Sixth in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest
The TakeAway: The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provides the opportunity to reflect on what truths we hold to be self evident, what falsehoods we reject, and to discern how best to advance liberty, equality, and justice for all. Two friends, one black and one white, reflect on their efforts to promote racial justice 49 years ago when they were young girls, and what they’d like to do now to make the Dream come alive. With help from Baby Boomers who have time and energy to give, that happens through bending the arc of money and power toward justice—and building multiracial, diverse citizen involvement in the sustainability movement, which is far too homogenous for its own good. My proposal: a Civic Stewardship League, which helps assure that fiduciary power is directed toward to the public interest and involves concerned citizens in the process.
On Wednesday I called my lifetime friend Linda Hunter Williams shortly before the Presidents spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wanted to talk with Linda so we could reflect on the last 5 decades and the fact that, 49 years ago at the age of 14, she and I joined so many thousands working for racial justice across the land—“to lay claim to the promise made at our founding”, as President Barack Obama later put it in his speech.
I also wanted to enlist her in a cause I’m starting, one that I hope helps reboot our local economies and make The Dream come alive, once again. And—this is very important—adds some color and diversity to a 21st century sustainability movement that’s way too male and pale for its own good, and has “crowded out” behaviors and sentiments of average people.
The idea is to design a polycentric system—that’s a fancy term developed by Nobel laureate Elinor Olstrom and Vincent Olstrom, tremendously important thinkers—involving government, the private sector, and community institutions in ways that unlock “hidden” financial assets and advances the common good. I want to organize a national “Civic Stewardship League” that would operate much like the League of Women Voters, with local chapters comprising those who want to join with fellow citizens in making our economic system more sustainable, fair, and transparent. With pilots initially where the civic spirit is high—that is, in Lansing/mid-Michigan and Detroit, along with Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, western Massachusetts/Boston, and New Hampshire—its objective is to leverage fiduciary power toward sustainability and the public interest, where it belongs. It would create more entry point for concerned citizens—“crowding in” their behaviors, so they can be directed to something bigger than they are, something Occupy Wall Street hinted at, but never fully achieved.
More on that later, and in the future.
Back to the March and the Movement, and the trajectory of our lives.
Formative Roots: The Crucible of Virtue and Change │ When we first started working for racial justice, it was 1964. Linda and I were sophomores in high school in Lansing, Michigan, and were the best of friends. She became my second sister. For several years we were the black and white girls who would travel through Michigan’s capitol area, seeking to enlighten folks, accompanying local civil rights leader Richard D. Letts, our mentor. Mr. Letts was Lansing’s Human Relations Director, a post created by my Dad to bridge the growing divide in a Michigan affected, as all places were, by prejudice and ignorance. My Dad had known Mr. Letts since they were both teens; Dad learned how to box from him, and went on to win some Golden Gloves fights. Mr. Letts devoted his life to the cause of liberty, equality, and justice for all, and even though he died at the relatively young age of 75 in 1997 (a few months after my Mother passed), his spirit lives on in the scholarship and award and community center that bear his name. Richard D. Letts was, and remains, beloved. His wife, Olivia, is still with us, bless her heart.
Linda and I and a number of other high school friends were part of Lansing’s “Junior Human Relations Council”, an opportunity for youth to engage with other young people and raise both consciousness and conscience. So many were involved in that—Mike Burke, Diane Burton, Claudia Wilson, Dave Henderson, to name a few I recall. Plus, there were other opportunities—the Greater Lansing Youth Council provided a venue for leadership (my old friend Rosie Hudnut Wright was active there), as did the Junior Police Cadets, a program started by my Dad.
Mr. Letts would drive us to various meetings, usually in high schools, and we’d meet with students and do role-playing, little skits about prejudice and indignities that would help get people talking. We’d then answer questions, and try and tackle some unpleasant truths. One stands out. “Do colored people still have dirt floors?” one student from a suburban school asked Linda. I don’t remember what she said—she had, and still does have, enormous poise and a deeply ingrained sense of humor—but I do remember being shocked. We laughed about it later, marveling at how a supposedly intelligent group of people, many of them with parents who taught at Michigan State University, could be so dumb.
From those days, Linda went on to Western Michigan University (her “militant phase”, she laughs), and continued to grow her career and family, always dedicated to making the world a better place. I moved out East, and worked to open up freedom and opportunities for welfare mothers, black students, teachers, and administrators in the Boston Public Schools, and victims of apartheid. I found myself following the North Star of how to make institutions accountable, of how to make the money power advance a greater good.
In 2013, Linda and her husband Gary live in Detroit, where they’ve lived for many years, so when it comes to prejudice and ignorance, there’s a lot to discuss. She told me a story about recently running into another childhood acquaintance, an African American man who now lives with his wife in a Detroit suburb. Linda said they were at a book party a few weeks ago in West Bloomfield, where most of the folks were “refugees” from Detroit and spoke disparagingly about their former home.
“I got mad,” she said. “I told them they were hypocrites, that they had lived in Detroit and it had been good to them, and now look at them, ragging on like that.”
We talked about how, while so much progress has been made, there remains a lot of divisions, of ignorance, of inequalities. “I’m saving things for my grandchildren,” Linda told me. “They’re too young to know who he was, but I keep telling them,” referring to Dr. King. A former counselor and middle-school teacher, Linda is retired now and still going strong, despite a liver transplant and other assorted ailments that beset many of us Baby Boomers.
“I think it’s important for them to know that they have me to thank, and many others, too, who fought for their rights. They take things for granted.”
The 1963 March on Washington was organized in a political environment not much different from our own today. It was about jobs and justice and voting rights, during a time when conservative politics held sway. Initially conceived by the eminent A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rusting, with support from trade unions, the effort was joined, later on, by other civil rights leaders including Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis. Initially intended to commemorate another anniversary—the death of Emmett Till, a young black boy who dared to speak to a white woman and paid the ultimate price—the March on Washington was designed to inspire a nation to action.
Linda said that on that historic day, she watched Dr. King’s speech on her family’s black and white TV, along with her mother Christine, who was talking on the phone with her best friend—something Linda said she always did when momentous occasions were televised. “Your Dad was off working,” I said, and we both laughed, knowing exactly where he was, and that the same was true in my house.
The Arc of Our Lives: From 1963 to Today │ In those days, racial politics—not in Lansing, but elsewhere—often was violent, with cities on alert and even burning as the march for justice gained traction. As the years went by, my Dad did his best, as Mayor, to bring liberty, justice, and economic opportunity to Lansing, Michigan—Model Cities (an idea conceived by one of my mentors, the late Robert C. Wood), human rights, modernization, quality schools. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the march toward justice continued, tempered by social and economic realities that widened the aperture from race and began to focus on issues of war and peace, energy policy, and environmental degradation. Still reeling from the impact of a few assassinations and a war, the 1970s saw us confronting, for the first time, the impact of geopolitics on oil prices and our growing interdependence in a world order slowing emerging from a Cold War. Overseas, freedom’s call stirred the hearts of African and Asian nations, waiting to be born.
Within the United States, the winds of change blowing across lunch counters, school doorways, and the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in the 1960s had moved, in the 1970s and 1980s, to economic and environmental issues. Manufacturing plants started closing or offshoring. Our U.S. population started migrating from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, while newcomers joined us in droves. Technology capsized our approach to just about everything, and we no longer found ourselves as King of the Hill.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” President Obama said at the Mall. He then went on to describe the importance of livelihood, the link between liberty and economic opportunity, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work—“the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life.”
“It’s not just the absence of oppression but the promise of economic opportunity,” he said. “Inequality has steadily risen through the decades,” he said, citing stratospheric CEO pay, substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care, and perennial violence. “As we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves the measure of progress was not merely the many blacks that might join the ranks of millionaires, but how many blacks and whites might join the middle class. It’s not whether the door is opened a crack for a few, but opened for the many. To win that battle, to answer that call—this remains our great unfinished business.”
Moving Forward: Pushing Against Those Stubborn Gates │ Shortly after the speeches, a gem of a piece appeared on The Washington Post’s website. Titled, “We need a Bayard Rustin today”, Jonathan Capeheart highlights the important role that Rustin, a gay activist, played in organizing the 1963 March. Commenting on the similarities between now and then, Capeheart reports what civil rights champion and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said: “Occupy Wall Street is a perfect example of why you need a Bayard Rustin. After they spread all over the country, the polls showed that Occupy Wall Street displaced the tea party. And what did Occupy Wall Street do with it? Nuthin’! There was no Bayard Rustin to take hold of this, a spontaneous uprising of the middle class and the poor, and do something with it.”
Well, maybe there’s no Bayard Rustin but there sure are a heckuva lot of others of us. We’ve seen the passion and dedication of young people dedicated to the cause of sustainability. Just look at the bubbling campus activism around fossil fuel divestment, or the crowds drawn to helping 350.org achieve its climate crises goals. Just today there was a nationwide protest among fast-food workers, who are seeking $15/hour because minimum wage is not enough.
No doubt about it: There’s a trans-generational opportunity here to build upon the efforts of so many who fought so long for so much.
There are millions of Baby Boomers whose character was forged in the crucible of the civil rights movement, but also the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and the movement for gay rights. All of those movements fought against poisonous “isms” that divide and conquer a free people, putting the lie to our foundational heritage and perpetuating ignorance and subservience to truths that aren’t evident at all.
It’s time for Baby Boomers to get back into the game.
My friend Mike Burke, who now lives in Florida but grew up in Lansing and worked with many of us back in the day, served alongside Linda as President of Lansing’s Junior Human Relations Council. Since then, Mike Burke has devoted his life tirelessly to the cause of racial justice, equality, and freedom for all. Hours after the 2013 March on Washington anniversary, Mike recalled the permanent impact of Richard Letts and the civil rights movement on our lives—and my Dad’s role in helping to promote it. “Your Dad showed good vision as mayor, Marcy,” Mike posted on Facebook. “By appointing someone like Dick Letts into a working role toward establishing positive community relations, he put into place very important building blocks that would prove to be extremely helpful as the country’s struggles unfolded.
Dick Letts established himself as a credible voice in the philosophies of Dr. King. Because of this, Lansing was able to gain peaceful equilibrium in reasonable ways much sooner than many other communities. Dick Letts’ visions about the importance of working with young people have borne themselves out, as evidenced by the deep impressions he left on the people whose lives he touched, you and I (and many others) among them. I appreciate the partnership your Dad and Dick Letts forged to help our hometown become a good place in which diverse families could live together. In those times, it was visionary.
A Proposal: Let’s Organize a Civic Stewardship League │ Fifty years later, it’s time for us to mobilize again—black, brown, pink or polka-dotted, rich, poor, Democrat or Tea Party or Republican or who knows what—around the cause of liberty, equality, and justice for all. It’s time for us to bend the sustainability movement toward a more inclusive cause, and demonstrate by its actions that the moral imperative for these self-evident truths looms large.
Here’s my contribution to that cause.
The focus: Economic institutions that “crowd out” our deepest beliefs in these foundational values, as well as norms of trust, reciprocity, cooperation, and citizenship.
The mechanisms: A Civic Stewardship League, with local chapters that “crowd in” norms of trust and reciprocity, cooperation and citizenship. A Civic Stewardship League is neither completely centralized nor decentralized, but a blend of both: small, medium, and large overlapping units that form a network capable of knowledge generation, oversight, and self-correction. A Civic Stewardship League has knowledge of local circumstances as well as broader community and ecological needs, discusses ethical issues with others who are affected, and fosters innovation and experimentation to design better economic institutions.
Its design: A polycentric system of multi-tiered structures promoting public and private problem solving at the local, regional and national—even international—level.
The process: An ongoing process, enabled by digital tools, of public education, civic engagement, investor reporting, and “fiduciary review boards” that put a spotlight of accountability on billions and billions of dollars invested in endowment portfolios. That’s money invested by churches, schools, museums, hospitals, social clubs, and so many more institutions that do not pay taxes in exchange for their contribution to the greater good. Many of them may not pay taxes, but have enough money to invest. Their very existence is made possible by taxpayers and IRS, and in theory they’re supposed to serve the public interest.
That mandate ought to apply to their asset management, too; their portfolios could be leveraged in ways that promote sustainability and accountability, across the portfolio, as well as develop asset pools that respond to community needs and targeted economic development.
That’s what this whole “Time to Talk About the Public Interest” series is about. For me, it’s the next phase in what President Bill Clinton described Wednesday as America’s constant “becoming”, America’s ongoing journey toward opening up those “stubborn gates” to liberty, equality, and justice for all.
“The great irony of the current moment is that the future has never brimmed with more possibilities,” Clinton said. “It has never burned brighter in what we could become if we push open those stubborn gates and if we do it together. The choice remains as it was on that distant summer day 50 years ago, cooperate and thrive, or fight with each other and fall behind.”
That it’s up to all of us, every single citizen among us, to run our lap.
And for Linda and Mike and me and so many others like us, it’s just the next chapter in a storyline that began 50 years ago. God bless us everyone.
Next: “Money and Morality: A Vocabulary with Multiple Meaning”
Editor’s Note: This is the 6th installment of MurnPost’s Time to Talk About the Public Interest series. Part 1 appeared on 8/13/2013, here. Part 2 appeared on 8/16/2013, here. Part 3 appeared on 8/19/2013, here. Part 4 appeared on 8/23/2013, here. Part 5 appeared on 8/26/2013, here. With the exception of this post, the series is based on a long essay entitled “Loose Canons and Apocalypse Now: Unveiling the ‘Ethics’ in the Fiduciary Ethic” submitted to the IRRC Institute Award competition on Post-Modern Portfolio Theory. It was written in November 2012.