Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"When you see a good fight... Get in it!"

These are the immortal words of a latter day freedom fighter named Vernon Johns. I would not be surprised if you don’t recognize his name—don’t worry many are unaware of the contribution he has made to our country.  He is often called the father of the American Civil Rights Movement, and was the predecessor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Vernon Johns

The operative phrase in John’s exhortation is “a good fight.”  The question is what constitutes a good fight? I would argue that a good fight is one where there is no loser—only victors;  a good fight is one whose result liberates both the Goliaths and Davids;  a good fight is one that ultimately gives life rather than takes life; a  good fight is also a catalyst  whose aftermath creates a multiplier effect that moves us closer to a fairer, more just, and more loving planet.

For the freedom fighters of Montgomery, Alabama the good fight was against an interrelated complex of enemies whose names were racism, prejudice, and legalized and religionized segregation.  Their response, their good fight if you will, was the renowned 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.  As a consequence, they were able to desegregate the Montgomery bus system.  Their courageous actions would trigger the desegregation of stores and other institutions in Montgomery. Their bold stand would serve as an essential spark of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's. Their efforts created new momentum and a multiplier that would eventually sweep through the south and the country--and would inspire other oppressed people around the world to do the same.  


From Montgomery, Alabama to Montgomery County, MD
What then is the “good fight” for us in Montgomery County, MD in 2013?  I’m sad to report that there are many to choose from—and they remain as modern day manifestations of the same giants that our forbearers in Montgomery, Alabama battled against in their time.  Of all of the fights that we could “pick,” I would argue that poverty is a good fight, a Goliath if you will, that we should take a stand against in this present time. Why poverty? Because it is visible; it is concrete; and if we truly fight the good fight, we’ll be forced to address some of the other fundamental causes that contribute to poverty (such as racism and other forms of institutionalized discrimination, concentrated privilege, the opportunity gap, and other well-known giants that are too many to name here).  


                                             Our Future is Under Attack--Right Now!
A report published last year by Venture Philanthropy Partners cites that between 2005 and 2010, childhood poverty more than doubled in Montgomery County, MD (from 4.1 percent to 9.7 percent).   The report also cites that 76% of children living in households that generate income are living at 200% of the federal poverty level- about $46,000 per year. While this number may sound adequate to some, people living at this income level in Montgomery County (where the self-sufficiency standard for a family is $77,933) are unable to do so without some level of public or government assistance. As you can see, this isn’t just a problem—this is an epidemic!  If any other chronic or acute disease reached this proportion, we would be declaring a state of emergency. The fact that this exists at all in such a wonderful, progressive, smart, and affluent place is an indictment on all of us.  Likewise, the fact that we live in this kind of place makes it likely that we can knock this giant out—if we will ourselves to do so.


What can we do now?
The poverty challenge isn’t just present, it's growing-- and so to must our resolve.  It doesn’t just affect poor people, it affects all of us.  To be blunt, our future prosperity will largely be determined by our willingness and ability to eradicate poverty, first from the face of our County, our region, and even the world.  Our first steps require that we better convince our collective selves that an epidemic level of poverty (and just above poverty) exists in our fair County.  Experience (even in flashes) is the most instructive teacher in this instance.  It just so happens that there is a fantastic way to do this.  From February 4-8th, people all across our County will be taking the SNAP Challenge.  Councilmember Valerie Ervin is leading this opportunity for us to experience one aspect of poverty—together—in our community.  
IMPACT Silver Spring along with a dozen more non-profit partners, the County Executive, the County Council, The Superintendent of Schools and the MCPS family, and corporate interests are participating and inviting their networks to do the same. On Feb. 8th, IMPACT and A Wider Circle will be co-facilitating a community conversation where people can share their experiences from the week, and deliberate about the next steps that we can take together to defeat this enemy in our midst.

Sign up here (for the challenge and the good fight!).

Diversity is our competitive strength.