Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lessons from the LIttle Black Dress

All last week I participated in the Little Black Dress Initiative, sponsored by the Junior League of Atlanta. Its intent was to raise awareness of the cyclical nature of poverty. Poverty limits your resources, your options and even the ways you can express yourself--making it harder for you to better your life chances. Wearing one single outfit for an entire week highlighted the effects that limited resources plays on the quality of life. 
I confess to a number of conflicting feelings during the week. Like many of us, clothes are a reflection of who we are and what we want others to believe we are. Your clothes reflect you and my clothes reflect me.
Yet, I was willing to make this choice--imagining a week of righteous solidarity with the working poor, all the while being committing not to go overboard into a parity of the real lives and real struggles for so many who have limited options. I imagined being able to bring knowledge and insight in responce to my request (via my big red button) to “Ask me about my dress”.  I mean really, how was I to show my concern…my intelligence…my sincerity, if you didn’t ask??? 

As I dropped the dress off to the cleaners on Saturday, I was feeling neutral. While I appreciated my colleagues’ reflections on the experience and affirmed their honesty and courage, I had not personally had any emotional moment or aha revelations.

Until Sunday, as I prepared for the upcoming week. I did that common Sunday ritual of reviewing the week ahead and thinking through what I need to do. I’d be traveling out of town for some of the week, so I considered not only clothes for work but also for packing.  Yet I found myself curiously detached. I had plenty of clean pants, blouses and skirts in the closet and Lord knows, way too many shoes. But I didn't  care about matching them to the week’s obligations. It felt like not the best use of my precious day. It didn't  rank as very important. It didn't  seem to matter.  
You see, last week was full of productive sessions and positive interactions for me, both professionally and personally. Over five days in the same black dress, I had made good decisions; broadened my mind; engaged in great dialogue and planning; and connected with important people in my life. I had lived yet another incredibly fortunate week, chock full of opportunities to help make this community better.  

And these experiences had everything to do with what I was able and willing to offer and who I got to connect with and nothing to do with what I was wearing.  

I've always been abke to look myself in the eye squarely-- even if I don't always respond the way I should. Last week, since I had predetermined I had little to learn --after all I read these stats as a part of my everyday work, don't I ! -- my real role would be to drop this knowledge on others. Yet I was  reminded that there's always something to learn about yourself and new ways of looking at things. I'm reminded we're all a work in progress, And mostly that everything -and nothing - is about you.

Thank goodness it all got sorted out.  Maybe the next time I get the chance to represent, I'll be more ready.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Equality, Equity and Myth Busting

October 12 was Columbus Day, a day set aside to celebrate America’s discovery. By now we've busted the myth behind the story, revealing a tale laden with avarice and blood, widely divergent from the one that prompted the national holiday. Yet the celebration continues.

This year the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta began to explore another myth about how people and communities prosper. We’re not alone. Civic leaders as diverse as Angela Glover Blackwell, Jeb Bush and Robert Putnam are introducing terms such as the “Opportunity Gap” and “Equity” into our shared lexicon. They are conceding that the long held myth of hard work and opportunity — the American Dream – does not adequately explain the staggering and growing rates of income inequality that threaten our national security.

Equity, defined as “just and fair inclusion such that all can participate and prosper”, is an essential component of equality, or the lack thereof.  This great picture illustrates the distinction:


The problem is close and personal. According to a Demos study, in Atlanta, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median African-American household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.  Also, a child raised in the bottom-fifth of income levels has only a four percent  chance of rising to the top-fifth income level.  Our region has an equity challenge that has led to staggering inequality.

Addressing income inequality will require our collective courage to acknowledge historic, pervasive biases and structures, bounded by race and class, which anchor whole families and communities in perpetual poverty.  It requires that we release the myth that providing opportunities for “more” – more scholarships, more training, more food – is all of and not just a part of the solution.  Increasing opportunities that look forward and focus on improving chances that children will attain middle-class or higher incomes in their adulthood is important and good.  But resolving the inequality of Atlanta’s African-American and Latino families who make $100,000 less than their white neighbors means we have to go further and deeper and fix the fault line that prevents all families and communities from sharing in the region’s growth and prosperity.  It means we must recognize the links between opportunity, inequality and history. It means busting a myth we’ve grown comfortable with.

As a region of dreamers, giving up myths is difficult and will demand our consideration, conversation and possibly our conversion.

For the sake of our most vulnerable children and families, its time.