Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Power, People and the George Washington Bridge

There was other news the day Chris Christie held his almost 2-hour press conference saying he had been humiliated because he had been lied to, but one could hardly notice it among the cameras and commentators surrounding the George Washington bridge scandal.  Not that creating cultures of retribution is not a very important detriment to democracy. But President Obama's announcement that same day of "Promise Zones" in the midst of economic disparities received less than 30 seconds on evening network news broadcasts. No drama, no coverage! But beyond that fact, I think the stories are connected, metaphorically and more . . . unless we believe the current interest in income inequality is merely a political issue this election year. 

Obama named the five zones -- rural, urban and tribal communities -- that have already shown promise, each working not only in bi-partisan ways, but as neighbors, educators, business leaders, faith communities, together with local, state and federal government. Obama drew on his own community organizing past as he announced the first five Promise Zones in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "We've got to make sure this recovery -- which is real -- leaves nobody behind," he said. "And that's going to be my focus throughout the year."  He called for a year of action.

My mind went back to the thousands of people stranded in traffic in Fort Lee for hours, their "being stuck" recurring day after day last September because of the lane closures to the bridge leading into NYC. Fort Lee, of course, is not southeastern Kentucky. I'm speaking metaphorically here about people being stuck because of the intentional lack of concern on the part of others. Being stuck in poverty, not being able to move in any direction, with no power to change the situation also results from the intentional or naively unintentional lack of concern on the part of people with power. Stay with me here for a minute.

Having lived near NYC for nine years, I have crossed that bridge often; I can see the lanes, Fort Lee, and the traffic. I wonder how those who haven't, but who cross other bridges every day think about this. "What's the big deal about a few lanes being closed?"  For fifteen years our family lived across another river, not the busiest bridge, but no small river, the Mississippi.  Traffic from many lanes on the Dubuque side flowed seamlessly from the north, south, and west, into one lane, for the one mile drive home across that mighty Mississippi.  When the bridge closed for a year for construction, driving to work from Illinois to Iowa (four miles) meant going around through Wisconsin.  But still, we weren't stuck. The point is: People across the country who have never driven across the GW or had an entire town stuck, "get it."  It's about power, and the misuse of power to keep people stuck in their place, unable to move or do anything about their situation. 

The Harlem Children's Zone, that Obama celebrated  last Thursday, is across the GW Bridge in NYC, ironically. Poverty and wealth can be on both sides of the "tracks," both sides of a bridge, inner cities, small towns, some suburbs, rural and tribal areas. Poverty and Promise zones can be large or small, 97 square blocks of Harlem. Of course we need more than 5, or 20, zones. We need promise not just through charter schools but for children in all public schools. We need to make that promise to each other.

We mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's announcement of the War on Poverty. Johnson spoke of communities on the outskirts of hope. Maria Shriver delivers her report to President Obama on poverty this Tuesday afternoon. There is so much to be done. And together, we can. If, that is, we aren't caught in a traffic jam where all of us are stuck politically.  Gov. Christie gives his State of the State address today.  The questions about the GW Bridge and Fort Lee will continue. And news coverage will continue. Will we continue our interest in Promise zones as well as traffic zones?

I'm going to simply ignore the rhetoric that contends "Poverty won" the war on poverty.  Of course poverty will be with us always, as will war. But we are called continually to work together to create communities of care and opportunities of hope, and call people out when they deliberately keep people stuck, particularly children stuck on the bus on the first day of school, or on every day of school without prospects for directions for success. We can perpetuate cultures of retribution or we can turn  our attention to a year of action of real concern for all.

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