Calling For a Change


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                                                                        –by Neal Lemery

            2021 is a year of change, of awareness, and a time to reconcile ourselves with our attitudes and prejudices.  At the core of this work is confronting our own racism and the racism of our culture. A re-examination of our history and our culture is revealing our prejudices, our privilege, and a compelling drive to change how we think and how we act.  

            The verdict this week in Minneapolis has hopefully gotten our attention to these issues, and has put a bright spotlight on the issues of racism, law enforcement, and cultural expectations.  It is an ugly sore to open up and drain. The infection is deep.  Our attitudes and opinions are facing the light of day, of public scrutiny, and of thoughtful self-examination. 

            Sadly, this tragedy isn’t the latest, and stories of similar injustices and responses continue to occupy the headlines.  Recent attention to our country’s history shows a long and deep saga of similar outrages and, at times, calls for reform and change. The lessons of history are still there, as opportunities to learn and to cause change. 

            Those of us who aspire to be people of faith and advancing a spirituality based on compassion and good deeds are wrestling with being engaged in a society that too often does not aspire to those values.  It is often too easy to do nothing, and instead to merely pontificate our aspirations to be good and kindly people.   Denial seems easy, and the least stony path. Change is hard. 

“Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.

“And so it builds up. The cruft [junk work product] calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.”

                                    –Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog 4/21/2021

            We all want to think that we come from good families, that we had a decent childhood, and that we have grown up to be good hearted, loving people, who are working to build a better society and to do noble and important work.  Yet if I want to change society, I also need to change myself, and to examine myself so that I can truly become an agent of my good values and my talents to do the Godly and charitable work that I aspire to advocate. 

            To not do that self-examination is to be hypocritical and untrue to my highest goals and aspirations as a “good person”.  My own spiritual challenge is to understand that me acting as an instrument of change is one of my purposes as a human being on this earth. A friend calls that being an instrument of God. 

            As Gandhi urged us, we need to be the change we want to see in the world.  And, that starts with self-examination.  It is ugly, often dirty work.  Each of us had a seat in that courtroom in Minneapolis.  Part of what was on trial was a criminal justice system and a culture of how law enforcement officers respond to an encounter with a man, situations where a person’s race and very presence on the street were factors in how a police officer acted.  Our culture of prejudice, discrimination, and bias (even unconscious) was deeply interwoven in that incident and how a cop, and everyone else who was present, responded. The scope of responsibility and accountability for George Floyd’s death casts a wide net.  

            My great uncle was a member of the Klan, and proudly rode his horse in Klan parades in our family’s hometown.  I heard stories of racial and ethnic prejudice from family and friends, and witnessed bigotry and prejudice, often subtle and minimalized. Like all of us, I witnessed bigotry and prejudice, and felt the social pressure to sustain those attitudes. 

We all learned the “code words”, the vocabulary for this thinking. The disease was labeled something else, throughout my life, ever-present yet often cleverly disguised, or covered up.  After all, racism was something that occurred in the South, or the big cities, somewhere else.  Not here, not in my town, my neighborhood, my family.  

            That denial is also part of the disease, the “stinking thinking” that nurtures racism.

            Those experiences are also present-day.  Perhaps they are more subtle, even disguised, conveniently wrapped in the camouflage of politics and “free speech”.  And, pretending that cultural and personal prejudice and intolerance isn’t here and now is simply being a cultural ostrich, naively hoping that these tough issues will simply go away.  They won’t, until we do our tough work, and change. 

            We need to tell our stories.  We need to air out the ugly anecdotes, and look at our own attitudes and beliefs, looking deep within ourselves to learn why we believe and think what we do.  We need to embrace education and deep conversations with family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations can be.  We can change, and we can grow. That is what good citizens and spiritually-minded people do. 

            Tomorrow can be different.  

4/22/2021

Making Our Communities Age Friendly


Neal Lemery

Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer

12/17/2019

 

 

Making Our Communities Age Friendly

 

In ten years, our population of seniors 75 years and older will double. Yet, only 1% of our housing has the amenities that will allow seniors to stay in their own homes.

 

How do we make our housing and our communities more friendly to our aging population?

 

That was a question at the recent Building Our Communities for All Ages conference sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in Portland.  Over 200 people, mostly community volunteers and professionals, gathered to hear success stories and challenges from experts dedicated to improving the quality of life for our communities and seniors.

 

We need age-friendly housing and neighborhoods, topics which are especially challenging in rural Oregon, where funds for public improvements, housing, retirement living, and transportation are hard to come by.

 

We want to encourage people to grow old in their homes.  It is less costly, more efficient, and prolongs both length of life and quality of life.  Yet, 50% of seniors spend more than 30% of their income on housing. 80% of rural senior Oregonians own their own home, yet 40% of houses need major modifications for aging population, and only 1% of housing is fully equipped to allow aging seniors to safely remain in their homes.

 

80% of Oregon seniors own their own homes, but are increasingly “house rich, cash poor”, as rising property values increase property taxes and other costs also grow, while incomes remain limited.

 

“You cannot do anything alone.  It’s about collaboration.  Sometimes it requires compromise,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told the conference.  “Young people thrive when they have an older adult who cares about them and engages with them – making connections.”

 

“70% of the reasons for a long, healthy life are products of social engagement and activities.  The other 30% are related to genetics and quality of health care,” urban activist Gil Penalosa said.

 

“It’s not retirement, it’s re-hirement,” he said. “People are living longer, and need to be engaged in their community in order to live healthier, longer lives.”

 

His worldwide planning group takes a radical view of making public space people friendly. He brings in art, pedestrian-friendly spaces, and a revitalized sense of community to places all over the world. His message is simple: start small with inexpensive changes that allow people to mingle, and develop relationships with each other.  His premise is “8-80”, creating public spaces for both the eight year old and the 80 year old.  (https://880cities.org. )

 

A healthy community requires eight dynamic factors: housing, transportation, parks and public spaces, health and community service, respect and inclusion, social participation, and communication and information.

 

Aside from the structural needs of housing, healthy social interactions and opportunities for physical activity are critical.

 

“Loneliness is just as lethal as smoking five cigarettes a day,”  Sharon Meieran, Multnomah County Commissioner, said.

 

A decline in our physical activity also increases our risk for diabetes.  25 years ago, 9% of Oregonians were obese. Today, that rate is 29%.  By building sidewalks and improving parks and other pedestrian friendly facilities in our community, we improve our health and our ability to remain in our homes.

 

Rural Oregonians have additional challenges.  A majority of us are sixty miles or more away from health care, and live more than ten miles from a full-service grocery store.  Public transportation is limited, and many people require door to door bus service.

 

More information on the conference and Oregon’s responses is available at https://states.aarp.org/oregon/gov-brown-to-kick-off-age-friendly-summit

 

 

Building Community


Building Community

Takes time.

Time for coffee with a friend, time to say hi on the street,

Time in the grocery store to ask how someone is doing,

Time to listen, and have that five minute conversation, and

Not worry about the to do list, the errands yet to be run.

 

Building community

Is giving someone else the credit, get the award,

Have the idea you had become theirs,

Letting someone work through the process and stumble

When you could do it twice as fast, knowing that they are learning

And will be proud of their accomplishment when the work is done, and to

Know we will all be better off because of that.

 

Building community

Is teaching skills and quietly providing tools

Helping someone grow in confidence and pride

While you stand back, and just coach, mentor, applaud,

Brag about them to others about how they are growing.

 

Building community

Is letting the gossip stop with you, not passing it on,

Not finding something to criticize, or mock, or disparage

And instead, to praise, to applaud, to find the good in something,

And let the flowers bloom in someone else’s yard,

To quietly weed when no one else is looking, and let someone else

Take all the credit.

After all, don’t we just want the flowers to bloom?

 

Building community

Is to keep smiling, to praise, to recognize the good in someone,

To remind yourself that you haven’t walked that mile in someone else’s

Shoes, that you don’t really know all of their story,

And that we are all on a journey

Together.

 

–Neal Lemery 5/16/2017

I Choose To Build


 

I can choose to do nothing, to embrace the status quo, and not examine my own thinking, my own, old ways of doing things. Or, I can be the wrecking ball, the sour voice of discontent when new ideas and new ways come my way.

 

Or, I can be the builder, using the solid, time tested materials and ways that have worked in the past, and incorporate the new energies, the new ideas, and make things better.

 

My choice.

 

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” — attributed to Eldridge Cleaver.

 

My community is going through a lot of change now. Our downtown traffic pattern is being completely revamped, and the streets and sidewalks are torn up. The usual routines and paths are disrupted, and our city bird is the construction crane. Construction worker orange and raincoats is the new fashion statement.

 

I can curse the detours, the mud, the mess, or I can look through that and see the beginnings of the new town plaza, the spots for new street trees, and the better traffic flow that will come from this.

 

I choose to build, to make stronger, to help others on their own path, so that they can achieve their dreams, and to find their path a little easier.

 

And, I can join the voices embracing the new energies, the vitality of a prosperous, active downtown area. I can be part of that, and be a builder.

 

I’ve done my share of whining about what is lacking in my home town. But, I am choosing to be a builder, not a destroyer, a part of the solutions and not part of the problems.

 

To that end, I’ve helped organize and host a monthly open mic downtown on Saturday nights, providing a performance space for writers, musicians, and other artists. Part of that work is joining others to bring gallery space for artists downtown, and promote the creative arts.

 

I’m a master gardener and have helped educate myself and others on sustainable gardening and educating the community about being better stewards of the land. I’ve nurtured and planted community garden space.

 

I’m working on a foundation to help fund improvements to local parks and recreation spaces.

 

And, I’ve spoken out in favor of our community library, and worked on the campaign to renew its local funding.

 

I’m not alone. This community is on the move, and change is on the wind. New ideas, new projects are everywhere. Nearly seventy of my neighbors just returned from a ten day trip to China, having new experiences, learning about another part of the world, and coming home with new ideas and a new international perspective.

 

Today is Poem In Your Pocket Day, which encourages us to share an inspirational poem. Here’s my choice:

 

The Bridge Builder

 

BY WILL ALLEN DROMGOOLE (1860-1934)

 

An old man going a lone highway,

Came, at the evening cold and gray,

To a chasm vast and deep and wide.

Through which was flowing a sullen tide

The old man crossed in the twilight dim,

The sullen stream had no fear for him;

But he turned when safe on the other side

And built a bridge to span the tide.

 

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,

“You are wasting your strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day,

You never again will pass this way;

You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,

Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

 

The builder lifted his old gray head;

“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,

“There followed after me to-day

A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been as naught to me

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

 

Anthology of Verse, 1931

 

Change is all around me. I could choose to be the stick in the mud, struggling against the tide, holding fast to the old, the familiar. Or, I could be part of the change, going with the flow, being one with the river; and embracing the change.

 

The old ways can be comforting, certainly familiar. Yet, will they be successful, meaningful as the world, as my community changes?

 

“The civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral and spiritual environment in which is finds itself.” (Leon Megginson, 1963. quoted by Thomas Friedman, Thank You For Being Late, 2016, p. 298)

 

I can be the bridge builder, the advocate for a better community, or I can be the stick in the mud, and let the tide move against me, leaving me rotting in the muck of the past, as the world passes by.

 

—Neal Lemery, 4/27/2017

A Nice Review


A nice review of my book, Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains.

“Neal Lemery has a very big heart, big enough to understand how all of the grief and stress which the young men he encountered in court in his position as a judge was connected to their acting out against the law. Rather than pass harsh judgment, instead, over and over, he found ways to reach out to those young men, to empower them to understand what they were really feeling and to feel that someone truly cared about them. As such, over and over he’s been a kind of miracle worker. He has also become a mentor to incarcerated young men, visiting them faithfully while they served time, and sometimes even becoming a kind of adoptive parent to them. He tells their stories and the stories of his connections to them in an easy conversational style and helps us all understand how powerful compassion can really be and how to express it. Must reading.”

—Carol Imani

Building Community — Ubuntu


How do I build community? How do I help make my community stronger, more resilient, more viable? How do we improve our ability to take care of each other, and become healthier, a better whole?

 

In South Africa, there is a concept of Ubuntu.

 

“I am what I am because of who we all are”

 

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Desmond Tutu

 

 

“Ubuntu is a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual.” Stephen Lundin- Ubuntu!

 

The word ‘ubuntu’ originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too. It is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.

 

“Or as the Zulus would say, “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

 

“The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as:

‘It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.

 

They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

 

(https://motivationinspirationandlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/ubuntu-i-am-what-i-am-because-of-who-we-all-are/)

 

Who am I? A citizen, yes. Yet, I am a part of my community. In defining that, I am who I am because I am a part of the community.

 

My community defines me.

 

If I want to advance myself, and advance my community, I must, as a part of the community, also advance the community.

 

Ubuntu is unity, being a part of something bigger than myself. And, that “whole” also defines me.

 

In my work in the community, when I strengthen others, I strengthen the community and also myself.

 

When I mentor someone, help them with a school subject, take time to listen to them, work in a community garden with them, talk with them in the line at the grocery store or the post office, or just smile at someone on the street, I am building my community, and I am engaging in and being an aspect of Ubuntu.

 

And, when I am tearing down my community, not taking care of myself and others, when I am exploiting weakness and divisiveness, then I am working against Ubuntu. My negativity is destructive, of myself, of others, and of my community.

 

Racism, sexism, bigotry, ignorance, indifference — all work against the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

Today, I resolve to be a builder and a force for strength, wholeness and health. I strive to live within the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

–Neal Lemery, November 16, 2016