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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Today in New Haven

Some cities become associated with certain words. I think of Atlanta and its many streets named "peachtree." Peach trees were not indigenous to Atlanta; indeed, the name may have come from a Creek Indian reference to a pine, or pitch, tree.

If anything, New Haven's word is "amistad," Spanish for "friendship." Drive around in New Haven, you will find the Amistad School, Amistad Street, an Amistad building, and a monument to Mende slaves on a Spanish ship named La Amistad, who overthrew their captors.

And yet, much like Atlanta and the peach tree, the origin of "amistad" in New Haven has little to do with friendship. As New Haveners know, the derivation comes from that Spanish schooner La Amistad, which was taken over by its West African captives in 1839. The mutineers managed to sail it to Long Island, where they were soon imprisoned in Connecticut, where slavery was still legal. The Africans wound up in a New Haven jail, finding advocates among New Haven’s abolitionists who were willing to take their case to the Supreme Court. In 1841, the Africans were finally set free.

Despite the depraved activities of La Amistad, the name is worn with pride in New Haven. And why not? Ultimately, the West Africans were freed. And New Haven helped. So, we reclaim that ship named friendship. We christen a public school after it, to show that our city--one of great diversity--is also one of friendship. Yet associating New Haven with this happy metaphor alone obscures the cargo that we as a community bear: despite its culture and its heritage, New Haven is a city where 40 percent of children live in poverty, most of them children of color. Despite celebrated progress, New Haven has twice the number of violent crimes per capita than comparable cities.

Last week, a murder took place at research facility in New Haven named the Amistad Street Building. My heart breaks for the young woman, Annie Le, for her family, and for others close to her. Their grief must be unthinkable. Yet, in a different way, my heart also breaks for New Haven, which has tried through the years to rebrand itself by unearthing its past, dusting it off, and reexamining it under the light of hope.

I am not sure how this can be done. I am not sure how our New Haven will live through such evil visited upon us. And while Annie's case is known, what it brings to my mind--given the name of the building that binds so much of New Haven together--are the other victims of violence in New Haven, those known only to their loved ones. There have been a half-dozen people murdered in New Haven so far this year. There are countless others who suffer the injustice of want, in a community of plenty. May we remember Annie. May we remember them all. May we be worthy of our name.

Monday, February 16, 2009

War's Heir

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted, one need not be a house.”
-Emily Dickinson

Everything is haunted. I walk past the schoolyard, past the playground. Past the crumbling brick wall that once held encroaching woods at bay. I see the ghosts of the players, in the basketball winding across the court and the scattering leaves chasing one another. I feel the spirit of the children who roamed these fields shouting, whispering, tagging and hugging each other through the hints of fall, the whistling winter and the spring’s rain. Recess never demurred.

In the wind’s rush around the school building, I hear the morning notes of the band tuning up. In the babble of the boundary stream, I hear the engines of the yellow diesel buses, come to take us home.

In the silence, I hear my eternal past.

In the dilapidated walls of the building, ivy pushes mortar apart from brick. I open the blue door, whose rectangular panel of cross-hatched glass is blown out. The door swings wide, willingly, its spring disabled. My hand crashes into the wall.

Rubble steeps either side of the hallway. There are holes in the ceiling—no, vast surface areas of light illuminating the corridors. The mural once depicting black, brown, and pale students is charred beyond recognition. Underneath an overturned desk lie green shards of a chalkboard. Pythagoras outlined in yellow. Remarkably, the doormats are pristine, undisturbed.

I freeze. Yes, haunting is everywhere. There is a need for flight. Still frozen, I can only turn and gaze through the door into the field, past the asphalt and the brick wall, toward the stream.

Waiting to crumble to dust.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New story posted

Check out my new story in the Battered Suitcase here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nonprofit fundraising articles

For the nonprofit community, I wanted to share two of my essays on nonprofit fundraising, specifically on performance measurement in corporate and foundation relations: here and here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lando Calrissian could have been the most interesting Star Wars character. When we first meet Lando, we are lead to believe he's shady by the way in which Han Solo regards him warily. Indeed, it turns out that Lando cuts a deal with Darth Vader and his troops right before Leia, Han, Chewbacca and Luke arrive, turning over the good guys to Darth. As he tells his friends, he had no choice, because Vader arrived before them. Judging by the protagonists' anger toward Lando for his actions (including a bit of strangulation from Chewie), we are led to believe that Lando acted unscrupulously. And when Lando helps out the good guys, we feel the joy of redemption. Scoundrel turned good guy!

The problem with this account, of course, is that Lando was coerced into cooperating with the Empire. The Empire would surely have slashed and burned Cloud City had he not. Aristotle said (roughly) that moral responsibility involves being both aware of one's actions and doing them voluntarily. In Aristotelian thinking, Lando didn't act voluntarily; rather, he acted under duress. And how many of us would not have acted the same way, to save our families, our country, our planet?

What would have been a more interesting approach to Lando would have been to make his actions be voluntary. Perhaps Lando thinks he can profit by aligning himself with the Empire. Under this set of circumstances, his moral conversion would have had more force. And perhaps the conversation would have been only temporary--perhaps he's constantly pulled by self-interest into doing less-than-savory things. But that's the essence of the Star Wars saga--there are these two archetypes--good and evil--and people are in one camp or the other. Several characters changes camps, but nobody really oscillates between them or inhabits some middle ground.

In our world, we inhabit the middle ground. Sometimes we do the right thing, sometimes we don't. Quite often, we don't even really pay attention when our hearts are telling us that some action or another doesn't sit quite right. Paradoxically, sometimes those closest to us bear the brunt of our mistreatment, because we may be able to get away with a little more. When I find myself caught in some variety of subterfuge or another, I think of it as my Lando mode. If Lando had been written with a bit more nuance, he would have been the link for all of us imperfect beings into the Star Wars mythology. We're all a bit Lando, after all, aren't we?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

This winter I am taking part in an equanimity meditation seminar. "Equanimity" comes from the Latin, aequus + animus: evenness (or balance) of mind. In our context, the focus is on being able to accept (receive) things as they are. The idea behind equanimity meditation, as I understand it, is that to recognize and behold our reality is to be better able to deal with it, in whatever way we need to. To the extent that equanimity meditation is most helpful in situations we find hard to accept, such as death, illness, breakup, loss of a job, etc, there is perhaps a similarity in the process described in equanimity meditation and the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.