El Paso at 2am, last November. We reached El Paso along dusty I-10 swept by heavy winds across the southern desert. We were traveling for Stakeholder Health, curious about how life, health, mercy and justice grow in tough towns. We were a bit dazed from the wind and long miles, late night and very early morning. But also still eager to understand how the idea of Positive Deviance had taken root and produced global fruit in what seemed to be such an unlikely place. We could see the border and the low mountains beyond out the window.
The team of brilliant faculty working with Dr. Arvind Singhal of the University of Texas El Paso named the obvious opportunity as the coffee took hold: let’s look through the duel lens of Positive Deviance and Leading Causes of Life at these tough and beautiful streets on both sides of the border. et’s go back and forth across the border right here and find the life breaking through right where others only see conflict and death.El Paso has for many decades been a place where you can see that happen despite seasons of fear brewed up elsewhere to solve somebody else’s electoral problems.
Even in the impossible hours after Saturday’s spew of violence, you can already see the healing come from among the people of this special place. You’ll see that much more the months ahead as the people in his hard place find the way toward healing. Here they have long practice in finding life amid death. The very name speaks of passing over.
In a time so soon after the bullets, it seems so powerless to offer up the leading causes of life to the bloody streets? But that’s the best I’ve got. Last Sunday we released a book, Generative Leadership: Releasing Life in Turbulent Times. It’s written by people living across all sorts of boundaries, eyes wide open to the traumas and fears burning from the Tundra to South Africa.
We know there is much broken that cries out for fixing, blood flowing from wounds that need to be healed. And we know our small voices seem overwhelmed by the trumpets of the violent and those who gain from their fear. Mr Trump didn’t invent that process and isn’t even the best at it today. This poison is as American as the Thanksgiving gravy. It is amazing the violence is as low as it is and practiced by isolated and damaged people acting on their own. American history is full of much worse. Ask the Navajo. Ask the Chinese who built the railroad across Paiute and Lakota land and were then excluded for their labors. American ugly.
It is not clear that people gathering peacefully to organize, tell the truth and vote is a great plan to heal a culture on fire. But it is our best one. The voting that might heal rests on a politics the opposite of fear; practical and transparent realism focused on what works for most people, their families and neighborhoods. You have to appreciate difference, listen and speak across tribal lines. Politics works when it
tells the truth about life and what makes it possible.
This is the same in Dayton, Winston-Salem or Cape Town. And it is different in each place, tuned to local possibilities. This is what we saw happening from coast to coast on our Road Trip. It isn’t being force bed down. It is rising up.
In November, we’ll be driving another lap of our See2See Road trip, this one in the land the First People called the Inland Sea. Up from Winston to Huntington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Dayton, Indianapolis, Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville–cities built by on Native American land by immigrants who now fear others.
I work in a job in a healthcare organization and mostly run with folks who do the same, some in hospitals others in public health. We have oddly unhelpful language to talk about the deep and powerful forces driving the health of our communities. In these times it is striking how shallow words like “population health” and “social determinants” are. They feel like shreds of tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree. We need much more powerful ideas to guide our work.
Bobby Milstien is on to something with his focus on “vital conditions,” as is Tyler Norris and Soma Stout‘s hard labor at crafting wellness indicators strong enough for long term policy development. This is the driver beneath our long work on Leading Causes of Life. None of this would stop one particular killer in Walmart or Dayton. Someone else is simmering even as I type.
The practical labor needed to turn around and go another way–together–doesn’t come from just fixing this or that obvious problem. Life doesn’t work because it stops bad things, but because it generates new ways out of old ways. It out-generates the conditions that would otherwise close down all the possibilities but death. Life is the thing that finds a way. You can see this most clearly in the very toughest places where the violent and their anger seem so powerful.
Our new book on Generative Leadership was mostly written by people old enough to be cynical—but aren’t. The oldest soul among us was Zach Stewart, the illustrator who is just graduating from high school in Cape Town. Before our book, he completed his senior project by illustrating a bible with the characters normally left out (the illustrations on this blog). His language is as sharp as a surgical laser, interviewed in the Warehouse blog
“The theologies that create and justify injustice and empire are not strong. They don’t hold up when they’re bent against the reality of humanity and the longing for real good news. They are weak theologies applied forcefully. Perhaps inhuman theologies.
“Originally I was gonna draw the faces of the oppressors in the Bible. That would have been a different project that would be powerful in its own way. Honestly I got bored at the idea of drawing a lot of white men. However, in the process I began to work with the idea that the Bible is more a home for the oppressed than the oppressors. That is hope.”
In times of fear and violence we must help each other think more clearly. Together. That’s what well do next April 16-18 in El Paso for our UnConference. We’re be there next month to plan it, visit the Walmart as well as the neighborhoods on both sides of the border where life is finding a way. There will have been other tragedies in other towns simmering with other unhealed traumas by then, much less next April. Let me know, if you want to be part of this.
Today, we think of our friends and colleagues cleaning the blood off the sidewalks, tending to the wounded, burying the dead, consoling the families. Do not hurry past the sorrow.
But tomorrow we must make the choices that lead to life.