A New “We” in Selma

President Barack Obama last week said that the most powerful word in American democracy is “We.” He said:

“The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”

Visiting my hometown of Selma last week, I saw evidence of a new “we” and it was encouraging. I heard cautious optimism from former teachers and civic leaders I’d not heard in a very long time. I came to Selma with gratitude, and came away with concrete optimism.

However, not everyone can be part of this “new we,” at least not until projects are much further along than they are now. In Selma I met with a number of people. I gave tours of an historic civil rights home to hundreds of people and also met with old friends. I noticed people dividing themselves into three categories: those who can create a new “we;” those who are stuck; and a few who are pathological. These three categories are universal and transcend race, religion, education, or culture. My guess is that today in Papua New Guinea there may be a headhunter coming to the same conclusion that I share here.

I am an innovation expert by trade. The Latin root of “innovation” is innova, or “to renew.” Its first known use occurred when the Bible was translated into Latin. Psalm 51:10 Cor mundum crea in me Deus et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.”

When renewing a company, a civic organization, or nation we need to start with a coalition of people with the character, courage, and curiosity to renew a place. It mattered to Gideon in the Bible; it matters to Tim Cook of Apple today. (Cook is also from Alabama.)

Who can be on that team in Selma? As I met with people I listened to what they shared about themselves regarding their attitude towards “a new we.” Here is what I learned:

There always has been and there is still a beautiful cadre of people dedicated to building beloved community and “a new we.” These people live lives of moral grandeur in and out of the spotlight. They seek to build beloved community with programs ranging from providing hospitality to restoring homes to helping our fragile ecosystem. It is this beauty that drew me from my adopted home of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to drive to Selma and volunteer at a new private museum founded in the home of my late 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson. The home famously served as the residential headquarters of the Selma movement. She and her husband created a sacred space to nourish leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, and many others through difficult days and tortured nights. Rep. John Lewis called her home a “haven” amidst hostility; Rev. Joseph Lowery said without the gatherings in the Jackson home, Selma would have been intolerable.

Ms. Jackson’s teaching, and those of other teachers and school officials such as Grace Hobbs, Florence Mooring, Karim Oaks, Althelstein Johnson, Hanna Berger, and many others helped to develop my character and intellect. The moral grandeur of their lives lived in the spotlight and in the quiet places stirs my heart and soul.

This group can make positive change happen. They are people of good will and character. These people have varying capacities to turn their positive intentions into reality. Regardless of their abilities, they carry an infectious, realistic hope, and energy. At one point I was in the Jackson home with the children of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, the Jacksons, and, oddly enough, Bob Marley’s granddaughter. Their parents changed the world – my world too! Outside of the home and around the city I met many people who were volunteering, building, planning, and helping the community move forward. Another time I found I was with a city councilman who was directing traffic while a rich business consultant was hauling folding chairs for an event that would teach school kids about the value of friendship. That is the best of a small-town community! We worked together and no task was too small. At one point a famous Dartmouth professor came to me and said, “I was just told that a person would print a paper for me because he would never let down a Dartmouth professor.” I heard another child expound publicly on how proud he was to be an Edgewood Elementary School Busy Bee. He pointed a lineage of famous Busy Bees and claimed with pride that heritage for himself.

There were two other types of people who can’t move into this “new we” until that “we” is firmly established, if they ever can.

One is a group that is stuck. When you hear the phrase, “Ain’t it awful…” or “Someone’s got to do something…” with no offer to help, you have met a person who may be stuck. This “stuck” group has an immature view of how the world works. Children complain and expect their parents to solve their problems. Mature people know that we must be part of the solution, not just complain or expect others to solve our problems. Stuck people lack enough curiosity, courage, and character to change when they realize there is a problem that upsets them enough to complain about it. (If you are unsure what differentiates mature from immature behavior, consider Googling the term and making a list of those traits. I keep a list of these characteristics on my desk for easy reference.)

Mature people at times do not act because of a healthy awareness of limits, passion, and timing.  Stuck people do not act for such mature reasons. Stuck people do not act because they have not matured into claiming their adult identities. Something blocks them from becoming their best selves. The stuck person is universal and as old as humanity. If you doubt this, read the book of Numbers and you will see why it took forty years for Moses before he could enter the Promised Land.

The third group is comprised of a small group of pathological people. These people are often called “haters.” These people have mental health issues that prevent them from living full lives. They have a low ability to self-regulate and little awareness of how their actions impact others. They lack empathy. As a result they lack the ability to sustain meaningful relationships over any period of time. They will also defend their pathology as they fear what it would mean to live as well people, a condition they may have never known.

I have met haters of all races, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, and in every religion, and on every continent I’ve worked. I have also noticed they seem more prevalent in certain cultures, especially places where cultural norms break down such as in post-war zones and oddly enough, academia. Some just hate but others turn into “scammers” seeking to profit without conscience on the misery of those for whom they purport to care. The Thenardiers of Les Misérables are an example of pathological scammers.

When faced with pathology, it helps to have a crystal clear idea of what pathology is (Google it if you are unsure of how it manifests itself) and an advance agreement on how a community will handle disagreement if a person manifests signs of pathology. Addressing pathology requires courage, wisdom, and resources. It is hard to have a group respond to pathology if there is no consensus about what one is looking at, nor about what the consequences will be if the pathology goes unchecked (or half-checked – it mutates!). However, when pathology isn’t dealt with, the pathology becomes harder to contain and unfortunately the pathological may become role models.

When we can identify mature, empowered leaders with positive visions and the ability to work with others, we stop wasting time with people who cannot help the community. If we have a clear understanding of what “stuck” and “pathology” look like, we stop getting frustrated when people act as though they are stuck or pathological. We accept that is who they are and stop trying to make them something they are not: team players. We also keep our eyes on the prize: beloved community. This won’t guarantee success, but it gives the dream a better chance of coming to fruition.

The hope I saw in Selma is not abstract. This hope is attached to the hearts and capabilities of very real people daring to invent beloved community in the sacred spaces in Selma. They are the keys to innovation, to renewal, to a new “we.” And this “we” is the most important thing American culture brings to the world, as the President stated this month in Selma.

I welcome your thoughts. Please e-mail me or comment below.

One thought on “A New “We” in Selma

  1. This is deeply moving and on point. If we are realistic we will find ourselves in one of these types or perhaps more likely a composite of all. May “we” get moving and working and gleaning the hope that is so palpable around us. Thanks for the call, Allegra

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