Sunday, July 24, 2016

Doing It Ourselves

Include People in Process

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, July 24, 2106, p. D3

I started life in a house on the former underground railroad, in an Iowa City with “northern racism” -- few black students and fewer professors, none of whom could find a barber to cut their hair, or a landlord to rent them an apartment.

I spent the 1950s in a Texas with “southern racism” – including the poll tax and other remnants of slavery those underground travelers escaped. I clerked for a federal court of appeals judge when civil rights decisions sparked burning crosses in judges’ yards.

Later, as a President Johnson appointee, I watched how he passed the Voting Rights Act, knowing it would hand the South to the Republicans.

And how, as a result of that act, the mud and gravel roads in southern black neighborhoods began to be paved. The number of southern black legislators increased from 5 to 313.

Those memories came back to me as I read that Cedar Rapids’ leaders had met regarding a sub-set of local gun violence that gets little public or media attention: young black gang members shooting each other.

Ultimately, those leaders created the Safe, Equitable and Thriving (SET) Communities Task Force.

Wisely, the members chose to focus, not merely upon the existence and consequences of these shootings, but upon their causes. They mentioned “poverty, social vulnerabilities, and other systemic hardships.”

Having done so, they realized their challenge is less about race relations (though that’s involved) than about the basic needs of all residents – a challenge confronting most American cities.

The usual approach lists things like jobs at livable wages, housing, transportation, and healthcare – noting their interrelationship. Three weeks ago this paper addressed the adverse effect on education from both inadequate housing (in an editorial) and insufficient transportation (in a column).

Perhaps our answer this time will be found, not alone in substance (like housing proposals) but in process. The Task Force might first find the problems by focusing on those most impacted by what Cedar Rapids lacks (for them), rather than those most benefited by what it has. It might focus more on listening to their stories, recording and reporting anecdotal evidence, than on cold data and multiple choice questions. [Photo credit: Unknown; interviewing people where they live may be more revealing than the multiple choice questionnaire results from those willing to attend meetings.]

What if identifying each individual’s problems came before those of the community, a search through the catalog of alternative solutions, pilot projects, and the difficult task of final implementation?

We might just find that, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we, too, have been “waiting for someone/to really discover America,” and that our democracy requires more than voting. It needs citizens who feel, and are, included in the identification as well as the resolution of our challenges.

Indeed, our leaders might wish to meditate upon Lao Tsu’s 2500-year-old observation that the goal of a good leader is that “When his work is done [the people] will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

Iowa City now has less “northern racism.” And Cedar Rapids can have less shooting by gang members. We can do it. But only when the people can say, “We did this ourselves.”
As a former FCC commissioner, Nicholas Johnson highlighted the role of media in race perceptions and relations and urged increased station ownership by women and minorities. Contact:

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