I’m reaching out to you on this day, Monday, July 25, 2011, because—as you may have heard—it’s a very special occasion for me, the arrival of my 80th birthday.
Throughout my life, I’ve come to understand that gifts of all kinds were meant to be shared. And the joy of reaching this age, combined with all the rich experiences connected to it, are certainly a beautiful gift to me. So, now let me share.
In the weeks leading up to this day the gifts were especially abundant. For instance, last month as a result of a long and valued friendship with Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners magazine, and his wife, Joy Carroll, I spent several days participating in the fascinating “Wild Goose” festival near Raleigh, N.C. Imported from England, the outdoor festival combined music, art, justice and peace issues and themes of deep spirituality. Accompanied by my beloved companion, Aljosie Aldrich Knight (herself a native of North Carolina and a former co-worker in the Atlanta-based Institute of the Black World in the early 1970’s) I was encouraged by the hundreds of deeply concerned and committed young people, who formed the heart of the “Wild Goose” gathering. Though these were mostly white and southern-based young people, they reminded me of all the serious, committed youth of every kind who I’ve met everywhere in my recent travels across the country. For instance, it was not long after “Wild Goose” that I found myself in a different setting—Providence, Rhode Island, where the northeastern-based Education for Liberation organization held its second annual conference, “Free Minds, Free People.” Here on the campus of two adjoining high schools I met and conversed for days with hundreds of students and teachers from public schools, independent academies, charter schools and institutions of higher education, along with grassroots community organizers and local activists and artists of every kind.
At the Providence conference there was a rich and rewarding racial, ethnic and social diversity among the participants. Some of these magnificent young people I had met before at gatherings like last year’s US Social Forum in Detroit. Others were familiar from my visits to their home ground—like the Baltimore-based Algebra Project folks. Others were new to me, like the impressive and inspiring group of Asian-American students and adults who lovingly challenged me to open my definitions of “people of color” as widely as possible. And everywhere, among all the Free Mind, Free People participations the deep and continuing conversations constantly returned to what I consider the absolutely essential educational question of our time: “What are the spirit and content of an educational experience that will prepare our nation’s students (of every age) for active, humane and informed participation in the creation of a just, compassionate, multi-racial democratic society?” (And, of course, the natural next question followed that: “Who is ultimately responsible for the development of such creative “citizenship education”?) For me it is a question far more crucial and life giving than “How can we educate to compete with China?”
In Providence and elsewhere, wherever I have tried to encourage engagement in the “democratic conversations” which are necessary for the creation of a new America, I continued to hear the unremitting call of young people: “We need the elders with us—for our good and for theirs—for the benefit of the children now coming after us.” Wherever I heard it my heart was open to that appeal, not only because of my own Elder status, but because I have become increasingly convinced over the years that we humans are deeply wired in such a way that we need the best gifts of youth and elders, working together and separately, to create the transformative events, situations and institutions that will help us to realize our most creative human potentials for personal and collective development.
Indeed, it was that conviction that led some of us at the Veterans of Hope Project and our long time friends and collaborators at the Boggs Center in Detroit to seek out a way to make it possible for Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (and relentless campaigner to replace our nation’s punitive system of mass incarceration with a redemptive; healing, non-racist approach to penal justice) to meet with some of the elders who helped create the 20th century USA freedom movements and who continue to participate in the struggle for a transformed American nation and a compassionate new world. During the last week of June, this intention brought sister Michelle together with: Grace Boggs, 96 year old veteran of many humanizing struggles in America, including leadership and encouragement for the current, ongoing, grassroots level work to transform Detroit from a place of dying neighborhoods and institutions into a city of hope and new human possibilities; Bob Moses, iconic, spiritually grounded organizer in Mississippi during the years of the southern freedom movement, who continued that organizing tradition with his family and others in their creation of the Algebra and Young Peoples Projects’ joint struggles for urban math literacy and the empowerment of young people to lead their communities and nation toward a more perfect union;Nelson and Joyce Johnson, leaders of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC and long-time organizers for worker justice and for the development of a Truth and Reconciliation process in their home town and elsewhere; Phillip Jackson, founder and president of the Black Star Project for transformative education in Chicago; Donna Jones, powerful pastor with so-called “marginalized” youth in Philadelphia; andKathy Sanchez, veteran Native American organizer of the Tewa Women’s Project in Pojoaque, New Mexico.
This was surely a gift: To participate with Michelle for several days in a powerful process of sharing, exploring, questioning, imagining and challenging with these and other veterans of decades of organizing experience, along with a number of our younger companions, and to explore the rich possibilities of collaborating with and possibly deepening her work. To carry out this task while constantly reflecting on Grace’s insistent summons for us to pay great attention to “what time it is on the clock of the world” provided deep and rich context for me. And it was clear that sister Michelle and almost all the other participants were approaching her work and our own in a larger, richer setting. To be able to live, reflect and develop in the context of such veterans of hope would be a gift at any time. To be blessed with such opportunities for continuing growth and development at age 80 is a source of great joy for me. And to know that the Veterans of Hope Project can help to open doors between young and old, between elders and new beginners, can find ways to join working, celebrating hands across national, racial, ethnic, religious, class and gender communities in the work of re-creating our nation—this knowledge, I know, would cause my dear, late wife and VOHP co-founder, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, to smile and dance and sing in those special ways that only she was able to do. Yesterday (July 24) she would have been 81! I’m sure she would invite all of you to be share her great joy as well.
Finally, the mention of song and dance, evoking the sacred memory of Rosemarie, reminds me of one more joy that I wish to share with you on this day. On last Saturday evening, July 23, (one day after my brother,Danny Glover’s birthday — See his note below) I sat outside with nearly 2000 other persons in a magnificent escape from Denver’s version of the American summer furnace. But we were not simply escaping, we were drawn together by the extraordinary power of one of our city’s great gifts to the world, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company.
For the second year Cleo’s company, an amazingly gifted group of predominantly African-American, multi-racial dancers and drummers, had invited a dozen varied dance organizations from around the Denver metropolitan area to participate in “The Mile High Dance Festival.”
For several reasons, the night was significant for me. Not only did my magnificent sister, Cleo, try to lead the crowd in a Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday” song to me. More importantly, I saw again the social and creative genius of this woman, her gifted company and her marvelous family. Child of an interracial marriage (at a time when that could be a dangerous choice in America), over the last 41 years Cleo has continued to ground herself and her company in the great musical creativity of America’s black community. And from that deep and solid base she has continued, unfalteringly to reach out to the rest of America, lovingly, graciously inviting them onto the powerful ground that her musical genius and her humane giftedness have created. On Saturday night that rich reality was palpable, and I loved it.
Significantly enough, the beauty of the setting Cleo created was not focused in the work of her company. True to the generosity of her spirit, her company was scheduled last among the 12 groups of performers. But something else was at work that night at the Dance Amphitheater where we gathered next to her company’s educational building. By the time the first 5 or 6 hundred members of the audience had gathered on the lawn, and from that point on, it was clear that this was an endeavor unlike any other likely to be seen in Denver (or in most other American locations) at this time in history. The variety of people who were streaming into the outside space was remarkable. It appeared to me (and to others I checked with) that the racial/ethnic make-up of the gathering was approximately 40-50 percent Anglo (our local term for “white”) and 50-60 percent people of color, every possible shade of color. It was a beautiful kaleidoscope, and I wondered if others were just inhaling it in the way I was, giving thanks to the Creator for such magnificent testimony to the variety of human life. What was also obvious was the sprawling presence of children, everywhere, all kinds, all ages, all possible ways of being and acting.
Throughout the night my eyes were practically glued on the children when I was not looking at the great variety and creativity of the many dance styles performed on the stage. Most often, the children were watching, carefully, almost seeming to study the performances. In some times and situations that night, younger children would stand up in their places and mimic the movements being acted out before them. I thought about, wondered about, what they were seeing, learning, feeling. And my heart was tempted to sink when I thought about all the so-called educational institutions who say they cannot afford to make it possible for children to engage in this most human activity in the course of their schooling. But I refused to give in to the despair and instead gave thanks for Cleo and all her co-creators around the city and the world. I saw them teaching the children, learning from the children, opening great spaces for the children to dance and breathe and live. And I knew that any education for a humane community must open spaces for the children to dance and dream, the way I watched them on that evening at the Amphitheater. I knew we must ultimately open spaces for the children to discover each other, dancing, walking, jumping, singing—or just finding wonderful ways to enjoy and engage each other.
I took all this experience with the children as a magnificent Saturday night birthday gift. Now I am happy to share it with you and your children, our children, all of them, everywhere—from Denver to Afghanistan. Let them, let us, dance.