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Richard Thal on #LISCLeads Conference

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Two weeks ago, our friend and colleague Richard Thal (Executive Director of JPNDC and LISC Boston Local Advisory Board member) joined us at the LISC National Leadership a Conference in Houston, Texas. He was joined by his colleague Donayda Salomon, a LISC Boston AmeriCorps alum.  Here are Richard's thoughts on the conference:
 
I was invited since I am the CDC representative to the Boston LISC local advisory board. LISC's national office chose 10 exemplary alumnae of their AmeriCorps program and we should be proud (though not surprised!) that they included Donayda in that select group. She and I joined approximately 250 people from around the country at the conference.
 
Two themes were most prominent during the two days we spent together. The first was transition, both with the prospect of a new President of the United States and with the recent arrival of a new CEO to LISC, replacing the person who had served 17 years in that position. Everyone who ventured an opinion agreed that our country will be facing a period of great uncertainty in the coming months and numerous participants expressed concern about policy and budget priorities that could harm many people in the communities we serve. (Parenthetically, you may be heartened by poll data that a well-known national pollster shared at Wednesday's closing session- when asked what should happen to undocumented immigrants, 70% of Americans favored setting in a motion a process to grant them legal status, while 25% favored deporting them to their home countries.)
Nevertheless, there was also a strong sense that our organizations have never been afraid to tackle difficult problems, we have a long history of accomplishment and are working on so many important issues that affect the lives of people in our communities, and we are blessed with skilled and determined local leaders for whom this is a life's work. On many occasions over the years, public and private officials who were initially skeptical about CDCs' work have become converts when they see all the positive changes in families' lives as a result of what we do. In the coming months and years, we will hope for many such conversion stories!
 
LISC has just welcomed Maurice Jones as its new CEO. Raised by his grandparents (in fact his grandpa was the best man at his wedding), Maurice grew up on a tobacco farm in a very rural part of Virginia. He brings a wide variety of experience in state and federal government, as a practicing lawyer, and a newspaper publisher. In his first 60 days on the job, he has traveled all over the country on a listening tour to many of LISC's 31 sites. He wants LISC to think and act boldly and, at the conference, he enunciated two major priorities for the coming year: 1) increasing LISC's focus on living wage jobs, and 2) grassroots leadership development, particularly among people of color, women and young folk (his term, not mine).
 
Making meaningful progress in either of these areas is a challenging assignment, as is figuring out how LISC might raise and deploy funds that would reach organizations like ours that are on the ground doing the work. Of these two topics, the second one seems more straightforward. From the vantage point of someone who is neither of color, a woman, or young, I couldn't agree more that grassroots leadership development is an essential task for our movement.
 
The question of good jobs is a challenge that CDCs have confronted since our infancy. How do modest-sized organizations, working in small geographic areas, have an impact on economies that are increasingly regional, national and international? Prompted by Maurice's charge, there were a lot of interesting conversations going on at follow-up sessions, in the hallways and at banquet room tables. Here is a sampling of some of the questions and suggestions I heard:
 
What are the best strategies to connect our folks to good jobs, particularly in "middle skill" jobs in fields such as manufacturing, IT, health care, and education?
 
What unique roles can CDCs play- helping small businesses develop and grow, building real estate, etc.?
 
What is the quality of the jobs created by the small businesses with whom we work?
 
With mechanization, globalization and the rise of the "gig economy", are some of our notions about employment outdated? Is there enough work to go around?
 
There is dignity in and a need for service sector jobs that are never likely to pay well. Do we need to resurrect discussion about a notion that my namesake Richard M. Nixon proposed 45 years ago- a guaranteed annual income?
 
There are a growing number of successful initiatives using the "two-gen" model- programs that work with parents and children to educate and build skills.
 
Working in participant cohorts where people can support others who are living through similar situations is very worthwhile (our Family Prosperity Initiative experience has certainly borne that out).
 
The other major theme that pervaded the conference was racial justice. We heard from and spoke with colleagues across the country working on issues such as mass incarceration, police/community relations, health disparities, and discriminatory lending practices. Of the many striking moments, three stand out. The first was the story about public safety organizing in Oakland that we heard from Ben McBride, a reverend and peace activist in the Bay Area. His deep conviction was also leavened with self-criticism, as he described his messianic idea that he somehow could turn things around immediately and singlehandedly with the force of his presence. Although the effort was much more painstaking, working with a coalition of community residents and police allies, over the last several years Ben and his colleagues have succeeded in substantially reducing the homicide rate. Reflecting on his work, he talked of how we need to engage in moments of “shared awkwardness” and to ask ourselves if we have the moral courage to confront difficult conversations with people with whom we strongly disagree.  
 
The keynote speaker at the Tuesday banquet was Charles Blow, who some of you know as an op-ed columnist at the New York Times and frequent television commentator. Listening to him made me feel like I was in the presence of an Old Testament prophet. Point by point, he obliterated the criticisms sometimes directed at people of color for their lack of “advancement” and showed how current conditions are often the result of historic oppression and misguided and cruel policies. (For many folks of my generation, a book that began to open our minds to this insight was Blaming the Victim, by William Ryan.)
 
Most poignantly, harking back to his roots in Louisiana, Charles Blow told the story of his great-grandfather who was a sharecropper. The sharecropping system was set up so that, no matter how hard you worked, it was almost impossible to ever buy the land that you tilled year in and year out. Apparently his great-grandfather was so energetic and so productive that he managed to scrape up the funds to buy his piece of earth. Shortly after he let the owner know that, shots started being fired into his house. Eventually his wife told him that their children’s lives were at stake and she was taking them and moving away. As Charles described it, his great grandpa chose love over money and ended up joining his family, abandoning the farm he had worked so hard to acquire. For generations after that, the Blow family would pass that land as they drove to church on Sunday mornings, wondering what might have happened if they lived in a world where the Klu Klux Klan didn’t hold sway.
 
Finally, and much closer to home, Boston’s own Chrystal Kornegay appeared on the final panel of the conference and talked about the frightening experience of being the mother of a grown African-American man.
 
So, as you can see, Donayda and I had a productive and informative time in Houston. If you have stayed with me this long, I hope that this email has given a flavor of the experience of this national gathering of folks who are doing work that complements and inspires the efforts of so many of us at the JPNDC.
 
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