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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Going Deep

When we lived in Hawaii, we'd meet haoles with what was called "rock fever." They felt stuck in a small place, marooned on an island in the middle of the Pacific with nowhere to go, isolated from the outer world.

Visitor friends would often ask me: "don't you get rock fever?" meaning, wouldn't they?  I would respond that it all depends whether you have horizontal or vertical consciousness. With vertical consciousness there was no end to the levels of depth that you could keep discovering. Never were you constrained by boundaries on land or sea.

Another way of putting it is pointing out the difference between a consciousness of scarcity and a consciousness of abundance. We all know people, even very rich or wannabe rich people, who are more apt to see what they don't have and are fixated on getting and consuming more and more. They see the world, people, and themselves as deficient, as victims (e.g. of corporations, others, government, communists and capitalists), as needing to free themselves from constraints to gain more power.

And we also know people, even very poor in material possessions or poor in spirit, who are more apt to see what they do have and are grateful for their life, their friends, and the beautiful world they have inherited. They acknowledge their limits in time, space, and capacity but use them to grow in wisdom and grace. They recognize and experience injustice done to others because they have a strong sense of empathy but even this they see as a way to free themselves to engage with others to gain more power.

I pray to be a person of vertical consciousness with a spirit of abundance. I imagine the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius, Emerson, Gandhi, King, Mandela and all true revolutionaries to be such souls.

I am working in a small neighborhood, through a small organization, connected to a small faith community of the District of Columbia. This does not seem as exciting as heading a UN project or a multinational corporation, not as thrilling as contributing to space exploration, not as significant as restructuring a political party to change national policy or studying the neural basis of Alzheimer's disease as I have friends who are so doing.  Yet, when I think about it with my vertical consciousness and abundant spirit I am quite energized.

For I see our little project in our little neighborhood of Columbia Heights, DC as a microcosm of, entry point into, and lesson for a universe. It doesn't get much bigger than that!

Let me probe the levels of what we are doing. It compares to inhabiting the crust of the earth with its seas, mountains, and plains. But underneath tectonic plates are moving. And underneath them a flow of molten lava that affects the planet's magnetic polarities. And then we come to the core and the center of gravity.

Here are levels of our human life and action that a vertical, abundance oriented spirit might discern.

1. personal: solving personal problems through programs and projects.
2. common: knowing and affecting the region within which our little neighborhood is being shaped
3. sociological: discovering the patterns in the American political economy that has shaped the global economy.
4. philosophical/ethical: probing the roots of behavior in human nature and existence.
5. spiritual/religious: co-creating a universe of meaning for our being and action.
6. transcendent--descending into the core of existence and ascending through it out to the stars.

The personal level is where individual troubles and opportunities arise. Its where we make day to day decisions about where to live and work, where to shop and bank, where to go to school, and who to befriend and love.

At the common level we recognize that our individuality is really conditioned by our affiliations, our families and clans, our communities and nations. We do not exist except already connected in a web of relationships. This is the John Donne "No Man is an Island" level.

The third level is discerned by what C Wright Mills called "the sociological imagination." Here we uncover the hidden social structures in our political economy within which our personal troubles and opportunities arise and how they are being shaped by the society into which we are born or plunged.

At the forth level, through deep thinking within ourselves and each other and with the aid of philosophic and scientific psychology and anthropology, we reflect on the structure of our common human nature and existence. Through our understanding of the human condition and capacity, we can develop criteria for judging our behavior individually and communally. We are able to raise the question of justice.

At the fifth level we critique and reinvent the narratives that give us meaning--the narratives relating to our origins and destinies, our place and time in the universe.

The final level for me is the dynamism that connects all levels and all beings vertically and horizontally. It is the transcendence in evolution, in community, and in our spirit.


And so I have developed a proposal that I have submitted to the Atlantic Magazine and the Washington Post.

I propose an article on Columbia Heights, DC as a microcosm of, window into, and consequence of the urbanizing process in the US that is promoting increasing inequality and division as well as great opportunity for many. This dynamism seems to be a result of free individual decision making of many seeking amenities and opportunities. But is there underneath these observable activities a more hidden dynamic in the way our winner-loser economy and housing policies are structured?

Columbia Heights, scene of urban segregation, riots, white flight, and slumification, is now the fastest gentrifying and high rent neighborhood of the Capitol area. There has been an invasion of upwardly mobile Millennials while long-term residents, many African American and older, are being priced out. Much of this has been articulated in recent news articles like: “Millennials ready to break out into households;” “Latest poll shows inequality is a matter of geography;” “ Where are all the boomers going?”  “US Cities with the Highest levels of income segregation;” “Redlining in the 21st Century.”

The District of Columbia has excellent programs for developing and maintaining affordable housing and the diversity of residents, more than any other city, I believe, in the nation.  These include rent control, inclusionary zoning, a housing trust fund, support of non-profit housing groups, public-private partnerships, and all the federal HUD programs for private multifamily and public housing. Yet the poor, and especially the working poor, are being sucked out into places where jobs and transportation are less available.

I have worked in housing and community development most of my life in many cities, both in the private and public sectors. I am now working in Columbia Heights through my All Souls Church housing corporation with tenants trying to organize to stay in their units and with active voluntary groups trying hard to maintain the diversity of the neighborhood.  They are trying to use all the programs available.  But are these program mere patches on a splintering wall attempting to hold back the latest tsunami?

I think Columbia Heights can be an avenue to the story behind the story and, thus, may help us refine our housing policies and, more important, our economic investment and taxation policies. Ta-Nihisi Coates in his excellent article on “The Case for Reparations” cited Clyde Ross a leader of the Chicago Contract Buyers League that uncovered the structural racism, embedded in public policy, which created a segregated and unequal Chicago and many other cities. I worked with Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League and so learned the causes of racism and inequality that went far behind black-white cultural views and feelings. 

Now we need to uncover the structural causes in the 21st century despite the many good programs that were fought for in the 20th.  These go far beyond Columbia Heights to the regional Capital area including Maryland and Virginia and all the way to the housing and economic policies of the nation.

It was largely the young who learned and organized themselves to bring in the rights of African Americans and the fights against poverty of which we now celebrate the 50th anniversary.  But they also had the assistance of veterans of earlier struggles.

I see many Millennials in the Columbia Heights neighborhoods who are recognizing their role in changing the patterns of urbanization even as they attempt to start establishing their household. And while they contribute to smaller programmatic efforts in their neighborhood, they also need handles for grasping and acting upon the underlying causes in our social policies and economic structures. It is with them I have the most hope and to which I raise these questions. But as boomers attempt to find and cap meaning even as they move to the security of care in old age, I address them as well to support the new generation of Millennial challengers.

How shall I tell the story of Columbia Heights so that it beams light on the urbanizing processes of our nation? I want to tell the story through the mouths of the participants. I propose to interview the following:
1.     Old timers in the neighborhood and those who have left.
2.     New comers in the neighborhood—both those in affordable housing and those who are renting and buying new houses, condos, and apartments.
3.     Institutional leaders in urban development and housing in DC including Adianne Todman, BB Otero, Harriett Tregonning, John Kelly.
4.     Leaders in non-profit organizations advocating and developing affordable housing:
5.     Think tank leaders including Bruce Katz of Brookings, Rolf Pendall of UI, Victor Rubin, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink, and Richard Florida of the Atlantic.
6.     Other City Leaders including Bill O’Brien of Detroit, Keith Bergthold, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, John McKnight, Jack MacNamera of Chicago, Julian Castro, San Antonio, HUD

Some of the questions I will ask of resident leaders in and out of Columbia Heights:
1.     What are principal reasons they moved in (or out)?
2.     What was/is happening in C H that they like or don’t like?
3.     What/Who are the key movers for CH?
4.     What generation do they identify with? (pre-boomer, boomer, generation X, Millennial.
5.     Who else do you suggest I talk with?

Some of the questions I will ask institutional leaders?
1.     What patterns do you see in the urbanizing process that relate to race, class, income, wealth, divisions?
2.     Are there winners and losers in the process and who are they?
3.     What do you think are contributing to those patterns?
4.     What would you suggest in housing and economic policy to foster more equity. 
5.   Who else do you suggest I talk with?

      I will reflect on the data I gather by using the criteria of justice based on an understanding of human nature and existence, informed by many thinkers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians. I will suggest alternate scenarios and narratives to guide us in the setting of policies and action to achieve justice and so transcend the injustice in which we find ourselves.