Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"It's time to stop writing about problems and do something ..."

I actually said those words -- out loud, in front of an audience earlier this year.

What was I thinking?

As I reflect on events that preceded my departure from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in April, my thoughts go back to my January assignment. There I was, in Washington, D.C. covering Obama's inauguration, when it hit me: at the age of 51, I felt more inspired than ever before in my life.

In late 2007, after reading "Creating a World Without Poverty" by Nobel-prize winning author Muhammad Yunus, I got this kooky idea that Yunis' "social business" revolution, which had sparked entrepreneurism in impoverished Bangledeshi villages, could be emulated in America.

I drafted a book proposal detailing how long-ignored urban communities could be reinvigorated and transformed into self-sustaining economic engines if enough interested people combined desire and energy with a national and global vision and best practices.

With few contacts in the book publishing world and little time to knock on new doors, the proposal sort of languished.

The idea was reignited after reading a report released in September by the Center for American Progress (CAP) detailing how urban areas will be re-energized with a "Low-Carbon Economy" and its promise to create more than 2 million jobs.

Obama's historic victory was my final motivation. Ground sweeping change is attainable in urban areas if black leaders shift their focus (at least for the next four years) and develop an aggressive agenda that works in cohesion with the president's innovative federal initiatives.

I touched on the subject in my March 17 column:

"Within his first days in office, Obama reinforced his commitment to investing in and re-energizing metropolitan markets.

In early February, he detailed the goals of his revamped Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He appointed as director Joshua DuBois, 26, a Pentecostal minister from Massachusetts, who said the office's top priority is to make sure community groups are an "integral part of our economic recovery..."

Black leaders should also be holding themselves accountable if they haven't contacted Adolfo Carrión Jr., Obama's new director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Last month, Carrión boldly stated that he wants "cities to become economic centers" that help pull us out of the recession and boost America's competitiveness. Carrión vowed to develop urban neighborhoods in 'environmentally thoughtful ways.'

Do black leaders and politicians need a personal invitation to jump on this? After all, these are issues that disproportionately affect blacks and low-income urban areas. I support holding Obama accountable, especially if he ignores workable plans put forth by blacks. But it seems that's not the case.

Therefore, it's simple. We can gripe and wait for singular salvation, or we can meet Obama partway. In brief, we should be ready to take advantage as opportunities arise."

I included in that column that unskilled, non-unionized black workers won't be the first to benefit from the jobs created through the Green Revolution. Therefore, local politicians should host strategy sessions with nonprofit heads, detailing how they can access upcoming federal grants that prepare urban dwellers for jobs in emerging environmental fields. Our local representatives, I added, should be schooled on federal tax incentives for environmental companies "located in densely populated urban areas."

I also encouraged activists, educators and social thinkers to learn more about Obama's promise to fund programs with a goal of reducing the "incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities." An endeavor such as this provides tremendous opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by the 20-year "War on Drugs" that basically targets poor minority communities and furthers social and economic dysfunction.

It was around the time of that column when I uttered the words, "Perhaps, it's time for me to stop writing about problems and start doing something about them."

Silly me.

There was no way I could have predicted editors at the Post would believe my March trip to Washington at the invitation of an international anti-poverty group was some sort of payoff for a column I had written about an East St. Louis renewable energy project, rather than a sincere interest in the infinite possibilities we have before us under Obama.

Because I have not dictated my journey so far, I find myself now even more drawn to events and ideas that underscore the concerns I listed in my columns, in my proposed book, and in this video from MoveOn.org.:

Last week, I sat in on a conference call with local members of MoveOn.org. I told the group that my interests were in accord with Obama's new adviser for "green jobs, enterprise and innovation," Van Jones (featured in the video above). Jones maintains that "environmentally-friendly jobs" can fight economic inequality and create “pathways out of poverty.”

The local group is taking part in MoveOn's nationwide grassroots effort to build a new energy economy. The campaign, “Power Up America," has an immediate goal to get members of the Senate and Congress to commit to repower America with 100% clean electricity within 10 years and creating 5 million new "green jobs."

On Friday, May 29, at noon, MoveOn will host "Jobs Day," to highlight possible energy jobs and share ideas about expanding regional clean energy businesses with political support.

Although I'm excited about the possibilities of this and other efforts, I'm growing more concerned about inner city development in St. Louis and in other urban areas. I'm not hearing or seeing black leaders articulate the urgency of this movement and I'm not seeing specific directions given to those who serve low-income people.

If we're not more vigilant, only those with resources and connections -- who may or may not have the expertise or desire for real substantial urban renewal -- will benefit.

I will do what I can to get folks out for "Jobs Day" and I hope those reading my blog will attend and show support. As my concern grows, so does my commitment. Indeed, it's time to stop writing about problems and do something.

For more information and a summary of MoveOn's campaign and its goals, click here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Waging War Without a War Plan

I found the conversation at globalgrind.com between hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, political commentator Ariana Huffington and socialite Kim Kardashian about ending the so-called “War on Drugs” interesting and, yet, somewhat disturbing.

Simmons, whose social, cultural and spiritual outreach efforts never fail to surprise me, was instrumental in repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York. This is an important step in finally addressing the draconian drug laws that have had a disproportionately devastating effect on poor and black communities since the mid-1980s. Simmons seems to be trying to pull together a trip to Washington to tell the president that the “Moment is Now” to transform drug laws.

Huffington takes Obama, new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and Attorney General Eric Holder to task for the Administration’s “cautious” (and sometimes contradictory) approach to amending America's drug policies.

Kardashian expresses shock and awe at the rise in the number of people incarcerated since the 1970s and vows to follow Simmons lead by diving "into this issue and speak to anyone who is willing to listen.”

The criticisms and efforts raised by Simmons, Huffington, Kardashian and others related to this issue are extremely important and timely. There has never been a better time or a better president to finally grapple with the human and monetary resources this country continues to waste with the wholesale incarceration of hundreds of thousands of low level, non-violent and/or addicted drug offenders.

What seems to be missing, however, are the structures, community-based strategies and key players to get real solutions now. Let's say drug laws are drastically altered tomorrow. What’s in place to end the cycle of poverty, drugs and crime? Where are the strategic plans for drug and family counseling centers, new industry job training and adult educational opportunities? Who’s drafting real-world ex-offender reentry and job training programs? Where is the blueprint for viable alternatives to the easily-accessible drug trade?

More important, where are black leaders?

Folks complain about what Obama has or hasn’t done (in just five months, by the way), but what are black leaders doing to prepare for the change he promised to bring?

No disrespect to Huffington or Kardashian intended, but blacks make up the majority of inmates in America’s prisons. The so-called "war on drugs" has wrought havoc on poor, black communities. Therefore, the passion, leadership and activism of black politicians, thinkers and scholars are sorely needed.

A few months ago, I wrote about the creative initiatives introduced by the Obama administration which, I believe, were specifically drafted to invigorate long-ignored urban and rural areas and major metropolises. Other than Newark Mayor Cory Booker, I’ve heard nothing from black leaders about plans to redevelop black communities, to invest in the disenfranchised, or to develop viable, money-making alternatives that may dissipate the allure of the drug trade while detouring people toward a more positive, productive direction.

Yes, by all means, let's address unjust, race and class-specific drug laws and nonsensical mandatory sentencing that punish the poor. That must happen, but not in a vacuum.

Obama can’t do it alone. Nothing is promised except a four-year window of opportunity. There is no better president to meet us halfway with a strategic, all-encompassing agenda for “real” change.

To echo the words of a certain hip-hop mogul: the “Moment is Now.”