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This interview with Dwan Dandridge and Chris Lambert was originally recorded as part of Season One of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast I created in the fires of 2020 to learn from those whose life callings had already taken them to the crevices of our various crises, now exposed for all to see. The transcript was originally published on Breaking Ground.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.
Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. Today I’m honored to get to introduce you to Dwan Dandridge and Chris Lambert, two guys from Detroit, Michigan, who together work daily toward breaking down barriers and building bridges in a city riven by decades of racially charged neglect, government control and whiplash, and layers of earned mistrust—between black folks and white folks, between black residents and the state and federal powers that be, between neighborhoods, between urban dwellers and suburban dwellers, between newcoming do-gooders and longtime residents who’ve earned a right to deep skepticism, one betrayal and repeated tear at their hope and love of place at a time.
Life Remodeled is the organization that Chris founded back in 2011, and it tries to carve out some fresh turf in this fraught minefield. Every year Life Remodeled identifies a key community asset in a given neighborhood and remodels it, repairs owner-occupied homes throughout that chosen neighborhood, and mobilizes at least ten thousand volunteers in an annual cleanup project that spans six days and three hundred city blocks. The primary goal is not to salvage Detroit, nice by-product though that would be, but rather to create opportunities for the transformation of people—both those served and those who are serving.
There are some beautiful stories, and some really messy ones. We’re getting together today to talk about both. Chris and Dwan, it’s really great to see you both today.
Chris Lambert: Great to be with you, Anne.
Dwan Dandridge: Anne, thank you so much for having us. It’s always a pleasure when we can connect.
Anne: My pleasure. So I invited both of you on the show in part because I find your friendship and working relationship both striking and instructive. I’m sure that it’s probably had its fair share of tensions and bruises and learning curves, and maybe even some battles over the years, but there seems to be a perseverance about it and a very deep and mutual honoring of one another. Could you tell us a bit about how you two met and what’s nourished and sustained your relationship to date?
Chris: I think we met through a mutual friend and it was just kind of an acquaintance thing. We said hi to each other, but then there was a time in our organization’s history when we were looking at possibly doing some work around mentorship that involved engaging a contractor. Dwan knew that world.
That program actually never ended up taking off, but then there was another opportunity where we needed a project manager for this six-day project back in 2016. I reached back out to Dwan. We ended up sitting down for lunch. We were having a great conversation before he said something that really intrigued me.
I asked him, “What is it about Life Remodeled that interests you in possibly joining our team?” And the first thing that he said was, “I’m actually excited about what I can bring to the table to help point out some blind spots in the organization.”
Well, I didn’t think we really had many blind spots. I’m thinking to myself, who is this guy? We’ve only talked a couple of times and he’s already telling me in a job interview about blind spots. And then I’m thinking to myself, well, now I want to know exactly what they are, right now. So that’s how we got started.
Dwan: Yeah. I’m huge on power dynamics. So as Chris, in his mind, was interviewing me, I was actually interviewing him.
The first time we met, he had reached out looking for someone to come and help with some mentoring programming as it intersected with Life Remodeled’s construction component. And I remember my business partner at the time—Steve Kato, a White man—and I were sitting in that room with Chris. At a certain point while we were having this discussion about how to make this work, I paused and said, “We’re talking about doing a program that is geared toward mentoring black men in Detroit, ages eighteen to twenty-four. I’m the only black man in the room. And if Steve didn’t invite me here, I wouldn’t be in the room. Am I the only person who sees a problem with that?”
I think that for many Detroiters who work to love and care for Detroit, and I’m talking about black Detroiters now, we saw the momentum that Life Remodeled had, and we saw the impact that it would have on the community. Chris is a get-stuff-done type of person. So am I.
And often, when you’re a get-stuff-done type of person, you move really quickly and you have to make decisions and you have to be able to improvise and move. Nobody felt like they knew who he was or could get a feel for who he was. I still get that question sometimes today. I still remember watching Chris at a function we were at together. It always seemed like he was in a meeting that had to get something done, where he was either making an ask, or someone was making an ask of him. I was like, man, that just looks unhealthy if all of his relationships are like that.
I just asked him, “Do you have any relationships or friendships that aren’t transactional, where you aren’t trying to accomplish something?” He and I weren’t really even thinking or talking about working together at this time. My heart just went out to him, because his whole MO just seemed like a lonely way to live.
“Do you have any relationships or friendships that aren’t transactional, where you aren’t trying to accomplish something?”
At the interview he’s talking about, I definitely went in knowing that Life Remodeled had some blind spots. They were just that; it’s not a surprise to me that he wasn’t aware that they were there. That’s why they’re blind spots. And I spoke up because I didn’t want to see Life Remodeled fail, just because of something that it may not have understood about Detroit, about the people you work alongside of and partner with.
But reflecting now on the relationship as it’s developed, for me, it really started to turn into a friendship when I saw Chris’s resilience, and I saw a humility in him. Often, humility doesn’t come along with somebody who’s that focused, who can get a lot of stuff done. . . . I think part of the humility you now see in Chris he actually owes to the community that we work in, because they were not going to take anything less.
But seeing him be able to hit some challenges that he didn’t prepare for and still be willing to come to the table and continue to pursue the mission in a way where the community felt respected, I started to grow a deeper level of love for him as a person. He became not just somebody that I worked with, but a friend.
Often, humility doesn’t come along with somebody who’s that focused, who can get a lot of stuff done.
Anne: That’s a real grace. We’ll get into that in a bit, some of the cross-cultural dynamics and the tensions between getting stuff done and [the more inconvenient] relational pieces, but just stepping back a bit, what fundamentally is the work of Life Remodeled, and how do you go about fulfilling the mission of it?
Chris: At the heart of our mission is a desire to bridge people across divides and to help transform each other’s lives. Because we all recognize right now how polarized our country is . . . I’ve found that if you try to get two people who are polar opposites on issues of race, religion, or politics to sit down at a table, look each other in the eye, have a conversation, and work it out, nine times out of ten that’s not a very productive conversation.
But we found that if you can invite the same two people to work shoulder to shoulder on an action-oriented project, something magical happens, where they begin to develop foundations of respect for one another. Foundations that are transformational for everyone who’s involved.
The narrative of philanthropy is often that the benefactors are the heroes and have all the goods, and that the beneficiaries just need to receive and maybe move up a couple notches. And what we’re saying is, no, we all have a lot to offer, and we all have a lot to learn.
I’ve found that if you try to get two people who are polar opposites on issues of race, religion, or politics to sit down at a table, look each other in the eye, have a conversation, and work it out, nine times out of ten that’s not a very productive conversation.
Anne: This has been a disruptive year for those organizations who work on the ground that don’t have the luxury of sitting behind a computer screen. How has Life Remodeled’s work been affected, first, by COVID-19 and then the racial wake-up alarm that’s hit the country?
Chris: So COVID-19 was big, obviously, for all nonprofits and still has the potential to have a massive impact. Immediately we started preparing for what could potentially become a greater depression than the Great Depression.
We began to reimagine our organization’s programs, our positions, and even our people in those positions. And it was actually a very fruitful exercise that I think made us a stronger organization; we began to try to predict what the new normal would look like, while holding those predictions fluidly. But we also realized that we needed to make some pretty significant financial decisions, because giving is going to be a lot lower than what it would be.
And then what happened to George Floyd, his murder, began to change some of that positioning that we ran into as an organization, because our work became more relevant. Dwan, I’d love to hear your perspective.
Dwan: There are some real sensitive ears in Detroit right now. Many are wondering about the authenticity of some of the organizations that seem to be paying more attention to issues of race. I’m very proud that when I get questions from people who may be suspicious along these lines, I get to say that this is not something new for us at Life Remodeled. This is not something where we are suddenly responding to what happened with Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd.
We’ve long identified race as an issue, especially as it affects the relationships between the suburban community, business community, and the inner city. And before this year’s events even started rolling we’d begun talking about having some race programming at Life Remodeled.
For instance, at this year’s Super Bowl, we hosted a big party where 160 people showed up. And we had a discussion before the game about Kaepernick and peacefully protesting during the anthem. We had people from very, very different perspectives there to sit on a panel, and it went really well. We had a good turnout. Everybody’s voice was respected. And we started to realize that we really have something to offer in this space as an organization. Chris and I get calls like this often, people wanting to know. I think really what they’re not saying, but what they want to know is like, “How the heck did you pull this off? We saw where you were in 2017.” How did you get to this space where somebody is posting a picture with Chris on their social media thread who back in 2017 was sitting in opposition to Life Remodeled? Having them share a meal or drink or having them over to his house . . . real genuine relationships [had formed after a long, messy road].
So, when I’ve gotten questions about “Is this really real?” it’s an easy answer for me. This is not something that we’re just responding to. But I think that we have a pretty unique voice to speak to some of the people who are waking up, and we’re able to say things that they wouldn’t say before because of the social pressure. “We want to support black organizations.” Or: “Can you connect us with black organizations?” And we have already positioned ourselves to be a conduit to help facilitate some of those discussions and some of those relationships.
There are some real sensitive ears in Detroit right now. Many are wondering about the authenticity of some of the organizations that seem to be paying more attention to issues of race.
Anne: Yeah. On that subject, Dwan, to be a bit personally transparent: I think we’re all on different journeys in our contexts. And in my own, which is the magazine world, I pitched a vision for Comment magazine last October 2019, sincerely and out of the fruit of some of my own life experience. And the basic message was, “We need to widen the table of voices speaking into the various pains of our common life, to actually represent the household of faith as it exists. The table needs to be so much wider.” And I used that metaphor of “the table,” which I’ve since learned is a frustrating metaphor for many people of color, but at the time all I conceived was the hospitality embedded in the image. And I was saying sentences like, “There needs to be an alliance” [between the historic gatekeepers of theological conversation in the US and all those who are equal members of the household of Christian faith].
. . . So here I was using words like “alliance” and “bridge-building,” and I still believe in those tasks, but I’ve come to understand how naïve I was, how I hadn’t thought through the underlying issues of long-standing distrust when those kinds of overtures are made from someone who looks like me. I received some pushback of, “Well, how are you going to atone for ways in which these kinds of invitations to come to the table have been dishonored?” So, that’s in the publishing and magazine context, but I think those kinds of dynamics are happening in lots of different places and sectors.
And I’m curious: As an organization that is built on this premise of breaking down barriers and bridge-building, how would both of you reflect on lessons learned? For example, it’s not always just about bringing people together to encounter difference that they wouldn’t otherwise; sometimes there are some real apologies that need to be made. How do you demonstrate that with your life? And institutionally, how do you scaffold that sort of moral process?
Dwan: Well one of the things I said to Chris early on in our experience is that you’re entering into a relationship with people who have been in very abusive relationships in the past. And when you’re dealing with people who have been in abusive relationships, there’s all kinds of baggage that they bring to the table from those relationships. And I said to Chris, “There will be times when you’ll be accused of something.” I think I also told him, “You have a five- or six-year history of doing some amazing things in the city of Detroit. You’re up against the four-hundred-year history of people who look like you doing some very damnable things to people who live in Detroit.”
When you’re [entering into a relationship] with people who have been in abusive relationships, there’s all kinds of baggage that they bring to the table from those relationships.
Chris: Dwan, I just want to highlight something you said about the abusive relationships, because I think some listeners may take that in the sense that we normally think of abusive relationships—between just a spouse or a boyfriend and girlfriend—but maybe if you want to provide a little more context to the broader view that you hold about the nature of the abusive relationships.
Dwan: Yeah. That is the example that probably comes to mind immediately. But when you are talking about relationships, we have a wide range. And to give historical context—Anne was speaking of coming to the table and whatnot, and things of that nature have been tried before—but you have things like the , and similar things have happened in Philadelphia.
If you hear me say those things and you’re listening and you’re not aware of what they are, just look at the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre, where there were thriving communities of black folk that were taken advantage of, and they actually got slaughtered by the surrounding community of White people. And the thing that doesn’t get told when we simply tell the story like that is that many of the people who participated in the looting, the crime, and whatnot were God-fearing, churchgoing believers.
What you need to understand is that we have learned that not trusting could be the very thing that saves your life. So, that’s kind of the lens and the context through which we view those types of offers oftentimes.
So someone like Chris coming, saying that they’re going to do an amazing project in your community . . . I was trying to get Chris to understand that this is who you’re talking to. And this is who you’re looking to partner with. I said to him, if you are accused of being something that you’re not, of something you haven’t done, you have to be able to say, “Look, I’m sorry, but that’s not me. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what I did.”
We have learned that not trusting could be the very thing that saves your life.
And when you do something that reminds people of or resembles those abusive relationships, you’ve got to own that. You have to figure out what repentance looks like. There was a long process where Chris had to continue to apologize to the community, but not just apologize: show that he was willing to move differently.
There were people who were tired of hearing him apologize. It was like, “You need to stop apologizing.” They thought that they were giving him really sound advice—and this was Black people and White people telling him that. I was like, “No.”
There was a long process where Chris had to continue to apologize to the community, but not just apologize: show that he was willing to move differently.
In the faith [world], when we talk about race, we have a really unhealthy balance to the way that we apply biblical teaching. We want to talk about the forgiveness part. And we have not as a nation repented. So if we’re not talking repentance, it winds up being the faithful asking those who have been on the losing side of the sin to do all of the heavy lifting. And I don’t think that that’s a complete, accurate, or even a healthy biblical approach, for anybody on either side.
In the faith [world], when we talk about race, we have a really unhealthy balance to the way that we apply biblical teaching. We want to talk about the forgiveness part. And we have not as a nation repented.
Chris: I want to jump in and say, one of the things that really attracted me to Dwan when I first met him was our shared worldview, and that comes from a place of faith at the deepest level for both of us. Just like Dwan described me, I’m a roll-up-my-sleeves kind of guy. Let’s get it done. That’s who Dwan is. For me, as someone who lived in the suburbs and wanted to move into the city, I was attracted to finding people who I thought were similar, but yet very different in terms of their experience on race and other life experiences. That’s one of the things that initially drew me to ask Dwan to join our team.
But when I asked Dwan to join our team, I was really thinking of Dwan from the perspective of what he brought to the table in terms of the job description that would help the table. And reforming Life Remodeled’s perspective of race and my perspective of race wasn’t in the job description.
At that time when we met, I would have said—and I probably did say to Dwan—that I believed that people in the neighborhoods we’d worked in had just as much to offer me and the White donors and the White volunteers from the suburbs. I believed that in my head, but I’m going to be honest with you: As I look back now, I don’t think I believed it very much in my heart. What has happened since 2017 has radically changed that idea for me and become something I actually believe in my heart. I can now give experience and testimony to how much my life needed remodeling. And a lot of that remodeling requires demolition of false beliefs, false expectations, and wrong perspectives. Dwan has helped me more than any person I know to really have a greater understanding of how black and white America can love one another. And Dwan didn’t just do that himself. Dwan served as a bridge-builder between many other people who I needed to learn from and love and learn to love.
I can now give experience and testimony to how much my life needed remodeling. And a lot of that remodeling requires demolition of false beliefs, false expectations, and wrong perspectives. Dwan has helped me more than any person I know to really have a greater understanding of how black and white America can love one another.
Anne: Thank you both. Could you provide a little more context as to what you mean in terms of this shift? Particularly for you, Chris, and your own leadership of Life Remodeled and your own personal demolition?
Chris: Prior to 2017, we were renovating existing school buildings. At the end of 2016, the school district said, “We want to give you a school building that’s currently a school, because we’re going to move all the kids from this building into the next building, and we want you to repurpose it.” We thought, “Okay, great. Let’s do it.”
We shared the vision with the community. The community seemed to be favorable toward it, but what we weren’t allowed to tell the community was that we were acquiring the building, and acquiring it for one dollar a year for fifty years. I actually thought that people were going to be excited about that because we were getting such a great deal, which meant we could use so much more of the philanthropic money to invest in the kids and the community.
This all happened right before Dwan joined our team. Dwan joined our team, and I told him what we’d done and how now we were going to share it with the community. I think he was thinking to himself, wow, I wish I would have known that before I said yes to the job. Dwan predicted everything that would unfold. So I think maybe it’d be best for Dwan to summarize.
Dwan: I still remember that moment. I still remember that moment when I found out that the community had not been informed. And I just explained to Chris, “No. That’s a no-no.” In that situation, if you’re asked not to communicate to the team, to the community that you’re looking to partner with, that’s got to be deal-breaker. I said, “You have to represent them at the table. And that’s not fair, because nobody elected you to represent them, but you have to speak for them and say, ‘I can’t take this deal unless I’m able to communicate it with them beforehand.’”
That speaks to the trust component, earning trust, that we’re going to get into later in the conversation, but that’s what we’re talking about when you hear us talk about 2017.
Chris: People reacted, saying, “I lost my house, and here comes this guy.” The organization is led by many people, but I was associated with it as a white guy, so it’s clearly a white organization. “This white guy gets a building for a dollar a year. What other real estate is going to be given to him? He’s going to gentrify the area. He’s going to displace us.” I was called a white mother-effer from the stage, and Dwan was called worse. And here we were.
Anne: The real deal.
Dwan, earlier you were talking about what people of faith in the American Christian context often miss about notions of reconciliation and forgiveness—the missing emphasis on all the focus on forgiveness being repentance. And when I hear you say that, I do think we’re probably entering a period where both “the church,” as well as the country at large, are going to be entering a series of much more mainstream discussions around reparations.
I do think we’re probably entering a period where both “the church,” as well as the country at large, are going to be entering a series of much more mainstream discussions around reparations.
There are a million ways we could get at that, and we’re not going to tackle it in this hour, but you guys no doubt have thought about this seriously. As you think about Life Remodeled and where you all are at now in your work and in your relationships in the city of Detroit, is it doing a form of reparations, or is that still ahead?
Dwan: That’s still ahead. I think there’s potential there. And I think there are moments when we do something that feels like reparations. We may call it something a little bit different. At the end of the day, if we have to call it something different and it still ends up being reparations, I’m still for that, personally.
But I do believe that there’s potential as an organization to lean in and even lead by example with some creative ways to actually do reparations.
If we talk about some of the things we’ve done during the pandemic and show the difference between Life Remodeled before and after 2017—the lessons the organization has learned from the community that we’ve worked in and partnered with—there were some people who wanted to provide some resources to Life Remodeled to actually get meals for the community. Chris and I met with the Life Remodeled community advisory council, a list of community leaders who advise us on some different ways that they think resources can be best used. When people started to cut checks to provide meals, one of the things we would do was spend this money to buy gift certificates for some of the black-owned restaurants in the city of Detroit that were really suffering and struggling during the pandemic.
The Life Remodeled community advisory council members came together with us to actually pass out those meals and pass out the gift certificates for people to go and use them at those restaurants. So those are some ways, and we’re still constantly trying to figure out other ways.
The way I view it is that the community understands and is really aware of many of its own needs, but they don’t necessarily have the dollars. But understanding is a resource in itself. Like Chris was saying when he talked about the philanthropic community, the way we view those resources is out of balance. The philanthropic community understands that the dollars are needed. But those dollars by themselves are of no good without the understanding that the community has. So if we can figure out a way to continue to be a conduit and bring them together, that’s a form of reparations—but I think there has to be a lot more, because there’s definitely a significant debt owed, when you talk about reparations.
The way I view it is that the community understands and is really aware of many of its own needs, but they don’t necessarily have the dollars. But understanding is a resource in itself.
Chris: Prior to moving to Detroit, I’d traveled in or lived on every continent in the world, except for Antarctica, including living in Africa for nine months. I was a missionary there, and I thought I really understood contextualization. I thought Life Remodeled was doing such a great job around race. At that time in my life, and even in 2016, I definitely didn’t believe in reparations. I’d only heard it talked about a few times, and it was just a concept to me. I immediately thought of the political implications. I was like, “No, it’ll never work.” And I only thought about reparations in the context of handing out cash.
When Dwan joined our team, I asked him if he wanted to come with me into a few different circles of all white men who were all Republican. I said, “How do you feel about working with some guys who probably—a lot of them—are going to have very, very racist views, spoken or unspoken?” He was like, “Well, I believe in reparations. So I’m all good with it.”
When he said that, a part of me was like, I don’t know about that. Reparations. But over time, my perspective has changed dramatically to where I do believe in reparations. I don’t know what it should look like. I don’t think it should be handing out cash, but I do believe in it.
The philanthropic community understands that the dollars are needed. But those dollars by themselves are of no good without the understanding that the community has.
Anne: Thank you both. Earlier, Dwan, you talked about this issue of earned trust, and also earned mistrust. You all have learned a lot about the uphill battle that is subverting the patterns of history. How do you re-earn trust in communities that have never been served well by trusting? What would you say are the key ingredients in earning trust in a given community? Especially when part of Life Remodeled’s chosen approach is not to stay in a community forever but to serve as an outside catalyst. When we think about trust, we think about the long term, about consistency, et cetera. How have you figured this out?
How do you re-earn trust in communities that have never been served well by trusting? What would you say are the key ingredients in earning trust in a given community?
Dwan: My personal take on trust is that I don’t believe in asking for it. I just don’t think it’s necessary. Stepping into and embracing the lack of trust is a great space to find yourself in.
One of the things I said early on in Life Remodeled was, we shouldn’t ask anybody to blindly give us trust at all. If we are who we say we are, we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do. I believe in inviting people to watch me or watch us as an organization. If we step away from the vision and the mission that we said we were on, we need somebody watching us to call us out. That, I think, is a more healthy approach.
The lack of trust is this really sweet spot for organizations working in spaces like the communities that we work in. Because if you’re constantly looking to earn trust, that’s a level of accountability that will keep you honest when you feel the need to deviate or an opportunity to deviate from who you said you are.
My personal take on trust is that I don’t believe in asking for it. I just don’t think it’s necessary. Stepping into and embracing the lack of trust is a great space to find yourself in.
Anne: Thanks. Chris, do you have anything to add?
Anne: Most of us inhabit multiple worlds. You’ve got your family; if you’re a churchgoer you’ve got that; you’ve got your neighborhood; you’ve got other communities you’re a part of. And then you’ve got this work together, which spreads into so many different parts of Detroit. And I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap also with the lives you lead and where you live them.
But one of you is black, and one of you is white. How do you navigate the many different worlds you each inhabit, especially in this national moment when there is more of a racial emphasis and a lot of conversations and questions about what is owed and inequality and all those things?
As you walk in overlapping and different spaces—like Chris, for instance, part of the Praxis community—and different networks of different levels of perceived influence and assumptions, do you find yourself doing a lot of code-switching? And if so, who, ultimately, are you seeking always to honor? Or what are you always trying to honor and protect as you’re navigating different kinds of people?
Chris: I would use the word “contextualizing.” I do a lot of that. And I do have a priority for who I want my life to be about and what hill I want to die on. That became really, really, really clear for me when I became a Jesus follower at the age of twenty-two. And eventually my wife and I ended up moving to Africa together and doing a lot of work with people living in very impoverished situations. Reading about the life of Jesus in that context, it became extremely apparent to me that he spent the majority of his life with the people who are most marginalized in society.
I believe that our lives as Jesus followers really ought to look like his. So I decided at that young age that that was what my life was going to be about. And as more and more time goes by, that begins to be my priority.
Now, that said, I know that Jesus loves everybody and works with everybody, and I do too. That requires a tremendous amount of contextualization though, because a lot of the donors who I’ve met who are giving money to urban revitalization around the country have very little knowledge or wisdom or experience with the realities of the marginalization that black Americans face on a regular basis.
a lot of the donors who I’ve met who are giving money to urban revitalization around the country have very little knowledge or wisdom or experience with the realities of the marginalization that black Americans face on a regular basis.
I’ll use another word that I wouldn’t use on the first “date” with a donor: ignorance. Ignorance breeds racism. I would go so far as to say, even right now, I know I still have many racial prejudices in me. Because I have that, that gives me a love for people who are operating out of a place of ignorance when it comes to their understanding of marginalization, even though they’re being philanthropic. I am definitely trying to help move them toward understanding what that marginalization looks like—and that marginalization is the result of racism in America that’s systemic, and systems are made by people, and we’re people, and we’re contributing to those systems. I have to take a different approach with everybody I meet.
Ignorance breeds racism.
Dwan: I have a mantra that I try to live by. And that is: If the real, authentic Dwan is not welcome in these spaces, I want to find out as soon as possible. I want to be uninvited quickly so that we’re not wasting each other’s time.
With that being said, I have learned how to speak my mind very clearly in a way that’s palatable in different circles, but I’ve taken different things that have normally been used to silence the strong black person when they come into this space—to make them feel uncomfortable or not welcome in those spaces—and I’ve owned those things.
One of the things I say is that I don’t have to become loud when I’m saying something because of the fear of being labeled the angry black man. What I like to say is, I’m always angry. I am an angry black man. I have things to be angry about. But I’m also always happy. And I’m always hopeful. I’m always sad. You know what I mean? I’m always all those things. I just try not to let one of them run me and make all the decisions. I let all of them influence me, but don’t let any one of them run me.
As Chris pointed out, I see race and racism as the problem that we are starting to accept it to be. At least right now we are . . . I don’t know how long it will last.
What I like to say is, I’m always angry. I am an angry black man. I have things to be angry about. But I’m also always happy. And I’m always hopeful. I’m always sad. You know what I mean? I’m always all those things. I just try not to let one of them run me and make all the decisions.
I see that ignorance as a form of poverty in some of the circles that Chris talks about being in, where we go to pursue funding for some of the things that we want to do. I feel called to that space. I do one-on-one coaching with a few White men that some of my black friends, who are even Christians, are like, “Man, why do you even bother putting yourself through that? Why do you?” And I’m sure that some of my white friends have had people ask them, “Why do you go and serve in Detroit? Why would you even stay, why would you move to Detroit?”
I see that as a form of poverty. And I see that as a space that I’m called to, and I do feel like serving with the least of these when I’m in that space, on this subject matter, particularly.
Anne: That’s really beautifully put, Dwan. Thank you.
This is a riskier, almost foreboding kind of question. But I do want to ask it because the few times I’ve been in Detroit, I’ve heard a lot of locals of both races say, “Black folks and white folks can work together. We’ll do that, but I don’t think they can ever live together. At least not here.” I have heard that more than a few times. How true do you think that is?
Chris: I’ll start with a statement that Dwan told me early on when he joined our team, because we work with all different types of people. We’re not a religious organization, but I talk about my faith a lot publicly, and therefore we end up working with a lot of churches. Dwan said, “We Christians, we’re really good at sharing resources, but we are terrible at sharing power.”
We Christians, we’re really good at sharing resources, but we are terrible at sharing power.
Over the last four years, I thought I knew black Americans because I literally had hundreds of relationships with black Americans. But in the last four years I’ve been hearing a much more authentic voice of pain and fear and anger that I wasn’t privy to before I started entering in the way I am entering in.
I can be honest and say that a lot of my white friends have no idea just how deep a lot of that fear and anger really, really is. I mean, they can kind of smell it, but they’ve kept it at arm’s distance so well by creating communities where they don’t have to deal with African Americans, and by not having to deal with African Americans in business through the way that the system is structured. Some of my white friends are now hearing very deep levels of pain being spoken, because people are . . . African Americans have just been pushed too far in this time. It’s just too obvious now for White people to not believe how serious this problem is.
Over the last four years, I thought I knew black Americans because I literally had hundreds of relationships with black Americans. But in the last four years I’ve been hearing a much more authentic voice of pain and fear and anger that I wasn’t privy to before I started entering in the way I am entering in.
A lot of African Americans in Detroit are being a lot more vocal, and it’s caused a lot of my white friends to freak out, especially my Christian friends who are saying, “Oh, wow, they have a lot of resentments.” These Christian friends say, “Well, I don’t wake up every day thinking to myself about a black person being in my way.” I said, “Yeah, because they’re not. They’re not in your way. And if they were, you would be thinking about it and you’d be upset.”
We talk about repentance and I say, “You can’t repent for what you don’t know that you’re a part of.” “Okay. I didn’t own slaves. I didn’t directly participate in Jim Crow. But I’m a part of the problem right now.”
You can’t repent for what you don’t know that you’re a part of.
I try to lead by being very vulnerable myself, sharing my own failures, and I find that disarms a lot of people. People aren’t used to that kind of vulnerability, especially when it comes to race because—I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say, but I would say this—in America right now to call someone a racist is almost like calling them a rapist. That is the tone that we have created around this word “racist.” Unfortunately, I think that just clouds the discussion that much more.
Dwan: I believe that we can live together, and I would love to see us do it in a way where we’re not just putting up with each other though. Because I think that’s the concern. If we’re not being honest and we’re not dealing with what’s really there, then you have a powder keg just waiting to go off.
People are living in situations and they’re not even aware of what their next-door neighbor is thinking. That’s the concern that I have. It’s a real honest conversation that I have with people often, because the way that Detroit has been developed is much like other cities. Lots of money and focus have been in the downtown and midtown area. If you go through on a Saturday or during the evening, those faces look a lot different than they did ten years ago in a city that’s 80 percent black. Now in the prime real estate where everything’s happening, you’ll go through there and you’ll see mostly white people. You’ll see the black people maybe working there.
In America right now to call someone a racist is almost like calling them a rapist. That is the tone that we have created around this word “racist.” Unfortunately, I think that just clouds the discussion that much more.
I tell people, we’ve done away with the blacks- and whites-only signs. But you can create a space that sends that same message to me, where I realize that you didn’t create this space with me in mind. I’m really not welcome here. You don’t need to put the signs up.
We have to have real honest, deep discussion on this. When you’re developing a space, and you make it this really beautiful, well-developed space where the people who are in the city don’t feel welcome or even just can’t afford to go, that’s not beautiful to me. As a black Detroiter, that is not beautiful at all.
we’ve done away with the blacks- and whites-only signs. But you can create a space that sends that same message to me, where I realize that you didn’t create this space with me in mind. I’m really not welcome here.
Now, we also have leftover devastation from the ’67 uprising, rebellion, riots, whatever you choose to call it. That’s not beautiful either. But one of them is more valuable to you. If I can roll to and fro as I like to in this place that looks desolate, underdeveloped, poverty-stricken, that’s of more value to me.
Though black people may not collectively have the money it takes to renovate a full city . . . Black people do have enough money—and this is very controversial to say, but it’s the truth and we need to talk in a truthful way—we do have enough money to buy gasoline and burn a city down, and we’ve seen historically that if you push people too far, and you continue to violate people in different ways, they see that as the only option.
I don’t think that that’s being said in boardrooms enough. If we start to realize that and say that neither one of these spaces that we’re talking about is beautiful, but there is a place that’s in between—we have enough intelligent people to figure out how to create a space that’s inviting and welcoming to all and doesn’t feel like a takeover.
When you’re developing a space, and you make it this really beautiful, well-developed space where the people who are in the city don’t feel welcome or even just can’t afford to go, that’s not beautiful to me. As a black Detroiter, that is not beautiful at all.
Chris: Jesus says to whom much is given much is required. Because white people predominantly have more political power and financial power in the United States of America than black people do, it is on white people to create the environment where black people and white people want to live together.
Anne: One final question for you guys. This podcast, and the broader Breaking Ground project, has come from a sense that there’s a lot happening this year. Some people have used the phrase “This is a Kairos year,” or “Kairos moment,” which is that old Greek concept of something opening up, opportune, and it could either be really cleansing, as people look back historically on this moment, or really corroding.
Maybe there’s something in between that, given that we’re a fallen world and things are usually messier than just those two options. But with the broader national reckoning and what COVID-19 is revealing about long-standing vulnerabilities in the society, do you see any hope coming out of this? Both for the nation, and then more specifically as it affects Detroit? Do you see hope, and how would you define it? Or do you see some real potential dangers?
Chris: I’m not excited about the future of America as a nation. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t see political leadership likely to unite our country for a very long time. But I do have tremendous hope for what can happen at the local level in various parts of America.
I’m not excited about the future of America as a nation. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t see political leadership likely to unite our country for a very long time. But I do have tremendous hope for what can happen at the local level in various parts of America.
Look at Detroit. We have not seen the level of violence that so many other cities have seen because our police force has taken steps for several years to do such a phenomenal job with neighborhood policing to set a stage where Detroit was able to avoid that kind of violence. Now, could it still come back up at any time? Yes, at any point. But I’m concentrated. I’m hyper-local, and when I think about impact, I’m thinking about our region: Detroit, Metro Detroit, the city, the suburbs, and how we need to unite. Then I’m hoping that there are leaders all over this country who are going to do that on a local level where that’s going to then spill into the national scene. Really a bottom-up influence rather than a top-down.
Dwan: I’m interested to see what the suburban churches’ response is going to be. We are having conversations locally with some suburban churches. There are some folks who are really wanting to not leave this issue for the next generation to tackle. They’re getting some resistance. They’re getting some pushback, and we’re praying for them, and we’re trying to figure out how to come alongside them and support them in whatever way we can.
That is where I’m hopeful, but I’m hopeful in probably a relieved kind of way where I always make myself have hope. I also understand that we’re not able, but God is able, at the end of the day. It’s not too big for him, and he’s not less concerned about this than we are. But I think there is a really great opportunity for the church to push into repentance and also have a seat at the table.
The suburban church has lost its voice to speak as a leader, and that’s disorienting for the church—to enter into a space and have to sit at someone’s foot. But that’s where they have to start at, and I’m interested to see if they’re going to accept that position and that posture, and hopefully do some of the learning that Chris has described personally, that I’ve been experiencing personally and really represent our Messiah in a proud way.
The suburban church has lost its voice to speak as a leader, and that’s disorienting for the church—to enter into a space and have to sit at someone’s foot. But that’s where they have to start at, and I’m interested to see if they’re going to accept that position and that posture, and hopefully do some of the learning that Chris has described personally, that I’ve been experiencing personally and really represent our Messiah in a proud way.
We’ve had prophetic voices speak to us. Normally after the prophet speaks, as we resist, there’s hell to pay. We’ll see how we respond with prophetic voices.
Anne: Thank you to both of you. I really appreciate your time and your earned wisdom. Keep on keeping on. Thank you.
Dwan: Thank you.
Chris: Thank you.
This interview with Dave Durocher and Joseph Grenny was originally recorded as part of Season One of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast I created in the fires of 2020 to learn from those whose life callings had already taken them to the crevices of our various crises, now exposed for all to see. The transcript was originally published on Breaking Ground.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.
Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. I’m delighted to introduce you to Joseph Grenny and Dave Durocher, two men whose lives have been changed by their participation in a stunning community of what you might call reformed rascals. You see, The Other Side Academy is a life training school in Salt Lake City for people with long criminal or addiction histories. Students commit to a minimum of a two-year residence, many as an alternative to incarceration after prison sentences of five or more years, with some having been in and out of jail for 20. It’s entirely self-supporting, peer-to-peer and learn by doing – each day, each minute, really, an invitation to shift who you once thought you were and recalibrate your moral compass – one mistake, one success, one communal ritual and moment of accountability at a time.
Joseph is one of the founders of The Other Side Academy and a bestselling author and leading social scientist in his own right. Dave, well, I’ll let you hear Dave’s story in his own words. But first, let me just say it would be easy to admire The Other Side Academy on outcome grounds alone. Most rehab programs see only about 5 to 10 percent of their folks exit as drug-free, crime-free and employed. But at The Other Side Academy, 70 percent of those who graduate are drug-free, crime-free and employed. That’s impressive.
But what’s perhaps more instructive is that this community, a community made up of viscerally broken people, has not only figured out how to change human behavior (something the best psychologists and social scientists continue to puzzle around in their labs), but they’ve figured out how to cultivate a thick culture normed by integrity, transparency, and mutual accountability, norms that the best leaders in all kinds of sectors crave knowing how to cultivate. And as we all are wrestling right now with heightened questions of authority and trust, power and truth, justice and reform, this community of former felons has something to say. Joseph and Dave, it’s a true pleasure to speak with you both again today.
Joseph Grenny: Likewise. Great to be with you.
Dave Durocher: Yep. Thank you.
Anne Snyder: So, Dave, you direct The Other Side Academy now, and you’ve won a variety of civic awards in Salt Lake City and beyond, but that wasn’t always the case. Could give us a little runway to appreciate where you are now?
Dave Durocher: Yeah. I’ve been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to come to Salt Lake five years ago and help start The Other Side Academy with a really, really remarkable team. None of this would be possible without Joseph and Tim and the rest of the team. It’s together that we’ve been able to do this.
But prior to that, I was a drug addict for 27 years. Started my use when I was 12 years old, drinking, stealing alcohol from Dad. Of course that didn’t go well once he found out. And then not long after that, I started doing cocaine, and did it all the way through my high school years. There was a lot of chaos during those years as my folks and others tried to help me and point out the error in some of my decision making.
But I was a teenager; I wasn’t listening to anything. And somehow I managed to get through high school, even though I was doing coke the whole way. Here’s a teenager in the 80s doing cocaine, and it’s expensive. To support my habit, I did everything I possibly could. I stole everything that was bolted down and most that wasn’t, figured out a way to manipulate people just to get enough money to support my habit. And that went on for a few years, with a lot of counseling, a lot of therapists, a lot of that kind of help. And none of it worked for me because I thought I didn’t have a problem. “Of course I wasn’t a drug addict.”
Anyway, I graduated from high school, and from there, I went from cocaine to methamphetamine, which is where the wheel really fell off. When I started doing meth, it was a completely different high. For most people they probably don’t know what that’s like, but it got me off of cocaine. The high was longer, it was cheaper, it was a lot better. I never set out to be a drug dealer, but I needed to support my habit. I would just buy some and sell some, buy some more sell some more. One thing led to another and pretty soon I’m buying larger amounts and selling it. And before you know it, here I am dealing drugs. Which then morphed into dealing dealing guns and a whole criminal lifestyle.
As a result of that, I started getting arrested. I did my first prison term. My first prison term was two years. I got out, stayed out for 59 days, got in trouble again, did five years, got out, stayed out for 60 days. So at least I was staying out longer, by one day of course. Went back to prison again for six years, got out for four months, went back to prison for ten. So it was a two-year term, a five-year term, a six-year term, a ten-year term, with very little time out in between those terms. And of course as you could probably imagine, after that fourth prison term, the day I got out of prison, I was on my way back.
And four months later, I got arrested again. But this was a little bit different. I had told myself for many years that if the cops ever tried to arrest me again, if they ever red light me again, I’m not going to stop because I know I’m going back to prison for the rest of my life. I’m in the state of California, so they’ve had enough. They’ve got the three-strike law. I’ve already done four consecutive terms. So when they did red light me and there was a helicopter involved, I took them on a high speed chase. And as you can imagine, that did not end well.
I had complete wanton disregard for public safety. I went through roadblocks and as I got to one of the last intersections, I made the left hand turn and went through that roadblock. I just kind of hunkered down hoping the cops would kill me because I knew that if they caught me, that I was going back to prison forever. But they didn’t shoot. When I made the turn, the cops did the pit maneuver, spun me out of control up on an embankment, and then the car was inoperable and they commenced a rushing up on the car, pulled me out of that vehicle and they beat me senseless.
I remember getting pulled out of the vehicle and when the beating started, the last thing I remember hearing was, “Stop, stop. You’re going to kill him.” We’re in a parking lot of a shopping center, like a strip mall. So there were a lot of people that saw it come to an end, so the officers couldn’t continue to do it without being seen. And when I woke up in jail in the infirmary and I finally went to court about a week or two later, my first sentence was 29 years. That was very humbling. I’d already spent a large portion of my adult life going in and out of prison. Here I sit in jail and I’m on my way back for what looked like the rest of my life.
I fought my case for a long time in the county jail hoping to get it down to something manageable. Now, remember I did a two-year term, five-year term, six-year term, 10-year term. Had they come down to 15, I would have signed the deal and I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Thankfully they didn’t. The judge was very firm and resolute in his decision to say, “Dave, you’re getting this time no matter what.” And that time from 29 had come down to 22 and for well over a year, I fought my case in the county jail. 22 years was the time. Whether I take the deal, whether I go to trial, that’s what I’m looking at.
Rather than just give up, I wrote Delancey Street a letter. Delancey Street is a two-year residential re-education facility widely renowned as the gold standard in the country up until The Other Side Academy started five years ago. There were five facilities, and I wrote the one in Los Angeles. They came and they interviewed me, and they accepted me. But when I went to court and asked the judge if he’d allow me to go, he in no uncertain terms said, “Hell, no, you are not Delancey Street material. You are getting 22 years no matter how long you fight this.”
Of course I got back to my cell, dejected. I was like, “What am I going to do? I’m going back to prison forever.” As I called home, my mom and dad wouldn’t take my calls. My dad had had enough. I’d dragged him all over the state of California, dragged him through the mud just from prison to prison making empty promises that I never kept. They’d had enough. So, not only was I on my way back to prison forever, but I was losing my family.
Every once in a while, though, my mom would answer the phone and I could hear Dad in the background yelling at her to hang up. He was done. And every once in a while, she would come visit me in the county jail against his wishes. I was pitting them against each other with the way that I was living. I didn’t know it then, I didn’t recognize it then for what it was. Later on, obviously, I did. Somehow in spite of my best efforts to destroy that marriage, they’re still married today for 57 years. How is a mystery to me. But that’s another story altogether.
Eventually what I did is I wrote Delancey Street the letter, they accepted me, and the judge said no. And then I wrote the judge a four-page letter, front and back, and I asked him for the opportunity to go to Delancey Street. I said, “Your honor, what do you have to lose? I’ve already been to prison four times. You’re going to send me back for another lengthy prison sentence. Eventually I’m going to get out the same person that went in.” I begged him for the opportunity. I said, “You’ve got nothing to lose. The next time you see me is going to be because I come back to say thank you in your chambers, or you can lock me up if I get kicked out or I split in Delancey Street for the rest of my life.”
Your honor, what do you have to lose? I’ve already been to prison four times. You’re going to send me back for another lengthy prison sentence. Eventually I’m going to get out the same person that went in.
I had no idea what to expect. A month or two later when I went to court in that cage shackled in waist irons and ankle irons, he said, “Mr. Durocher, against my better judgment, I’m going to give you the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m going to send you to the Delancey Street, but you’re going to plead guilty today to all of your charges for 22 years.” I don’t know if you’ve ever felt vertigo where you get bad news or you get good news you’re like, what did I just hear?, and you kind of get that dizzy feeling. That’s how it felt when I got that news that I had been in jail for well over a year of fighting this case, I’m looking at going to prison for the rest of my life, and in a couple of hours I’m getting out to go to a program.
It was really just an odd feeling that’s hard to articulate in words. Not long after that, I was released to go to Delancey Street. And not only did I stay the two years it was required by the courts, I ended up staying eight and a half years. The first two to get out from underneath that 22-year prison sentence, and the next six and a half years because I fell in love with the process. I started to feel good about who I was. I started to realize that I don’t have to live that lifestyle anymore, that there is another way. But around the 18-month mark is when I needed to decide whether or not I was going to stay in Delancey Street longer, or graduate in two years.
I opted to stay one more year. When I asked them to stay they said, “Absolutely, you can stay.” I was a positive role model there. I was doing what was asked. And then at the end of that third year, when I went to that asking again for my commitment, I said I’m willing to stay one more and they said, “Well, why one more, we thought you were in this for the long haul.” I said, “That’s four years by the time I’m done.” They asked me to stay two more and I committed to it. And then not long after that, Mimi Silbert, the president of Delancey Street, came down to LA for a visit and she asked me to stay five more years.
I didn’t know exactly what her intentions were. She just asked me what my plans were and if I’d be willing to stay. I thought about my life prior to Delancey Street, the way I had lived it, and how good I felt in that moment, and I agreed to do that and stayed another five years. So, it was a total of eight and a half years at Delancey Street before I finally left. And when I did, I had a great job in Southern California in the construction trade. I went up to the oil fields and made completely ridiculously stupid money up in the buck for a guy like me who’d been out of the workforce for a couple of decades, and started to put some money away and I started having an affair with my checkbook.
I realized that making money was fun, but saving lives was rewarding, and I moved to the people part. And then by a God shot or just a serendipitous chain of events, I met Joseph Grenny and Tim Stay. Joseph had been having these thoughts for a long time because he wrote the book, The Influencer, featuring Mimi Silbert, and wanted to start something like this in Utah. Joseph and Tim flew to LA, we had our meeting at dinner and we knew right then that it was the right nucleus of people, and not long after that we came to Salt Lake City and found the properties that we currently have and started The Other Side Academy.
I realized that making money was fun, but saving lives was rewarding, and I moved to the people part.
Anne Snyder: Thank you, Dave. Joseph, just picking up where Dave left off, could you tell us a bit about the context within which you met Dave? What was going on in your life and vision at that time such that you two crossed paths and then eventually created The Other Side Academy?
Joseph Grenny: Yeah, it is kind of remarkable that our paths ever crossed. You’ve heard his story. I was on the math team in high school. And so, the likelihood of our paths ever crossing was pretty low from the beginning. And yet here we are, brothers in arms.
As Dave mentioned, my track has been social science. I’d been studying human behavior, why people do what they do and how they change. In 2005, I wrote a book that was based on a worldwide study of really remarkable examples of behavior change. And when it came to criminal recidivism, all the paths led back to Delancey Street. I studied this model. We wrote about the model. I was enamored with it and it just didn’t leave me.
When a couple of our boys got involved in drugs and started in and out of jail, we started seeing how profoundly broken the system is. We started realizing that we’ve created – at a tremendous expense to the public purse – the perfect system for creating criminals. The likelihood of somebody committing second offenses and being reincarcerated goes up dramatically if you have a decent length jail stay. Our department of corrections couldn’t be more inappropriately named. And as I watched my sons getting caught up in this system, and these were people that had a decent support system and options available to them, we saw how many others were caught up in this eddy that they could never escape from. It was about that time that my wife and I said that this is horrible.
We started realizing that we’ve created – at a tremendous expense to the public purse – the perfect system for creating criminals. The likelihood of somebody committing second offenses and being reincarcerated goes up dramatically if you have a decent length jail stay. Our department of corrections couldn’t be more inappropriately named.
When we got to Delancey Street, it’s like we know there’s a cure to cancer sitting in this place, but nobody has found a way to replicate this. This ought to be available everywhere on the planet. And in spite of nudging, it turned out that Delancey Street didn’t have much of an appetite for creating more of these opportunities. And so we thought, all right, well, we got to try. Well, talk about an intimidating thing. I haven’t been to jail. I haven’t been to prison. I don’t know anything about this firsthand. I can talk about it from the outside, but what I know is that any community is no better than the quality of its leadership. And so our first job was to find somebody of tremendous integrity who was deeply experienced in living in and leading this kind of community.
What I know is that any community is no better than the quality of its leadership.
Well, how do you do that? This is a very specialized skillset. Well, we banged our head against the wall for months and finally I had this thought, well, what if somebody on their LinkedIn profile would mention that they had graduated from Delancey Street? So as a hail Mary, we did this search on LinkedIn and did a reverse search for it. It turned out there were 50 people that mentioned this. And that’s what eventually led us to Dave Durocher.
Anne Snyder: How fascinating.
Joseph Grenny: I’ll give you the short version of this story, but it was the most peculiar job interview of my entire life. We met at a restaurant in Los Angeles and as we sat down together I thought, do you do a criminal background check on somebody that you know is a criminal? We talked, and boy, I knew within 15 seconds that this is the man that is capable of creating a wonderful community of integrity that could transform lives. So to me it was serendipity, it was a godsend, it was fate, it was you call it what you want, but this was supposed to happen.
I knew within 15 seconds that this is the man that is capable of creating a wonderful community of integrity that could transform lives.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. The Other Side Academy has now been around for five years. And we could talk forever about the sort of texture of the community as it has evolved as you two, and you in particular Dave, have led it. I’d be happy to hear a quick portrait of it here, but just if you could name and describe some of the key principles that are not just put up on posters actually on the walls of The Other Side Academy’s facilities, and not just a creed spoken aloud, but actually lived every day. These are principles that, yes, are perhaps very powerful in a context of men and women who’ve spent lives jumping maybe from jail to jail and to street and homeless and sort of disordered family backgrounds, et cetera. But when I first discovered them, I found them applicable to any healthy organization and certainly any sort of flourishing community. So what do you think are some of the most powerful principles that make The Other Side Academy the special place that it is?
Dave Durocher: I often say that we are a micro community getting people ready for the macro community. Really what we are here, we get up every day just like everybody else in the community: We put our pants on, we brush our teeth, we go to breakfast, we meet with the family, we go to work, we come home, we take care of our responsibilities. Just like the average person does on the streets, we do that every day. The difference here is the 200% accountability. You got to remember our students on average have been arrested 25 times. So when we get here, there are no exceptions. We are liars and cheaters and thieves and manipulators and self-centered self-seeking people that don’t care about anybody and in most times even ourselves because we don’t know how.
So we immediately on day one start calling you on your behaviors. Unlike what we do in the real world, on day one, it doesn’t matter what it is: If you wink at the girl, if you don’t push your chair in, if you didn’t put the toilet seat down, if you threw the paper across the room, it doesn’t matter what you do, we call you on those behaviors. We address them real time with no lag time. And oftentimes it’s very colorful and vernacular. It’s not like, “Oh Joseph, you shouldn’t do that. You know better than that. Stop that.” We might raise our voices a little bit because you’ve run it three or four times already, and be very colorful and vernacular as we address some of those behaviors.
We are liars and cheaters and thieves and manipulators and self-centered self-seeking people that don’t care about anybody and in most times even ourselves because we don’t know how.
And then of course you have the community that’s going to hold you accountable to those behaviors: good, bad or indifferent. Everybody is held to the same standard – from Joseph Grenny, our founder, Tim Stay, our CEO, to me the executive director or the person who got here today. Everybody is held to the same standard. If Joseph does something, if I do something and they see it, they can call us on our behaviors. And then we have what we refer to as games, which is not games as you would think about it in your head. They’re just groups of people in a room, 20 people deep as we’re addressing each other’s behaviors and everybody is calling each other on their behaviors every day, real time. You can’t get away with anything.
And that really is the magic sauce: the immediate feedback where everybody is accountable, 200% accountable. I’m 100% accountable for me and I’m 100% accountable for Joseph. If he does something wrong and I saw him do it and I don’t say something, then I’m in more trouble than he is because I’m allowing him to do something that’s detrimental to his life or could help kill himself. So across the board, everybody’s held to that same standard. It’s just like when you go to jail or you go to prison, you immediately fit into that culture. You kind of figure out real quick if there’s pressure on the yard, if there’s writing going on, what’s going on, you immediately sense it, you feel it. Here it’s the same way. But we’re very intentional about those things, calling out those behaviors. Very intentional. That’s really an understatement. We’re going to call the students on their behaviors every day that they’re here. That really is our magic sauce.
And that really is the magic sauce: the immediate feedback where everybody is accountable, 200% accountable. I’m 100% accountable for me and I’m 100% accountable for Joseph.
Joseph Grenny: What Dave’s describing that’s important to The Other Side Academy is critical to any social system, any family, any relationship, any company, any community in the world. What we know from 30 years of my research is that the health of any social system is a function of the lag time between when people see concerns and people talk about concerns, period. That’s it. End of story. In a personal relationship, if you have a significant other in your life, the longer it takes for you to be able to discuss those things that matter most, the more mischief happens, the more separation happens, the more games get played.
The health of any social system is a function of the lag time between when people see concerns and people talk about concerns, period. That’s it. End of story.
When you start to broaden that to not just a couple, but a family or even a work team, the problems become endless. All of the politics, all of the silly games that get played in organizations are about lag time. And so the central sickness in our society today is people’s inability to discuss those things, those concerns that they have within these systems. That’s what eventually results in violence, that’s what results in criminal behavior, that’s what results in these ethical scandals that we see. It’s long periods of silence. It’s long periods of collusion and enabling that allows those things to occur.
One of the things that Dave said that I don’t think people would properly understand if they hadn’t been to The Other Side Academy is when he says we call out your behavior. The ‘we’ is anybody in the house. Now, think about what a challenge that is because every organization has to decide which of two values it governs, truth or power. Our default bias, our genetic pre-programming is to be sensitive to power relationships. When we enter a room, we’re trying to look around to say, “Where’s the power in this room?” And we try to defer to that power. One of the ways you differ is by colluding. You support whatever they’re signing up for.
The death of George Floyd was not about a single officer doing something criminal. It was about three people watching it and saying nothing. So even that incident that we’re seeing in front of us today, we’re looking at the pandemic raging out of control, our inability to create norms of something simple like mask wearing is fundamentally about people’s inability to just speak up when they have moral reservations about what somebody else is doing. So where does this come from? It comes to us naturally. And the only way we’re going to be able to create healthy social systems in any areas of our lives is to learn to make conscious choices to create cultures of peer accountability. Not just authoritarian accountability, not just top down, but cultures where truth can speak to power, where anybody who has moral reservations, intellectual reservation, strategic reservations can express those because that’s how we get smart.
Every organization has to decide which of two values it governs, truth or power. …The death of George Floyd was not about a single officer doing something criminal. It was about three people watching it and saying nothing. …The only way we’re going to be able to create healthy social systems in any areas of our lives is to learn to make conscious choices to create cultures of peer accountability. Not just authoritarian accountability, not just top down, but cultures where truth can speak to power, where anybody who has moral reservations, intellectual reservation, strategic reservations can express those because that’s how we get smart.
The Other Side Academy is one of the most remarkable places, but I’ve seen it happen in hospitals, on factory floors, in engineering organizations and customer service centers. And when it happens, everything changes. Employee engagement increases, quality increases, customer retention increases. The Other Side Academy runs world-class businesses. Imagine how would you get a hundred criminals together and run an enterprise that is highly profitable and highly sought after by customers? The only way you can do that is with this culture of peer accountability. This is the central asset that makes any social system work.
Anne Snyder: Thank you for that. When you talk about peer accountability, though, there are different cultural norms in different kinds of sectors and organizations, to say nothing of people from different backgrounds. If you’re in a company which tends to have maybe more of a transactional, less covenantal logic in it, or we’re thinking about something like gender norms, what are the nuances for how peer accountability works itself out?
Joseph Grenny: We emphasize the colorful vernacular with The Other Side Academy just to kind of prepare people for the volume at which it might occur. But that’s not what’s essential about it. What’s essential is that it’s honest and direct. For our community, that’s what honest and direct looks like. If they have to spend too much time trying to calculate the proper verbiage to express something, they’ll get lost and take an off ramp. And so what we say is, just take the shortest distance between how you feel and what you need to say. And that will sort out all the rest later. In an organization, there might be more appropriate ways for you to express it, but directness can’t be compromised.
I spent 30 years writing a book called Crucial Conversations, and I feel bad that it took me 29 years to learn what it really was all about. I thought that it was about packaging and presentation and that if you organize what you wanted to express well enough, then you could reduce the likelihood others will be defensive, which I still think is true. But what I realize now is that a community that wants to be governed by truth and not power, one that wants to create a culture of 200% accountability, it’s more about frequency than it is competency. It’s more about the way to get people comfortable with having crucial conversations is just to have them regularly, not to worry about some specific protocols that everybody has to adopt in order to be able to package the material correctly.
And so at The Other Side Academy, this is what persuaded me. I watch people come in in week one absolutely horrified the same way every executive team I’ve ever worked with is when you start trying to get them to be emotionally honest with each other. These sophisticated executives are just as terrified as these hardcore criminals are when they’re finally asked to be honest about something that concerns them. And the way you overcome that is not just by teaching a bunch of techniques, it’s by just saying, just do it. Just do it over and over and over again. And then what happens is the emotional stakes get lower. Because what those who participate realize is that this isn’t a death sentence. That the fact that Dave is telling me that he really hates what I just did and that I just violated his trust in a significant way, which is conversations that Dave and I have had.
I’ve made significant mistakes in the last few years. But what I realize after we’ve done this ten or fifteen times is that our relationship isn’t over because he’s angry right now. The fact that he’s pulling me up, the fact that he’s correcting me is actually evidence of loyalty and love, not of disapproval and a decision to terminate a relationship. As soon as you’ve gone through that cycle a number of times, your ability to engage in those conversations increases enormously.
Dave Durocher: That’s a beautiful summation of what we do. And I think it’s also important, it’s bizarre to me today that in the “real world,” in corporate America outside of TOSA, we have to be so darn careful what we say and how we say it. We are so careful to not hurt people’s feelings. Let’s digress a minute. Our average student’s been arrested 25 times. They’re out there ripping and roaring and just creating chaos. When they get here, don’t you dare start talking about my feelings. You haven’t cared about anybody else’s feelings in some cases for a couple of decades. Sit down and hear the truth. Truth is love. If somebody would have said something when Harvey Weinstein was marching those little girls up those stairs to his room, how many lives would have been spared? Countless, countless lives would have been spared.
If somebody would have said something when Wells Fargo started opening up all those fictitious accounts, God knows how much money would have been saved. If somebody would have said something when Tom Brady regarding some of that area on those footballs, they might not have won that super bowl.
…When you see something, say something. And what we’re not going to do here is sugarcoat stuff. For years, as people were trying to help me through my addiction and my criminal behavior, oftentimes I’d get a counselor who would sit down. I’d be opining about how I feel or what I was going through. I didn’t feel connected. I could literally see them go, “Oh God.” When David says this, on page 73 of the manual I’m supposed to respond with. Because the connection wasn’t there. They didn’t know what the hell I was going through. How could they, they’d never been through it.
But when I got to Delancey Street and I was around people just like me who had been there and done that, come out the other side, when I would get a haircut, a verbal reprimand for what I was doing, it resonated. It was coming from somebody just like me who had been there and done that already and had already fixed that problem and spotted it immediately. When I got some of those haircuts, I could list a few of them that really impacted my life, I never did that again. Oftentimes here at TOSA, Joseph doesn’t need to get yelled at every time. It’s on an individual basis. It’s based on, what did you do? How egregious was the offense? How long have you been here? What is your pattern? How well do you take feedback?
Can we have just a conversation like this where it’s going to resonate and be impactful and you’re going to make the necessary changes? Or are you fighting it even though we reached our hand in your pocket, pulled the cookies out, you’re still saying they’re not yours. What do you mean they’re not yours? We just took them out of your pocket! We can level a little bit to try to get through to somebody. It’s across the board. Sometimes the conversations are just like this. Sometimes there are 10, it just depends on the situation. But ultimately it’s about the conversation. It’s about taking every single opportunity, no matter what has happened and turn it into a teaching moment.
Anne Snyder: That’s very well said. It’s probably counterintuitive for a lot of folks to hear this, but it’s a very active grace actually working out in every person’s life. And that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games.
You all have written an essay for Breaking Ground about how maintaining this culture of 200% accountability might illuminate the debate happening very hotly right now in cities across the US around police reform and sort of reform of police behaviors in the wake of all we’ve seen in the last couple of months. First, Dave, I just thought it’s so interesting to ask you to reflect on this. How do you generally view police officers and the whole world of law enforcement?
Dave Durocher: I have a special place in my heart for law enforcement. You would think that the opposite would be true when you hear my history. But I’ve lived on both sides of it. I know what it was like to chase Dave Durocher down. I know what it was like to have the helicopters and multiple agencies after me, getting in high speed chases and fights with the police.
There was a time way back in the early 90s when I pulled up to a hotel. The hotel doors open up, the cops are waiting for me in full riot gear. I’m in a convertible, the top’s coming down. It didn’t quite make it all the way down, and the cops were on me, telling me “give us a reason” as a gun is literally in my mouth.
They pull me out of the car and they handcuff me. I’m on my knees. They’re searching the car and they find two loaded guns. One of them had cop killers in it. They pull the sleeve out. They take the bullets out, and they’re regular bullets with the tops chopped off. There’s a dart coming through the center and they’re Teflon-coated so when one hits a vest, it’s going to go through it. They took that very personally. They stood me up and with one hand swung me in one direction, with the other hand hit me in the face. I’ve never been knocked out in my life, and it rang my bell, and I went to my knees again. They took it very personally.
I was already arrested. They already had me. That never should have happened. Once the high speed chase ended and they had me, the beating never should have happened.
The difference is, I take full responsibility. They did not come to church and pull me out of church for singing too loud in the church choir; they didn’t go to USC in Los Angeles and pull me out for getting straight As. I put myself in those positions to empower them to do what happened. That doesn’t excuse them for how it ended, but I put myself in those positions.
But I love law enforcement and over the past 15 years, particularly the last five, I have tried to foster a relationship with all of law enforcement throughout the Wasatch Valley. From Salt Lake City Police to the UTA Police to the Utah Highway Patrol, we’ve done presentations for them in their precincts to all of their officers. And now, often when the officer runs across somebody on the street that’s a frequent flyer, rather than arrest them and take them to jail, they’ll call me at two o’clock in the morning, put them on the phone or bring them to us so that we can interview them instead of taking them straight to jail. That’s how strong the relationships have become.
I have them come and eat with the students. Sometimes there are twenty or twenty-five officers sitting down having lunch or dinner with the students and I stop them mid meal. And I say, “Stop for a second and look around this room. Law enforcement, when was last time you sat down with this population and broke bread?” And you can see the tears coming down some of the officers’ faces and the students. And I ask the students the same question. When was the last time you sat down and broke bread with law enforcement? The answer from both parties is never, until now.
Law enforcement change is possible. We can change if given the opportunity and the right environment. And students, not all of law enforcement’s bad. Very, very, very few of them are bad. Most of them are remarkably good people. Look what’s going on right now. When you bring two opposing forces like that together, you have to be there to feel what’s going on. I’ve had countless students come to me afterwards and tell me how impactful that was for them.
I just did a presentation to the students the other day and I said, “There’s a big lesson in this. Eventually some of you are going to leave TOSA after two years or three years or four years, and you’re probably going to have some interaction with law enforcement at some point. You may get pulled over, you might be in the wrong place, something’s going to happen. But when you change your paradigm and how you see them, you’re going to respond differently to them, and it could save your life.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the room, and I can’t tell you how many came afterwards and said, “Man, you’re right. I never looked at it like that.” So, it’s changing the paradigm on how law enforcement views us, it’s changing how our students view law enforcement, because ultimately what we need to do right now is bridge the gap between the communities and law enforcement. We want to start that here at TOSA, and it just so happens we’ve been doing it for a few years.
When the riots happened in Salt Lake City four or five weeks ago after the whole George Floyd thing happened, I sat back and I was watching it. It was hard to not cry to watch what was happening in our city. They were burning good cars, they were rioting, they were destroying property, they were being violent. I called the mayor the next morning and said, “Erin, we need to take our streets back. I don’t mean violently or physically, but I want to bring our students downtown with trash bags and canvas the whole area. Let’s clean it up, so that if and when they do come back, they see that they don’t own the streets. We understand that protesting is very important. Some voices need to be heard. There are some things that need to change. Absolutely. But the violence needs to stop too. Cooler heads need to prevail.” She said, “Absolutely.” We brought the entire student body, including Joseph, down there. We picked up trash downtown for blocks until we had canvassed the whole area, and then we came home. It was our way of becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
It’s changing the paradigm on how law enforcement views us, it’s changing how our students view law enforcement, because ultimately what we need to do right now is bridge the gap between the communities and law enforcement.
It just so happens that right next door to us is the Masonic Temple. It has a large parking lot, and two weeks later, that’s where the command center was set up. The Salt Lake City Police department, the UTA Police, Ogden Police, Sandy, West Valley, a number of different police departments were there. The National Guard, bomb squad, FBI, they were all there. Our property is adjacent to it, and the mayor called me on a Saturday night and said, “Would you be willing to go next door with your students and thank the men and women for their service?”
I couldn’t finish my meal quick enough. I came home, brought all the students into the dining room, and explained to the students what we were going to go do. And I said, if you don’t want to do that, for whatever your reasons are, you don’t have to. But here’s what we’re going to do, and if you want to join, let’s roll. 95% of the students went.
The cops were all in their vehicles because it was pouring rain, and word hadn’t gotten to all of the vehicles yet that we were coming. When we walked around our property over to their property, they came out with shields because they didn’t know whether we were friend or foe. By the time they finally calmed down and realized who we were, it was like the air left the room. We came together and spoke to law enforcement for about five minutes about who we are at The Other Side Academy, who we are as the students, who we are in the community, and why we appreciate everybody here. You could see officers and students crying in the rain. It was absolutely miraculous. That’s what we need to do. We need to bring community and law enforcement together. Not just here, but from coast to coast, we need to bring people together and have these conversations.
Anne Snyder: That’s gorgeous. It’s very moving—the paradox and the unity.
Dave Durocher: I’ve gotten a lot of calls from law enforcement that were there that day, thanking us.
Back in March, I was going to have all the chiefs of police here for lunch. This is right when COVID happened. We had lunch ready. And then I got the call that we were to shelter in place, and the meeting got canceled. One police chief out of the entire group ended up showing up. His name was Ken. He walked through the door, and I said, “Chief, sit down.” And we had lunch. We spent probably an hour or an hour and a half together.
He handed me this thing at the end of the meeting, and I was touched. It was hard to not get teared up. It’s a challenge coin that only the chief of police can give somebody. He wrote a small check of $250 to The Other Side Academy because he was so touched at what we were doing.
Then, yesterday, I’m sitting at my desk and I get a piece of mail. It’s a letter from the chief of police from the West Valley Police Department. Inside was a $500 check from him personally, and he said some very nice things. I shared that with the students this morning. No matter what you see on TV and no matter what you’re hearing, not everybody is bad. He did not have to do that. He was touched by what we’re doing, and he cares about you guys individually and collectively enough to write a $500 check to The Other Side Academy to say, “Continue your good work during this critical time.” How wonderful is that?
Anne Snyder: It’s amazing. That story reminds me of last week’s episode where I got to talk to these two wonderful police officers from San Antonio who really helped transform the culture of that particular metropolitan police department through some innovative ways in which they intervene in mental health crises. One theme that threaded throughout that conversation is, we all in our civic spheres inhabit roles, and following the norms of our role is important. However, there’s always an invitation to take off the uniform of your role and live into your common humanity. There’s an element of recognizing we’re actually all broken, and we all have ways to transform, and we all need others to do it. When you can see that happen through what are usually power dynamics between these different roles, it’s a really beautiful thing. I’m moved by what you shared, Dave.
Joseph Grenny: The change in relationship between our students and police is important, but I want to go back to this moment too where George Floyd is on the ground. An officer has a knee on his neck. The whole world is asking, how do we make sure things like this don’t happen again? There’s an important lesson from The Other Side Academy that informs that discussion. There’s so much that people want to look at around structural reform, around changing funding or disbanding entire police departments. Maybe those ought to be pursued, but if you’re going to solve problems, you’re going to have to invest certain people with power, and a police officer has enormous power in those moments.
There’s very little supervision other than peers in those moments. The only real solution is to create a peer culture of accountability. At The Other Side Academy, we have rival gang members sharing dorm rooms, and they’re sitting in games, as Dave described earlier, yelling and screaming at each other at times. Yet in five years of operation, we haven’t had a single instance of violence.
The only real solution is to create a peer culture of accountability.
We spend a lot of time talking about de-escalation strategies but the bottom line is this: If an officer knows when he is handling an issue with a citizen that he’s going to be held accountable by the peers that are standing right there, he won’t make a mistake. He won’t do it. He’ll get up off of that guy’s neck. That will happen. I don’t care how emotionally escalated the situation is. He knows in the back of his mind that there are two people watching him, and that will supersede any other kind of emotional response.
Dave described situations that obviously weren’t racist—just policemen that had the power to do what they wanted in that moment and knew there would probably be no accountability. So whatever other solutions might need to be on the table, starting to create police forces that aren’t about loyalty to a brother but are about truth rather than power must be part of the solution. Or we’re going to have a completely toothless security system that can’t accomplish what the public needs them to.
Dave Durocher: I reached out to the mayor a couple of weeks ago when all this came to a head and asked if she’d be willing to sit down and talk about 200% accountability. I shared with her that nothing’s going to change in the police department until there is peer-to-peer accountability. When an officer takes the dope off the white guy and doesn’t arrest him, but gives it to the Mexican guy and sets him up, or when they pull over the pretty blonde girl and she doesn’t get a ticket, yet they give a ticket to the black guy, or they’re driving and they see a black guy walking down the street and a comment’s made in the car, and nothing gets said between the partners, that’s where the problems are happening. You’re compromising. That’s why the George Floyds happen.
As Joseph said, until there’s peer-to-peer accountability—and I truly believe that if you can have a badge and you can carry a gun and you can risk your life every day, you can sit with your peers and listen to feedback—it’s not going to change.
Anne Snyder: What you’re saying here is actually very rare. You don’t hear this very often, and it’s important, especially in this conversation about police reform and accountability, but not only in that domain. One of the many things that’s so striking about The Other Side Academy is your attentiveness to and understanding of the power of norms, the cultural, invisible things that are part of the fabric of how you actually survive and thrive together. Behavioral norms, moral norms.
Right now, especially among young people, there’s a lot of talk of revolution. “We need to burn everything down, get rid of the way things have been, and just start from the ground up.” Especially in the context of race and our history, but it is inflecting every civic sphere. And yet The Other Side Academy demonstrates that dramatic transformation—revolutionary transformation—happens in these subtle webs of daily choices and the consistency of this peer-to-peer accountability.
In this essay you have written, you write, “Moral decline comes from the thousands of moments when people witness small compromises but say nothing,” which is what you were just describing. You talk about this specifically in reference to law enforcement’s culture of silence. Could you flesh out a little what’s missing in the urgency and heat of this broader national conversation around race and injustice and police reform right now? Is there a maturity or even an awareness of how cultural change happens and how cultural norms get established in a given collective? What’s that dance between dramatic transformation and how that happens in the particulars of the little details?
Joseph Grenny: It’s an unfortunate truth that change is most likely to happen when single instances of egregious problems occur. And the quality of the changes is the lowest when it’s made in those moments, with very little deliberation. We’re talking about some very consequential decisions now in the heat of the moment, and really there are multiple issues here. We have issues in the black community that have been long neglected that are the reasons we have so many people that attract the attention of police, and those must be addressed. And we also have this conspiracy of silence among the police when power we’ve given them gets abused, and that has to be addressed. But these aren’t decisions of the day. I really fear that if we make significant policy decisions, then the pendulum will swing to the other side, and we’re going to pay the price on that end.
Anne Snyder: Dave, do you have anything to add there?
Dave Durocher: Every time I make a decision when my feelings are hurt or I’m mad, I regret it. And when emotions are high right now, as he said, it’s the absolute worst time to make decisions. But it’s the best time to sit down at a table and express how you feel about it. Then, and only then, can you gather all that information, put it in a pool of . . .
Joseph Grenny: Shared meaning.
Dave Durocher: . . . and then discuss then the changes that need to be made. It’s so polarizing, we’re going from one end of the spectrum all the way to the other, and we’re going to pay the price dearly on the other side.
When emotions are high right now, it’s the absolute worst time to make decisions. But it’s the best time to sit down at a table and express how you feel about it.
Anne Snyder: I want to thank both of you. You have a lot to instruct the world at large, and particularly in this moment, with your sobriety, your testimony of human change, and your service outward.
I think there is always hope even in the heat of this current moment in the US. As I was thinking about what makes a community like The Other Side Academy so instructive and inspiring, and the risk you have taken to bet the life of this community on the choices of each individual member and the life of each individual on the collective norms of the community, a C.S. Lewis passage came to mind. It’s about this interdependence between individual agency and communal health:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory, hereafter. It is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load or weight or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all only in a nightmare. All day long, we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
You all embody that constant mutual helping one another to one of those two destinations. I want to thank you for helping me think a little more deeply and intricately about what’s at stake right now, and also about how to leaven the commons with a real practical wisdom. So thank you.
Dave Durocher: Thank you.
Joseph Grenny: We love you, Anne. Thank you for this time.
Trying to see through smoke and fire.Continue Reading…
As police norms in America are under scrutiny, two cops from San Antonio humbly share a way forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic is provoking more and more people to rethink their lives, vocations, and the underlying norms and structures of a healthy society. How might we explore these questions together—with vision and Christian hope?
Breaking Ground officially launched on Thursday evening, June 4 with a kick-off event at 7:00 p.m. featuring renowned philosopher Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago, Pancho Argüelles of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, and writer and speaker Danté Stewart. Breaking Ground’s founder, Anne Snyder, moderated the event.
Anne Snyder: Good evening and welcome to Breaking Ground. I wish I could see all of you out there, not least in this moment of profound reckoning, grief, righteous anger, weariness, shock, conviction, fear, impatience, loss, and so many more emotions and head spaces all jostling in a big vat of a year we’ll probably just always remember as 2020. But we are separated by this screen and actually hidden from each other in all of our particularities. Different life experiences, cultural backgrounds, dispositions and personalities, callings, loyalties, geography, material wants and needs or a lack thereof, health conditions, wounds. The list goes on and on. It is precisely in this separated, multi-webbed chasm of at once wonderful difference and tragic fracture that I want to invite you to pause. To look with courage down into the very real rivets that exist between each of us, to try to notice and take stock of the weeds growing there, some of which are choking us, and to bend down, identify them, pluck them up, and toss them away. And then having done that, to look up at one another standing around the cleared space, able to till the soil and discuss and debate what we should plant and build. Hopefully together.
Breaking Ground and this very first event is first and foremost an act of hope. In the midst of all that has disrupted the world this year due to COVID-19 and in the midst of all that’s gathered steam in the wake of George Floyd’s death last week, much of it’s simply a mass exclamation point on a cancerous root of a lie that has spread for centuries, namely that one race is superior to another and that human value can somehow be measured along a manmade hierarchy. In the swirl of all of this, we are here to take stock, to try to see as clearly as we can, to learn from one another, to listen and to share, to stake a claim on the good and the true and the beautiful, and to try to build something different than what we’ve had yet together. A society that might order its loves a little differently than the consumeristic individualism so many of us are tired of. A society that understands fundamentally that not only does every person matter, which is actually a bit of a low bar, but that we need each other, each one of us, existentially.
The community is going to be the content over the next year, which is not to say we don’t hope to inspire top-notch ideas or show-stopping arguments. Quite the contrary. But I’ve come to believe that persons have to precede policies. Souls just have to precede dogma. Men and women, thinkers and doers, children, and all the things that hold us together peaceably don’t exist first as words on a page. They exist first in relation to one another. Person to person. I and thou. Here at Breaking Ground, we believe that the neighborly ground of reality is founded on the preceding biblical commandment, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. And that these two loves are mysteriously in a dance that gets better and richer the more you choose to submit to it.
Part of this dance we hope to illuminate in the year ahead through Breaking Ground’s content and events – much of it commissioned, some of it curated, and part of it, we simply just want to embody. This project has already been strengthened from the beginning by a collaborative spirit. My own Comment Magazine founded by Cardus, a Canadian think tank committed to sowing the conditions for a flourishing society illuminated by rigorous research and 2000 years of Christian social thought, is honored to be linking arms with the widely beloved Plough Quarterly of the Bruderhof and the intellectually robust Davenant Institute and now also nearly a dozen new affiliates whose names you’ll find on our site just launched an hour ago.
I am personally experiencing the joy of working with a new colleague, the brilliant and passionate Susannah Black, who keeps me on my toes and challenges my inchoate instincts, as well as Brian Brown of the Anselm Society. Heidi Deddens comes with me from Comment, our renaissance managing editor, and she has brought endless energy and detailed good cheer to the site we’ve unveiled just literally in the last hour. I want to thank all of them, and you’ll hear more from them directly in the future. We welcome more collaborators and affiliates, and we’ll be establishing a process in the next week that allows for regular communication and editorial input. The hope is to swell into a multi-part choir whose song may at times sound tense and discordant, especially as the church herself is no stranger to the fractures of our broader society, but at other times reconciled, I hope, into layered harmony – moving everyone watching to tears maybe, then to their feet, and then to walking and serving and building.
So, now, let me get to the real reason you’re here. Our starting community. Candace Vogler, Dante Stewart, and Pancho Arguellas are three very different people in some senses and did not know each other before a week ago. Candace comes to us from the philosophy department at the University of Chicago and is a renowned ethicist and committed teacher. Dante is a budding writer and speaker whose own intellectual and theological journey is a road punctuated by discernment, honesty, and courage. And Pancho is a friend whose work alongside men and women that have immigrated to the U.S. and experienced spinal cord injuries is daily, sensitive, spiritually alive, and committed to accompanying those who suffer often out of view. I’ve asked each of them to share of themselves in this brief hour and help define what is at stake as we navigate this unusually uncertain time of COVID-19, of the pain of this last week, so that Breaking Ground might begin from a place of realism, even if partial.
So, let’s begin. We’re going to have about a half hour of discussion, panelist to panelist, and then open this up to questions from the audience, which you can feel free to drop in the chat. Susannah will select a healthy sampling for me to ask them.
So, Pancho, Candace, and Dante, hi and thank you again for coming. On the one hand, this pandemic and then the events of the last 10 days suggest a country plunged into crisis. At the same time, it’s become increasingly clear that COVID-19 has revealed more than it’s catalyzed, as has the video capturing George Floyd’s death and the uprising and leadership choices since just in the last week. And so far as every crisis presents an opportunity, how would you articulate the opportunity in this one, layered and complicated though it is? What is the core nature of it? The hope of it, even? I’ll ask you, Candace, to begin.
Candace Vogler: Thank you, Anne, and thank you very much for inviting me to be part of your inaugural event. The thing that has been most striking to me about the protests, the peaceable and not so peaceable protests, over the past several days has been that it’s allowed us to open up discussion of common good and egalitarianism in a way I don’t remember ever happening before. I think that, in my community at least, people have been willing to treat occasional sporadic violence, some damage to some shops, and some broken windows as a distraction from an actually shared and emerging and newly-articulated commitment to a broad understanding of justice and civil rights. I’ve never seen anything like that. It looks to me like there is such broadly based willingness to open a discussion about the place of race in the United States at least, and not just in the United States. I mean, Matt Hancock ended his COVID-19 update in the UK with the words, “black lives matter.” We haven’t paid sufficiently close attention to that after revealing the incredible statistics on coronavirus infections and mortality in the UK, which, like here, show a racial divide right at the heart of the pandemic as it’s been experienced there.
To be able to use these terrible scenes of violence and injustice as a way of opening a broad discussion about systematic racialized injustice is incredibly powerful. And the fact that there’s a core understanding that we have to be about a common good that actually can be shared across very many differences and across political parties and across other things… It’s like the first really powerful and self-consciously collective moment I’ve seen since the lockdown started a number of weeks ago. I mean, sporadic help, sporadic checking in, sporadic attempts to be with neighbors as best we can with physical distancing – to not let physical distancing mean social distancing – I’ve seen that. But to actually see this groundswell of feeling not just here but in places like Berlin and London and Paris and Australia and New Zealand, where people are willing to take up the awful intolerable treatment of black people… I mean, the police brutality towards black people in the United States as an occasion to bring it to their places and to open up discussions about the shape those challenges take in their places… That’s unbelievable. It allows for a discussion of common good that I would not have anticipated.
The fact that there’s a core understanding that we have to be about a common good that actually can be shared across very many differences and across political parties and across other things… It’s like the first really powerful and self-consciously collective moment I’ve seen since the lockdown started a number of weeks ago.
I think even when people have dramatically different takes on what’s occurring, what you hear is very different understandings of the goods that are at stake at this particular moment. And the fact that even the harsh, critical, awful ones calling for law and order are at least trying to see a social good somewhere comes closer to producing the possibility of common ground than I’ve seen in a very long time. So, I’m actually very hopeful that this hideous sin at the core of culture in this part of the world at least and many parts of the world could actually be articulated and produce the possibility of building a sustainable and sustaining community in a way that we haven’t seen.
Anne Snyder: Thank you, Candace. Dante, I’m going to hand you the mic.
Dante Stewart: In some sense, what opportunity do I see in this moment? I guess the most important thing is to navigate the social location that I’m coming from, being a black millennial in America. One of the things that I’m seeing right now that’s an opportunity is… I want to piggyback on Professor Vogler where she said in some sense, revolutionary spirit is becoming widespread. I think, as many people saw in the ’70s, there is this kind of practice of solidarity that is, in some sense, changing. I don’t even know in recent times if we’ve seen this sense of global solidarity on such a global scale. Now, in the past, many of the global protests were, in some sense, a kind of question of America and American dominance and the loss of a type of global community and multilateralism and a retreat to a certain type of politics that is nationalist in its orientation. Right now, what’s in some sense surprising is that it is not simply a protest of America, but it’s particularly a protest for black lives. Right now, there is a global proclamation that black lives matter.
As I think about this moment, particularly being a young black millennial, part of me would say, I don’t know if I’m necessarily hopeful in this moment. Or in some sense, I would reimagine the language of hope. Maybe for white people in this society, there is a hopeful nature of this moment because many white people in this society are getting it. Or they’re willing, in some sense, to use the language of Paul Tillich … they’re having the courage to be in this moment. To be and to risk. But being black in this moment makes me ask the question of, how does one become so hopeful in a society that’s so anti-black? And so, reimagining the language of hope in this moment in an anti-black world, in some sense, forces me to realize that if there is the language of hope for this moment, then the hope is not in the dream. The hope is in the struggle.
If there is the language of hope for this moment, then the hope is not in the dream. The hope is in the struggle.
As I think about the last three years of Martin Luther King’s life and ask where do we go from here, I think if hope is in the struggle, then the hope lies in this collective ethic of a revolution of value. In this American society, people are now realizing that black lives in America are worth loving and worth fighting for. But we’re also seeing how deeply steep this white supremacist understanding of logic, of value is. This distinction of value in a society where a white person could, in some sense, swing weapons at a cop, but a black person simply by being has the life sucked out of them in very public ways. And so, if I had to communicate the revolution that’s happening right now as any sense of hope, it’s the hope that the voice of black rage is finally moving into the mainstream rather than being seen as a radical alternative that must be suppressed.
Hope lies in this collective ethic of a revolution of value.
Particularly to the millennial and Gen Z reality, I am incredibly proud of this courageous nature to put one’s body, life, credibility, ideology, and one’s vision of what the future should look like down the line. As one of my friends would say, “We out here.” We young people are out here. We are on the streets. We’re in politics. We’re in religion. We’re writing. We are preaching. We are protesting. We’re doing everything in hopes of us having a better world than that came before us. To finally realize that love, power, and justice can be a shaping reality.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Pancho, what do you think? Hope in the struggle?
Pancho Argüelles: Well, amen.
Anne Snyder: Look at Living Hope behind you.
Pancho Argüelles: Yes. Yes, those were powerful words from my brother and my sister there. Yeah, hope is a central element of the everyday work I do with the organization I work with, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, which is for immigrants who suffer spinal cord injuries and other kinds of illnesses. Most of them are undocumented immigrants who face daily these messages from our society that tells them that if your body is broken, if you cannot produce for me anymore, then your pain, your life is not really valuable to me.
In the larger immigrant community, this notion that a lot of what we were living and what was normal included elements that became more democratically distributed with the pandemic. That notion of being afraid of going out in the street, which is an experience that people of color – black people, Latinos, Native Americans – experience every day. If I go to the store and I find the wrong police, the one bad apple, I might not make it back, or I will be deported. This experience of greeting from afar, of knowing your mom or your grandma is dying and you cannot be there to hug her, is an everyday reality for immigrants and undocumented immigrants. Of refugees.
I think that parallel we’re experiencing is this collective vulnerability that can be a door to fear and to let our lesser brain take over. We know that our democracy has devolved into a kind of lesser brain democracy in the past few years. There is a science to activate that part of the brain that is all about fear and survival and to deactivate the parts that have to do with empathy, compassion, and rationality. We are risking our life as democracy, but even as a species worldwide, because we have let our democracies devolve into these kind of lesser brains based on fear.
So, hope is a powerful word that I get the privilege of learning and relearning every day with my compañeros and compañeras from Living Hope. They confirm something that I learned when I worked in Chiapas in southern Mexico with Guatemalan refugees who survived the genocide that the Guatemalan army supported by the US government conducted there in the ’70s and ’80s. Or in Nicaragua through the war, or in different moments when I have been facing these kind of disastrous conditions that our not natural but are common. They confirm the notion that hope is a function of memory. We can have hope because we can remember. We can put together those notions that help us get through the big trials and tribulations.
Hope is a function of memory. We have hope because we can remember.
One thing that we were saying in a recent conversation with immigrant rights organizations around the southern states was trying to make sense of this time and exploring possibilities for mutual aid. We need to take a deep breath and not be overwhelmed. We need to remember and connect to hope and to remember that it’s not our first apocalypse. It’s not the first time that a big event has revealed the truth of the system and also revealed the truth about us. Another way to put it is, this is not the first desert we crossed, but we have never crossed a desert quite like this. For immigrants, that’s actually literal. For the Central American migrants who cross Mexico and then walk through the desert, they know what it is to have God’s presence in your life holding your hand as you are navigating that line of life and death.
This is not the first desert we crossed, but we have never crossed a desert quite like this.
For me, a great opportunity in these times is for the communities of faith and societies in general to open ourselves to really be taught the truth of the gospel from those who have this powerful experience of God being close to them in their suffering. Black people who have been facing this brutal violence and the small and big ways of racism, those kids who are at the break in the police line and putting their bodies between them and the police… this social conversion, this opportunity to have a conversion that is humbling, that is transformative. It’s an opportunity for a way of healing that is centered on reconciliation and reparations of damage. Not this fluffy healing that politicians start throwing around after a mass shooting happens, but a healing that is centered on what I learned from Cassandra Thomas.
A great opportunity in these times is for the communities of faith and societies in general to open ourselves to really be taught the truth of the gospel from those who have this powerful experience of God being close to them in their suffering.
Healing is recovered in power and control. We as a society can try to recover power and control over those feelings of fear and distrust and rage and superiority. If this country is going to heal, it’s going to have to really get head on with white supremacy. How do you heal from white supremacy? From the dehumanization and alienation of the other? Of immigrants? Violence against women? That has to do with recovering power and control. Not just the oppressor on their capacity to do damage, but the people suffering and our capacity to uphold our dignity in community.
Anne Snyder: Any of you can answer this, but I’ll direct to you first, Pancho. And, in some ways, it’s embedded in what each of you has said. I’ve lived in DC off and on for the last 15 years, and it’s a city that has a lot of prognosticators and pundits and a lot of people diagnosing problems from on high. And so we have a lot of “isms” floating around. Fragmentation. Tribalism. These sort of words get thrown around – in my view, sometimes vaguely and often misused or not specified. I’m curious if you could locate one core idea that kind of lies at what we might even call the rot of our society at this moment, or the sickness or the malaise. How would you articulate that? I would say it’s probably a false idea that’s causing that, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I’m just curious how you would name that.
Pancho Argüelles: It’s all related. If I have to choose one, I would say white supremacy. The centrality of the value of white lives over other lives expressed, for instance, in the absurdity of counting Americans who died in Iraq. We know that when mainstream voices say American, they mean white. We count how many Americans die in Iraq, but we don’t count how many Iraqi civilians in the hundreds of thousands die. What would also apply here is this notion of what is valuable. What is urgent when showing up to an emergency room? But there are others that are based in our capacity to ignore things.
We know that when mainstream voices say American, they mean white.
Anne Snyder: Dante, coming off of that, another way I would articulate that is to sort of reference something you said. This revolution of value. Another way of articulating white supremacy is just this false notion, this hierarchy of human value that puts some on top of others. It has been, certainly in the U.S., from the beginning and I would argue, as Candace said, has happened in different ways all over the world and is a timeless human sin. Deep sin. And it’s had a particular vengeance here. Could you articulate a principle or even a poem or embodied action that you have seen or that has been a part of your own experience that could serve as a key to help a community of people strip away and repent some of these false ideas? Release some of their power? How would you describe what that key is?
Dante Stewart: I want to go back to what Pancho said. I think Brother Pancho is actually hitting on something that’s actually incredibly important as we even navigate this society. This kind of, as he says, this apocalyptic moment right now. This idea of what Eddie Glaude, who’s a professor of African American Studies in the religion department at Princeton University, would call the value gap in his book, Democracy in Black. What he says is, when many people try and understand this language of white supremacy, many of them think that it’s “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville or militia with AR-15s or et cetera, et cetera.. And, yes, that is indeed. That one could be white and male with an AR-15 and protest in very public ways not only in front of the law but actually against the law and not receive any type of repercussions, but be rewarded by embodying this narrative of difference. They’re rewarded as good people, but you’ve got protestors who are Black and, in some sense, protesting for their value in a very collective, progressive, democratic grassroots coalition of multi-racial people and they get called thugs.
And so right now, for me at least, we have to navigate this society in a public sphere asking this question. And I think this is a very important question for us to be navigating in public. Is America a country with racism or is America fundamentally a racist country? As I think about this kind of navigation of race in America and white supremacy and the value gap, we have to, I think, navigate that race in this world has been a defining and dehumanizing and destructive and deadly reality. And so as we think about this moment, is this moment simply saying you have individual acts of racism, of public bigotry, as many people have thought? Or is this society in its structures, in its policies, in its practices, what and whom it chooses to value – is it a fundamentally racist nation? I would say that it is. And so what we need right now is not simply this principle of a fetishized Martin Luther King many people are calling for … We need to come together and have unity [on this recognition]: America, we don’t have a reconciliation problem; America, we have a racist problem. A racist problem that has racial habits deeply embedded into our society that values white lives over black lives.
Is America a country with racism or is America fundamentally a racist country?
And so I would say for this moment that being black in an anti-black world today becomes the greatest moral, political, and social task … this kind of navigation of black rage becomes the greatest spiritual virtue and moral obligation and political practice. Because rage as it relates to us as black people in this society has oftentimes been seen as radical. And indeed it is. The calls for black rage and black power in this moment is opposite from a society that calls for white power and white supremacy. White power wants dominance. Black power and black rage want dignity. And so right now, rage for me has been a spiritual virtue that wakes us up out of our illusion that this society is the way that it should be. It wakes us up out of this illusion that black lives don’t matter.
America, we don’t have a reconciliation problem; America, we have a racist problem. A racist problem that has racial habits deeply embedded into our society that values white lives over black lives.
And so when we see the globe stand in solidarity in this moment saying that black lives matter, we can say that that is a public expression of a theological commitment and truth that black lives matter to God. And so as I think about this moment, as a writer and a preacher communicating the legitimacy of a black rage that wakes us up out of our illusion and communicates a vision of revolution of value, as Martin Luther King would say, from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society that, like I said earlier, believes Black people are worth fighting for and loving and that we as Black people are not second-class citizens. We don’t need a society where we are exploited or disrespected, but we need a society where black power becomes a living reality.
Many people have thought that revolution of value is a point. It is not a point. A revolution of value that is guided by a certain type of black rage communicated through a long history of the black freedom struggle as it was rooted in political philosophy, moral vision, and this kind of spiritual communication… This language, in some sense, bridges our ideals of what should be and a practice of a type of embodied hope of what we can become. And so now in this moment, one of the most important principles is asking ourselves how to respond to black rage in a society that justifies and rewards Black death.
White power wants dominance. Black power and black rage want dignity.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Candace, you’ve thought a lot about virtue in your life and in your work. I’m curious if you could respond both to the broader context of how these virtues and behaviors get shaped and expressed right now. And so far as Breaking Ground, the hope is to try to re-narrate a better common life together. That can happen in sometimes very fractious and sometimes that can happen… There can be… “resolution” may be the wrong word, but a common life together ideally is deeply honest.
As a teacher in a classroom for many years now and as someone who’s been all over the world, who has studied philosophers throughout the Western canon and beyond, I’m curious if you could help us get a little more practical when it comes to what you see as the institutions, if we’re going to use that word, or forms and mediums. Right now, in the middle of COVID, we have two main ways, it seems like, of expressing ourselves. One is on streets and one is through a screen or through a media platform. Those are powerful, but there are also a lot of other ways. And so I’m just curious as you think about performative versus formative, some thoughts on models of engagement that you have found to be productive in a pluralistic, diverse society.
Candace Vogler: One of the biggest learning experiences for me was volunteering for very many years with an organization here on the south side of Chicago under the leadership of people who had come up through the Black Panther Party. One of the most important aspects of the experience was to be under the leadership of these people. Not to be going into the neighborhood with some idea that I knew what people needed, but going into the neighborhood with some sense of the kind of resources I might have that they might lack, and asking how those could be put to use in a powerful and helpful way.
Back when I started the work, one of the things that was clear was that almost every family had legal trouble. They all had relatives in prison. Often, they were people who shouldn’t have been in prison at all. I’m not in favor of putting [people] in cages generally. I had access to this amazing law library at the university, and I had access to these reference librarians. I could just walk in there and say, “Here’s a problem. How can you use the legal system to try to address it?” And I could use those resources that I had in virtue of being at the University of Chicago on the faculty. Similarly, University of Chicago letterhead. I could get people to actually meet with their constituents by writing letter after letter after letter on university letterhead. People like elected officials who were avoiding their own constituents were actually phoning me at my home and saying, “Who the hell are you writing to me like this?”
For me, as a white person trying to live in solidarity with other people, to have an opportunity to learn from those people is to have an opportunity to unlearn all of the habits – the deep, cultural, and other habits that are part of internalized whiteness and that make me ashamed of being white a lot of the time. I think that’s just empirical. If you look at what happens when we show up somewhere, terrible things happen when we show up someplace. People suffer. People are exploited. People die. That’s what it’s like when people who look like me show up someplace where there haven’t been people like me before, historically. To be aware and alive to that history, to realize that I can’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of that history… but I have opportunities these days to actually listen and learn from people who are on the other side, to take direction and to take leadership.
For me, as a white person trying to live in solidarity with other people, to have an opportunity to learn from those people is to have an opportunity to unlearn all of the habits – the deep, cultural, and other habits that are part of internalized whiteness and that make me ashamed of being white a lot of the time.
And so, for me, part of the real potency of black rage is the potency to both carry that experience and articulate that experience and help figure out how to combine resources in a way that does things large and small. I think white supremacy isn’t the name of a belief or an attitude. It’s the name of a whole cultural way of life. The problem is figuring out how to break that. For me, the thing that’s tremendously important is to realize that people who aren’t on the suffering edge of that don’t even recognize the kinds of things that they can simply take for granted. To learn how to dismantle some of the attitudes is to learn a different way of being with your neighbors. It’s to actually recognize who your neighbors are. Your neighbors are people who are bringing you a kind of experience that you don’t have, and a kind of pain and sometimes cynicism. I use the language of hope, but I’ve also read a lot of history. [I’ve read] enough to know that what you should experience and expect is another long, hard slog to just try to get very basic things in place. Something as basic as no more choke holds way before you get to maybe we shouldn’t be putting humans in cages.
White supremacy isn’t the name of a belief or an attitude. It’s the name of a whole cultural way of life. The problem is figuring out how to break that.
So, for me, as both a teacher and a learner, one of the most important things is to figure out how to make the space to hear other voices enough so that your own way of recognizing the patterns around you can actually be disrupted. You can learn to pay attention to different things. You can learn to take different things as the most important things around you and gradually, gradually, try to remove some of the stain that comes with having skin like ours.
To learn how to dismantle some of the attitudes is to learn a different way of being with your neighbors. It’s to actually recognize who your neighbors are. Your neighbors are people who are bringing you a kind of experience that you don’t have, and a kind of pain and sometimes cynicism.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Dante and Pancho, I want to give you a chance to respond to that. Either of you.
For me, as both a teacher and a learner, one of the most important things is to figure out how to make the space to hear other voices enough so that your own way of recognizing the patterns around you can actually be disrupted. You can learn to pay attention to different things.
Pancho Argüelles: This is so good. I wish we could just camp here and stay for a while. I think we are living in a time of acknowledgment and recognition which are, in some ways, learning new ways to express what conversion is. Because I think that we got to this crisis in part because of our very limited democracy. A lot of people have never really had access to democracy, which is another pernicious idea that I think does a lot of damage to the United States. This idea of American exceptionalism and the fact that this real democracy, this shining city on a hill for some is the post-apocalyptic reality for Native Americans. We have to develop cognitive mechanisms to ignore all those things. The more privilege I have, the more I have to develop mechanisms to ignore reality. Like me as a male, I have to develop mechanisms to ignore the way patriarchy really serves to propel me and oppresses women around me. That’s essential to the system, and it’s really entrenched with white supremacy. The way that males, we also have privilege and oppress others. So, coming back to the spiritual thinking or looking into this time from a spiritual point of view, we are experiencing this collective vulnerability, which… I’m not a theologian, but… I’m an empirical theologian. This notion of kenosis, of self-emptying of our own will to become completely receptive to God’s divine will.
The more privilege I have, the more I have to develop mechanisms to ignore reality.
Kenosis has always fascinated me, and I really got into that after I was in Chiapas accompanying communities after the massacre of Acteal. I saw the grace of God coming through and accompanying the people who survived a massacre. I saw this brazen strength coming through that pain and suffering and, really, vulnerability that seemed to be a weakness and turned out to be the greatest of strength that connected faith with the power of the state. I think we are in one of those moments when this kenosis shows the presence of God among his/her people facing this brutal state. These scenes we have seen of people standing with someone pointing a gun to their faces.
There’s a mystery there that can speak to us. But for us, the challenge is, how are we going to let that push us out of the comfort zone and see what things we need to stop ignoring, what things we need to start acknowledging? There’s a big difference between knowing and acknowledging. We all know the numbers of racial inequality, social inequality, all these indicators of poverty, wealth accumulation. We know that. But we need to acknowledge that and then recognize, which means really change some connections in our brain to see things differently. From a theological point of view, I think that means also we heal and regain power and control so we can surrender ourselves to the will of God, which means do justice. Love your brother and sister. Recognize them as your brothers and sisters. As a surrender.
Anne Snyder: I’m going to jump off of that. Dante, are you leaning it? Did you want to say something?
Dante Stewart: Yeah, very quickly. I think for this moment that we’re in, as we’re talking about this society and societal challenges across various spheres, we have to reimagine how one communicates good news and the good life in this society. The questions that I have right now that I’m wrestling with is kind of like James Cohen. The Detroit uprising happened, and Cohen was teaching at this majority white university. He says his people was in the street. Just like James Baldwin. James Baldwin was in… I think was in France. And he was like, man, I couldn’t deal with what happening over in… I couldn’t deal with what was happening in America and stay comfortable in France. And so Cohen, like Baldwin, said… I have to get out of Babylon. That I must, in some sense, get out of Babylon, go on this courageous journey to venture back to my people, to bring the experience of love, power, justice, and liberation. And so Cohen said that he had to learn how to communicate a faith that was one, accountable to black people, and two, accountable to their struggle for black freedom and black dignity and hope in a society.
We have to reimagine how one communicates good news and the good life in this society.
And so we need to reimagine the language of faith that will really courageously face the question: How does one communicate good news when someone’s foot is on your neck and you publicly are executed by a certain type of state power? State-sanctioned crucifixion like that of Jesus? How does one communicate a certain type of good news in the face of black death? How does one communicate faith when you are faced with the tragic conditions of oppression? I resonate deeply with black liberation theology. Because black liberation theology has given me a way of imagining the world that black people are in the future and not simply extinguished by this society but we are, in some sense, the liberators that we have been looking for. That we are the perfectors of democracy in connection with progressive and democratic grassroots coalitions of many people from various backgrounds working for a more loving and just world. We have to reimagine how does one communicate good news and a good life.
How does one communicate a certain type of good news in the face of black death?
Anne Snyder: Thank you. I agree with you, Pancho. I wish this could keep going and going. But there’s a question here. Questions are coming in. Thank you all out there for asking all these questions. We’re not going to be able to get, unfortunately, to even probably a quarter of them. But this one from Andrew. He said, “Arguelles’ quotes defining healing as regaining power and control is provocative. In a society that conceives of power and control in manipulative and domineering terms, how do we build toward truly human understandings of power and control centered in love and authentic solidarity?” Pancho, that was addressed to you.
Pancho Argüelles: Yes, the notion of recovering power and control. We need to think about it from the perspective of acknowledging that there are millions of people over the world who don’t have power and control over their bodies. Women, immigrant workers, people with disabilities who are also pushed out of spaces where there’s accessibility and inclusion to them. But even that worker who has to work three jobs just to get enough money to eat and survive has no power and control over their own body. You just have sell your labor force. That’s another pernicious idea: this notion that markets are free. They are not free. They are organized around whoever has the most power.
So, I think that if we have a wide and deep lens that has to do with postcolonial or colonial realities that entire people lost power and control over their own bodies, their territories, their theologies, their land, their culture, their overall existence, when they were colonized and looted. We want to talk about looting? We need to ask the masters of looting. That’s real looting. That’s nothing, man. Anyway, I’m digressing. Recovering power and control is, again, at the very personal level, is how you relate to your own emotions, your body, your thoughts, your actions. The capacity to do what you want to and navigate your own feelings. There is a relational way that we build in community and from a faith perspective, it’s also how you recover power and control so that you surrender that your community and your God.
One last thing I want to say. I want to say his name. George Floyd. We should take the time to say all their names, but I know I didn’t say his name. George Floyd is one of the reasons why we feel raw enough to speak truth and maybe make people uncomfortable. Because we are pushed to this time when we just witnessed a public lynching in slow motion. We can say his name. Recovering power and control is to eliminate the possibility of institutions to cause that kind of pain.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. So, someone asks, “This meeting has understandably centered on one facet of societal illness that recent events have apocalypse – I don’t know if I’m saying that right – namely racial justice. What other lies or diseases have you seen unveiled in recent events, particularly through the pandemic’s onset?” I’ll open the floor to any one of you. Candace, go ahead. Why don’t you if you have a thought?
Candace Vogler: One of the things that’s become really clear is the kind of damage we’re doing to the environment. Just the sudden shift under lockdowns in air quality, in water quality, in the lives of nonhuman animals, these kinds of things. The rot that is part of our wanton destruction of the world that we all share is something that I think has also come to light in a completely different way. Through things like the return of birds, that sort of thing. And the bizarre aspects of a global world, which some people are treating as – look, we’re all in the same boat – but we’re obviously not all in the same boat. It’s just that we all happen to be vulnerable at the same time to this particular problem without a clear or obvious solution. How it plays out in different places is different, of course. Massively different. But the sort of lie that we can imagine that we’re separate and that national spaces can be distinctive and isolated spaces with something that goes everywhere is, I think, really powerful. And that, if we stopped, the earth can exhale for a few minutes… also huge.
Anne Snyder: Okay. This is a big one, and I’m looking at the clock here, so actually maybe a really nice one for you guys to think about as some conclusion, which I realize we’ve barely even put a dent in the pie here. But this person is asking, “How does one separate, discern between, and search for the true core of good at the heart of this movement from the violence and self-interest? Personally, I have noticed a great deal of fracturing. A sort of “us versus them” when it comes to recent events. One cannot understand the suffering of black people in this country if one is not black, just as non-Jews cannot completely understand the suffering of the Holocaust. But how does one make the most of this from a Christian lens? How can one affirm this movement from a Christian lens?”
Dante Stewart: I guess I can take a stab at that one.
Anne Snyder: Go for it.
Dante Stewart: This is kind of leaning into the previous question. We talked about racial injustice, racial terror, violence, and this white supremacy logic. I think this question actually leans into that. And I think that’s why it’s so important to communicate black people’s struggle in America as the guiding logic of our social criticism and analysis. Because as I think Kimberly Crenshaw would say, when one sees black women particularly and black people in general, one sees these various intersections of the diseased soil to which one has to live in. You see the environmental injustice that’s happening. You see the crisis of moral leadership. You see the crisis of public policy to take into account the various lives that black people live and creating a world in which, as Pancho would say, a healed world in which dignity, power, and agency in the political, social, religious, and cultural process becomes a guiding reality.
And so I think as we communicate in this moment a certain type of good, you have to analyze, in some sense, to communicate the story of the Bible in reflecting the story that we live today. As Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, would say – when we enter the Bible, we enter a story where those ancient peoples are much like us. In some sense, their stories are our stories. Our stories and theirs intersect in hopes that a better story may be told. And so as I think about communicating the good in this society, particularly as the questioner wondered, I look at stories of various injustice and the good is in the protest of evil. The protest of difference.
Oftentimes in society it has been white people’s privilege to be able to philosophize the good rather than pursue it. And so we need to even reimagine how one thinks about the good of being a philosophy to being actually a practice that one embodies in community. And so this is kind of leaning back to the language of reimagining faith. The good is, in some sense, wherever we protest death and are pursuing common life. That is the good. Wherever there is violence and we are pursuing healing and hope. That is the good. Wherever there is a narrative of difference and experience of terror and we bring truth to power, protesting that particular narrative and trying to produce a life together. That is the good. Even something as simple as being aware of the very struggles that we are facing in society is pursuit of the good. This might be dangerous language to speak as a theologian in some sense. A theological language. I don’t even know if the good is the most important question as much as the good life is the question that we should be pursuing. I don’t know if that helps. That’s just kind of my raw thoughts of thinking about that. The good not as a point to achieve, but a practice to actualize.
Anne Snyder: Well, there is a saying. The way, the truth, and the life and sometimes the way and the life get ignored. The embodied. Pancho or Candace?
Pancho Argüelles: I do want to say that we need to be very intentional with our questions. Because they all can be good questions, but I think at this point, there are questions that might be more urgent. There is no purity in any movement. There’s no purity. If we’re looking for purity, we’re going to sit back and wait for it. I think there is an urgency for solidarity. Messy, working together, stepping on each other’s toes, making us trip and fall, but working together. That’s at the center of accompaniment that I learned working in Chiapas, Nicaragua, Guatemala, taught by people who were risking their lives and some of whom actually gave their lives. Pastoral workers died during the repression in the ’80s. Señor Romero and many others who gave their lives not because it was clear. It wasn’t because it was clear. It was because what their God was demanding of them or us was working with the poor, the suffering, and learn and accompany them in that journey. Because there is an urgency in solidarity. Solidarity is always intentional. It’s never accidental. I might hurt and oppress somebody by accident, but I can only show solidarity with intentionality.
There is no purity in any movement. If we’re looking for purity, we’re going to sit back and wait for it. There is an urgency in solidarity: Messy, working together, stepping on each other’s toes, making us trip and fall, but working together. Solidarity is always intentional. It’s never accidental. I might hurt and oppress somebody by accident, but I can only show solidarity with intentionality.
For me, that will be the final thing. What are we healing from? From this alienation from our own humanity and from our own faith. The way we have allowed to separate our faith, the presence of God in our lives, from our political choices. From our actions. From our opinions on social media. We eliminate. We separate that. I think we’re healing a lot from that and connecting it to others and feel things more transformative than that solidarity. When we recognize the presence of God in history, in the actions and the ways of those who are suffering and are resisting with joy, with hope, with power, with rage, and with dignity.
What are we healing from? From this alienation, from our own humanity, and from our own faith. The way we have allowed to separate our faith and the presence of God in our lives from our political choices. From our actions. From our opinions on social media. …When we recognize the presence of God in history, in the actions and the ways of those who are suffering and are resisting with joy, with hope, with power, with rage, and with dignity.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Candace? Somehow the lady went last on this one. Go ahead.
Candace Vogler: I just want to thank Pancho and Dante. That’s really, really helpful and powerful. I agree that the thing we can do is work in solidarity with one another. It’s messy and sloppy, but it’s intentional and it’s from God. God is in solidarity with all of us. If you want to walk with each other, you got a good model.
Anne Snyder: On that note, I just want to thank each of you, Pancho, Dante, and Candace, for helping me. I was writing many things down, actually, in an old devotional that happens to have a bunch of Bible verses in it. With just a million questions, really, more than anything that I really hope that this particular little platform has a chance to explore in ways like this, on the written page, and other ways. And hopefully eventually very much off the page. So, I just thank you for your presence, and we hope to see you again.
For all of you out there watching, obviously, this was very short to discuss a very raw current moment as well as the complexities and intricacies of this deeper sense that the world is very much shifting. We hope you’ll come back and check out Breaking Ground. We just launched an hour ago as I said. You can find us at www.breakinground.us, and I would just encourage each of you watching to check out Candace and Pancho’s and Dante’s work there and their bios there, which they’ll trace to the witness of their lives, writings, and organizations they serve.
Now, I am going to be a little bit maybe overly earnest. I just want to leave everyone watching with a passage from John O’Donohue, which has been sitting on my desk for some time, but it’s become very much alive in recent days. It just goes like this. “The Greeks believed that time had a secret structure. There was the moment of epiphany, when time suddenly opened and something was revealed in luminous clarity. There was the moment of krisis…” krisis, with a K, “…when time got entangled and directions became confused and contradictory. There was also the moment of kairos. This was the propitious moment. Time opened up in kindness and promise. All energies cohered to offer a fecund occasion of initiative, creativity, and promise. Part of the art of living wisely is to learn, to recognize, and attend to such profound openings in one’s life.” And the only thing I would add to that quote is in one’s society and times.
I hope that in this particularly wild moment of crisis that there might also be a chance of kairos. That moment in our own lives, in our relationships one to another, in our much broader systems and institutions and habits and cultural norms, as Candace in particular invoked, reckoning and reimagining and that you’ll come along with us at Breaking Ground to get ideas, to be encouraged, to be challenged and encounter people and ideas you might not have otherwise and to resource you and to resource all of us, really, to dig deep and imagine what could come next.
Our trust is that somehow with a bit of providence and a whole lot of collaborative magic that this unwieldy platform could cohere and covert us into living by a noticeably different narrative on the other side. A narrative founded on a better common life in real time, not just as an idea. And I guess I would just say that I hope and pray that God grants us each grace… each one of you watching the peace that surpasses understanding and the hope that God’s love still alive, moving through us, revealing, and renewing all things. Thank you very much and goodnight.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and principal investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An Essay in Moral Psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.
Danté Stewart is a writer and speaker whose writings have been featured in publications such as Christianity Today, Comment magazine, Sojourners, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and more. Danté received his B.A. in Sociology from Clemson University where he was also a student athlete. He is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Danté and his wife Jasamine currently live in Augusta, Georgia, with their two children.
Francisco Argüelles Paz y Puente (a.k.a. Pancho) was born in Mexico City and has lived in the United States since 1997. For more than thirty years he has worked on human rights issues in Mexico, Central America, and the United States. He lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, son, and daughter and serves as executive director of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, a community-based organization of migrants with spinal cord injuries. Through PazyPuente, LLC, he provides training and consulting services to social and racial justice organizations across the country.