Our hearts break and our souls are wrenched over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We also acknowledge that they join a long list of others, some of whose names we don’t even know, spread throughout the world. The horrific violence that occurred in South Minneapolis at the doorstep of our local Leadership Foundation, Urban Ventures, last week raises the question yet again: What can we do to help?
It is everyone’s responsibility to confront racism, in our own hearts and in the words and actions of others. There is no future flourishing of people and cities apart from this honest encounter with ourselves. However, and at an even deeper level, the answer lies less in what any one person can do alone than what can collectively be done together. To know relationships is to know change. This is the path forward for Leadership Foundations.
This starts with how we approach the issues that lead to social problems. Too often we approach these complex issues with solutions from an outside-in perspective. Those who are removed, who study the issue, prescribing solutions that, while well meaning, often miss the mark.
The answer, we believe, lies in being in relationship with one another, to committing to people and places for the long haul. The strength of Leadership Foundations is its diverse network of leaders on the ground in over 40 cities, who have been committed to this for the last 40 years and will continue to do so moving forward, in times of crisis and times of calm. Those relationships—this bedrock of social capital—are what have enabled local Leadership Foundations to jump into action and be effective early in the pandemic and during the past week, standing arm in arm with their neighbors who are angry and feel helpless.
Our experience teaches us that in every community there are those who understand the issues they and their neighbors face far better than anyone on the outside. One of our primary functions at Leadership Foundations is to elevate and connect these potential and emergent leaders; to build a common ground that drives deeper insight into our problems and is able to discern what it takes to solve them. We know and have seen that through collaboration and collective action we can fashion solutions that actually work.
An example of this can be found in Minneapolis where the Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation works alongside 50+ local partners to address opportunity gaps in academics, nutrition, physical activity, parenting resources, and more—all with the overarching goal to prepare and send every youth in the South Minneapolis neighborhood to college or postsecondary education.
Urban Ventures is now in the middle of the perfect storm: buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic on one side and the senseless killing of Mr. Floyd that resulted in over 120 local businesses being burned down on the other side. As Urban Ventures swims in this overwhelming tide of sorrow and suffering, they are doing what they have always done for the last 25 years: working in, with and through relationships to provide food, rent, mortgage assistance, and support to small businesses just to name a few. It is concrete action that wears a relational overcoat.
Our cities are living, breathing organisms that reflect and manifest our collective joys, sorrows, and hopes. And, while cities continue to offer real signs of hope, we too often continue to see them as battlegrounds, with the zero-sum game mentality that this encourages – what one side gains the other surrenders. But if we can begin to regard our cities more as playgrounds, we can see there is more abundance than scarcity. Through collaboration and collective action community centers once abandoned are reborn, parks once derelict and dangerous are now green and full of families, and our streets are places of peace and good will.
There is no single answer that will solve the long history of racialized violence represented in George Floyd’s death, and the similar pain that we are experiencing in our cities all over the world. What any answer will be characterized by, however, is the courage to walk down two paths paved by relationship: coming to grips with our personal complicity and the collective commitment to work with others.
It will determine whether our cities are battlegrounds or playgrounds.