Archive for September, 2011

When Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast three weeks ago, she caused major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England, cementing her status as the storm of a generation. Her fury blew into Connecticut on the last Saturday night in August and maintained a stranglehold of fear and awe through Sunday morning. She lost her hurricane classification upon landfall, but try telling that to the folks in East Haven whose homes were swept into the sea with the storm surge. While Connecticut missed the worst of Irene, which spun west of her initial forecast, approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity in our state alone. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some in the state still had no electricity or running water after two weeks.

Fortunately, our household did not lose electricity and we were able to facilitate a home church service during the storm for those who were willing to brave the strong winds, torrential rain and downed trees. Including one tree in our backyard which could have done some serious damage to the house had it fallen in the opposite direction. This video taken just down the street shows how close we came to losing our power.

 

But in the hours and days following Irene, as the damage was surveyed it became apparent that Irene would not be labeled primarily a wind or water event, but a power crisis. My place of employment located on the New Haven coast sustained significant water damage and power outages, forcing us out of our workspace for nearly three days before cleanup crews and generators allowed us to return. School openings were delayed for days as the electricity could not be quickly restored. Food went bad, perishable items had to be stored in coolers packed with ice, and folks took cold showers if their water was running at all.

Having not lost our electricity, our home felt an island with a unique vantage point, a hill from which it was possible to observe Irene’s impact without much feeling it. This came as somewhat of a convenient disappointment, convenient in that our own hot showers were uninterrupted, disappointing to my wife who was secretly hoping for a chance to hone some post-apocalyptic survival skills. But viewing the crisis from within the eye of the storm allowed the societal concept of power to rise to the forefront of my thought.

Growing up in Southern California, I am no stranger to power outages, blackouts and rolling brownouts as our electric grid was often ill-prepared for hot weather and the resulting energy consumption. However, I couldn’t help but notice during the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity.

There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back into the right hands. Power. Power. Power.

While electricity and utility resources are certainly indicators of measurable power, the overuse of the word caused me to think about the real connection between power and resources in our country. It has been said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But how often do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or perhaps how these resources, this power, is being attained or who it is being stolen from? Is it possible that our manifest destiny is just a winner’s take on highway robbery?

I am writing this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in those questions. I am also a white man with Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood that was spilled on a Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. The inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others, the institutional racism that persists from which I benefit daily, can only persist so long before in a very real sense it becomes a part of you. I may be 90 percent oppressor, but also10 percent oppressed. And so from within this internal conflict and for this tithe of my bloodline I will question. I will speak.

Undoubtedly, there is an uproar of attention and assistance when people who are used to being in power lose it. Fine. However, the poor and oppressed are not aware they can speak up because they have never held power. Never been allowed to taste it. Their voice can rarely be unified as they are too occupied with survival or are drowning out their harsh reality through poor decisions that create a cyclical environment, a generational imprisonment. Who speaks on behalf of these brother and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who among us is united on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who is expressing outrage at the maltreatment of our elderly and the lack of access for the disabled, at times other than immediately following a hurricane? How do we go about changing our social programming and services to benefit the powerless rather than simply sustain bureaucracy? Who stays up through the night praying on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time drug offenses? Perhaps we need not to worry about getting the power back into the right hands, but acknowledging that we all have a hand in distributing power and that we need to take care of each other.

Why?

After all, there are many of privilege who would now claim that equal rights have been achieved. That the playing field has been evened. That we even have a black President as proof.

An answer in short. One third of black males born today in the United States are projected to become incarcerated during their lifetime. Forty-eight percent of black males are growing up without a father in their household. Eighty-six percent of black fourth graders in our country read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Spring of 2011, only 15 percent of Connecticut black youth met proficiency goals on the standardized math and science tests compared to 60 percent of white youth. By 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. We still have a problem.

Elizabeth Eckford walks alone to join Carlotta Walls and the rest of the Little Rock Nine to integrate Arkansas' Central High in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision

On September 16, 2011, I was privileged to attend a symposium on “Educational Disparity and Minority Youth” hosted by the Quinnipiac School of Law and Yale Law School. Present was Carlotta Walls Lanier, of the Little Rock Nine who first integrated the Arkansas school system in 1957 amidst threats of being hanged by a hateful mob. Hearing her first person account while taking in her grace and dignity made tears of justice want to roll down my cheeks.

Susan Taylor of of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine was also present and noted “we have lost our way, we have lost our minds, and we need to admit that.” Ms. Taylor stated that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our ministers doing? What are our churches preaching?”

I pray that we can preach Jesus in our actions above our rhetoric or expressed values. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). This should give us the courage to be good news for the poor, to proclaim freedom and forgiveness to the imprisoned, and to restore sight to the blind. As the good folks at The Village Nation preach in Northridge, CA, when asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” our answer must be “Yes we are.” We must stand up for the powerless, because they are our brothers and sisters, their blood is our blood. Their pain is our pain.

One can disagree if they wish. Some will continue to keep their politics in a vice-grip. But consider Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s words:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. But If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”

This sounds like the Gospel to me. Why the news of Jesus Christ is good, why God’s works holds value. For He too stands with the egg and not the wall. I pray that this truth can produce within us a stranglehold of fear and awe such that the strength of our resulting unified action and service can be compared to a hurricane force; a force bent on restoring power to those without.