Frederick Douglass, The De Porres Club, John Lewis, Romero, and the Anti-Apartheid Network: Change through all of the above

I am aware of the profound inheritance of my social location and identity: white, cisgender male, straight, able-bodied, born Christian/Catholic, born middle class, etc. I am the only boy with three older, very intelligent sisters. My middle school teacher father and RN mother expected us all to go to college – it wasn’t a matter of if we would go but which one. I graduated from college without debt. My first job, which lasted me through high school and college, was a result of my father’s connections. I married into a similar family and have many local connections in my now hometown of Omaha, Nebraska through them. I benefit from systems of higher education, K-12 schools that prepare students to attend my college, a Jesuit network, a society that generally still functions with business, taxes, health care (for some, including me, but not for many), government, infrastructure, etc. I am very aware that all these institutions function much better for me than for people of color, those who experience poverty, marginalization, etc.  

I supervise a team of three staff and three graduate assistants who facilitate experiences and relationships for college students with people experiencing injustice, help the students do social analysis and work for social justice/social change. Although never fully comfortable with this approach, I create opportunities for young people with privilege to encounter injustice in a way that moves their hearts and minds in the hopes they will work to change unjust social structures a little now and a lot as they develop in their chosen professions.  

I encounter others on my campus and in our community. I introduce our college community to our local communities through orientations that involve education, reflection, and going into the community to meet leaders. I encounter people through our local direct service, community organizing, and advocacy I encounter people through national networks of higher education and the Catholic church, especially Jesuits. I encounter people through antiracism work on campus and in our community. I am using my contacts in Montgomery, Minneapolis, and Omaha to organize a “Working for Racial Justice” weekend virtual seminar for our college community.  

Having grown up near Boston, “the commons” has been an important concept for me even before I learned of “the common good” as being essential to Catholic Social Teaching. Today I try to support “commons” by supporting our local IAF affiliated community organizing group. I have served on the board of our largest homeless shelter while facilitating student relationships with guests. I introduce hundreds of faculty, staff, and students to four areas of our local community through orientations that emphasize the assets and people of the area and the good that is happening there. I try to show my students that another world is possible, one based on the common good, on caring for one another, on making sure everyone has everything that they need and hopefully some of what they want.  

I can write it again here: I try to show my students that another world is possible, one based on the common good, on caring for one another, on making sure everyone has everything that they need and hopefully some of what they want. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day, talked about wanting to create a world where it is a little easier to be good. I believe it’s easier for all of us to be good if we have quality health care (not just access), food, shelter, education, meaningful work, leisure, etc. I want more civic engagement and a stronger sense of the common good. I envision more democracy in society and in the workplace with politics and business responsive to the people, especially those most in need. Practically in Omaha, Nebraska I believe this future looks like more businesses with shared ownership, especially among people of color, especially African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and refugees. I want to invest my time, labor, and money in that future!

I have made my professional work about the Personal Transformation and Changing Dominant Institutions while dabbling in Alternatives in my personal life. My professional work is based on the Catholic Social Teaching understanding of the human person as fundamentally good and social, always an individual in community. Therefore, I help to form and transform individuals (mainly college students) through experiences, relationships, and reflection that lead to wanting and seeking to change unjust social structures and policies through advocacy, community organizing, protests, etc. In the meantime, I try to support cooperatives, am part of a local loan fund taking a slow money approach to supporting small food producers, etc. Drawn more to personal improvement and less to conflict, I am most comfortable with the Personal Transformation while seeing huge value in Changing Dominant Structures and practical inspiration in Alternatives. Going forward I see a need for all three, personally prefer working on the personal transformation and alternatives, but seeing the most need for changing dominant institutions. 

As an Enneagram 1 (apologies for introducing a short-hand way to describe myself that may not be familiar to everyone), I am constantly critiquing and seeking to improve myself. That approach to life lends itself to personal transformation. At the same time, I am very critical of society and want structures and policies to change. To me that work seems harder and takes more time but is just as or perhaps more important. Alternatives offer inspiration and hope, but they are heavily influenced and challenged by the dominant narratives and institutions.  

As I reflect I am beginning to see how important all three approaches are and need to be working together. At times we may need to emphasize one approach over the others, but we need all three. We need a narrative to tie all three approaches together. We need a story that people can believe in that can inspire new models and systemic, institutional change. (Harari in Sapiens credits our ability to tell and believe stories as essential to the rise and success of Sapiens over other competing species.) If we have a believable, inspirational narrative, we can transform individuals who can work together to provide alternatives and put pressure on dominant institutions to change. We need to believe AWIP, another world is possible, see the vision of how things can be different, and organize to change institutions/policies and create alternatives. My sense from the reading is that the Ayni Institute is emphasizing Changing Dominant Institutions. My experience and analysis suggest that approach is necessary but not sufficient and that we need a narrative to bring together all three approaches.  

I used to think Rosa Parks sat down on that bus because she was tired. Then I learned she was carefully trained by the Highlander Center in Tennessee as a community organized activist. I used to think John Lewis was a brave young man who stood up to racist police officers. Then I learned he was a well-trained non-violent activist in the tradition of MLK, Gandhi, and Thoreau. I teach about Fr. Markoe and the De Porres Club who sought to change unjust/racist social systems in the 1940’s in Omaha, Nebraska. A clip from the documentary “Street of Dreams” talks about how change tends to come through a bit of violence or at least the threat of violence. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “engaged Buddhism” activism during the Vietnam war and beyond combined personal transformation and social activism. Father of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone, argued that without the scarier/violent alternative of Malcolm X, middle class White America would never have accepted Martin Luther King. (“Accepted is questionable given that he was assassinated.) Oscar Romero in El Salvador from 1977-1980 moved from personal transformation to protesting to change dominant institutions. Soon after Romero’s assassination, the Jesuit University of Central America sought change of dominant institutions through its research and social projection. Those Jesuits were assassinated in 1989. I participated in boycotts of companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s in order to put pressure on leaders to free Nelson Mandela and end Apartheid. I was living in Chicago when the Catholic church helped bring the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) back to its Back of the Yards/Chicago roots to fight for systemic change through faith-based community organizing. I have supported the local IAF group in Omaha win many changes through faith-based community organizing. LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act because MLK, John Lewis, and the Civil Rights Movement were putting tremendous pressure on him to change the unjust policies.  

Frederick Douglass said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Civil rights, voting rights, apartheid, slavery – unjust social systems that benefit people getting wealthy from those systems only change when sufficient pressure is put on them so that they see change is in their self-interest. Bill McKibben admits his naivete in at first believing he was in a debate when really he was in a fight. In other words, he believed if he could change enough minds and hearts, we could end the scourge of climate change. He did not realize his battle was actually about power and policy. Ibram X. Kendi makes similar arguments about antiracism in his book How to be an antiracist. He now realizes that changing hearts and minds is not sufficient; he and other antiracists must obtain or influence power in order to make antiracist policies. Changing hearts and minds will always be necessary but never sufficient.  

I understand important change comes through power, policy, and influencing dominant institutions. At the same time, I see the importance of personal transformation and creating alternatives. I am willing to emphasize the power model of changing dominant institutions as long as there is a place for personal transformation, creating alternatives, and weaving together a unifying and inspiring story/narrative.  

Reflection Script

First, I am humbled to read the comments on my post. I am grateful for the compassion and insight of those who read and commented on my thoughts. One change I hope to make is to shape my answers from the various questions in the prompt into a more coherent, perhaps shorter overall post! Comparing myself to others is not always healthy, but in this case I believe I have something to learn with humility.  

Regarding insights I gained from reflecting on the comments, there are many:

I feel “seen,” like others really read and listened and understood. Being seen, especially with compassion and loving kindness, is a wonderful, healing, and rare experience in life. Hearing myself reflected back helped me to clarify what I do and do not want. I want the new narrative. I don’t want to be the first one to write it. That’s why I am so fluent with so much of history and so many authors and activists — always searching for wisdom from others. I am trying to weave together my own unifying and inspiring story/narrative because I haven’t found one adequate yet.  At the same time, I am better at maintaining a house and improving the landscaping than pouring a foundation.  

I appreciate the book suggestions about story and narrative — two authors I have wanted to read but have not yet. They are now on my list! 

Rather than being the storyteller, I prefer to find a story someone else has written that resonates with me and I believe can transform individuals, institutions, and society. Rather than starting my own socially transforming, regenerative, shared-ownership, anti-racist business I prefer to help someone who has already launched the start-up to manage, grow, and improve their business.  

That said, AWIP, Sapiens, humanity as fundamentally social and story-telling beings, closed loop manufacturing, antiracist policies, equity, shared ownership — I am asking to bring together quite a bit so need to be open to developing and enhancing whatever foundational story I find!  

Moving from Enneagram 1 to integrated 7? Yes! I want this to be fun. I have experienced enough sickness and death to know that life is short and needs to be lived deeply, with an infinite expectation of the dawn (Thoreau), with mindfulness, appreciation, community, support, games, and love. I want liberation and JOY!  

What kind of alternatives excite me? Production and sales that truly care for people, planet, and profit/prophet. Mondragon in Spain but secular humanist? 

“A communion of saints of sorts” — very clever with significant truth. I am eclectic in whom I look to for wisdom. So many people have gone before me, lived interesting lives, learned from their mistakes. I can only live this one life so I may as well learn from the mistakes and experiences and wisdom of others. 

My Highlander? Perhaps a new job or field with a better fit for me at this time in my life that encourages me to learn more about these topics while doing more practical good for others and writing/honing that unifying and inspiring narrative!  

Teacher? Father, sisters, and wife. Tried the classroom for three years. Liked parts, hated others. Damn good at it but didn’t feed me. I wasn’t experiencing liberation and joy. I didn’t prefer the classroom. But teacher? Yes, I can own that. Back to enneagram — “social 1.” That partly means I like to live my life as an example to others, even if I am quiet about it.  

Thanks to all the generous comments.  Lots to ponder as we move into week 2! 

6 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass, The De Porres Club, John Lewis, Romero, and the Anti-Apartheid Network: Change through all of the above

  1. Ken: You have contributed in so many ways, and clearly you want to give more, possibly in new ways.

    You are rooted in personal transformation work, yet you seem hungry for something more, and at the same time, you seem skeptical of transforming dominant organizations. Several times in your writing above you allude to curiosity with / attraction to / inspiration in creating Alternatives. What kinds of alternatives excite you? Where do you have a unique contribution to make? And why does your work with the personal transformation of students not feel sufficient at this moment?

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  2. Dear Ken, it’s so great to have you here. As I read, I was struck by how fluently you wove together Kendi, Ghandi, McKibben, Douglass, Romero, Cone, Fr. Markoe, Parks….and your own lived experiences.

    Are you aware of this fluency you have?

    Different question: What does the integrated part of your Enneagram 1 have to offer you?

    Picking up on your last line: “weaving together a unifying and inspiring story/narrative.”

    You quote Sapiens and repeat AWIP. What inspiring stories / narratives have you found most moving?
    What narratives might we find most compelling in this moment?

    What stories are you implicitly or explicitly advantaging to your students and your community because of your own biases?

    What new insight did you glean from writing this?

    What will your participants in “Working for Racial Justice” weekend virtual seminar come away with that you can uniquely equip them with? What inspiring narrative might help sustain them in the work? Will you share any of your writing with them?

    Thank you for digging in on this Movement Ecology framework. I really appreciated reading your wrestling with it.

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  3. Ken, We might be from the same generation as I have participated in many of the same efforts for social change. When you wrote about story and narrative i was reminded of Thomas Berry who wrote a lot about the need to change the story and then I thought of David Korten;s” Change the story change the future” book. We need some good story tellers who can do just that, change the story from one of markets to one of mutual aid, cooperation, connected-ness, what so many others have written about in their posts. Do you feel the call to be the storyteller of a different story?

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  4. Ken,

    My feeling after reading your post is one of overwhelm. I am overwhelmed by the breadth and heft of your engagement with the world, with history, with conscience, and with social change.

    It is both heartening and heartwarming to discover that just one person can try to enact change in so many different areas of their life and work. So much of what’s frustrating about the state of the world is the feeling that if people of privilege and means just tried a little harder, we could begin to make progress toward justice, equality, healing and sustainability. Your post reads like a case study in trying hard. Your powerful contributions are the opposite of tokenism. Your actions are clearly results-oriented and steeped in compassion, critical thinking, humility, self-reflection…and faith (or at least faith tradition/teaching).

    It’s the faith part where I’m going to put on my skeptics’ hat. (Ha! That sounds terrible.) Though not a believer myself — I’m a cultural Jew — I respect people’s beliefs and I have seen many, MANY times how faith can provide the foundation for not only good intentions but good actions that help us move toward the reduction of suffering on Earth and of Earth. Here’s where my personal bias comes out. Sometimes I wonder if faith — especially a very hierarchical religion like Catholicism – comes with certain blind spots when it comes to turning a critical eye inward. Not to self (your dedication to personal growth is crystal clear) but to church. I guess all I’m getting at here is — for someone whose justice work stretches into so many different corners and so many of the different approaches to change (personal transformation, alternatives and changing dominant institutions) — references to the complicity of the church (itself a dominant institution) seem notably absent. My question is — is it incumbent upon someone working for justice from within the Catholic community to reckon with Catholicism as a dominant institution in need of transformation?

    I truly hope this comment does not offend. I have so much respect for your efforts at Creighton and beyond, and for the many many good works of the Jesuit community.

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  5. Ken, thanks for sharing your story. It feels like you’re describing a communion of saints of sorts. What specific challenge and invitation do the example of these movements and individuals present to you now?

    What has been, is, or could be your Highlander, preparing you for more transformative confrontation or action?

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  6. Ken,

    You masterfully wove in, and understand the contribution of, James Cone (and others). I asked you in our group if you were “a teacher.” In my definition of what a teacher is, you are without a doubt.

    I wonder how your gifts and experiences can and will create and/or influence alternatives. You seem to be on the brink of something.

    What are your barriers?

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