Tag Archives: social justice

These Times Call For “Big Citizenship” – (Insight from the Book by Alan Khazei, Founder of City Year)

As I have written frequently, I live in (more than) a couple of different worlds.  I read, and present synopses of business books.  But I also speak monthly at the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare.  I present synopses of books dealing with social justice, racism, poverty – issues of human need.

Sometimes, I feel a little whiplash…

This month, after lunch today, I will have presented two books for two different Urban Engagement Book Club sessions.  On the first Thursday of the month, I presented my synopsis of the book Lifeblood:  How to Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time by Alex Perry.  It had a very real parallel to a section in Abundance:  The Future is Better Than You Think by David Diamandis (which I presented at the July First Friday Book Synopsis).  Abundance profiles some technophilanthropists.  And Lifeblood focused a great deal on the work of Ray Chambers.  Maybe not a “technophilanthropist,” but certainly a wealthy philanthropist who made/is making a whopping difference.  He served as the first ever UN Special Envoy for Malaria.  His goal was to get rid of malaria in the poorest countries of Africa.  Here’s a quote from the book: 

“Perfection is the enemy of good,” he said. “Will we cover every single person with a bed net? Honestly, I doubt it. Will we have a bigger impact than any other campaign ever? Yes, I think we will. You set lofty goals, and if you get 90 percent, that’s a great achievement, and you focus on getting the remaining 10 percent done as quickly as you can.”

Today, I am presenting my synopsis of the book Big Citizenship:  How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America by Alan Khazei.  Mr. Khanzei is the founder of City Year, which ultimately played the pivotal role in the establishment of AmeriCorps.  The book is filled with great stories, but it boils down to this:

What is the problem, and how do we tackle solving it?

I will say this today:

In fact:  all solutions boil down to Individual, Face-to-face, Compassionate, Competent, Attention. 

Here are a couple of key quotes from this book:

Big Citizens are not household names. They are not the elected officials or prominent leaders. They are regular, good hearted people blessed with a loving heart and an open mind. Anyone can be a Big Citizen and join with others in common purpose. You just need to listen to that voice inside that says: “I, too, want to be part of making my neighborhood, my school, my community, my country, my world, a better place for all of us.”

At times of great crisis, we often want to find that one great leader to bring us to a better day, but what we need to recognize is that throughout our history, it has been the willingness of regular people looking in the mirror and committing to causes larger than themselves that has been the key to making progress. At the end of the day, it is up to all of us.

And he includes this famous quote from Robert Kennedy:

 “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

In Dallas, Larry James, Gerald Britt, and the full team at CitySquare work with dogged determination to meet human need, to help people establish a more solid foundation; they actually find homes for homeless people… the list of ways they tackle human need is long, and impressive.  And Gerald Britt works tirelessly on public policy issues (payday lending is one of his recent targets – payday lending is an absolute drain on people in poverty).

I encourage you to add a social justice/poverty book to your reading stack.  There are many good ones.  If you ask me where to start, my current “best suggestion” is The Working Poor by David Shipler.  But, it almost does not matter – read any book that helps you see, and remember, the very real human needs of others.  And then, do something about it!  (CtySquare is a pretty good place to start).

And in you are in the DFW area, I invite you to come join us at the Urban Engagement Book Club.  We meet twice a month.  Check it out.

Putting Our Minds to Finding Work Solutions for The Under-Skilled May Be the Most Patriotic Thing We Can Do

For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present.  Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be.  A job alone is not enough.  Medical insurance alone is not enough.  Good housing alone is not enough.  Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest.  There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty.  Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler:  The Working Poor  (Invisible in America)

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich:  Nickel and Dimed
 – On (Not) Getting By in America


News item:  Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear.  From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:

For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?

In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.

Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day.  Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare.  This is one part of a multi-part life I am living.  On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book.  On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty.  (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities).  I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly.  I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.

But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot.  I care about these issues deeply.  I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible.  Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal.  To fail to do so makes us a little less human.

We all recognize these words, because they are so prominent in I Have a Dream by Dr. martin Luther King, Jr.:

Let justice roll on like a river,
 righteousness like a never-failing stream!

These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; 
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
 and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice.  These may not be needed all that much by those with great means.  But as for the neediest…  these matter a great deal.  And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.

Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago.   But that story has been replicated in city after city.  This may be the key quote in the book:

When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.

The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means.  It is a story overflowing with racism.  But there is a warning in here for all folks.

I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation.  People with inadequate means is a growing demographic.  High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above).  The situation is going to be increasingly dire.  And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor.  The poor black people were the victims in Chicago.  And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places.  But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.

May I make a suggestion?  As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us.  And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention.  Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues.  (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor.  He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).

Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?

It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.

Doing Nothing is a Really Bad Option – Half the Sky, and The Moral Challenge of This Century

It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.
Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl Wudunn:  Half the Sky
Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide


What is the #1 problem?  Facing planet earth?  Facing thoughtful people who have anything resembling a heart?

The book Half the Sky deals with

The Moral Challenge of This Century.

That’s the claim from the book’s companion web site.  I think it may be correct.

I speak twice a month for CitySquare, at the Urban Engagement Book Club, and all of the books I present are books that deal with serious forms of injustice.  Larry James and Gerald Britt and I sit in a room, discuss the issues we want to address in the coming 12 months, and then with iPads open, we look for books, and then we make mid-course substitutions as the year unfolds.

But here’s the thing.  I read books that I don’t much think I would have discovered had it not been for this event.

And, every book I read does its job on my heart – I have my consciousness raised, my conscience tweaked, and I end up with some mix of rage, despair, “what’s the use,” and yet just a little resolve.

And I always feel that this work, presenting books on poverty and social justice, is just a little more important than anything else I do.

Today’s book, Half the Sky, is something.  Painful, disturbing, difficult…

We all know about the international, multi-generational, multi-century abuse of women.  But these Pulitizer Prize-winning authors are faithful and effective messengers.  From Wikipedia:

In 1990 Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, earned a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their reporting on the pro-democracy student movement and the related Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. They were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer for journalism. Kristof has also received the George Polk Award and an award from the Overseas Press Club for his reporting which focuses on human rights and environmental issues.
Kristof was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004 and again in 2005 “for his powerful columns that portrayed suffering among the developing world’s often forgotten people and stirred action.” In 2006 Kristof won his second Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.” Kristof was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize again in 2012; altogether, he has been a Pulitzer finalist six times, which may be a record.

In this book, after they paint an absolute heart-breaking picture, they make quite a few suggestions.  But they boil down to this:  without attention, and action, men (and even some women) are going to rape and punish and abuse and persecute and destroy girls and women, just because they are girls/women, and just because they can.  We need to pay attention; we need to go and see what is happening; and we need to give our money and time to bring about such needed change.

I come away from every Urban Engagement Book Club session always overwhelmed with “what can I do?” issues.  But this much is clear:  month after month – doing nothing is a really bad option!


Give some money to CitySquare here (there’s a “donate now” button on the home page).

Give some money to groups that provide tangible assistance to women throughout the world through Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl Wudunn’s Half the Sky site here.  Click on the Partners tab; do a little research; pick a “partner,” and get started…

We Can’t Do Everything At Once. Literally, We Cannot Do Everything At Once – (insight prompted by Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow)

We can’t do everything at once.  Literally, we cannot do everything at once.  And so, a lot that needs to be paid attention to; a lot that needs to get done; a lot that is important, maybe crucial; is simply never dealt with.  And the advocates of such concerns speak, and write, and yell, and scream, and yet, the issue is still ignored.

Because we can’t do everything at once.

There is a very old piece of folk-wisdom about this:  “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” And there is always a squeaky wheel, and the other wheels that need some grease simply do not get any until the squeak becomes almost unbearable.

I thought of this all this as I began to dive into the book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michele Alexander.  This book is the selection for the March Urban Engagement Book Club (sponsored by CitySquare), a book club which focuses on issues of social justice and poverty.

Near the end of the book, Ms. Alexander writes this:

Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy.  Fully committing to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of “all of us” will require a major reconsideration of priorities, staffing, strategies, and messages.  Egos, competing agendas, career goals, and inertia may get in the way.  It may be that traditional civil rights organizations simply cannot, or will not, change.  To this it can only be said, without a hint of disrespect, adapt or die.

The book is an indictment of the new “caste” system in this country, a change that she backs up with an overwhelmingly clear argument, and data, like this:

There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

This presents a serious challenge to all of us interested in issues of social justice and racial equality.

But the quote from the book also presents a reminder to all “set in their ways, blind to reality” companies and organizations.  “Adapt or die.”

Thoughts About Change From A Book About Racial, Ethnic, And Class Tensions

For the Urban Engagement Book Club for Central Dallas Ministries tomorrow, I am presenting my synopsis of There Goes the Neighborhood:  Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America by William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub.  At this book club, we focus on books related to social justice and poverty issues – quite a different focus from what we normally choose for the First Friday Book Synopsis.  And this book takes a careful look at some social justice and poverty issues.

In this book, which looks at four neighborhoods that felt the impact of racial change, and all of the implications of that change, I found this insightful paragraph:

Albert Hirschman argues that when people become dissatisfied with changes in their surroundings they can exit – move or withdraw from further participation – or they can exercise voice.  Hirschman defines “voice” as any attempt “to change, rather than to escape from,” an undesirable situation.
The more willing people are to try to exercise voice – that is, to change, correct, or prevent a particular situation – the less likely they are to exit.

This seems to be useful as we think about all kinds of change:  if a change is threatening (and most change is), then people will either “exit,” or they will “speak up” to seek to make their own voice heard in the midst of change.

And when will people most likely speak up?  According to Hirschman, people will speak up when one’s “loyalty” to a neighborhood, or an organization within the neighborhood, is deep, and genuinely matters to the individual.  In such instances, things are worth “fighting for,” and a person will do whatever he or she can to maintain the ties.

So – put this in a business context.  The more loyal people are to a company and its mission, the more likely they are to speak up to protect what is important, and seek to shape the change in a workable way for all.

It seems to me that we want people who are loyal enough to speak up for what is important to them!

What is a normal life? – Push By Sapphire (The Book Which Prompted The Movie Precious); A Reflection

As I have written often, I live in multiple worlds.  Today for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by Central Dallas Ministries, I presented  my synopsis of Push by Sapphire.

It was the toughest book to read – maybe the toughest I’ve ever read!  In this book-based gathering, we look at books that raise our consciousness and understanding on issues of poverty and social justice.  This book did the job.  (Yes, I know I’m quite a few years late on this – but it was the selection for the book club, and that’s what prompted the reading, and this post, now).

Here is one quote — a reflection by Precious:

What is a normal life?  A life where you not ‘shamed of your mother.  Where your friends come over after school and watch TV and do homework.  Where your mother is normal looking and don’t hit you over the head wif iron skillet.  I would wish for in my fantasy a second chance.  Since my first chance go to Mama and Daddy.

The “first chance to Mama and Daddy” refers to the ways that her Mama and Daddy stole her life, in so many ways.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film adaptation of the book, Precious, he writes these paragraphs:

Precious has shut down. She avoids looking at people, she hardly ever speaks, she’s nearly illiterate. Inside her lives a great hurt, and also her child, conceived in a rape. She is fat. Her clothes are too tight. School is an ordeal of mocking cruelty. Home is worse. Her mother, defeated by life, takes it out on her daughter. After Precious is raped by her father, her mother, is angry not at the man, but at the child for “stealing” him.

There’s one element in the film that redeems this landscape of despair. That element is hope. Not the hope of Precious, but that of two women who want better for her. It’s not that Precious “shows promise.” I think it’s that these women, having in their jobs seen a great deal, can hardly imagine a girl more obviously in pain.

That is the starting point for “Precious,” a great American film that somehow finds an authentic way to move from these beginnings to an inspiring ending.

I don’t often say this so emphatically on this blog:  but read this book!  It will open your eyes, and your heart, and remind you of what you have, and what so many don’t have.