Being the recipient of heart felt stories of some of the most remarkable luminaries was certainly inspirational and thought provoking. I was humbled by the stories of human possibility presented by each speaker and challenged by my Fellow peers and audience participants. The breadth of perspectives and fields represented in the conference felt much like a year of graduate coursework condensed into three fruitful days.
Acumen CEO Jacqueline Novograt set the tone for the conference by highlighting the importance of addressing issues of power dynamics and analyzing the structural systems that are preventing development in the most marginalized communities and populations. Mrs. Novogratz alerted us to the fact that our efforts to alleviate poverty will not be significant unless we also address the roots of the problems. She concluded her presentation by reminding us of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” (In many ways, this quote summarizes some of the underlying themes covered in PID class, and on a personal level, summarizes some of the issues that I have been dealing with as I question the development field itself, and my role in it.)
Standing in Washington, amid people who, on a daily basis, make decisions that affect the nation and even the world, was itself an introduction to the display of power, which I hope led me to question in the way that Dr. King intended. This display, accompanied by immediate contact with the some of the most powerful people in Washington representing the right, the left and the in-between, can allure and captivate even the most critical thinkers. Under its spell, the intimate conversations and human contact made all of us believe that in Washington the powerful act with “power at its best.” One hopes this is true, but it seems just as likely that it is all an illusion dressed up in hope - and that this illusion actually stifles dissent and critical analysis.
Perhaps the most candid speaker was Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who discussed the disenfranchisement of low income communities of color within the education system, as is evident in the alarming educational gaps in the public school system of Washington. The magnitude of the problem can be directly linked to the structural racism prevalent within the education system of the United States. Chancellor Rhee told us about a friend’s suggestion for a solution to this problem that is simple, but has many implications. Structural racism in the education system can be easily addressed by implementing a lottery system for all students, regardless of their economic and ethnic background. This lottery system will force equity in the quality and resources of all schools, regardless of their location. It was refreshing to hear a government official recognize and address the failures of our system with such candidness in order to address problems head on. She explained that one needs political courage to constantly reaffirm one’s role in fixing a serious problem. In her own words, she was hired to fix a problem and not to win friends and or win a popularity contest. All of this was followed by her genuine advice: “You must lead from the front and never expect to be loved by all the people.”
The presentations that evoked mixed feelings for me, but stimulated a desire for action on my part, were remarks made by General Collin Powell and an off-the-record government official. In fact, I shall characterize the anonymous official’s statement as being disingenuous and misinformed. He spoke of the need to investigate what it is about Islam that makes Muslims so prone to terrorism, and elaborated further on the need to teach Muslims best practices to improve their religion. I hope you too can imagine my indignation at these remarks.
General Powell focused a great deal on the oversimplification of wealth generation as the actual means and end to addressing our world’s most pressing problems. After sharing his own story, from his roots in the South Bronx to reaching the highest ranks in the Reagan and Bush administrations, he concluded that all the answers lie in market-based solutions, citing the success of globalization and industrialization as prime examples. He claimed that only by generating wealth and creating jobs will we lift people out of poverty. This is evident by the economic power that the US has become, which attracts large numbers of undocumented immigrants looking for work, a problem we have to address by continuing to strengthen our borders and enforcement policies. He further advised us to go out there and make money, while creating jobs, because we too, one day, can become philanthropists.
I found his lack of systemic analysis extremely dangerous. First, for someone who worked in the Reagan administration, I thought it was insulting for him not to address the large numbers of deaths, the massive displacements and forced migration in Central America caused by some of the most harmful policies of any US administration. Second, he failed to acknowledge that globalization, in fact, has resulted in the forced migration of thousand of people all over the world, who have seen their own economies destroyed to the benefit of large multinational companies. Last, I think when discussing wealth generation, one can not ignore inequality. More importantly, while I am a proponent for economic development through job creation, I think it’s important to scrutinize the process and recognize that economic development is only one part of development, a component of the means to an end, but not the end in itself.
As I gathered the strength to address General Powell in a polite and coherent manner, I was proud to hear the words of one of my peers as she challenged his glorification of globalization by sharing the story of someone she had met in Chiapas, who has a different take on globalization because of his community’s struggles. I was proud to be a part of a program that allowed for these type of interactions to take place, free of censorship, and in an environment that welcomed critical thinking and analysis. This type of environment was nurtured throughout the conference, with the speakers and the audience engaging in honest and meaningful dialogue regardless of political differences.
I am still reflecting on the lessons learned from the experiences shared by the leaders who presented at the conference. They addressed many of the issues raised in PID class, from politics to power, to structural violence to systemic analysis, to community development. Going back to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, in Washington power is present in all its attributes, with its virtues and flaws, with the positive, the negative and the in between. But, one thing is certain, there is a place in politics for those who want to give voice to the voiceless and to employ the power that Dr. King admired and advocated for - the power full of love. However, I think, that power is strongest in marginalized communities, in their resilience and struggles that challenge the status quo. In many ways, the conference addressed government and free market solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. For a few of us Reynolds Fellows, we are more concerned with providing social sector solutions to problems created by government and by the free market.
As U.S. congressman and long time civil rights hero John Lewis told me, “The work of public service must be guided by hope. Keeping the hope alive is what inspires you to continue defending people’s rights.” It is certainly hope that inspires me but what really drives me full force are the people in the communities I represent, those affected by the very broken and oppressive structures that often limit them from realizing their own visions of growth.