Higher Ground | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Higher Ground

Amid all the bellowing anger and finger-pointing and insults and threats to shove tennis balls you-know-where, last week I was fortunate enough to participate in something remarkable in downtown Jackson.

I moderated Operation Shoestring's "Conversation About Community" at the Convention Center—in a huge room filled with people of various races, ages, economic backgrounds and ... wait for it ... political parties.

We talked about health-care reform, and education funding, and personal responsibility, and teenage pregnancy, and all sorts of other issues that can easily cause massive rancor between the two sides of the political spectrum.

And get this. No one yelled at each other. Not one person stood up in the audience and started accusing someone else of being a communist or a socialist or a fascist. No one accused anyone else of being "half-Muslim." No one threw a shoe. No one wanted out that I know of.

No, what I saw as I looked out over the sea of faces were people I often agree with—and others I often disagree with—and most were sitting forward in their chairs, leaning toward the panelists with rapt attention. This roomful of people had left all the incivility of late behind when they walked through the Convention Center doors. We were there to listen to a panel of very smart people—Jim Barksdale, Oleta Fitzgerald, Rev. Luther Ott, Dr. Aaron Shirley—talk about how they think we can all get past the bickering and go to work helping our community.

That night, we may have been the only room that looked like that in the country. In fact, about halfway through the talk, right in a section where we were rolling up our sleeves talking about racial division, Barksdale suddenly pointed out to the audience that of all the places he has ever appeared on a stage—and the former Netscape CEO has graced a stage or two—that he had seldom, if ever, witnessed a crowd that diverse coming together to have such an honest conversation involving race.

He was right. Just after he said it, I looked out over the crowd from my podium and thought of a national progressive organization I'm involved with, and how its meetings are always the whitest events I attend these days.

Jackson, I count my blessings every single day that I live and work in this city and among all of you. I've lived other places, including New York City, and I have never appeared, discussed, moderated or debated in a room more diverse, or determined, in any other city or state.

This city is the real thing. The compassion in the air here is palpable, and so many Mississippians have turned our state's painful past, and the guilt and shame it has caused so many of us, into so many positive efforts. The rest of the country just cannot understand until they come see it for themselves.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we don't have problems—they're huge, and exacerbated by many of the people our state has chosen to lead us. Just this week, our governor pulled a political stunt that is so telling: He pretended that the state is funding ACORN so that he could pretend to pull the funding. ACORN no longer exists in Mississippi, and when it did, it wasn't funded by the state. Oh, and by the way, the group did much-needed work here—a fact that gets lost in the fervor over catching some of its members doing bad things. Imagine if a member of a political party, or a dishonest political action committee (like the Better Jackson PAC, or Barbour's previous Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care; Google it), tarnished the whole party when caught in an act of wrongdoing.

The truth matters.

Honesty has the power to bring us all together to bridge gaps, even as so many politicos (and corporations) want to divide the state and the nation and make us hate each other so that they can profit and win elections.

The way to be honest is to show up and then work hard to listen to what others need to tell us. I've witnessed so many supposed conversations where one side simply drowns out the other one—where one person's point of view simply cannot allow the possibility that a different viewpoint can be true at the same time.

The Operation Shoestring conversation last week addressed this either-or thinking. What emerged quickly is that it makes no sense to assume that it is up to someone else to take care of a specific problem—say, crime or teenage pregnancy—before any other progress can be made. And it is shortsighted, and futile, to point fingers at one group or the other to fix things first, whether it be parents, schools, police or the faith community.

"They" can't do it alone, no matter who "they" are.

The answer to the riddle is it takes us all, tackling the root causes (yes, poverty causes crime; accept it), as well as the symptoms. And each of us is uniquely qualified to take on different pieces of the puzzle.

I, for instance, can put out a hard-hitting newspaper that tells the truth no matter who it offends, and I'm pretty damn good at mentoring young people and creating opportunities for Mississippians. What can you do? There's a piece of the puzzle with your name all over it.

It all rather reminds me of how a decade ago Todd and I decided we needed to get healthier. I had wanted to be vegetarian but had never gotten serious about it. I liked the idea of going for a walk most days. I needed to go more organic and clean out all the junk out of the cabinets. I wanted to drink less alcohol.

We decided not to just try one piece at a time. We decided to jump right in, and just start living a healthier lifestyle. We did it all at once.

This, Jackson, is what our community has to do. We each must decide what we have the energy and ability to do, and just do it. Reject the yelling and bickering going on all around us and take a different path on up to higher ground.

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