah as a boy to leading the global communications program for General Motors. In between, he worked hard and studied hard and applied every ounce of his energy to making something of himself — both as a source of pride and to take care of his family.

This is what President Obama wants to see our country be again. A place where every man and woman has the opportunity to achieve greatness if they work hard. A country where everyone does their fair share, gets a fair shake and plays fair. Where even an orphan left to fend for himself and his three brothers on the streets of Savannah can grow up to become a leader in his field, like my father did. (A world-class speechwriter, I’m pretty sure my father’s response to the President’s remarks in Kansas would have been: “That was a helluva speech.”)

A new greatest generation?

Sure, my father had some help here and there, but not much. He went to college on the GI Bill and scholarships, including one provided by (I kid you not) a childless tugboat captain and his wife who wanted to help a deserving young person. Most everything else my dad achieved he did through hard work and loyalty, and with great integrity.

My father was also on my mind as we observed the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in World War II, and was a member of one of the only 30 percent of B-17 crews that actually returned from that war.

There’s a reason men and women like my father have been called the Greatest Generation. They grew up in the Depression (my mother had equally humble beginnings) and did what they had to do to survive. They believed in hard work and honesty, in being neighborly and helping those in need. They had faith in the American Dream and what it promised: the chance of a better life

I honestly think our country could be poised to create a new greatest generation, or at least a great one. There’s an opportunity to restore the principles that made our country great in the first place, a chance to reassess our collective values and remember that we have more in common than not. Americans have the chance to see our country become better than ever, by emerging from the dark times we’ve faced in recent years.

But some things will have to change. Right now, about one-third of children born in poverty will never rise to the level of the middle class. They don’t have a chance. They need to have that chance. I’m not talking about hand-outs. I’m talking about programs like the GI Bill or short-term assistance that can give people the boost they need to stand on their own. Affordable healthcare so people like a tugboat captain — who I imagine doesn’t make a lot of money — can still have something to share with a poor young man with big dreams.

Making sure everyone has enough means greater equality, greater cooperation and a greater sense of our country as a community that works together instead of against each other. A country where everyone does their fair share and everyone gets a fair shot. And, maybe most important of all, where everyone plays fair.

It was a vision that worked for our country during the time of the Greatest Generation and at many other times in our history. It’s a vision that can work for our future.

With tolerance and justice for all

Tolerance. Justice. Diversity. Equality. These are principles I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

And they’ve become indelibly stuck in my head, it seems, by the musical Parade. The show tells a tale of intolerance and injustice in the Deep South of the early 20th century, a story that’s still being played out around the country.

With tolerance and justice for allI saw Parade more than a month ago, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The production was superb, and the show (book by Alfred Uhry; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) is powerful both in music and message. Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Northern Jew living in Atlanta, who in 1913 was unjustly accused of murdering a young girl. You can read more about Frank and Parade, but if you have the chance to see the play I urge you to do so with no prior knowledge, as I did. I was deeply moved and stunned by the story.

I will share that Parade explores issues of the intense pride of the Deep South, particularly after the Civil War, and how that loyalty sometimes becomes bigotry. It looks at the ways justice can be derailed for political gain or hatred of someone who doesn’t fit in, whether that person is African American, Jewish or simply different. It also eloquently expresses that everyone has a point of view, and rarely is that view either all good or all bad. And that despite the inclination of some to go along with a group mentality, there will always be those who follow their own conscience. That there are people who will do the right thing, no matter what it costs them.

The performance was followed by a talk with members of the production team and the audience. Parade was part of an ongoing endeavor at Ford’s Theatre called the Lincoln Legacy Project, “a five-year effort to create a dialogue in our nation’s capital around the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance.”

Audience members shared their thoughts on how the story paralleled current events like the Troy Davis execution, which had happened that week. Others mentioned Alabama and its immigration laws, or attendees at a GOP debate booing a soldier for being gay. Still others talked about how the media can shape the public’s thought powerfully enough to influence a legal verdict.

One woman was extremely angry. She demanded to know why Ford’s Theatre had put on a play that, as she put it, made her “hate the South.” She couldn’t understand why a theatre would present a play that portrayed the South as so evil, that would add fuel to the fires of hatred already so prevalent.

The director of the theatre came out to answer the woman’s questions. He explained that everything in the play is true, and that the production team felt the play had an important message to convey. Although bigotry may be directed at different groups today than it was 100 years ago, it still exists.

I could see exactly where he was coming from, because the play raises timeless issues of intolerance and injustice. What’s more, I disagreed with the woman’s viewpoint. Partly because some of the negatives Parade portrays about the Deep South were, and are, sometimes true. But even more important, the play’s characters include Southerners who accepted diversity and who did the right thing, in one case risking a potentially important career. The play shows that no matter what side people were on — that of a beloved young girl who was mysteriously murdered or the man who swore he’d never touched her — everyone suffered a loss. Everyone was seeking justice. My heart ached for everyone.

All of this has stuck with me for a month, as I’ve listened to the music and continued following the news about events in the Deep South. Alabama, in particular, troubles me. I realize our country has an immigration problem, but I’m certainly not alone in questioning the severity of the law they’ve passed there. A recent article even compared the immigration fight in Alabama to the civil rights era. Meanwhile, some Alabama state legislators have used racial epithets while others have faced charges in a gambling corruption trial.

All this and more paints an ugly picture. It makes me angry. It makes me wonder how any state could have so much disrespect for its citizens. I realize I don’t know every detail, but it still upsets me. It also worries people I’ve spoken to who live there or were raised there. One man in particular dislikes going back because of what the state has become, but still urged me to read a book that celebrates the good things about Alabama (Alabama Afternoons by Roy Hoffman). It’s on my to-read list. I appreciate his balanced view.

Because while I reflect on the questions that continue to roll around my head, many still unanswered, I can’t stop thinking of the two ladies from Alabama I sat next to at the “Capitol Steps” during that same trip to D.C. Incredibly nice people, who laughed as much at the satirical group’s pot-shots at one political party as they did at those taken against the other. I did the same. And to me, bipartisan humor indicates a bipartisan perspective.

Those ladies were a lovely reminder that not everyone in Alabama, or anywhere else for that matter, thinks the same way. Which brings me back to one of my fundamental beliefs: No group is all good or all bad. No person, with rare exceptions, is all good or all bad. Does some of what’s happening in Alabama and other states — Southern and otherwise — make me worry for the future of tolerance and justice in this country? Absolutely.

But even more important, I believe that in the midst of hatred and bigotry and lies, there are people fighting for positive change. Just as there were in Parade and the tragic true story of Leo Frank, there are people everywhere trying to do the right thing.

I believe in the good in people, and I believe that the good in people will ultimately prevail. Even if every story doesn’t have a happy ending.

View Newer Posts » » « « View Older Posts