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Video Conversation #2.2 - How To Talk About Race ...

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In this video, Liz Laboy asks Steve Burghardt "How do you talk to white people about race?", and about his relation to W.E. B. Du Bois.

Video Conversation #2.1 - Understanding Race ...

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In this video, Liz Laboy asks Steve Burghardt about how he, as a white man, handles the complex issues associated with Race, Power and Privilege.

After our 200-person book launch at Hunter College School of Social Work, Willie Tolliver and I were lucky enough a week later to be invited to speak about our book Stories of Transformative Leadership in the Human Services: Why the Glass is Always Full by our good friend Emily Rubin at the Supportive Housing Network of New York’s (SHNNY) 9th annual conference at the New York Hilton.

It went well; hell, it went really well. We started with 100 people in the room and ended with 125 folks, some of them crammed against the exit door. Nobody left, we got thoughtful questions, lots of folks wanted to buy the book. All good. Emily had ensured a well-organized event, and she came through. We felt honored to have been there; happy to see some former students’ faces, equally pleased that most came for the topic and not because we were known to them at all.

When LTG was first founded, the partners decided that our focus would be with those often ignored and marginalized in our country, people we knew had remarkable capacity to do great things if only given the opportunity. Whether a ten-session training or a leadership forum facilitation, the message that evolved within our design was always the same: Our America, made up of people of color, LGBT folks, the old and the young, working people of any race and creed, could do great things that could make that other America pay attention. In the 1990’s and into the bleak years of W., we were proud of that message and the hope it inspired in people. Even if most of those with power weren’t listening, attention was being paid to who and what mattered.

And then, through the miracle of a man’s personal capacity and strength of will, a people’s hunger and openness to embrace new possibilities, and the collapse of the authority of an old and discredited regime (both political and economic), a new day for America arrived on January 20, 2009. “Our America” showed up by the hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., and countless millions more in public parks, stadiums, churches and synagogues. Probably more people stayed home with strange flu-like symptoms that day than at any other time in American history. Gripped by a fever of imagination and their hearts burning with hope, they, too, somehow managed to make that day special for themselves, too, even risking the same infection with the people sitting next to them in their living rooms.

Commodity or Community?

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This pivotal economic crisis in 21st century finance capital now underway is so fundamentally different from others we have lived through that it will be years before we know its full impact on American life. After all, when GM looks like its going under, housing stock has lost 30% of its value in 18 of the 20 largest American cities, Lehman Bros. goes the way of the Edsel, every American with a pension is losing sleep over declining net worth, and the American public is asked to bailout JP Morgan Chase and a few other dozen banks, you know it sure isn’t the same 'ole-same'ole. When you add in that we’re trying to figure out what the hell $62,000,000,000, 000 credit swaps could mean when our national GDP is only a measly $16,000,000,000, 000, you begin to see why people these days tremble now and again.

So, yeah, it’s a mess, bigger than your usual, every-fifth year fiscal crisis, a close cousin to the Great Depression, minus only the catchy name. I don’t have anywhere near the economic smarts to know how it’s going to shake out, but I do know it’s also connected to the politics of how people act on their own behalf and, secondarily, for those with whom they relate as having similar interests. As someone steeped in community organizing, both in practice and reading a few hundred histories over the years, some of how our society ends up depends on how people shape their own answers to meet those needs.

White Dread

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Watching the McCain-Palin rallies is a little scary. No, it’s a lot scary. The intensity of their rage at Obama is obviously fueled by the awareness that their world view on free markets and anti-government intervention is as dead as Lehman Bros., while their assumed beliefs in the inherent exceptionalism of the American way of life—our economy is safe, so everyone who wants to work can and will; we win all wars, so people in the world can trust us; every person with a job is “middle class,” so we’re just one lucky step away from being like the rich—have gone up in the smoke of a bad debt, bad militarism, and very, very bad 401(k)s.

When people have cherished beliefs, to be confronted with the stark reality that you may have been sold not only a bill of goods but down the river is psychologically devastating. What we’re seeing at those rallies is how not just anger but the outcome of massive cognitive dissonance: if I let go of all that I have believed, I lose my identity; if I hold on to what I believe, I may lose my life. Trapped between these two poles, people adapt to this unbearable tension by becoming even more extreme in one belief or the other. Every teenager goes through this as they begin to distinguish the simple truths of their childhood with their dawning awareness that the world is more complex (and inevitably more hypocritical) than they realized as children. We can go through this as adults, too: a divorce can challenge one’s beliefs about love and trust; beliefs in fairness may be tested in similar ways at work. Lucky for the world, the extreme behaviors of teens and adults in various moments of mid-life crisis get acted out pretty much away from the center stage of national life.

Barack Obama was a community organizer before he moved on to do somewhat different things. Sarah Palin was a small town mayor, a job she describes as “like an organizer, only with actual responsibilities.” So what exactly is a community organizer? So far from this election, you’d think it was a short-term job for young people, waiting around to grow up.

As a long-time professor of community organizing at City University of New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work, I’d like to offer for counterpoint a few stories on who community organizers are, what they do, and what happens to them as they move along in their careers. Some folks might be surprised.

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