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Thoughts following the Inauguration, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama: Will his call for change be one we can believe in?

In my opinion, to borrow a phrase from his campaign: “Yes we can” believe.

Succinctly the big picture for the future is not Barack Obama. It is every one of us, microscopic fragments, along with billions of other human beings on this planet we call earth. The U.S. is US, however messy this can be. The previous administration missed a golden opportunity when it dismissed the citizens and governed from the top.

Often I learn in the strangest ways. During the recent bitterly cold days I elected to busy myself with a disagreeable task long avoided: going through files and boxes of long unsorted paper. Paper is a goodly part of the abundant flotsam and jetsam of my life. Reviewing this junk yielded some treasures. This in turn generated some thoughts about the present and future of our nation.

I came across sundry items – I’ll call them “threads” - that reminded me of things past, and present, and in a way helped create a vision – something of a whole cloth - of the future. One item, the ten principles of non-violence followed in the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963 (A), was articulated in Martin Luther King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait” (1964), which chronicled the watershed centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation. (These Principles and other items referred to below are reprinted at the end of this essay.) King’s colleague, Rev Joseph Lowery, who gave the benediction today, was an inspiring reminder of the distance our nation has travelled.

In the assortment I found a photo of my young nephew and his fiancé taken a number of years ago. TJ died last April during a liver transplant. Only 36, he succumbed to a genetic defect. He contributed to the society of which he was part for too short a time. When you see an over-the-road trucker, or a Dad who cares about kids, it’s TJ. I doubt TJ and I agreed politically. It made no difference to us. We respected each other.

I found a 1999 talk given by my cousin, Jim, which spoke to me. Jim, then a psychology professor at a North Carolina University, had presented the “well received paper” at a conference, and chose to share it with me, along with a photo of its subject. The paper was entitled “Of Mandevillas and Trellises: An Allegory for Academic Support Programming” (B). He talked about a personal learning as he came to understand an unfamiliar and unruly but beautiful plant in his back yard. He said to his colleague professors, “I need to constantly remember that I cannot let my limitations or my limited understanding of something hold back my students from their true mission – climb as high as you can and bloom as hard as you can. I hope to always be striving for a clear and useful understanding of my students’ academic tasks and how best to promote their successful mastery of those tasks. Thank you, Mandevilla.” Jim was to retire from his University on December 31, 2008. On December 19, his 66th birthday, he had a massive stroke, and it is still uncertain that recovery to any semblance of normal life will be possible. Today I’m sending a copy of Jim’s talk and the photo to his wife and to his brother, neither of whom have likely seen it. Thanks, Jim. I think I get your point.

Jim’s memories in that box included something else – a literal and figurative tie to the past, and a reminder of the importance of enduring connections. A year or two before he died (1997) my Dad had sent to Jim the tie worn to Jim’s high school graduation in 1960. Jim made the tie a fixture of his opening lecture each term, telling the story about the tie and my Dad. At the end of the lecture, he always had some students “attest” to the use of the tie, and this came to me in form of a postcard, which I also kept. There were many of these postcards, and each time the new students described the past in present terms: The “skinny, dark gray tie with a black diamond in the middle” “was made out of something called Wemlon, and made by Wembly”; “[the label said it] is suitable for use with blue, black or gray suits”; “[was] worn at his high school graduation”; “looked funny…”; “made of a shiny fabric and looked very old”…. Many, many lessons about people and relationships came with that old tie, which Jim wore and talked about every semester at his University.

In a box I found “A Pledge for Creating a More Peaceful World” (C) which I had picked up at some meeting or other in 1996. It had been published by the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers (MAP), an organization I wouldn’t have known at the time, but of which I became president 2005-2007. On inquiry, I learned that the current MAP President, Rebecca Janke, of Growing Communities for Peace, had developed the 1996 handout I had kept. It’s theme, compassion, is timeless and universal.

A sheet surfaced with a dozen “Principles for Peacemakers” (D) published by President Carter’s Center back in the 1990s. It is as relevant today as then. And a Gandhi quote which, from its general appearance, was printed many years ago in the days when good photo copies were something one aspired to, but seldom achieved. “If we are to reach peace in this world and if we are to carry on a war against war, we shall have to begin with the children”, Gandhi said. He meant us, not only the President of the United States.

In all of this flotsam, from these and other items, there was evidence of human connection and caring, and hope, even if the hope was not always easy to see. We World Citizens are far more, this flotsam said to me, than one person, or a collection of words. We are all linked, we are all responsible.

Politically, in this assortment was the letter I wrote to family, former colleagues and friends in early October, 2000, encouraging votes for Al Gore. I said that his ticket offered “by far the best leadership potential for the United States for the next four years. There are major and important differences between [the] parties positions….” I said in the body of the two page letter that “Clinton/Gore have been criticized often by many of those in their own party as being too moderate, too centrist. This quality has been central to their success, I believe. Most Americans are moderate, reasonable, people….”

About Mr. Bush, then, I said “he is probably deemed most pliable by power brokers unseen and unaccountable to the people.”

As the saying goes, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, and the Bush administration had eight very long years to define itself. Mr. Obama seems committed to genuinely change the tone and focus of government. He has not yet served his first day in office. He is, to my knowledge, the first president ever to answer to the descriptor “organizer”, and as such, he may take some getting accustomed to. He will work differently, most likely, than other high government officials have typically worked. (E) helps define effective organizers.

I attach great significance to the fact that President Obama urged a day of national service on Martin Luther King’s birthday, where the body politic in all of the millions of ways available to it, was asked to do something constructive in their community. I hope this service orientation becomes a daily habit for many more of us.

It will be slow and rough going for our new President, Barack Obama, but I think he has already set a new tone and it will continue, and it will be very different than we have experienced.
President Obama’s next four years can definitely be a time of “change we can believe in”, but he knows, and will remind us, that his presidency, to succeed, must be a presidency of, by and for the people. It will take effort by more than the 67,000,000 who voted for him November 4. Gandhi said it best: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Hopefully, our government, so top-down and secretive for the last eight years, will begin to be replaced by more person-to-person governance in the public square, a square which is more attuned to cooperation than to competition; one which knows that every one of us must be, ourselves, part of the solution.

Obama’s (and our) transition process will be difficult. We are accustomed to certain ways of being that mitigate against hope and cooperation, but I think that we are up to the task. If President Obama succeeds, we all succeed, and we will have been a great part of the reason for the success.

To a more hopeful future.
Dick Bernard

A. Rules for Volunteers in the Civil Rights Demonstrations in Birmingham, AL 1963 through the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, Birmingham Affiliate of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Demonstrators were required to sign a Commitment Card that read:
1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
3. WALK AND TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or hear.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
From Martin Luther King’s “Why We Can’t Wait”, chapter “New Day in Birmingham” published 1964.

B. Of Mandevillas and Trellises: An Allegory for Academic Support Programming
By Jim, my cousin, at an academic conference in the Fall of 1999.

Allegory (al’ah-gor’i) n. 1. A story in which people, things, and happenings have another meaning, as in a fable or parable: allegories are used for teaching or explaining.

The Mandevilla is a flowering vine from the tropics. It does no survive the winter, even in Eastern North Carolina where snow is rare. That explains why the Mandevilla must be replaced each spring if you want to enjoy its gorgeous, trumpet shaped bloom. I suspect my wife likes the Mandevilla because its showy pink bloom seems appropriate on Pinkney Drive. But I digress from the allegory of the Mandevilla….

The Planting of the Seedling

For years my wife has purchased a Mandevilla seedling and, after all danger of frost has passed, she takes a large planter and the seedling to the backyard. Filling the planter with dirt, she roots the Mandevilla and waters it. Fertilizer and tender loving care help the Mandevilla settle in the planter and start to grow.

As a vine, there is a natural tendency for the Mandevilla to either climb or run along the ground. Regular mowing means the Mandevilla wouldn’t survive if it were allowed to run on the lawn. This leads us to the next step of this allegory, the need for something the Mandevilla can climb on.

The Making of the Trellis

Each spring, when the Mandevilla has established itself, my wife asks me to make a trellis for the Mandevilla to climb on. The first year I found some sticks in the shed and nailed together a simple trellis of two vertical pieces and three horizontal crossbars. That fall, after the Mandevilla had frozen, I pulled the trellis out of the planter and threw it away.

The next spring I was irritated with myself for throwing it away. Such handyman projects I find less than intrinsically exciting, and now I had to do it over. But again I built a trellis. This trellis consisted of two dowels (standard three foot ones) and a sawed up broom handle. Again, by that October it looked so pathetic that I again threw the trellis away.

The third spring I was even more irritated with myself since I could find neither sticks nor dowels to make the Mandevilla’s trellis. I finally took a piece of 2x2 and nailed two crossbars to it. Pounded into the planter, this crude trellis seemed to do the job. My wife questioned the esthetics, but it was a trellis and the Mandevilla climbed right up it.

The Digging of a Rut

The fourth spring planting of the Mandevilla presented a challenge – the shed was bare! I could find no sticks, no 2x2, no dowels, no broomsticks. And yet a trellis was needed just like always. But then I noticed that we had a garden cultivator. No garden, but we did have an old garden cultivator.

I tied the cultivator to the Mandevilla’s planter with a length of cord, and the Mandevilla started to climb it just like every other makeshift trellis I had put together. The Mandevilla climbed to the top of the cultivator and put out two lovely blooms that summer. I decided that I had solved both the Mandevilla’s need for something to climb on and the yearly scramble to find material for a trellis. I just wouldn’t throw away the cultivator or cord.

I had dug a rut. Come spring and I would take the cultivator and cord to the new Mandevilla’s planter – an instant, proven “trellis” was available to the Mandevilla. I no longer had to scrounge for something to build a trellis. I noted to myself that if the Mandevilla’s mission was to climb and bloom, then I had found an easy way to support that mission. For three or four years, I kept deepening the rut of tying the cultivator to the planter rather than hunt up something creative to use as a trellis. It was quick, easy, and seemed to work for the Mandevilla’s mission of climb and bloom.

Then, to my chagrin, the cultivator turned up broken. I was back to scrounging to support the Mandevilla’s twofold mission of climb and bloom. I went back to the shed and behind it found a foot wide strip of lattice from the short side of a panel. Keep in mind that a panel of lattice is 4x8 feet.

The Dawning of Insight

One day last September, as I was grilling dinner in the backyard, I noticed the Mandevilla on its trellis of lattice. I saw no blooms even though it was getting late in the Mandevilla’s season. We had a single bloom once, but never a complete absence of blooms. Turning the steaks, I mused on what could have gone so wrong that there were no blooms on this year’s Mandevilla. Too much water from the hurricanes? A cooler than normal summer?

Then I happened to glance at the Bradford pear tree next to Mandevilla. High in its branches some twenty feet above the ground, was a blaze of pure pink. I walked over and looked up at the Mandevilla’s tallest bloom. [I noted] the tallest bloom because inside the pear tree, hidden by the leaves, were several more blooms. More than I had ever seen on a Mandevilla. Then an insight struck me with chilling clarity.

My little trellises had severely limited the Mandevillas from their true mission. A Mandevilla’s mission is not to climb and bloom. The Mandevilla’s true mission is to climb as high as it can and then bloom as hard as it can. The four foot tall lattice had put the Mandevilla just close enough to the pear tree so that it could reach the tree. It was now free to climb high and bloom hard using the pear tree as a real trellis that fully supported its true mission.

I need to constantly remember that I cannot let my limitations or my limited understanding of something hold back my students from their true mission – climb as high as you can and bloom as hard as you can. I hope to always be striving for a clear and useful understanding of my students’ academic tasks and how best to promote their successful mastery of those tasks. Thank you, Mandevilla.

C. A PLEDGE For Creating a More Peaceful World
To honor our ancestors for giving us life, to express our love for the earth, and to respond to the oneness of the human family, we offer our compassion and pledge to:
1. Create conditions that promote social and economic justice.
2. Offer non-violent resistance to unacceptable conditions.
3. Master knowledge and skills that will enable us to help others.
4. Protect the environment for our own and future generations.
5. Ask our teachers to make peace education a high priority
6. Spread the message of interconnectedness and interdependence.
7. Seek ways to reduce overconsumption and to limit population growth.
8. Increase our commitment to peacemaking organizations.
9. Overcome oppression.
10. Nurture peacemaking skills in ourselves and others.
This pledge is adapted for young peacemakers from the Mission Statement and Contract with the World adopted by the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers. February 22, 1996.

1. Strive to have the international community and all sides in any conflict agree to the basic premise that military force should be used only as a last resort.
2. Do not interfere with other ongoing negotiation efforts, but offer intercession as an independent mediator when an unofficial presence is the only viable option.
3. Study the history and causes of the dispute thoroughly. Take advantage of any earlier personal involvement with key leaders and citizens of a troubled nation as a basis for building confidence and trust.
4. Seek help from other mediators, especially those who know the region and are known and respected there. (In Africa, for instance, we join forces with distinguished leaders from that continent.)
5. Be prepared to go back and forth between adversaries who cannot or will not confront each other.
6. With sensitive international issues, obtain approval from the White House before sending any Americans to take part in negotiations.
7. Insist that human rights be protected, that international law be honored and that the parties be prepared to uphold mutual commitments.
8. Ensure that concession is equaled or exceeded by benefits. Both sides must be able to feel that they have gained a victory.
9. Tell the truth, even when it may not contribute to a quick agreement. Only by total honesty can a mediator earn the trust and confidence of both sides.
10. Be prepared for criticism, no matter what the final result may be.
11. Be willing to risk the embarrassment of failure.
12. Never despair, even when the situation seems hopeless.

E. Barack Obama began his career as a community organizer. Here are some skills possessed by effective organizers (source unknown).
Ability to spot an issue.
Ability to work an issue.
Ability to evaluate human behavior.
Ability to withstand rejection.
Ability to cope with criticism.
Ability to communicate.
Ability to determine needs.
Ability to “jump from norms.”
Concern for people.
Ability to see all aspects of a problem.
Ability to plan.
Ability to delegate.
Ability to direct.
Ability to “Affirm” others.
Ability to work from general to specific.
Ability to avoid being overwhelmed by trivia.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 20, 2009 4:25 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #10: Life.

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