June 2015

June 2015

Updated by
Chris Stewart

Half-way into my Bush Fellowship and the world is much different than before. One year ago I was at the beginning of my Bush Fellowship. My work with the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) kept my focus on becoming a better leader in the black community, and how to do my part in opening doors for others - especially those in generation x,y, and z - to lead as well. My goal was to build on the parts of that job that were most important to me: networking building, intergenerational leadership, and faith-based child-saving.

Above all, more important goal was bound in faith. Secular solutions were - in my estimation - failing. Spiritual questions emerged. How could I return my heart and mind to God so that I could be a useful instrument of His will? How could I live my faith more demonstrably and know that the work I do fulfills a purpose beyond my own carnality? How could I be effective in this world, but of it? These were questions that simmered beneath the surface as I began the fellowship journey last year. They came to a full boil when I started Theology coursework at Liberty University. While my faith had been on autopilot for a few years it came to a crossroads. I recognized the gap between what I believed in my heart and what I was living in my life. The hole went deep and I fell all the way in. It became the perfect time to be fully submerged in the foundational teachings of Christ and His church because I felt enormous cynicism about the secular social benefit work I was doing.

It was more than a moment. I had a full blown religious experience and it was a kick to the pants. During that time I struggled to contain the fire I was feeling so that I would not look, sound, and act like a lunatic. Maybe I was not fully successful in that. Righteous anger blazed over me and in some cases burned bridges with "leaders" who I had once respected. A great clarity came over me. I occurred to me that the bible is about two things: poverty and justice. All around me were people who claimed to be laboring to address those two things, but they were actually doing more to enrich their own households and their resumes. Without sharing the gross details, I'll say my realization, based on experience and observations, was too many "leaders" have found a way to commodity the needs of our people, and to trade those commodities on a philanthropic empathy market. In some cases the chiefs of these markets have been in business for decades. Every few months they announce a new initiative, with a half smart PowerPoint, and, of course, with themselves as the fiscal agent between funders and the marginally capable folks who will do the work. It's a game, a hoax, and a crime that we continue to allow good people in our community to be pimped by nonprofit hustlers. During their reign our people have become poorer, more dependent, and voiceless.

One big struggle of the past year has been living with the consequences of speaking the truth I see and sharing my experiences with the hustlers. It would be easier to ignore the careerism, greed, and middle-class feeding on the poor that I see. It would be better for me professionally, personally, but not spiritually. I've made a choice that my own comfort and that of the privileged class is not more important than telling an honest story about how marginalized communities are abused by external and internal actors.

An advisor asked me about this radicalization that has shocked some friends and allies. She wanted to know the goal of speaking out, acting up, and causing trouble. "To what end," is the question and how does it improve my leadership and community leadership overall. It's a meaningful question that consumes me but remains unanswered. The conventional wisdom is that you attract more bees with honey than vinegar. You move people by uplifting their spirits more than tearing down their sins. You get more done by being nice than by being righteous.

I understand the conventional wisdom and I reject it. The premium we put on "nice," especially in a place like Minnesota where it is almost the law, is a social control mechanism that codifies inequity, injustice, and disparities. In a century of "nice," what has changed for people of color in places like Minnesota - the capital of "nice"? Our state has national-leading disparities in education and life outcomes for people of color. Indeed, Minnesota was listed as the second worst place for black families in the United States, after Wisconsin.

While I mull over the question of my style and my approach, with a focus on it being consistent with God's will, I could ask the question "being nice, to what end?"

My passion is in fighting for policies that support family economic security, and advocacy of better schools that change the game for marginalized children. Rather than studying leadership in general I narrowed my focus to leaders and communities where new policies and new schools are making a difference for children of color and impoverished families. My work with the RIE Foundation has been a huge support in that direction. I have been incredibly fortunate to see first-hand what leaders are doing to improve educational results in places like New Orleans, Oakland, Seattle, New York, and elsewhere.

In some of those places black leaders have come together to form their own agenda, much like the AALF originally did. I have the most hope for those efforts because they are organic, culturally authentic, and not overly ideological. If they can avoid the sexism, homophobia, generational chauvinism, and greedy grant-seeking behavior I've seen ruin these types of efforts they just might be the best chance children in poverty have for success.

In other places "reforms" to education have come from external forces (e.g. state takeovers, philanthropic interests, etc.). That form of systemic change is useful in creating an initial jolt to institutions that resist changes with a great deal of power and resources. Only other powerful and resourced forces can change business as usual. Educational bureaucracies, teachers' unions, mega-contractors, and the nonprofit industrial complex stand to lose plenty if the system of education is truly reformed. They will fight most meaningful changes, and they will often win if it is marginalized communities fighting them alone. Sometimes we will need unusual partnerships and unconventional allies to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems. The trick is to remain awake. Stay clear about our permanent interests and never sell our souls.

In the past year I have done an enormous about of study to support the mission of my life. I have studied theology and communications. I have done traveled extensively and seen the complexities of community building work in many urban cities. I have started a podcast that is nationally distributed and has given me a new platform. My blog writing has been recognized by notable figures in education. And, my network has grown to include people I could have never met if my scope had remained limited to Minnesota.

The Bush Fellowship has granted me a much bigger library, access to national research databases, and admittance to special opportunities like Independent Sector and PopTech. The latter was a phenomenal international gathering of creative thinkers who descend on Camden, Maine each year to experience a few days of clear thinking. It was an awakening experience for me that resulted in GlowSpring, the faithful wellbeing network I'm developing to provide spiritual support to folks that want to fight the good fight, while remaining healthy rebels. It comes from my realization that the fight can't be all heat, all fire, and storming the gates. Some of it has to be made of light. If it is spiritually healthy it will produce the Fruits of the Spirit, a product that is visible to all.

One year later I have moved closer to my leadership mission. I have been moved and changed. And I still have a long way to go.