Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Talking about Race Matters

If you listen to Lincoln Avenue regularly, you know that one of my key concerns about our community is racial division. The Youngstown metropolitan area is among the most segregated in the US, and while we’ve made progress in reducing racial barriers we still have a long way to go. This week on the show, I’m talking with two local ministers who are challenging those divisions by creating conversations about race and the effects of racism in our community. Rob Johnson is the pastor at two local Lutheran churches, Bethlehem and Christ. Lew Macklin leads Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. They have worked together, as members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, on a project called Jacob’s Well, which brings black and white Christians together to talk honestly about race.

I’ve attended the two Jacob’s Well events (and played a very small role in planning them), and even as a non-Christian and therefore an outsider in many ways, I’ve seen the powerful potential for something as simple as conversation. But I also understand, as I discuss with Johnson and Macklin in our interview, how difficult such conversations can be. People need to feel some common ground – in this case a shared religious perspective – and to feel that their experiences and views will be heard and respected. Given the history of contentious debate, shame, anger, guilt, and resentment related to race in this country, creating the conditions for people to come together is not easy. Realistically, only people who already care about fighting racism are likely to participate, which can create a sense of preaching to the proverbial choir. On the other hand, as Johnson and Macklin can attest, even among people who come to the table with goodwill and a shared intention, making personal connections can create change.

Perhaps the best evidence of that is in the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance itself. In most cities around the country, that group consists only of African-American ministers, and the group’s primary focus is on addressing the needs of the black community, mostly in urban settings. Given the history of racial divisions in Youngstown, it’s striking that our local IMA is one of very few that has both white and black members. Why? If I understand the history correctly, it’s because white ministers recognized their responsibility to work against racism, and they saw working closely with their African-American counterparts as a way to pursue that goal. At the same time, African-American ministers had to learn to trust people who might otherwise be seen as outsiders, or even as having distinctly different interests. For everyone involved, the key to collaboration is understanding that relationships are the foundation on which social change is built.

In other words, in our highly segregated, divided community, the men and women of the IMA offer a model – not for moving past race but for instead addressing the economic and social inequities associated with racial difference by building interracial relationships. Imagine what might happen if more white people took the position that ministers like Rob Johnson do, that fighting racism is our ethical and moral responsibility and that the first step is to reach out and make personal connections with African-Americans. Imagine what might happen if more black people were willing to follow Lew Macklin’s lead and take the risk of talking honestly with whites and creating relationships from which to work for change.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Economic Crisis: The Local View

We’ve all been hearing daily about the economic crisis in the US. But how is that playing out here in the Mahoning Valley? To help us get a clearer picture of the local situation, I spoke with Larry Ringler, the Business Editor for the Warren Tribune Chronicle. Because he covers stories about all aspects of business and labor in our area, Larry knows what’s going on and has a clear sense of the challenges and prospects.

The Mahoning Valley has been in economic crisis for so long that we almost can’t call it a crisis anymore. High unemployment rates, low home prices, and economic uncertainty are almost normal conditions here. While that gives area residents and the community itself some resilience, we’re also in some ways more vulnerable than others. We have fewer reserve resources to draw upon, not only as individuals but also as a community. It may well be that, as John Russo wrote in the Working-Class Perspectives blog, the rest of the country is learning what Youngstown has learned over the last 30 years, but 30 years of struggle can make you both tough and tired.

Yet, as Larry suggests, we have some reasons to hope, as new technologies develop. The economic stimulus package may also help us develop some of the infrastructure we need – not just nicer roads but also new technological capabilities – to develop new industries.

I was interested in a poll released this past weekend suggesting that Americans are at once deeply pessimistic about the economy and very optimistic about what President Obama can accomplish. For the nation, it seems, this might be a moment of change. Perhaps it can also become a period of change for the Mahoning Valley.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Teaching, Learning, and Connections

Welcome back to Lincoln Avenue. We’re just beginning “spring” semester here at YSU, and so it seems fitting that the first interview of the year focuses on teaching and learning. Chris Bache, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, has a new book out, The Living Classroom, which explores the connections between teachers and students.

Chris comes to this work from three decades of research on transpersonal studies and many years in classrooms here at YSU, teaching courses on eastern religion, the psychology of religion, and comparative spirituality. While some of what he discusses might sound strange to listeners who aren’t familiar with scholarly and philosophical ideas about collective consciousness, reincarnation, and spirituality, as Chris explains in the book and in our conversation, these ideas have a strong basis in scientific as well as humanistic research.

But part of what I find inspiring about Chris’s work is that he so clearly brings not only scholarly expertise but personal presence – his own spirituality but also his complete self – to this work. He attributes the intuitive and powerful connections he makes with students in part to his own spiritual practice. The combination of a worldview that embraces the idea that everything is connected and the practice of meditation creates a frame of mind that facilitates what Chris refers to as the “learning field” – the collective consciousness that develops around a particular course. As Parker Palmer, one of my favorite educational philosophers, suggests, we teach from our complete selves, and good teaching draws not only our knowledge of our discipline but also on self-awareness. Chris Bache’s work illustrates this idea.

The other powerful aspect of Chris’s work, and this book, is that it so clearly honors students. While the first half of the book describes Chris’s experiences and positions his analysis and strategies in the context of research in transpersonal studies, the second half consists almost entirely of stories told by YSU students. Some of these stories document the influence of learning new ways of seeing the world, while others show students bringing their own experiences into the classroom, making connections between their lives and the theories and concepts emerging in a course.

Chris provides a detailed and specific explanation for something many teachers have experienced: the sense that when a course is going well, there’s something more happening than just good communication or effective pedagogy. In the best moments of teaching and learning, teachers and students alike are present and connected. When this happens, learning becomes deeply personal, even spiritual, as well as intellectual.