Monday, November 29, 2010

Continuing to Harvest Shame

I was sent a link to the 1960 CBS' Edward R. Murrow's documentary 'Harvest of Shame' several days ago. I've heard and read a little about it, but had never seen much more than a very brief clip.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I took some time to look at it.


Incredibly riveting.

Although it was 50 years ago, the depth of poverty. The hopelessness on the faces of adults - and children. The bleakness with which they had to regard their present, let alone their future.

Originally shown the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, Murrow's and CBS executive Fred Friendly wanted to show Americans the intractable poverty and despair of the seasonal migrant workers who harvested the bounty they just consumed.

Looking at this work a half a century later there are some incredible parallels. Some things that have not changed which we should not countenance in our midst today...
  • There was the insistence that any work is good work, no matter the wage, no matter whether that work provides enough to feed one's family
    The sentiment that 'the market' determines the wage and that market 'uncertainty' as the rationale for treating workers unfairly.
  • Warnings against government interference in the industry.
  • Complaints that immigrants (foreign workers in the documentary) depress wages and contribute to the substandard quality of life for - in this case - migrant workers.
  • The assertion that abjectly poor migrant workers were 'happy' in their circumstance.
  • Warnings against the tyranny of unions (ironically, its a GOP government official who sees unionization as a solution to the migrant workers plight).
'Harvest of Shame' sparked legislation to aid migrant workers and to improve prospects for the education of their children. But I could not help but wonder how it is that 50 years later we have such a hard time making the connection between the danger of poverty, its impact on our fellow citizens and its impact on the rest of our society.

It's easy to pretend that if there is no intervention, no repair of broken systems, no access and no opportunity, that the rest of us can live unaffected. Unfortunately, that's a state of denial which we cannot afford.

Fifty years after 'Harvest of Shame', those migrant workers are a metaphor for today's poor. It is still true that uneducated, undereducated, untrained and unskilled low wage workers represent an untapped workforce potential for emerging new economies. Their depressed wages prevent them from being the consumers of goods and services that strengthen the economy. Their condition backs the rest of our culture into a credit based 'prosperity' (the rest of us only have so much cash) to buy more goods and services.

But most importantly, we are robbed of the social capital that healthy, hopeful, families represent. We never benefit fully from their contributions to our culture, our civic life and our national well being because their daily living is focused on survival at its most basic level.

In short: we are all diminished.

The recent near collapse of our economy has caused many of us to believe that we can tend to our own lives and that of our families with no concern for others. Interestingly enough, Harvest of Shame reminds us that the quality of life on which we all depend and which most of us take for granted, comes at the expense of people whose lives don't count for far too many of us.

It also reminds us of something of which we really ought to be ashamed: there was a time when someone thought that we could be moved to care about that. I'm not so sure how true that is these days.

You can watch the entire documentary here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Wonderful Opportunity to Share with Two Great Men

A few years ago, I was invited to participate as a speaker and panelist in a discipleship conference in Kansas City, Missouri. I had a wonderful time with some wonderful people, including an old friend, Pastor Golden Davis. But I also had a wonderful experience preaching at the Kansas City Baptist Temple and getting to know Pastor Jeff Adams and Alan Shelby.

But it was also wonderful to share that time on program with two legends in the black church: the late Dr. C.B.T. Smith and Dr. Wallace Hartsfield. Dr. Smith, the retired pastor of Dallas' Golden Gate Baptist Church and I had gotten acquainted several years before and got to know one another better after I invited him to preach at my church.

Dr. Hartsfield I had known from afar and by reputation. It was the first time I had to hear him preach and to share on a panel with him and Dr. Smith. Later on that year, when I served as interim pastor at a church in Dallas, we renewed acquaintances when he came to preach there.

He is a warm, generous, spiritually invigorating man with a great sense of humor! Not long ago he retired, and it is not hard to imagine why his congregation considers it to be a bitter-sweet period in their history.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Henry Ford

Industrialist, Inventor

"What's right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have great capacity - intellect and resources - to do some thing about them."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord.

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures for ever.

He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy,
they are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant for ever. Holy and terrible is his name!

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
a good understanding have all those who practice it. His praise endures for ever!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Quickly We Forget: Political Gamesmanship vs.Statesmanship

A volunteer told me about this column in the New York Times and I was fortunate enough to see that Larry James had sent me the link to it.

Ironically, the night of November 22, I searched television stations in vain to try and find some remembrance of John F. Kennedy. This year is the 50th anniversary of his presidential campaign and the 47th anniversary of his assassination. I thought there would be something to remind us of the gift of inspiration his all to brief life gave our country. I was surprised, a little shocked, actually, to find nothing!

Bob Herbert, however, has written a wonderful column that does help us remember the difference between the sad state of political gamesmanship in our day and the type of statesmanship offered by JFK's vision and promise.

"It was a half-century ago this month that John F. Kennedy won the presidency in a thrilling and heart-stoppingly close election against Richard Nixon. You’d probably be surprised at the number of Americans who are clueless about when Kennedy ran: “It was 1970, right?” “Wasn’t it in the ’40s, soon after the war?” Or whom he ran against: “Eisenhower?”"

"I’ve been surprised by the lack of media attention given to the golden anniversary of that pivotal campaign, one of the most celebrated of the entire post-World War II period. With Kennedy, the door to the great 1960s era opened a crack, and it would continue opening little by little until the Beatles flung it wide in 1964."

"Kennedy’s great gift was his capacity to inspire. His message as he traveled the country was that Americans could do better, that great things were undeniably possible, that obstacles were challenges to be overcome with hard work and sacrifice."

"I don’t think he would have known what to make of the America of today, where the messages coming from the smoldering ruins of public life are not just uninspiring, but demeaning: that we must hack away at the achievements of the past (Social Security, Medicare); that we cannot afford to rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure or establish a first-class public school system for all children; that we cannot bring an end to debilitating warfare, or establish a new era of clean energy, or put millions of jobless and underemployed Americans back to work."

"Kennedy declared that we would go to the moon. Chris Christie tells us that we are incapable of building a railroad tunnel beneath the Hudson River."

"Whatever one thinks of the tragically short Kennedy administration, we’d do well to pay renewed attention to the lofty ideals and broad themes that Kennedy brought to the national stage. We’ve become so used to aiming low that mediocrity is seen as a step up. We need to be reminded of what is possible..."

"“The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”"

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why 'CitySquare'? Here's Another Explanation...

I've not run into anyone who hasn't liked our new name! Even when I've been asked why, it's taken a lot less time to explain than it used to when trying to explain that we were not a church, nor were we supported by any denomination.

The Dallas Morning News' Steve Blow, celebrates with us in his column yesterday that further explains why Central Dallas Ministries is now CitySquare.

"...the name is new but CitySquare's theology is not."

""We are a faith-based organization, and we always will be," Larry said. "We're here, doing what we do, because of our faith.""

"But he said he likes the new name because it invites questions rather than creating assumptions."

"The nonprofit worked with the Richards Group in coming up with the new name."

"CitySquare was chosen from more than 100 possibilities. "We were all quickly attracted to this name," Larry said."

"He noted that much of the action in the Bible takes place in public squares. And that's where he wants to be – engaged with the world, meeting people where they are, collaborating with others to change lives."

Here's the rest of Steve's column. And all of the team at CitySquare appreciates him and our supporters as they celebrate and support our work and our future!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

People Believing in People

Thanks to CitySquare's friends from Whataburger, community leader Ms. Edna Pemberton, the Concord Baptist Church, Dallas City Councilman Tennell Atkins and other community businesses and supporters - as well as our outstanding staff and program participants of Destination Home.

With their sacrifice and generosity, our neighbors in our permanent supportive housing program will have a happy Thanksgiving...many for the first time in a long time in their own apartments.

Bringing the community in will go a long way towards helping those who would otherwise be out on the street, that there are people who care about them and are willing to help them achieve the self sufficiency of which they are capable...

The best thing is, Ms Pemberton, Councilman Atkins and Concord Church have shown their commitment for the long haul, not just the holidays. It's exciting when people believe in people!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Countee Cullen


"For we must be one thing or the other, an asset or a liability, the sinew in your wing to help you soar, or the chain to bind you to earth."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Remembering the Price Paid for the American Dream

Today marks the anniversary of one of the greatest speeches in American history. It is a reminder of the cost that so many paid for realizing the principles of democracy and the challenges of living up to those ideals. It's well worth revisiting...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address
November 19, 1863
Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Generous Justice

Author Tim Keller writes a challenging post in the Redeemer City to City blog. His soon to be released book, appears to be worth checking out as well. Read the rest of his offering here.

"I've written a book that will be coming out this month called Generous Justice. A number of people have asked me why I wrote it, and others have asked about the title itself. My answers to these two questions go together."

"One group of people I hope will read the book is the young adults who express a passionate interest in social justice. Volunteerism is the distinguishing mark of an entire generation of current American college students and recent graduates. TheNonProfit Times reported that teens and young adults are creating enormous spikes in applications to volunteer programs. As a Baby Boomer it is interesting to me that volunteering rates were high in the 1970s but had fallen off until the last half of the last decade when they began to rise again. Of course I consider this an excellent trend."

"However, many people have imbibed not only an emotional resonance for rights and justice from our culture, but also a consumerism that undermines self-denial and delayed gratification. While they may give some of their time, they spend large amounts of money on entertainment, their appearance, electronics, and travel. For a great number, then, volunteering is part of their portfolio of life-enriching activities, but it is not a feature of a whole life shaped by a commitment to doing justice, including radical generosity with one's finances."

"One of the things that struck me as I was studying the Bible's teaching on justice was how often financial generosity is considered part of doing justice. Job says, "If I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless...if I have seen...a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep...these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high." (Job 31:13-28)"

"Many people believe that "justice" is strictly the punishment of wrongdoing, period. They don't think we should be indifferent to the poor, but when we help them they would call such aid charity, not justice. But Job says that if he had failed to share his food or his fleece – his assets – with the needy, which would have been a sin against God and by definition a violation of God's justice. Of course, we can call such aid mercy or charity because it should be motivated by compassion, but a failure to live a lifestyle of radical generosity is considered injustice in the Bible."

"Our culture gives us a mixed message. It says: make lots of money and spend it on yourself; get an identity by the kind of clothes you wear and the places you travel to and live. But also do some volunteer work, care about social justice, because you don't want to be just a selfish pig. However, Christians' attitudes toward our time and our money should not be shaped by our society; they should be shaped by the gospel of Christ, who became poor so that we could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9)."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Up Close, Personal

A friend of mine sent me this email over the weekend. It's poignant as we come upon the holidays and our usual special focus turns to the tragedy of homelessness and our seasonal compassion. Don't get me wrong, its laudable, but I don't get the sense that we truly grasp what allowing this condition to go insufficiently addressed says about us and our priorities.

Dear Gerald,

Last year I had the unfortunate experience of visiting an upper income church the Sunday before Thanksgiving that left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. With people hurting and in pain, a 9% unemployment rate, and hunger on the rise, the sermon focused on all the ways that the congregation needed to give more to take care of themselves. He emphasized expansion of the education building, and more fellowship dinners, and how they want to have the best youth programs around and that they need great facilities to do so. And all of that is true.

But what made me cringe was the way he acknowledged the economic pain being experienced by so many in his climactic conclusion. In a booming voice designed to compel action... he said “I know that there are a lot of people hurting out there right now, I know that times are hard and unemployment is high. But I also know that this congregation is full of people who have done very well despite the economy... and you need to open up your checkbooks to help us make our facilities nicer.”

Not a single mention of what the church should be doing to help those who have lost their jobs. Not a single mention of our need as Christians to be taking the lead in touching those who are hurting. Not a single mention of how we can minister to those who are frightened about how they are going to feed and clothe their children. But a huge emphasis on how they make their building nicer because we are not hurting like all those “other people” are.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to share with you two powerful stories about the Austin City Manager that may be of use to you as you wrestle with how to help your congregation be more focused on the “least of these” during a season of Thanksgiving. I suspect the City Manager’s actions were prompted by his faith orientation, and I am proud of him for taking such moral leadership. But I am saddened that this story wasn’t about church leaders instead of a governmental leader. In essence, the City Manager chose to go undercover as a homeless person to experience it firsthand and it was an eye opening experience. A brief video clip is at Two news articles about his experience are below. They are worth reading.

They walk among us, but they are invisible

The Statesman

Published: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010

What would you do if you were suddenly invisible?

That is a question being raised by Austin City Manager Marc Ott, who in 24 hours went from being a highly recognized figure in Austin to a homeless person whom folks ignored and avoided as Ott passed them on city streets.

To better understand the plight of the homeless, the city manager exchanged his expensive suit and polished leather shoes for worn soles and clothing to live as one of Austin's 2,000 homeless. And just like that he went from being somebody — city manager, husband, father — to being nobody as people crossed the streets to avoid him, looked the other way when he approached and avoided making eye contact.

You can read more details about Ott's brief stint in April as a homeless person in Ken Herman's column today, also on these pages, and watch a video in which Ott recounts those events. Last week, Ott returned to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to finish what he started by sleeping there overnight.

It is right that we contemplate the plight of the homeless as the economy sputters, but that is especially true this week, which has been designated National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Austin has serious challenges regarding the homeless that warrant our attention and action.

There is the matter of getting a good count. Official figures from February 2010 place our homeless population at 2,087. But advocates who collect those figures every year say that poor weather and a lack of resources, including too few people to do the counting, resulted in an undercount. They said that on any given day in Travis County, the population swells to 4,000 folks.

One of the greatest challenges in serving the homeless is finding homes for them. Certainly, the city's temporary shelters are maxed out. But advocates, such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and Front Steps, say that Austin should focus on generating permanent housing as a way of reducing the number of chronically homeless people. That also would decrease the city's heavy reliance on temporary shelters, such as the ARCH.

The idea is to get the chronically homeless off the streets by placing them in affordable, permanent housing and, at the same time, match them with medical, job skills and other services they need to overcome the factors that keep them impoverished and homeless.

Austin has expanded such housing, called permanent supportive housing, but more is needed. That takes money. Ott wants to get it from a 2012 bond election. That won't be easy if it requires a tax increase. Aside from taxes, the fate of the bond package might well turn on location.

From an economic standpoint, it makes sense that the city and advocates for the homeless historically have looked to communities east of Interstate 35, where land and housing is generally cheaper, to locate housing for the homeless. But from an 
equity standpoint, it is unfair and unjustified to continue doing that because those communities have borne the brunt of the city's dumping when it comes to locating landfills, bus depots, halfway houses, shelters and other facilities that detract from property values or endanger public safety.

Failure to address that issue likely will result in failure to pass bonds as voters won't be willing to approve money for undesirable projects that will be located in their backyards.

There are ways that Austin residents can help. With cold weather coming, some groups are accepting blankets and coats, while others need volunteers. But the most urgent need is funding, and no donation is too small. So give your tax-deductible dollars to those organizations that are working to improve conditions for the homeless.

And all of us can do this: We can see them as people instead of acting as if they're invisible.

Day on the streets gives Ott striking view of the city

Ken Herman


Updated: 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010

Published: 11:56 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12, 2010

Seven months after the experience, Austin City Manager Marc Ott finally is ready to talk about it.

After not shaving for a week, Ott put on old clothes, stuffed some stuff in a duffel bag, and spent an April day and night doing his best to understand what it is like to be homeless in downtown Austin.

"For me, the experience started immediately in the sense that the way I characterize it is I became invisible," he said. "And what I mean by that is as I walked along the way and would encounter people, unlike a normal day for me, no one wanted to make eye contact with me. They'd look the other way or down or move to the far side of the sidewalk or cross the street."

Ott opted for simulated homelessness because he was uncomfortable talking about the issue without knowing more about it. See him talk about it on my video at

"It was as much personal as it was professional for me," he said. "Afterwards, I remember not wanting to talk about it much. ... There was a lot to digest."

But it just sort of came up during a recent Downtown Austin Alliance meeting at which Ott was supposed to talk about the kind of stuff a city manager talks to a downtown alliance about.

"I mentioned homelessness as an issue ... and I just never stopped talking about it. It wasn't planned," he recalled. Ott's story is about homeless people and good people who help them and how much more there is to do and a city manager now energized by experience to get it done.

Back in April, after walking through downtown, Ott headed to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

"And as I sat there it occurred to me, it struck me, that at any given moment ... the ARCH must be one of the most diverse places in our entire city, because I saw a little of everything. I saw black and I saw white and I saw brown," he said. "You saw all of this diversity in there, and it seemed to me, at least, the obvious thing they had in common was they were all struggling on a daily basis."

He recalled the "overpowering" burden of spending "a lot of time doing nothing. ... It was driving me crazy, to tell you the truth."

And he recalled feeling "embarrassed" as he waited in the lunch line at Caritas, "wondering about what other people must be thinking, the people that were driving by in their cars."

Ott also found himself attuned to how the homeless react to food on a plate. "You saw some people bow their head. And you saw other people address their food pretty aggressively in there," he said.

And he saw people offering food to each other.

"I was struck by that notwithstanding however dire the circumstances, that even under those circumstances, people don't necessarily lose their humanity ... their need to help or give something to somebody else," Ott said.

After lunch at Caritas, Ott went back to the ARCH, where he joined others in art activities upstairs. Later, there was some time outside the building where the homeless smoked, played dominoes and did whatever they could to pass time.

Later, the lottery that determines who gets one of the ARCH's 100 beds or 115 mats for the night was held. Ott drew a number in the low 30s, guaranteeing him a spot, but he opted to spend the night on the streets."You take your chances on the street, and you try to do what you need to do to stay out of harm's way and stay out of APD's way," he said of his night on the streets.

This past Wednesday, Ott returned to the ARCH to spend the night on a mat on the floor. He was deeply disturbed by the experience, including the roaches, the mildewed showers and conditions "that make me mad, to tell you the truth."

Ott is not blaming Front Steps, the organization that runs the ARCH. In fact, he is impressed with its efforts and level of caring. But, Ott said, change is needed at the ARCH, perhaps requiring additional city money.

"We've got to do something about it," he said, adding, "I don't control everything that effects that place. But I can't be silent about it. I know that."

On the April night on the streets, Ott approached, but didn't enter, one of the many homeless camps near downtown. He took refuge under Interstate 35 for a while. He got home around sunrise.

"Doing what I did did not make me an expert by any means," he said. "I'm not going to make any extraordinary claims because I spent 22, 23 hours out there doing what I did."

Indeed, homelessness cannot be simulated. There's nothing like the real thing. But a day of it can be an eye-opening experience.

"We talk about wanting to be the most livable city in the entire United States," Ott said. "I believe it's virtually impossible to realize that vision without successfully dealing with this challenge of our homeless population and providing affordable housing for everyone else as well."

"We can do more, and we can do better, and we should," he said.

By the way, there are nearly 6000 homeless people in Dallas County. We to can and should do more and better...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Remembering Dr. Frederick G. Sampson II (1928-2001)

In a fit of nostalgia (happens more frequently as you get older, I'm finding out), I would, when I was a pastor, sit with some of my younger associate preachers and tell them about some of the ministers I would listen to when I was as young or younger than them.

The names for them were legend, but they, for the most part had never actually heard them:

Manuel Scott. Ceasar Clark. Bernie Lee Faison. Sandy F. Ray. Nelson Smith.

And, Frederick Sampson.

In Dallas, the Baptist Ministers' Union (an organization of African-American preachers and pastors more than 50 years old), has hosted a 'City-Wide Revival', every spring. Held every year but one at the Good Street Baptist Church, it has brought to Dallas some of the most gifted preachers from around the country. It's changed quite a bit now, but when I was much younger, the revival lasted for two weeks - the Saturday in between those weeks being the night for youth - and the same preacher preached the both weeks. There aren't many of us now, who could, or who would want to duplicate that feat, but the ministers of those years were masters at it.

Dr. Frederick G. Sampson was one of them.

With several church choirs singing, Rev. Sampson, most nights, didn't preach before 9:00 or after. Good Street seats more than 1500 people and had been full for more than two hours before (most older church members started arriving around 6:30 to get a good seat) and by the time Rev. Sampson stood to preach, people were standing around the walls and in the narthex to listen to him. He regularly preached for an hour to an hour and a half - and no one moved.

Sampson was eloquent, charismatic and scholarly. His illustrations of Biblical truth flowed effortlessly from history, to classical literature, from classical to contemporary music, from art, to church history, from his personal testimony, to science and back again. And, in the process he, believe it or not, made the Gospel easy to understand. He was a true inspiration!

And, of course, there were always the illustrations of God's Love and Grace that he presented to us through stories of his children Frederick and Freda. Especially Freda! I've never met Dr. Sampson (I might have shaken his hand once during those days), and never have met Freda, but everyone almost felt as if we knew her after listening to the stories about her. The video clip below of U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Damon Keith, one of Dr. Sampson's members, is an interview conducted by Freda and he confirms that stories about Freda weren't just told in Dallas!

A member of my church, went to Detroit and had occasion to hear Dr. Sampson. She brought me back a tape of one of his messages (not knowing that he was one of my preaching heroes), and came back simply raving about how brilliant he was. Of course, I had to tell her my stories about having the chance to listen to him for those two weeks!

You should be able to hear and excerpt of one of his messages here.

It's difficult to get a grasp of the full orb of the type of men and women in the African-American church who have graced pulpits across this country. Through their giftedness they encouraged and inspired men and women to transcend the limitations of their circumstances through encounters with God that have given them new life. They bridged worlds between races and made possible the healing of century old hurts, not by denying truth but through the proclamation of Truth that sets men of all backgrounds free. These were towering figures upon whom shoulders we now stand and we should never forget them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

"Buck" O'neil

Negro League Baseball Star, Baseball Historian

"I've had some success. I really have. But I tell you what, you've got to get that education."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Co-Chair's Draft Reflects Some of AmericaSpeaks Values

One of the most creative events in which I've had the opportunity to participate was the 'technology town hall meeting', America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy.

Joining people all across the country, ordinary citizens of every political ideological stripe, took part in an effort to tackle the federal deficit, the results of which would be passed along to our leaders in Washington. This was to include and help inform the process undertaken by President's Bi-partisan Committee on the Deficit.

The results was a pretty moderate consideration on both tax increases and cuts in the budget that reflected an understanding that a solution to the economic crisis must include compromises and sacrifices. It was an exercise in democracy that our elected officials would serve as an object lesson to our elected officials.

This week a draft of the Committee's co-chair report was released and, whether one wants to argue whether or not the America Speaks results were seriously considered, some of the results of our work on that Saturday in June are similar to some of the elements in the draft.

Here's an example:

  • Defense Spending: One of the strongest messages from across the ideological spectrum at the national discussion was that defense spending needs to be seriously curtailed. We need to protect our nation and our borders, but we simply cannot afford our current global military presence. The draft proposal from the Commission’s Co-Chairs makes the same argument.
  • Health Care and Discretionary Spending: A majority of participants in the national discussion supported reductions in health care and discretionary spending (of 5% or more), but urged that our nation continue to protect those who are most vulnerable in our society. The draft proposal offers options and ideas for how this goal could be accomplished.
  • Social Security: Nearly two-thirds of the participants in the national discussion supported raising the earnings cap on Social Security to 90% in order to protect the long-term solvency of the program, which was another suggestion put forth by the Commission’s Co-Chairs. Other proposals to reform Social Security that are included in the Co-Chairs’ draft proposal, however, did not receive significant support from the public, including raising the retirement age and modifying the formula for raising benefits to reflect a lower measurement of inflation.
  • Reform of the Tax Code: Not surprisingly, many participants in the national discussion expressed frustration with an overly-complex tax code and wanted a simpler, fairer system. The Co-Chairs’ proposal makes this recommendation as well. However, the Co-Chairs’ proposal to eliminate or modify major tax expenditures in the code, like depreciation rules and mortgage deductions did not receive majority support from participants.
  • Tax Rates: Public support for reforms that would increase taxes on individuals in higher income brackets is not reflected in the Co-Chairs’ draft proposal. Read more about the results here. You can read the Co-chairs draft here.
There are, of course some other considerations. For instance what about this idea of the need for 'shared sacrifice'? Have Americans shared 'equally' in the 'prosperity' that preceded the nation's economic crisis? Not according to author Robert Creamer, "...none of the factors that caused the Federal deficit involved profligate spending by middle class Americans -- or senior citizens. In fact, during this same period the incomes of middle class Americans shrunk and those of the very wealthy continued to soar."

Perhaps the Bi-Partisan Committee on the Deficit's preliminary report may aim at the idea of sacrifice, but it does so forgetting that many of our middle class countrymen were duped into equating credit with prosperity. At the same time senior citizens and the poor never experienced prosperity at all. Now, with a proposed extension of the Bush tax-cuts, measures to balance the budget call for them to disproportionately 'share' in the costs associated with recovery.

"[Wednesday], the Co-Chairs of the Bi-Partisan Commission on the Deficit proposed a package of dramatic cuts in government expenditures and changes in the tax code that they said were meant as "shock therapy" to force attention onto the growing Federal deficit."

"The implication is that putting the Federal Deficit represents a massive, intractable crisis -- a national emergency that requires all of us to sacrifice. For many "deficit hawks" the federal deficit has morphed into an enemy that threatens the nation like a foreign army. They claim that victory in their war on the deficit requires "shared sacrifice" -- that "we" simply cannot afford to continue on the current path to fiscal perdition."

"These people have lost their memories. They seem to have forgotten what caused the deficit. And they have certainly forgotten that we know how to eliminate the deficit without making the middle class pay the bill."

"Recall that just ten years ago, at the end of the Clinton administration, the Federal budget was generating a long-term surplus. It was in the black as far as the eye could see. The big question of the day was, "what do we do with the surplus?""

Of course, whatever else this previous election was about, it is being touted as a referendum on a failure to find a two-year solution to a crisis eight years in the making. 'Would-be' and 'wanna be' millionaires-cum-billionaires, who believe that continued tax breaks for the wealthy will 'trickle down' to provide the jobs that they didn't provide during the years of 'prosperity' that we 'remember'. And a non-government solution for all of our ills that includes a government that 'acts' to provide us jobs and security.

Unfortunately, the recovery from this recession will be painful, just as the recession has been painful. We will have to build our way out of it, the same way we built our way into it. A low threshold for pain on the part of progressives and conservatives will only make it harder. And short, convenient memories and an intolerance for the debate, negotiation and compromise will make that process longer...and increase the pain.

The Reality of Governance

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Yes, West Dallas Too!

While there are those of us who are concentrating efforts on redevelopment concepts for low income areas that don't include incompatible usages - like scrap metal recycling plants and heavy industrial businesses - it's becoming apparent that the message is falling on deaf political ears.

Dallas city councilman Steve Salazaar is evidently trying to make room for a salvage yard in a redeveloping area of West Dallas. Get this: while still trying to get single family homes, decent multi-family units and economic development in South Dallas, West Dallas has been the beneficiary of significant redevelopment. While not complete, significant sections of this area are seeing new housing, businesses, even an extension of a downtown community college - add to this a salvage yard?!

According to Dallas Morning News editorial writer Jim Mitchell, "Lots of groups have put forth lots of time and effort to change the physical look and perception of West Dallas. The Trinity River project is at the top of that effort. So why in the world would the city and West Dallas councilman Steve Salazar even entertain adding a 12.7-acre salvage yard to West Dallas?"

"From the conversations I've had, it seems that this has flown under the radar because many of those who had opposed it were under the impression that this was no longer on the table even though the City Plan Commission recommended approval back in May. It's particularly perplexing that councilman Salazar hasn't been a vocal opponent of the salvage yard, which seems contrary to everything the city, residents and neighbors would want for West Dallas. I mean, you've got to be absolutely naive to think that once in, this would be an easy business to dislodge. We've seen the difficulty of removing entrenched industrial properties along Lamar so why would anyone want to dump another problem onto West Dallas?"

How do you get the message across - just because people are poor it doesn't mean that you should disregard their families or their communities.

Why is that so hard to understand?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What Do We Want? What We Want! When Do We Want It? Now!!!

I spent most of early Sunday morning listening to pundits and talking heads trying to interpret the 'message' of last Tuesday's election. Aside from a laudable election turnout strategy, my own interpretation aligns with two assessments:

1) I agree with Jon Stewart, most of the metaphors for the TEA Party victories (tsunami, landslide, avalanche, etc), are metaphors for catastrophic events that kill people...

2) This Boston Globe editorial interpretation which generally describes our current national mentality.

"After devoting long minutes to careful analysis of Tuesday night's election returns, I now know what Americans want:We want roads and bridges that are always in good condition but do not require tax money for upkeep.We want world class schools with teachers who are so dedicated that they will work for minimum wage. (Note: the best one should be in my neighborhood)."

"We want 60-inch plasma TVs that cost $200 and are produced by workers in Ohio making at least $30 per hour."

"We want our military to win every war, every heart and every mind, everywhere, at no cost in lives or money."

"We want cheap, clean, efficient mass transit that goes through someone else's neighborhood.We want no-fat triple-decker hamburgers that are good for you and taste great."

"We want fast, efficient, friendly government services provided by clerks who work happily for free."

"We want "clean" coal and domestic crude that does not produce pollution or require digging or drilling."

"We want SUVs that get 100 miles per gallon and produce jobs in Detroit."

"We want Social Security benefits to go up and Social Security taxes to go down."

"We want cheap labor from legal citizens who don't mind living in poverty."

"We want clean drinking water and pristine parks and the right to dump anything, anywhere.

"We want colleges that are inexpensive and not too hard but produce world class leaders."

"We want football where every hit is brutal but no one gets hurt and baseball where everyone hits 40 home runs but no one uses steroids."

"We want government to deliver all these things — then cut taxes and then cut taxes some more."

"Mostly, we want what we want, and we want it now."

"Personally, I want leaders who will tell us frankly that all these things are not possible, that the blessings of infrastructure and education given us by our fathers are wearing out. I want thinkers who can paint a picture of a greater America that could exist in 50 or 100 years, and then unite us with a roadmap to get there. I want America to have a shared vision and an understanding that we all benefit when we all contribute, and that we all suffer when we demand only for ourselves. I want leaders who will tell the truth: that there is no free lunch."

"But then, I also want the World Series to end in early October, yet I know that some things are just too grand to even wish for."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bread and Circuses, Beer and Barbecue - Same Thing

An interesting day yesterday. I, along with a pastor from the neighborhood, attended a 'block party' thrown by the scrap metal yard owners on Lamar Street in South Dallas. I had gotten wind of this event a couple of weeks ago and subsequently found out that during the event there would be unveiled a 'compromise' with the community regarding their presence in the neighborhood.

For nearly two years, CitySquare has been working with neighborhood, church and business leaders, to develop a plan which has turned to be an alternative to the Texas Department of Transportation's redesign of the S.M. Wright Freeway. The plan is actually more comprehensive than just the 'road project' proposed by TxDOT. It calls for redevelopment along the Lamar Street corridor and for the relocation of the heavy industrial usages along the Lamar. Initially, the owners of Gold Star Metal Recyclers was a part of those conversations. While not in total agreement with the design that didn't include this business usage, the residents were clear and have repeated, that the metal recyclers should be a part of the redevelopment but that scrap metal yards were not compatible with the type of neighborhood they want to see. Subsequent meetings have not only reiterated this, but with mutual assurances that the sides would 'work together'. In fact, invitations were extended to meet with community leaders to hear any plans the business owners had that might serve as a compromise in this planning.

What happened on Sunday was a commercial for the viability of Gold Metals, its 'love' for the community and it's desire to work with them. Complete with free barbecue, t-shirts and soft drinks, the virtues of the owners, employees and their families were extolled and politicians were on stage to sing their praises. There was also a video that showed their 'vision' for the area. The video rendering showed a boulevard effect, with commercial and residential usages - commercial that includes the scrap metal yards...

As has been repeatedly stated: no one views the owners of these recycling plants as bad people. No one views these businesses as bad businesses. In all of the local and national conversations regarding 'green' businesses, this is a frontline industry. They simply don't belong in residential areas!

There is a point to which they get a pass for being here in the first place. Gold Metal owners remind us that they have been in the area for 35 years. But they have been there because the city allowed zoning that was incompatible for the community. It happened during a time when the city of Dallas' minority representation was limited to two African-American councilmen (no Hispanics) and only one of the black council members represented the entirety of South Dallas proper. This after years in which the entire black community only had one black councilman.

The effect of this rezoning and the previous construction of S.M. Wright Freeway, was to drive down property values. The collateral public disinvestment in the area, including the lack basic city services led to the diaspora of the areas middle class further south where the neighborhoods were nicer, the homes were larger and the schools, opportunity for shopping and a commuter culture made for a better quality of life. Dallas is not dissimilar to other areas of the country in this regard. As these areas lose their middle class, as property values are depressed. As businesses leave, what remains are those who are poorer, investors are more skewed toward speculators and business that cater more to the weaknesses of those who remain proliferate.

Changing times are bringing to light greater needs for the entire city. And those who oppose the plans developed by the South Dallas Hope Initiative and Unify South Dallas don't take those needs into account. Citizens to the north, which has benefited disproportionately (when compared to the Oak Cliff section further to the south) from the disinvestment in South Dallas, now carry at least 80% of the tax burden. City leaders mistakenly tout the development of downtown as the answer. The answer lies south. Dallas cannot expect to grow more prosperous as long as 80% of its land mass carries a shade over or under 20% of the tax burden. But the problem is it can carry no more of that tax burden as long as it remains under developed or undeveloped. While there are those who decry the expense of the investment necessary to correct this disparity, the fact is failure to do so, means more of the same.

So, 'playing it safe', by trying to 'redevelop' South Dallas 'around' the mistakes of the past (freeway traffic and heavy industrial usage), while paying lip service to wanting to attract a minority middle class (or any middle class, for that matter), a number of whom have fled as far south as Waxahachie, is sheer folly. People, in South Dallas and beyond, who cannot imagine the area as anything more than what it is, are the problem. They either cannot see, or choose not to see, that South Dallas can be redeveloped over time, in ways that stave off massive gentrification, but make way for an area that is economically viable, evenly distributes the tax base for the city and enhances the quality of life throughout the city. And why do people who live in low-income communities have to accept any kind of business, simply because it represents some form of 'economic development'. In suburbs throughout the area, along lower Greenville Avenue, neighborhoods have organized to oppose bars, restaurants - even WalMart. Why are poor people doomed to have their interests trumped by any and every type of commercial endeavor? Political representation which feeds on the status quo, does not have the courage to promote a new vision, or is so beholden to the type of non-profit participation which, because of limited capacity, restricts redevelopment to piecemeal efforts are also a part of the problem.

Owners of the scrap metal yards along Lamar Street, are businessmen with an economic self interest. This does not make them evil. The relocation of their businesses - or a truly acceptable compromise - will cost millions of dollars. It will cost them AND it will cost the city of Dallas. But correcting mistakes born of systemic injustice is expensive. It ought to be. There are people whose hard earned investments will never yield the benefit that it could have because of the inequity. But it must be done. The politicians who championed the 'vision' of the scrap metal yard owners as if they were coming to the rescue to get the off the hook of making courageous choices regarding public investment, are both fooling themselves and being unfair to the rest of the city. The reason why South Dallas remains the way it is, is because it benefits some of those responsible for making - or at least proposing - the changes necessary for its redevelopment.

Residents, business leaders, church leaders and others have voiced their willingness to work for change. Even to the point of developing alternative proposals. There are politicians who have refused to work with them. There are city officials who have refused to take them seriously, because, frankly, to do so serves as a challenge to their professional expertise. And there are those who simply believe that it will cost too much money. But, Dallas is at a point where the status quo and simplistic reasoning have yielded all they can possibly produce. The officials who supported the commercial that unveiled the scrap metal yard owners vision for the community, without creating or calling for a forum and venue in which that vision could be deliberated and debated, fed into the stereotype of their own people that is both shameful and degrading. In centuries past, the Roman emperor 'bought' the will of the people with 'bread and circuses'.

Sunday, politicians, instead of doing the hard work of engaging with their constituents over the type of future they want, joined with the owners of the metal recycling businesses in trying to buy their will with beer and barbecue.

It's the same thing...and they ought to be ashamed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Happy Birthday to Billy Graham

Today is Billy Graham's 92nd birthday.

I have to confess, it took me years to appreciate his work.

As a young pastor, I considered the work that I had to do in a low income community in South Dallas, called definitely called for evangelism. But it also called to meet needs within the congregation and community that went far beyond such a simple presentation of God's Love.

Time and experience showed me that I was right and wrong.

While my work in the community led me to address complex social needs of both the people in my church and the surrounding neighborhood, I also knew that the faith out of which I worked and that which sustained so many of the people with whom I worked was profound in its simplicity. Simply stated, it was this...

God loves us too much for us to suffer as we do, from our own sinfulness or from the suffering inflicted on us by the sinfulness of others. There is redemption for all of us from the mess we make of the life God has given us and that redemption is found in the love God expressed through Jesus Christ.

Billy Graham has dedicated his life to preaching that message. And the nation is really better for it.