Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan-Feb 2018

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Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan 18, 2018 Topic: Justice in Sustainability

Is it a good thing to inherit money? Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are advocating for the very rich to give away a large portion of their accumulated wealth and be thoughtful about how much money younger generations inherit. One of them said that I want my kids to have enough to do anything that they want but not enough to do nothing. Family businesses need to do succession planning. It is good to provide voices for people from around the world who might not be able to tell their story. Urban planning and urban renewal have a bad name in Detroit. These projects had many negative impacts on African American communities in the past. This is true in Detroit and a number of other cities. The City of Houston has no zoning because the African American community voted against zoning in the mid-60s. They felt they needed to protect their vibrant communities and feared that government would zone them out of their own homes. In practice, zoning is highly political and usually favors those with the most power. In general Houston is much more flexible and vibrant as a result of no zoning, but there are problems with making infrastructure workable. It has been OK to build in a floodplain, which clearly has consequences. Housing prices are lower. Go to downtown Detroit on most weekends, and you would think Detroit is a majority white city. There is a feeling of “them not us” in the new developments. The current urban planning department is staffed mostly by folks from out of town with degrees from prestigious universities. My life has been shaped by accidental encounters. I was born to a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia. That culture is very different from the culture of sharecroppers in the deep south which is much more prevalent in Detroit. My grandfather was well respected in the coal mines as supervisor, even though he was one of very few Blacks in the area. The supervisor was the person who could get you out of the coal mine alive – survival was at stake. Our neighbors were mostly white, German and Italian. My Dad was a union guy fighting scabs. After the family moved to Detroit, Mom got all of the eight kids into a Catholic school for free. She always liked getting something for free. All of my classmates were white. I got a different sense of things from attending that school. I have dyslexia, as does my twin brother (probably). We found ways to compensate all our life. He could read out loud to me and then I could discuss and explain what it meant. I figured out a way to read – not phonetically – but a way that works for me. I am an outlier. My family did not blend in with the neighborhood. Mom didn’t fit in. I have trouble with I have trouble with some folks who think they know Black people without bothering to ask us. Sometimes things are done to attract Black people but those things are actually repelling them. If I sense things are about sending missionaries to save the pagan babies, I run the other way. I was involved with a diversity planning committee at Albion College. It started as a panel of Black students to talk about problems. The President assured us that he would work to rectify problems. The assumption was that the senior people at the college have the answers. There was no expectation that students could be involved in creating change. The leaders saw some people as limited to the problem, but not part of the solution. To really create change, you have to create community and get people in touch with capabilities they didn’t know they had. If gentrification goes too far, you lose the sense of the city. It’s important to get input from the neighborhoods. A good book is The Color of Law – A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein.

Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan 25, 2018 Topic: Understanding Ourselves and the Communities in Which We Work

There can be friction between Black and White communities. We all want agency over our own lives. We may be talking at each other but nothing is connecting. Every side interprets things differently. It’s a negative when disempowerment is part of a project intended to do good. Outsiders come in with good intentions but people in the community are seen as passive rather than active participants. One project sent a lot of sewing machines to Afghanistan in order to “fix” women there. This idea was imposed from the outside and did not result in empowering people. People did not find a sense of how to re-invent themselves or how to invent solutions. We need to find a sweet spot where adding people’s talents, energies or money can create something positive. I’ve been a consultant to large companies. I’ve run a “junk workshop” where I would challenge people to make things from a table filled with all kinds of junk. There are fast-paced, timed challenges to get people out of their sense of limitation. People come to this with a sense that they can’t do anything without permission. These challenges get people to start to work together and become creative. The client wanted me to have all the answers, but really the people who worked there had the answers when the right questions were asked. White American culture tends to have a culture of exceptionalism. African American culture seems to have a sense of limitation, this may be based on the culture of slavery. A good book is Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan. The author was a missionary sent to Africa to save people. But over time he changed and decided that he came to Africa to save himself. He came to learn something from the people and communities he met. He learned that saving someone else is falsehood from the start. First you have to free yourself. When I got my Masters degree, it was to save myself, not to save others. I became a social worker and lost my way. I thought my purpose was to save others. But as I worked in Detroit, the dynamic changed. I learned to hug clients and improvise. I became what I needed to be. As a therapist I need to join in with the client in the work of therapy. If I just sit back and don’t join in, we lose something. When I join in, I am better at the end of an hour of therapy. I believe in meeting people where they are at and sharing a part of who you are. A set of chance accidents brought me here. My mother was born in 1919, daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who was well respected because he could lead the workers and get them out of the mine safely. Women made the decisions that brought the family here to Detroit. My aunt followed a 2-bit boxer to make him marry her. Coming from West Virginia created different ways of thinking, not rooted in sharecropping. But there is still plenty of disfunction. My mother decided my father must be rich because he had a Buick. She had a distrust of white people. She found a way to get eight kids into Catholic school for free. At school they collected pennies to save pagan babies. It seemed like a noble thing – to love everyone regardless of race or creed. But actually, it was awful. My brother and I were the only Black kids in the class, and they turned us into pagan babies. The worst part was that suddenly other kids, including the girl who was my long-time enemy, started being “nice” to us. It was better when kids were being honest, even if they were mean to us. Dependence on outside forces and magical thinking can be dis-empowering. You come to expect others to magically save the day. Poor people don’t like to be thought of as poor. People with few resources are continually thinking of how to solve problems. I come from a blue-collar family which has staunchly stood by its roots. We lived in a nice neighborhood but even though we are white, we were different from most. Our identity is being roots – and many people walk all over the roots without thinking. New ideas and flowers are pretty, but the roots feed the tree. Back in the industrial neighborhood (Southwest), people know what’s up. You don’t have to say it. I don’t think people understand me here. You think you can drive down my street and know what’s going on – but that’s not true. You want to come and change Detroit but Detroit is probably going to change you.