Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Government Always Matters

Satellite Image of Hurricane Irma
Credits: NASA/NOAA/UWM-CIMSS, William Straka

Mayor Bob Buckhorn got it right when he told NBC's Willie Geist "This is when government matters," after Hurricane Irma passed through Tampa.

It matters when government is prepared to lead. We honor and fully appreciate our first responders whose mission is to serve and protect us in the wake of disasters, both natural and human caused. We want and fully expect our governments -- federal, state and local -- to execute a coordinated and effective disaster response of immediate rescue and relief followed by supportive recovery and reconstruction efforts. 

We hail the many heroes from government, the military, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and every-day citizens running full speed to aid those in distress. We are mobilized by the common call of our human decency to help our friends, neighbors and strangers in times of immediate need.

President Trump made the right call when he unequivocally ordered immediate national disaster declarations directing rescue and relief aid to the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. His focus was on saving lives, not what it might cost. It's a call we should expect any president to make. Thankfully, it's a decision made all the more easy because the United States has a well-prepared, expertly trained team ready to mobilize at a moments notice. A team long in the making years before Trump's presidency. A team championed, created and funded by generations of forward thinking federal administrations, state and local governments, NGOs, and citizens committed to sustaining it year after year.

It's a team comprised of weather scientists from NOAA and NASA who could rationally predict with a high degree of certainty the course and magnitude of the storms as they approached; of a network of seasoned news media skilled in broadcasting events as they unfold, and disseminating the government's warnings alerting the public; of expert first responders ranging from FEMA to military units to local fire, police, and emergency medical services; of hospitals and NGOs fully prepared and ready to fulfill their missions of aid and relief; of faith-based organizations calling on their congregations to respond; and concerned citizens, like you and me, ready to answer the call to assist our neighbors in need. Our ability to respond is the value of time-tested responsible government leadership. It is born of commitment to collaboration and trust, and a willingness to partner.

Our natural rush to respond to disasters brings out the collective best in us to help each other survive and recover. It unifies us. Let's capitalize on this unifying spirit to mitigate the occurrence of self-inflicted disasters. Disasters caused by how we may choose to negotiate international diplomacy; to send our military into harms way; to address economic growth and security; to understand science; and to enforce the rights and fair treatment of the abused and vulnerable. Being passive observers won't do. We must rush to help our government focus on creating a common good that is meant for all of us. To avoid self-inflicted disasters our leaders must choose wisely, and choose our leaders wisely we must.

"This is when government matters." This is why government matters. Government always matters.

This post also was published in CT Viewpoints on September 21, 2017

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hartford Habitat Builds at Carter Project in Canada

Hartford Habitat Crew at JRCWP 2017
Lisa Chirichella, Don Shaw, Christina D'Amato, Tom Trumble

July 9-14, 2017, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

A week of building. A week of friendship. A week of faith. A week of changing lives. 

In celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary, President and Mrs. Carter brought their 34th annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project (JRCWP 2017) to several communities across Canada, with Edmonton and Winnipeg the two main host sites. The event highlighted Canada's welcoming embrace of diversity and inclusion. Of the project's 150 homes to be built, seventy-five are in Edmonton and nearby Fort Saskatchewan. Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity was there in body and spirit.

President Carter greeting volunteers, sponsors and Habitat homeowners
at the JRCWP 2017 opening ceremonies.

Lisa Chirichella, Christina D'Amato, Tom Trumble and I, representing Hartford Habitat, trekked to Edmonton to volunteer a "hand up" to our northern neighbors. Our assignment was House 21, the future home of the Yusuf Ahmed family (Yusuf, a Canadian resident originally from Ethiopia, and his wife and three children). For Tom and me it was our seventh international Carter project; for Lisa and Christina their first with the hope to volunteer for more.

Hartford Habitat crew Christina D'Amato, Tom Trumble,
Lisa Chirichella, and Don Shaw with future homeowner Yusuf Ahmed

In true Carter Project style, construction was a well orchestrated symphony of enthusiastic and welcoming voices, of pounding hammers, of buzzing saws, and of familiar construction commands -- "one, two, three, lift!" -- as walls, windows, and roofs were raised straight, plumb, and sturdy. Yusuf's commitment provided a resounding crescendo when he fulfilled his family's 500 hours of required sweat equity on our final work day. Congratulations were cheered all around!  

Homeowners and volunteers celebrated daily
with high-fives, hugs and handshakes. 

Every morning devotions and testimonials from the many grateful Canadian dignitaries, corporate and community sponsors, and Habitat leaders set us on our way to begin each day's construction after a hearty breakfast in the big-tent mess hall. But the truly emotional morning highlight was the daily ritual of high-fives, hugs and handshakes along with cheers of thanks and gratitude from Habitat homeowners-to-be. They greeted all of us -- more than 900 strong -- as we proceeded along the winding path to the work site. That alone was enough nourishment to last the whole workday!

As  volunteer builders we looked to our house leader Mike O'Brien, a Habitat pro from Calgary, for expert guidance. He masterfully expanded our technical skills. We built exterior and interior walls, installed insulated siding and windows, built stairs, and, believe it or not, "squared" the walls of the entire first floor (that's the value of a good Habitat supervisor!). Under Mike's leadership we, along with about ten other volunteers assigned to our house, accomplished a lot by week's end. Simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, we looked forward to accomplishing more back home.

Lisa and Christina installing
fire wall insulation on the house's sheathing.

Tom and Don building an interior wall.

As we departed Edmonton, we reflected on Habitat for Humanity's founding conviction "that every man, woman and child should have a simple, durable place to live in dignity and safety, and that decent shelter in decent communities should be a matter of conscience and action for all." 

The benefits of an affordable safe, secure, healthy home are measurable. It is well documented that good, solid affordable housing provides an opportunity for a family to thrive in an environment unburdened by the stress and insecurity of constantly searching for a stable place to call home. Children achieve greater success in school, parents focus more on succeeding in their careers, and families realize better health outcomes, just a few of the many benefits of a decent, affordable home. 

In the words of President Carter, "In order to create true, sweeping changes in providing decent housing, we must begin to talk about this human necessity as a basic human right. This is not something that families around the world can only wish to have, not something that only the luckiest can hope to realize, but something that everyone should have an opportunity to achieve.

When we understand the magnitude of housing needs and their different forms in communities worldwide, we will recognize that as more fortunate people we are morally obligated to act. Once we view the issue of housing in these appropriately urgent terms, we will begin to act in concert more effectively.”

We are committed to supporting Habitat for Humanity. It is why we build in Hartford. It is why we traveled to Edmonton. Please join us.

Note: Lisa Chirichella is Chair of Hartford Habitat's Board of Directors; Christina D'Amato is Hartford Habitat's Corporate Engagement Manager; and Tom Trumble and Don Shaw are Hartford Habitat Board Members Emeritus. 

Photos: Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity International and Hartford Habitat JRCWP 2017 team.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Friday, August 25, 2017

"The time is always right to do what is right"

It's August 2017. The United States of America is in the grip of divisiveness and hatred. A grip tearing our social fabric. A fabric woven of freedom and fairness for all people as envisioned by our country's founders. A fabric celebrated in our Constitution. The Constitution of the United States of America is a framework intended to sustain us on an evolving path "in order to form a more perfect Union," following the lead of our Declaration of Independence's call for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for everyone.

This month's tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a signal event demanding action to break the grip of those who would deny the recognition, respect, and rights a just world should afford everyone.  

Two stonecatchers, both United Church of Christ pastors from my hometown of Granby CT, offer their calls to action in my blog today. Please read them and follow their lead. Catch the stones we are prone to cast at, or throw in the path of the marginalized, vulnerable, and victimized among us, which prevents them from realizing the recognition, respect, and rights a just world should afford everyone. Every step, a stride short or long, is needed to walk the path ahead.

Be a stonecatcher!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor 

Evil Must Be Confronted
By Rev. Dr. Virginia A. "Ginny" McDaniel, Senior Minister
First Congregational Church, Granby CT

The gathering of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 was legal, but it was also deeply evil. Yes, our Bill of Rights guarantees the right to free assembly and free speech. But a rally of heavily armed people who identify as neo-Nazis and white nationalists, people who came from all over the country brandishing clubs and flags and swastikas, needed to be met by demonstrators against their hatred. And the act of an angry young man from Ohio who drove a car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring scores of others, needs to be named for what it was: terrorism.

For those who identify as Americans, this moment calls for patriotism of the highest order-to actively insist on the equality and dignity of each person. For those who identify as white, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the cancer of racism that has scarred this country since the first Africans were kidnapped and brought to North America almost 400 years ago, and to work to bring healing. For those who identify as people of faith, it is our job to actively pursue how it is we might make the world a better place for all of God's children. 

Many faith traditions call on people to defend the rights of the oppressed and the marginalized. We are reminded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer shelter to the poor, and to welcome the 'stranger,' to stand with the weak, and work to lift up the downtrodden. It doesn't matter what your political affiliation is; these values are the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and should bring us together. In the words of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The time is always right to do what is right."

You do not have to be part of a faith community to share these values. We must not remain silent about the violence that is daily perpetrated against religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities. We must not shy away from talking about these issues with our children. We must not be afraid to talk about this evil because some may deem it too political. Our silence will not save us.

These are frightening times. But it's never too late to become part of the solution that creates a positive change in the world.

Pastoral Reflections on Charlottesville, VA 
By Rev. Dennis P. "Denny" Moon, Senior Minister

In the wake of the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA, I want to underline what has been said by others:

No matter how many club swinging anti-racist protesters there were at the march, there is no moral equivalence, whatsoever, between them and white supremacists.

The basic assumption of Nazis, the KKK, and the Confederacy, is the inferiority of people of color. The goal of white supremacy is to either exclude people of color from society (by apartheid, reservations, or prison) or to destroy them (by abuse, neglect or execution). The assumption that people of color are less than human suspends the necessity of ethical behavior toward them. Violence is inherent in their views. This is not the case with the anti-racist protesters.

The founders of our nation were ambivalent about white supremacy. 

They wrote “All men(sic) are created equal.” Yet they owned slaves and freely broke treaties with American Indians. As Debby Irving wrote in her book Waking Up White, they were part of a larger historical pattern of “white Europeans invading countries, exploiting resources, and ‘civilizing’ people they considered to be savages, all in an entangled quest to dominate through Christianity and capitalism.”  

Our founder’s hearts were divided. 

This American Ambivalence led, eventually, to the Civil War, after which white supremacy found new systemic expression: Jim Crow laws, lynching below the Mason-Dixon line, outlawing the practice of Native American religion, the practical exclusion of soldiers of color from the G.I. bill, redlining, etc., etc..

We continue to live in the wake of our Original Ambivalence.

While there is ample evidence of ambivalent Christian behavior in history, the assumptions of Christianity are not so. The equitable inclusion of all peoples is the purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” The oppression of people of color is the purpose of white supremacy. Any white supremacist group that claims Christian identity clearly misunderstands Jesus.

What can be done?

First, read the book “Waking Up White” and join us in our discussion on Oct. 15 at 11:30 a.m. as we try to understand how deeply the idea of white superiority is embedded in our culture and minds. You may not agree with everything in the book but it is a great tool for self reflection.

Second, express your anger among friends. Then, be curious toward those with whom you disagree, inquiring, with specificity, as to the line of logic they use to arrive at their conclusions and the picture of the society that they think their assumptions would create. Think through the connections between your own assumptions and the world you seek to create and be willing to share those ideas. Be curious about your own biases. Test your own assumptions. Disagree respectfully and wonder aloud about why two intelligent people would differ so. Different experiences? Different sources?

Third, do not be afraid. Fear drives white supremacists. The opposite of love is not hatred, it is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:10) Know that the light of God’s love has led you to the path of the inclusion of all peoples: it is the path of Moses, the prophets, Jesus—and Buddha and Mohamed, and Secular Humanists as well. Trust that if your life is taken while walking this path, like Heather Heyer’s in Charlottesville, God rest her memory, that you will have given your life for the highest purpose possible, the oneness of humankind and the effort to have God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

As a follower of Jesus I believe that all supremacy, including divine supremacy--which allows people to use the bible as a brick instead of a bridge--was crucified with Jesus. And, if you have a discussion with a white supremacist, you may want to gently remind them: Jesus was not white.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Rising Voices of Hate: Andrea's Story

Andrea Comer is my friend. Her friends are many. Her reach is far. She lives the legacy of the United States' history of discrimination, segregation, insults, and injustice toward the "other" through her and her family's experiences. It's personal. It matters. It hurts.

This past year I wrote several blog posts about racial and religious discrimination, many of which were prefaced in their titles with "Essential American History." History matters. True and documented history provides important verifiable facts and details. Details leading to context, insight, and, we hope, a true, unvarnished account of the what, why, and how a people, a country, a world got to where they are today -- history ultimately serving as a compass that could point a path to positive change.

Andrea's Op-Ed in The Hartford Courant (August 19, 2017) describes what I suspect is just a small portion of the deeply personal history of someone I respect and admire. Someone who has helped me navigate my understanding of Hartford's social and political issues  -- all of which spill over into the broader context of our country's current reality. The personal histories of our friends, neighbors, newcomers, and those too often unjustly defined as the stranger, the enemy, or the "other" are what help us understand that history is more than a chronicling of what happened. It's about the actions and events, the triumphs and tragedies, the joys and sorrows that led us to the lives we live today. Personal histories define us. Personal histories define the world. Below is a bit of Andrea's history.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Rising Voices Of Those Who Hate The ‘Other’
The Hartford Courant, Saturday, August 19, 2017

My mother’s 83-year-old cousin recalled traveling in the 1930s and ’40s with her Brooklyn family to visit relatives in the South, only to be stopped and harassed by police because of the color of their skin and the car’s New York license plate. While there, my cousin went into town to shop, only to be told she could not try on dresses or hats.

My parents, despite their income and education, were denied the right to buy a house in Westchester County, solely because they were black.

A few years ago, two of my friends and I were ejected from a restaurant in Greenwich Village for demanding equitable treatment. Once outside, the manager, inches from my friend with his spittle spraying her face, called her a nigger.

My daughter, while waitressing at an establishment, after singing happy birthday to one of her customers, was praised with the statement “You coloreds have so much talent.”

I recount these instances as a reminder to myself that I shouldn’t be surprised at last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va. I shouldn’t. But I was — largely because it was a painful realization that racism has not and perhaps will not ever go away.

The voices of those who hate anyone who is “other” have never been absent. They were muffled perhaps when Barack Obama was president, but that only made them angrier. Once the White House became occupied by someone they perceived as sympathetic to their cause, they no longer felt the need to be silent.

I know there are folks who voted for Donald Trump because they felt he was a better alternative to Hillary Clinton. I believe them when they say they do not ascribe to nationalist beliefs, that they felt the swamp needed to be drained, and the businessman turned reality star turned president was the way to address what they felt needed fixing in this country.

I read “Hillbilly Elegy” in an effort to understand, and to an extent, I did. J.D. Vance’s narrative is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ narrative (“Between the World and Me”) on the other end of the pendulum.

Here’s the problem: When Steve Bannon, who until Friday was the chief strategist in setting your administration’s course, is admittedly and proudly the founder of a platform for the alt-right; when your staff includes a man who spent his high school years bemoaning the presence of Latinos with limited English skills in his midst; when the commander in chief himself has been sued by the federal government for denying people of color access to properties he managed for his father, separating oneself from that narrative is a heavy lift.

And all the Ben Carsons and Omarosa Manigaults in the world cannot undo that.

My grandmother and parents had passed away before Barack Obama was elected. I imagine they would have been proud — even my father, who was a registered Republican.

I think about what they would feel today. I weep for their bravery and conviction in the face of racism and discrimination, only to know just how little progress we have made.

Andrea Comer lives in Hartford.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Mayor Landrieu's Monumental Truth

"This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well ... Many are painfully aware of the long shadows their presence casts; not only literally but figuratively." -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu 

On May 19, 2017, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed by the City of New Orleans. It was the last of four Confederate icons honoring the shameful dark history of slavery and denial of civil rights that the city removed. It also was the day Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave his historic and impassioned remarks about the importance of removing these ghosts that glorified a cause the very foundation of which was built on preserving slavery's savage brutality.

Mayor Landrieu's speech is essential American history. Presented from the perspective celebrating America's diverse citizenry, and those struggling for the rights and recognition they rightfully and justly deserve, Landrieu condemns the past and pleads for reconciliation. He does not ignore the fact that the Civil War is part of our American history, instead he presents truths many people willfully have suppressed. Truths which when acknowledged and understood explain how we as a country got to where we are today. Landrieu implores us to rid ourselves of the divisive romanticism of the unjust and merciless cause of slavery and the false depiction of a heroic Confederate history, both truly antithetical to a United States of America founded on principles of freedom, liberty and justice for all.

Please read the full transcript of Mayor Landrieu's speech. It is essential American history.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

"Truth: Remarks on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans"

Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu
City of New Orleans

Gallier Hall
Friday, May 19, 2017

"Thank you for coming.

The soul of our beloved City is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way — for both good and for ill. It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans — the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando De Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Colorix, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese and so many more.

You see — New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one. But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame... all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth. As President George W. Bush said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other. So, let’s start with the facts.

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears... I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.

Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all our history. He recalled a piece of stone, a slave auction block engraved with a marker commemorating a single moment in 1830 when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay stood and spoke from it. President Obama said, “Consider what this artifact tells us about history... on a stone where day after day for years, men and women... bound and bought and sold and bid like cattle on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet. For a long time the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”

A piece of stone — one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today... for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights... I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.

I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing and this is what that looks like. So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.

This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures. Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.

All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it! Out of many we are one — and we really do love it! And yet, we still seem to find so many excuses for not doing the right thing. Again, remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

We forget, we deny how much we really depend on each other, how much we need each other. We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial. We still find a way to say ‘wait’/not so fast, but like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “wait has almost always meant never.” We can’t wait any longer. We need to change. And we need to change now.

No more waiting. This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain. While some have driven by these monuments every day and either revered their beauty or failed to see them at all, many of our neighbors and fellow Americans see them very clearly. Many are painfully aware of the long shadows their presence casts; not only literally but figuratively. And they clearly receive the message that the Confederacy and the cult of the lost cause intended to deliver.

Earlier this week, as the cult of the lost cause statue of P.G.T Beauregard came down, world renowned musician Terence Blanchard stood watch, his wife Robin and their two beautiful daughters at their side. Terence went to a high school on the edge of City Park named after one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots, John F. Kennedy. But to get there he had to pass by this monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.

He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride... it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.” Yes, Terence, it is and it is long overdue. Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians who can follow in Terence and Robin’s remarkable footsteps.

A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.

We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves — at this point in our history — after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe and after the tornado — if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces... would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all... not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in... all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes. Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.

After decades of public debate, of anger, of anxiety, of anticipation, of humiliation and of frustration. After public hearings and approvals from three separate community led commissions. After two robust public hearings and a 6-1 vote by the duly elected New Orleans City Council. After review by 13 different federal and state judges. The full weight of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government has been brought to bear and the monuments in accordance with the law have been removed. So now is the time to come together and heal and focus on our larger task. Not only building new symbols, but making this city a beautiful manifestation of what is possible and what we as a people can become.

Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and now universally loved Nelson Mandela and what he said after the fall of apartheid. “If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.” So before we part let us again state the truth clearly.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered. As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.

Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause. Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today to unite as one people when he said: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish — a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Thank you."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Hip-Hop to ArtsMentors June 17

Raphael Xavier break dancing at USJ

"Mentoring can happen in any moment, whether it is during a simple conversation or going to an event together. ArtsMentors invites you to conversations and performances to have your mentorship moments at the Autorino Center for the Arts." Its an opportunity to nurture your relationship and forge new ones.

ArtsMentors is a creation of Steven Raider-Ginsberg, Director of the Autorino Center at the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) and co-founder of Hartford's avant-garde Hartbeat Ensemble.  The program "is designed to increase the number of quality mentoring relationships" with the express purpose of expanding the capacity of existing youth programs.

On June 17 ArtsMentors launches its first full season of innovative hands-on programs at USJ during its annual Arts Day where participants will have a special opportunity to take part in hands-on art making designed to serve 100 mentor/mentee pairs. The day will include four rotating arts workshops, lunch and a tour of the USJ campus. 

Here's a snapshot of Arts Day:

RSVP to dwalsh@usj.edu

Established in 2016 as a pilot program in collaboration with the Governor's Prevention Partnership (GPP), ArtsMentors targets its programming toward sixth through ninth grade youth. It's a student population identified by GPP as the most in need of mentoring programs, according to Debra Walsh, locally celebrated actor (especially with HartBeat Ensemble) and newly appointed ArtsMentors Program Director. ArtsMentors events provide free mentoring opportunities through interactive theater, contemporary dance, music, and cultural story telling performances. ArtsMentors programming includes:
  • Attending live performance events
  • Having dinner
  • Meeting artists
  • Participating in hands-on workshops

ArtsMentors youth and their mentor pose for a selfie with one of the performing artists

ArtsMentors multiple goals include:
  • providing area mentorship programs with an arts education program
  • developing a positive relationship with an institution of higher education
  • providing an activity mentors and their mentees can do together
  • developing direct, personal connections with artists and faculty by attending live performance events, and gaining a hands-on creative expression experience   

Arts Mentors Program Details:

During the inaugural season, participants will be invited to attend four live events at the Autorio Center. Before each performance participants will have an opportunity to meet the artists and experts in the performing genre. This activity prepares them to consider a "Guiding Question" intended to focus their thoughts, as well as provide background context for each performance's themes.

             Mentors and their protégés are always close to the performers 

As examples of ArtsMentors program offerings, last winter participants attended and took part in the following performances:

  • Bone Hill: The Concert, a dramatic musical work inspired by Martha Redbone's family lineage and her return to the Harlan County, KY coal-country of the Appalachian Mountains.
    • Guiding Questions: "Where do the cultures in my community originate and what are the personal stories?"
  • Point of Interest, Raphael Xavier's "new program repertoire built from solo, duets, and trios over the past fours years that culminates is a classically constructed quintet [exploring] the sustainability of a highly physical dance form associated with youth." 
    • Guiding Question: "How do we use the energy and vitality of our youth to age, develop and contribute to society in a positive way?"
  • PEP Talk, Hand2Mouth Theater presented its "interactive theatrical presentation of coaches, teams and everyday heroes that combine the bravado of Muhammad Ali and the gravitas of Vince Lombardi." The performance created an art/sport atmosphere that inspired audiences to reflect on the past, cheer the present, and step from passive observers to active participants. 
    • Guiding Question: "What are the outcomes of positive speaking and positive thought? How do we accomplish what we think is unachievable?"
  • 5X5 Dance Festival, one of Connecticut's "most important dance events, featured interaction, performances, and master classes between professional and collegiate dancers."
    • Guiding question: "What are the various contemporary dance forms?"

Musical expression is a key component of ArtsMentors

ArtsMentors provides a dynamic and creative program to develop and enhance youth and mentor relationships. And its FREE! 

All who are interested should contact ArtsMentors Program Director Debra Walsh at dwalsh@usj.edu right away. 

ArtsMentors is an innovative opportunity not to be missed.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Blog post source text and quotations courtesy of Steven Raider-Ginsberg and Debra Walsh.
Photos by Andy Hart provided courtesy of Steven Raider-Ginsberg.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Homer Found a Home

Marj's Signed Welcome and Blessing at Hartford Habitat's House of Faith Groundbreaking

Homer arrived quite unexpectedly at Rev. Marjorie Davis's home in early April. He was a fluffy little thing, cute and cuddly, in need of a home -- but what was she to do with Homer? How could she help him?

Marj is hardly what I would call a retired UCC minister. She's always working on some project, attending a workshop, or advocating a just cause. She's a good friend to all who know her here in Granby, CT. Like many in town, I have a shared passion with Marj. Ours is Habitat for Humanity -- she's a long-time Habitat advocate and donor. I fondly recall her participation in Hartford Habitat's House of Faith groundbreaking at the corner of the city's Case and Laurel Streets (Marj's parents, Swedish immigrants, once lived on Laurel). Habitat's House of Faith program is an interfaith collaboration where multiple faiths work side-by-side to build a new Habitat house.  During the ceremony's traditional board signing she inscribed her welcome and blessing to the new homeowners-to-be on one of the two-by-fours designated for the home's first wall. I have displayed a picture of it on my computer screen for inspiration ever since.

But Marj's question remained -- what to do with Homer? His arrival was a surprise. Would her home be the best place for him? He's awfully cute but, you see, Homer is a stuffed animal -- a puppy with the words Habitat for Humanity displayed on a bright green collar. Marj wondered if Homer would be better suited for a young child. It turns out Habitat for Humanity International sent Homer Marj's way as a thank you memento for her recent donation. 

"Hello, Don? This is Marj Davis" I heard answering her call. Quickly she explained Homer's arrival, and gently peppered me with questions to which my responses were equally quick: 

"Do you know someone who might like Homer?" "Yes."
"Does the family in the new Granby Habitat home have children?" "Yes."
"Do they have a young child?" "Yes, her name is Shelby. She's eight years old"
"Would she like Homer?" "I think so."
"Would you be a able to deliver him?" "Yes." 

I had been meaning to pay Ralph and Jaime Wyman a visit to see how they were settling in to their new Habitat house so Homer's arrival proved fortuitous. Soon I was at the front door of Wyman's West Granby home -- a home that they moved into just in time for Christmas four months earlier.

The Wyman's New Habitat Home

Shelby was away on a playdate when I visited, but Jaime and Ralph assured me Shelby would be thrilled with Homer -- just as they all are thrilled with their new home. Some school teachers had told me Shelby was a chatterbox who couldn't contain her excitement about moving in to her Habitat house while it was nearing completion last fall.

Shelby and Homer

When she returned home and saw Homer waiting to greet her, Shelby jumped with joy. So thrilled that she immediately wrote Marj a thank you note, and just as quickly dropped it in the mail at the post office across the street. Shelby's charming note included a drawing of her new home in which she and Homer are looking out the front window enjoying the view of their brand new world.

Homer found a home.

Thanks Marj.

Shelby's Thank You Note to Marj

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos of new Habitat home and Shelby courtesy of Jaime Wyman
Shelby's thank you note courtesy of Rev. Marjorie Davis
Photo of Marj's Signed Welcome by Don Shaw, Jr.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Earth Day 2017: Create a Habitat and Celebrate Nature

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female, immature) feeding at our butterfly bush. They are attracted to colorful flowers, but it takes considerable patience waiting for the right moment to capture them in a photo.

April 22 is Earth Day 2017. It's a day to take action. It's a day to celebrate. It's a day to honor the movement that began in 1970 giving "voice to an emerging consciousness, channeling human energy toward environmental issues. " It's a matter of survival. Let's give thanks to all people around the world who do their part, big or small, in protecting our planet, and making it a better place to live for generations to come.

Preserving our environment is of paramount importance. It's an acknowledged fact that the Earth's climate is changing, it means we must take action to improve our world's quality of life for humans, plants, and animals alike by keeping clean the air we breath, the water we drink, and the soil that grows our crops. It takes commitment and perseverance to act responsibly, locally and globally. Even if our actions won't instantly reverse current trends, we must constantly pursue strategies that mitigate -- better yet solve -- the challenges, problems, and dangers we face ahead. Please take the time to learn the facts -- respect science -- and act responsibly.

To understand why preserving our environment is critically important, we need to take joy in what nature provides us every day. This year I'm celebrating nature in my "backyard nature preserve." It doesn't take much to set up your own nature preserve whether you live a rural, suburban, or urban area, and regardless if you own a plot of land or rent an apartment. It just takes imagination to attract and enjoy the flora and fauna, the biota, if you will, which is the animal and plant life indigenous to your surroundings.

My wife Peggy and I have lived on the same .6 acre plot of land in the same cozy cape for forty years in a typical old New England northern Connecticut town.  These days one might call it rural-suburban. We know we are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to live and raise our family here. That said, over the forty years we've lived here, we tried to make the most of what we have. We planted a variety of trees, shrubberies, and flower beds, plus a small vegetable garden, all to make the property our little nature preserve. It paid off. Now we have the good fortune of enjoying the trees and flowers, and the seasonal birds and butterflies they attract each year, with an occasional deer, bear or flock of wild turkeys, as well as the ubiquitous squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.

So rather that write about the beauty of nature, and the importance of preserving our environment, which we cannot -- must not -- take for granted, I'm simply going to show a sampling of my photos illustrating the flora and fauna you can enjoy when you create your own backyard nature preserve; a preserve that, in its own small but vital way, helps preserve our precious environment.

Pileated Woodpecker

A Pileated Woodpecker and its mate paid us a quick visit to the giant White Ash tree in our back yard. I was fortunate to have my camera handy to capture pictures because they are very shy. Fortunately they didn't stay long, which was a good indicator that the tree offered no good source of insects on which to feed. A local arborist is working hard with root injected insecticide to keep the tree-killing Emerald Ash Borer away. 

Beginning in the late fall and continuing to early spring, before the bears awake from winter torpor (if we're lucky - if not the bird feeders get destroyed) we keep the local birds well fed. We even have a window feeder, which is great entertainment, especially for our grandsons. We only use black oil sunflower seeds and suet. They are the surest ways to keep the flocks happy, and coming back. 

Downy Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

An Eastern Bluebird arrived on January 28

Northern Cardinal (Male)

Northern Cardinal (female) and Tufted Titmouse

Goldfinch (in its muted winter color) and White-breasted Nuthatch

Tufted Titmouse in the window feeder

A Wren house custom built by my good friend Vern

A sturdy, easy to maintain (note hinged bottom door for annual cleaning) bird house is an excellent way to keep small birds returning each spring to nest, year after year. If you have ever seen young chicks fledge their nest, you have witnessed the miraculous cycle of life continuing -- it's a leap of faith followed by a startling tumble to the ground where waiting parents lead an urgent flight into life.

Flowers attract all kinds of life -- especially bees, birds, butterflies, and admiring friends. Picking fresh flowers and arranging bouquets in vases allows you to bring nature directly into your home. Below are just a couple of flowers that spread color throughout our yard. If you are space constrained, try growing certain plants in appropriate sized planters or window boxes.


Hollyhock at sunrise

Hollyhock with morning dew

If you're of my vintage, you may remember the 1972 movie romance/comedy Butterflies are Free with Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert. If not, that's okay; you're probably just too young. I digress. However, while we may think real butterflies are free, many are endangered species struggling to survive in our changing environment, especially the Monarch.

Plant More Milkweed is a blogpost I wrote last fall. I encourage you to read it, and create a welcoming environment wherever you can. Butterflies add a special beauty to our lives, and you and I can make a difference.

Monarch Butterfly

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

And as I mentioned earlier, the occasional deer, bear, or flock of wild turkeys pass through our yard. This deer stared me down, but by keeping still I was able to take this photo before it bounded off into the nearby woods -- nature photography takes patience -- lots of patience.

White-tailed Deer

"In wildness* is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forests and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind." -- Henry David Thoreau,  Excursions

Let's all do our part to preserve and save our planet. Celebrate Earth Day every day!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

*Thoreau wrote and meant "wildness." It is often misquoted as "wilderness." Think about it.

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Jody Made a Difference

Mary Joellen "Jody" Putnam
August 17, 1942 -- March 2, 2017

"Think about yourself and what you do for your community. You are making a difference by helping one or two even if you cannot help the whole community. Just pick one at a time. Remember you are making a difference." -- Jody Putnam

Mary Joellen "Jody" Putnam's philosophy recalls the last line of The Starfish Story, "It made a difference to that one." The story is about saving lives, even if just one, against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Starfish Story was a favorite of Jody's who would tell it often when people became discouraged.

Saving just one life makes a difference. A difference of ultimate significance to the one saved and the one who saved the life. It's the profound difference that a single caring and committed person can make in just one person's life, but in Jody's case she made a difference in the lives of countless people in need. Jody saved lives. It was her purpose in life. Jody made a difference.

For more than twenty years Jody worked voluntarily and tirelessly with refugees who resettled in the Hartford area from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burma, Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, among other countries. Her life's purpose was devoted to helping people in need, selflessly and unconditionally.

Jody died peacefully at age 74 on March 2, 2017, after suffering a stroke in February. Hartford will miss her leadership, and the contributions she made creating a better life for many of the vulnerable and victimized people among us. Asylum Hill Neighborhood leader Jennifer Cassidy expressed her hope "that Jody's legacy inspires others to follow her lead. It's a path more of us must walk."

On March 25, an estimated 300 refugees attended a multicultural memorial service for Jody at Asylum Hill's Cathedral of Saint Joseph. It was a special day for the refugees Jody served to share their everlasting gratitude and respect.

After a warm welcome by Fr. James A. Shanley, Rector of the Cathedral, and an opening prayer by Fr. Michal J. Dolan, several refugees celebrated Jody's life by speaking in honor of her generous and welcoming service to their communities. They praised the hours she spent helping them enroll their children in school, access health care, navigate the social service bureaucracy, and complete seemingly endless but necessary paperwork. Included were the following representatives from Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, Liberia, Somalia, Syria, and Bosnia who spoke from deep within their hearts about Jody's service:
Tha Say Paw -- Karen/Burmese community
Padam Bharati -- Nepalese/Bhutanese community
Frederick Bohlen -- Liberian community
Ibrahim Abdule -- Somali Bantu community
Maryam Bitar -- Syrian Trinity College student volunteer
Gail BiscegliAis -- Community volunteer
Sabaha Alihodzic --Bosnian community 
As final speaker Sabaha Alihodzic concluded her tribute, she finished with the El-Fatiha, a fitting prayer from the Quran for the guidance, lordship and mercy of God.

Padam Bharati speaking on behalf of the Nepalese community

Karen Youth Community Chorus

Music by the Karen (Burma) Youth Community Choir filled the Cathedral with songs of peace and thanksgiving.

Jody's close friend and colleague Trinity professor Dr. Janet Bauer reminisced with me that "Jody was an extraordinary cultural navigator for so many Hartford families from different refugee groups in the post resettlement stage. They benefited from her philosophy that becoming self-sufficient sometimes required personal, one-on-one assistance, beyond the first several months, from other Hartford area residents like herself who were proficient in the language and culture."

Jody was an inspiration to many of Dr. Bauer's students as captured in the following excerpt from the tribute read by Maryam Bitar, a Trinity student volunteer from Syria:
"In addition to her impact on so many people from Hartford's refugee communities, Jody was also an inspiring mentor to many students who interned with her through Trinity College, as she provided support to refugee families. Jody embodied a philosophy of one-on-one support that meant students learned how to be compassionate and caring, to listen to what refugees said about their needs and in that way assisting them to become independent -- whether it took six months or three years. And beyond that, well, she remained a friend to everyone."

Maryam Bitar, Trinity College Class of 2016, reading her tribute to Jody

Other Trinity students shared their thoughts: 
"Jody's dedication to refugees in the greater Hartford area was profound and it left a mark on all of us as we carry her passion through our efforts to promote cultural competency..."  -- Daniela Santagelo Akaratovic, newly registered nurse working on refugee health issues, Hartford, CT
"Jody acknowledged every single person with a certain respect. Jody was so pure by heart and yet had strong opinions. Jody was unique. Just by observing her work and spending time with her for a couple of weeks I learned the biggest lesson in life. Acknowledge every person with all the respect in the world and help people without expecting gratitude. Be pure by heart no matter what you do or say..." -- Nina Pariahs Ziari, international student from Denmark, now working in refugee resettlement in Copenhagen.
"From Jody I learned that the world isn't always kind and that doing the right thing is often thankless. I will always admire her empathy and respect for refugees, and I will never forget the smiles she brought about when she visited people. I hope to one day have the effect on one person that Jody had on so many."   --  Jenna Carroll, now a law student at Fordham University perhaps one day doing immigration legal work.

After Jody's son Scott Ahlgren thanked everyone for attending the tribute for his mother and conveyed his family's gratitude, Lina Caswell, a former Hartford social services professional for whom Jody was a dear friend and mentor, presented Scott and Jody's other son, Steven, a City of Hartford Proclamation recognizing Jody's immeasurable contribution to improving the quality of life for the City's newest residents. Following Lina, Padam Bharati presented a certificate of gratitude from the Nepalese community honoring Jody's service.

Lina Caswell (l) presents the City of Hartford Proclamation to Scott and Steven Ahlgren. Padam Bharati (next to Lina) presented a certificate of gratitude from the Nepalese community honoring Jody's service.

In reflecting on the Jody's life, Lina told me that Jody's main motto throughout her work was to "treat people as friends, not clients, because when in need you go to your friends." In providing social services, the technique of being one's friend is unconventional, and not without risk, but "Jody always believed in meeting people on an equal footing." Her friendship approach was one of warm acceptance, fierce loyalty, and, when needed, frank honesty. As she reflected further on their years of service together, Lina said, "Jody did not romanticize refugees. She wanted to help them regain their dignity, not to be stigmatized by labels, to give them back their identity so that they may all be seen for who they truly are." Lina was impressed and fascinated that Jody always spoke first to strangers, never afraid to engage in small talk to help her see the stranger, the newcomer, as a new friend. "Jody's mission was to meet people where they are to help them move forward so that after a substantial initial investment of whatever was necessary to get them situated, coupled with positive experiences navigating the multitude of our society's systems, they ultimately would become independent and successful community members."

Sabaha Alihodzic delivering the EL-Fatiha prayer

After all the tributes and remembrances were shared on March 25, perhaps the most fitting tribute of all is that at least three refugee families have named a child Jody keeping her name alive in their communities.

Jody made a difference.

Donations may be made in Jody's remembrance to the International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue.org or 1-855-9RESCUE.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos of Jody Putnam and The Starfish Story are from the memorial service program. The photos from the memorial service  are courtesy of Dr. Janet Bauer.