Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Letter From a Small Island in A Scary World



The world has been a fearsome place this summer. There’s no escaping the haunting horrors from Syria and Iraq, Israel and Gaza, Ferguson, Ebola plagued West Africa and Central America’s child refugees.  We’re safe at our parks, beaches, restaurants and pools, yet unable to feel safe in the world.  A senior Pentagon official says ISIS has an “apocalyptic end of days” strategy “unlike anything we’ve seen before.”  How does one make sense of it? How is what we do at Share Our Strength relevant, if at all?

            I’m looking for answers here on Monhegan Island, ten miles off the coast of Maine. A mile long by a mile wide, two inns and a handful of artists’ cottages, Monhegan gives new meaning to peaceful.  The summer population swells to several hundred but in winter it’s only about 40, mostly lobstermen. This is the 7th straight year our family has visited. Monhegan is about as far from the troubles of the world as one can get, yet three things here evoke how we must go about our work together.

First, Monhegan sits amidst a harsh, inhospitable environment, surrounded by often stormy seas. Islanders confront adversity with unity.  Lobstering season begins October 1, known as Trap Day. Notwithstanding their competitiveness and the race to drop traps in prime spots, no one goes until everyone goes. Everyone leaves the harbor together at an appointed time and has an equal chance for the most desirable places. If any boat is not ready, or a crew member is sick, all other boats wait, even if it means a day or more. 

Second, like Share Our Strength, their year depends heavily on this last quarter.  Unlike most Maine lobstermen who fish all summer, Monhegan’s lobstermen fish primarily in winter because in summer the lobsters migrate inland to warmer waters. They have to make the most of every day, and within each day the most of every hour. As we head into the all-important last quarter of the calendar year, responsible for so much of our revenue that funds our No Kid Hungry campaign, there’s not a moment to lose.

Third, in winter and summer, whether lobstermen or visiting artists, there is pride in craft and attention to detail. I’ve been thinking of something our colleague Dan Roge shared with me as he reflected on a recent visit he and his wife had with novelist, poet, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry.  He learned that they “never set out to make some kind of impact. They have tried to do things right”  It reminded me of Viktor Frankl the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who in his book Man’s Search For Meaning writes: “Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself...”

As we head in to the crucial last few months of 2014, Monhegan’s lessons boil down to these three:

n  Stick together no matter what

n  Make every moment count

n  Do what’s right, the rest takes care of itself

I wish I had more wisdom about the convergence of so many complex and frightening problems around the globe.  The lessons above, and our work even at its best, can’t solve all of them. But, in the long run, what we stand for can: lifting up the dignity of every human being, investing in the next generation so that every child has an equal chance, demonstrating that we all have strengths to share.  There’s no shortcut to ameliorating the ignorance and hatred that cause so much suffering. In fact there is only the opposite: doubling down on strategy to make real the values we represent, recommitting for the long haul, and bringing to each and every action the faith that our own small acts done well inexorably yield transformational global impact.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Shaming Our Nation into Caring About Hunger


Last night NBC Nightly News used a newly released Feeding America report on hunger in America in 2014 as a jumping off point to report on the need of many military families to subsidize their income through visits to food banks.   See the story here @ ow.ly/AqR2R

The Feeding America report covered a lot of additional ground, showing that Feeding America’s network of emergency food assistance providers serves 5.4 million Americans each week and a total of 46.5 million over a year. It describes the choices that many have to make between food and medical, rent, utilities and transportation costs.

But NBC focused on one of the more surprising aspects of hunger in America which is the number of enlisted military families, defending our freedom, who are not free themselves from hunger and want.  You can’t watch the NBC report without feeling that something has gone terribly wrong not only for the families involved but for our entire society if we are not able to provide a basic level of support for even the soldiers who have volunteered to protect and defend us.

The NBC report reminded me of the way Martin Luther King advanced the struggle for civil rights by highlighting the gap between our ideals and our reality, by shaming once indifferent Americans for not living up to their own ideals.   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the 50th anniversary of LBJ's "war on poverty" bill


This week makes the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing the legislation that enacted his “war on poverty” into law.  During his remarks in the Rose Garden on that morning of August 20, 1964, LBJ said: “we will reach into all the pockets of poverty and help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  That climb has turned out to be steeper than LBJ or anyone else might have imagined.  Today 46 million Americans live below the poverty line compared to 30 million Americans when Johnson was in office. Renewed presidential leadership is needed and awaited to complete the journey.

Friday, June 6, 2014

From last night's wreath laying ceremony at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 70th anniversary of D-Day



            Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, one of those rare world-changing events that actually live up to such a phrase.  Last night, 70 years to the moment that our transports were approaching Normandy and paratroopers were dropping behind enemy lines; Share Our Strength was part of a small group participating in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. 

We were the only nonprofit included among Washington’s most prominent business leaders. We’d been invited by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, in no small part due to their great respect for our colleague Tamra McGraw.  I like to also think they recognize Share Our Strength for a different but important form of service to our nation. Our host was Major General Jeffrey Buchanan who served with both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101 Airborne and is currently Commanding General of the Military District of Washington DC.

 

General Buchanan and his colleagues explained the rigorous commitment of the “tomb sentinels” who comprise the 24 hour a day honor guard. They volunteer for the assignment despite being held to almost impossibly high standards.  They are measured on more than 100 criteria from the crease in their slacks to the alignment of their eyes. If anything is more than 1/64th of an inch off they are cited for a deficiency. Two deficiencies means being taken off honor guard duty.

 

In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, General Buchanan was then a young soldier selected to parachute on to Omaha beach in commemoration of the Americans who gave their lives to liberate France and turn the tide of World War II.  He paused to gaze at Arlington’s 400,000 graves behind him. “This really is sacred ground” he said with a sweep of his hand. He asked that we think about those men today.  And he reminded us that from General Eisenhower on down, no one had any idea or guarantee, how things would turn out.

When the ceremony ended around 6:00, I excused myself from dinner with General Buchanan and the Board of Trade and instead walked the deserted roads to Section 60 which is reserved for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  On the other wide of the cemetery, far from the crowd of veterans, tourists and others who had gathered at our wreath laying ceremony, only two small families of four or five huddled together around gravestones about 50 yards apart.

From a distance they could barely be distinguished among the field of white headstones, but as one got closer you could see their arms around each other’s shoulders and heads bowed.   Sacrifice and faith and honoring memory were not history lessons for them, so much as the oxygen they breathe. I had walked over to visit one grave in particular, the son of a family friend, but two hours later as the sun set I was still standing among them all.

 

 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Pulitzer Prize for Giving Voice to the Voiceless

 I sent a note of congratulations last week to Eli Saslow of the Washington Post after he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Explanatory Reporting” for a series he wrote about people and communities struggling with hunger and utilizing food stamps.   http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2014-Explanatory-Reporting  

 
His response to my email was characterized by both humility and genuine appreciation for what we have worked so hard to achieve through our No Kid Hungry campaign:  If, in some small way, the stories have helped advance your great, important work, then that is worth far more than any prize. I'm grateful to get to write about the problems you all are working to solve.”

 
If you don’t have time to read the series you can get a good sense for its power from The Washington Post’s one page letter to the Pulitzer committee nominating Saslow.  See @ http://www.pulitzer.org/files/2014/explanatory-reporting/saslow/saslowletter.pdf

 
In talking to his Post colleagues about the people he wrote about and who “I owe the most to” he explained: “They’re the ones who take the huge risk. It’s a huge act of courage to have somebody call, who you don’t know, from out of town, and say that they want to come be with you constantly in sort of, you know, every corner of your life in this moment where things are usually not going well and there’s a lot at stake. That’s an incredible thing to ask of people, and yet they say yes, and I wonder a lot about that because I’m not sure I’d be the person who said yes. And I think it’s because people are so — they really crave to be understood and they want to know that what they’re dealing with matters. And I think our journalism should validate that and it should take good care of the trust they’re giving us to come into their lives.”

 
Saslow is 31 years old and hopefully represents a new generation of reporters committed to bearing witness and giving voice to the voiceless. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

“The key to the future is finding the positive stories and getting people to tell them to each other.”


Last week I was in New York to speak at a social entrepreneurship forum that took its name, Go Big or Go Home, from one of the articles I’d written about our No Kid Hungry strategy.  As I was walking toward the event at an NYU auditorium on Washington Square I passed another building, the Judson Memorial Church that had a quote on the wall that caught my eye. It was from Pete Seeger, the folk singer who died earlier this year at the age of 94, and one of my long-time heroes.  It said: “The key to the future is finding the positive stories and getting people to tell them to each other.” 

 
The nature of songwriting is to take an experience or idea and boil it down to its essence and Seeger’s words did exactly that. I stopped and scribbled them down because his sentiments felt like a wonderful reinforcement of exactly what we’ve been doing: at the NGA summit in Detroit, with our new partner Good Housekeeping, in our videos about school breakfast, in our recruiting for Dine Out at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Arizona, on our Facebook page and Twitter feed, in the best practices that Community Wealth Partners share with clients, and in so many other ways.

 
We’re not just finding the positive stories, we’re creating them. But Seeger’s point is that is not enough. People are inspired by learning of positive outcomes, what works, knowing a problem is solvable, and by those who hold themselves accountable for solving it. Small steps forward play as valuable a role as the large. And so we must continue to find ways to not just create or find the positive stories but also be about “getting people to tell them to each other.”

 
  By the way, Judson Memorial Church is worth checking out whenever you are in NY. It was built in 1892 and financed by John D Rockefeller, designed by legendary architect Stanford White and includes 17 spectacular stained glass windows by the master of that art form, John LaFarge.  It pursues a comprehensive social justice agenda. And it quotes Pete Seeger.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Goose Rocks Beach at First Light on New Year's Day


 

There’s nothing like watching dawn break over Goose Rocks Beach in Maine.  The first sign of light on the horizon is as thin as the white line you see in the crack under a door. Darkness and desolation yield to the emerging outlines of an ocean teeming with life and alive in its own right, coming into focus like an old TV only our parents would remember. This morning the clouds seem to rise out of the ocean toward the sky: fierce, dark and with the jagged edges of uncombed hair.

 The seals are happy to have the place to themselves. They bob in front of the house, venturing closer than we ever see in summer. 

 We took a walk yesterday during the brief period when the mercury made it to 34 degrees. The sun was out and it was pleasant so long as the wind was at our backs. Rosemary and I were bundled from head to toe.  Nate frolicked as joyfully as the seals, wearing only a t-shirt and relishing the sensation.

 The wrack line of dried seaweed was filled with moon snail shells and we collected half a dozen for the bowl that serves as our dining table’s centerpiece.  

 The moon snail has always fascinated me, for the meticulous manner in which it deposits and protects its eggs, and for the brutality of its predatory behavior, all but invisible above the surface of the sand.  It’s able to wrap its expandable foot around a clam and then use its radula, a kind of biological Swiss army knife, to drill a hole into the bivalve’s shell, and insert a tube to suck out and digest the clam. (To see them in all their grandeur go to @ http://ow.ly/say4B )

 A nature writer named Barbara Hurd who teaches at the University of Southern Maine writes about the moon snail as an example of how “beauty recedes when hunger intensifies.”  I like this discovery of a new way of thinking for the New Year: the work of Share Our Strength as protecting and preserving nature’s beauty.  Recalling the faces of first graders we’ve seen eating breakfast from Baltimore to Los Angeles, I can’t think of a better way to describe what we do.