In August, 250 leaders from across Africa and around the globe gathered in Pretoria, South Africa for the Urban Ministry Consultation. For 20 years, this event has represented a space in which urban people working in the trenches of post-apartheid South Africa, or in urban slums and inner cities elsewhere in the world are able to connect deeply, share experiences and struggles, and discern together what God would have for them back in their cities.
The 12-day, three-part event which included the LF Africa gathering, brought together urban ministry practitioners, activists, students, and scholars to explore how to be prophetic communities taking local ownership for reconciliation and justice. The theme of this year’s Consultation was We Must Rise: Healers-Dreamers-Jesters and was inspired by recent student movements that swept campuses across our nation, pursuing aims of decolonization; addressing university fee structures to give increased and just access to poor students; fighting for an end to outsourcing and exploitation of workers; and changing language policy and curricula to be in line with the South Africa of 2016 and beyond.
This has come to be known as the #Fallist movement as the focus was on constructs of colonization and oppressions that had to fall! As faith communities in cities, our concern is with the vacuums that might be left after certain constructs have justifiably fallen. How do we ensure that these vacuums are not filled by even more oppressive forces? What do we rise to? What do we put in its place? How do we take local ownership to build ethical, aesthetical, healthy and vibrant communities- cities that are playgrounds- where all of God’s people can live with dignity and meaning, sharing in the abundance of God’s resources? These kinds of questions are central to the work of Leadership Foundations, and we took them up at this year’s Consultation.
Report cards! For all but a few of us, the very words produce a low-grade nausea that can quickly mature into a high-grade paralysis. Whether a good or poor student we intuitively sense the news will be less than hoped.
This tendency exists because we either are not as accomplished as we desire or we simply lack confidence in our own capacities. If, however, we are fortunate enough to receive a good report card very few things satisfy as completely and need to be celebrated as fully. We are excited to let you know of two good report cards.
Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an Op-ed piece titledThe Best News You Don’t Know. Against many of the reports suggesting our best days are behind us, Kristof argues that the data suggests the opposite. Some of the most positive “rapid gains ever recorded” around things like health, poverty, literacy, and inequality are currently taking place in cities and the world. While making clear that this does not allow permission to gloss over many difficult things, he does advocate this “good report card” should empower us because of the very obvious success we are experiencing.
LF also continues to make great progress. Through the Bridgespan Group’s work with us in 2015, LF is finishing the first year of a 3 year plan to achieve greater impact in the cities we serve. Whether it is the development and deployment of the Stages of Impact (SOI) Tool among the 70+ members, developing the capacity to compensate our Senior Associates to provide coaching for Local Leadership Foundations, or recruiting new board members: all speak to a “good report card.” One of the most exciting things to report is the hiring of Cassie Wyssbrod for the position of VP of Development. Through Cassie’s leadership we are confident LF will continue to have the resources necessary to contribute to what Kristof described.
There is much to do and many more report cards in front of us, to be sure. However, we pause to take a breath and savor this good report card.
Leadership Foundations people are often asked, “How did you end up leading a local leadership foundation?” More specifically, “What were the variables, factors, and important moments that account for you leading this organization or running this program? And while we are tempted to provide a variety of answers that would lift our individual effort up, the answer we invariably give, when honest, is the power of relationship. I am here and I am doing this work because someone invested their time and talent in me.
This central idea that who we become is a result of relational investment in us is, at first glance, deceptively simple. So much so that we are forever tempted to describe our effectiveness with more sophisticated responses ranging from comprehensive program models to efficacious training to robust spirituality. All, of course, are helpful, but these factors miss the mark if they do not become vehicles to build and strengthen relationships.
The Senior Associates is LF’s primary strategy to keep the power of relationship as the primary currency of our network. Upon joining the LF network, each member is connected with a Senior Associate who meets with them on a monthly basis. Senior Associates are women and men who have run successful organizations, have a demonstrated track record of mentoring colleagues and embody LF’s vision, mission, and values. Their singular focus is to deepen our member’s impact by growing their mastery of the Wheel of Change. The only way to do this with any sense of confidence is when members—as they work to see their cities become playgrounds rather than battlegrounds—are provided the power of relationship through the gift of a Senior Associate.
Benjamin Franklin and Jesus had at least one thing in common. Franklin once stated, “Well done is better than well said.” Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Both move us toward an understanding that words—if they are used at all—should simply be an explanation of a living demonstration.
But of course, like most things, there is an inherent tension in this reality. How does a person, let alone a global network like LF, create a framework for demonstrated outcomes, neither falling prey to a bureaucracy of requirements that pushes toward success as one of compliance nor fostering an ethos of laissez-faire where you are the sole arbitrator of success?
LF has stepped into this vortex of competing realities. We have created a space to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit needed to engage the spiritual and social renewal of cities, and help ensure that the results we claim are getting accomplished in demonstrable and measurable ways. LF has employed two tools to achieve this outcome. The first is the Stages of Impact (SOI) tool that takes LF’s wheel of change (the three functions) and creates an annual analysis. The SOI measures how an LF member is increasing their mastery, synergy, and sustainability of that wheel. The second tool is the accreditation, occurring every three years, which requires an onsite visit from the member’s Senior Associate and other colleagues in the LF network. Over the course of 1 ½ days a review of finances, board, programs, staff health, and related material is assessed and a decision is made on whether to grant accreditation. All LF members will complete the SOI annually and will be accredited by the end of 2017. We believe that these are rather remarkable displays of letting our work do the talking.
This was brought to life this past week when the Northwest Leadership Foundation (NLF) completed its SOI and accreditation. Given the facts – NLF has been around for 27 years, has created best-practices and programs replicated by others, and has helped launch several local leadership foundations – one could ask why NLF would need to go through such a rigorous process? The answer is that they believe they can still get better, they can make their city better, and that Franklin and Jesus are correct: living demonstrations of work speak volumes and move us toward a better world.
Street Lights is written in real time. It is written in the midst of the vacillation and violence of our world. And if Street Lights is true—which we desire it to be—then it must in some way reflect these realities.
Orlando this week. Charleston a year ago today. And countless lightning strikes of violence in-between.
What does one do? How does Leadership Foundations enter into this bewildering display of heartbreak with any sense of propriety and talk about cities becoming God’s playground rather than a battleground? To keep trying seems a fool’s errand. To give up and throw in the towel seems to be giving into darker forces. Perhaps what is called for is what Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest in The Power and Glory says, recently quoted in a piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson:
“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
What LF tries to do in times like this is help us see each other more clearly and fight against a possible “failure of imagination.” Through our work, as demonstrated in blog posts like our reflection last year after Charleston, we surface those “lines at the corners of the eyes” and “shape of the mouth”- the humanity in cities around the world and the good things that are happening. That in the midst of the horribly sharp edges of this world, playgrounds are still possible.
Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” From LF’s beginning we have recognized both the truth and the power of Dicken’s statement and how cities can become playgrounds rather than battlegrounds as a result. Laughter and humor sit at the very heart of our work in cities around the world for two reasons: our relationship to Jesus and our relationship with others.
G. K. Chesterton reflected on Jesus in his book Orthodoxy: “there was something that He hid from all people when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” It is our conviction that we are most like Jesus when, in the midst of working on very tough issues in cities around the world, we continue to have a sense of humor; taking that which is in front of us seriously and holding on to ourselves lightly.
Humor also tells us something about each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky stated it this way: “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man/woman, don’t bother analyzing their ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much they are moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch them laugh. If they laugh well, they are good people.” Through the years we have seen this truth play out time and again. That it is people who laugh—and LF presidents and staff are great laughers— seem to get things done consistently and faithfully in the most difficult places.
This past month on LF’s City As Playground podcast we had the great privilege of talking with Eric Geary, president of the Lexington Leadership Foundation, about this very subject. Together we explored the notion that it takes engaging leaders to engage leaders. Through the podcast we explore the role that humor plays in turning our streets and cities into playgrounds.
One of the great images in the Old Testament is the Ebenezer Stone. The event is recorded in 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel, the priest of Israel at the time, erects a stone to remind everyone “thus far the Lord has helped us.” One can imagine that this became the first of many “stones” that were scattered throughout Israel constantly reminding the people of God’s ever present help and healing.
All people and organizations need the equivalent of an Ebenezer Stone in their life – concrete reminders of particular moments where God has helped you and your organization.
Two weeks ago we had the privilege to go back to one of our Ebenezer Stones- Pittsburgh- for our LF network gathering. In the midst of a number of important meetings a group of us gathered on Mt. Washington, which is where, in 1962, Reid Carpenter prayed with the Rev. Dr. Samuel Shoemaker that “Pittsburgh would someday become as famous for God as it currently [was] for steel.” This was the place where the LF movement, now in over 70 cities around the world, began. This was the place where we had our Ebenezer Stone moment and remembered, over 50 years later, “thus far the Lord has helped” LF.
Along with a retelling of Sam and Reid’s story and a commissioning, we also took a moment to reflect on our own cities. Using G.K. Chesterton’s reflection on Pimlico and Chelsea we prayed for our cities and imagined what it would look like to love them into greatness. As you reflect on and pray for your city, we hope this becomes an Ebenezer Stone for you as well.
Give a child Legos, Lincoln Logs, or even a SimCity video game and before you know it, they will be building new lands and creating unique structures while also weaving fantastic tales. Leadership Foundations see this process of creating, being imaginative and seeing things in new ways as not exclusive to children; it is also vital for leaders within cities around the world.
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann contends that, not unlike the way a child plays, a critical task of leaders is to see and imagine new ways that “evoke a consciousness and a perception alternative” to the dominate culture. For Leadership Foundations, this alternative perception lies within the way we see our cities. Too often cities are regarded as derelict and dangerous. Leadership Foundations sees the alternative where cities are places of promise and prosperity; cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds. In this clip Dr. Stephan DeBeer, founder of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation and director of LF in Africa, briefly comments on the role of the imagination and the implicit ramifications it has on cities becoming more like playgrounds.
Earlier this month in Nairobi, Kenya, leaders from around Africa gathered to imagine what it would mean to operationalize the idea of seeing cities as playgrounds. Women and men from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa came together and reflected on this idea and discussed what it meant for their cities to become places of transformation for all. Dialogues abounded about what this would look like in particular cities up and down the continent. Core to every conversation was the implication and importance of the imagination as the primary engine by which cities become playgrounds rather than battlegrounds.
LF is convinced that to see cities become playgrounds, a prophetic and hopeful imagination is vital to the process. And as such, fostering the imagination of LF leaders and partners will further equip them to cultivate their cities into God’s playgrounds.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic, in reflecting on the beatitude “blessed are the pure in heart,” wrote the following that captures an essential element we have recently highlighted in Street Lights and what we plan to continue moving forward: “Purity of heart is the ability to will one thing.” Kierkegaard’s argument, opposed to being a moralistic reflection on the divine life, is the idea that the biggest difficulty in our life is double mindedness; that the primary manifestation of a heart tethered to God is the singular commitment to willing one thing.
Leadership Foundations is about willing one thing done in many ways: developing leaders who drive the wheel of permanent change—engaging leaders of good faith and good will, building the capacity of others, developing joint initiatives—in cities around the world. This singular commitment of willing one thing in a multiplicity of ways has fostered a global network of LF affiliates in over 70 cities with an aggregate budget of $30 million; 3,000 partners; 600 organizations receiving capacity building support; and over 255,000 people directly served through joint initiatives. This singular commitment of willing one thing in many ways has created a dizzying array of contextual, accessible, relational, and relevant programming ranging from affordable housing to health care to college access, just to name a few. This singular commitment of willing one thing is what allows the LF network to increasingly cultivate our cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds.
As we continue forward into 2016, Street Lights will continue to focus on how LF is developing these leaders who are uniquely equipped to cultivate their city into God’s playground, and, how our cities are becoming better as a result.
A central question to any group that works in the city is how they see the Holy Spirit operating. How does she move, where does she visit, and what does it look like when she has accomplished something? The answer to this question will largely determine how the group behaves and gets things done.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, scientist and mystic, provided an answer that resonates deeply within the LF network. He stated that a fundamental characteristic of the Spirit at work is that everything will rise and converge. LF views our three functions– engaging leaders of good faith and good will, building the capacity of others, and developing joint initiatives – as a demonstration of this principle. As the LF network operationalizes the three functions many different people’s and organizations’ capacity will increase. The net effect of these efforts—as demonstrated in local leadership foundations throughout the world—will increase the social capital in a city and convergence will occur: thus demonstrating our unique understanding of this holy principle.
LF’s third function- developing joint programming initiatives- produces programs that address a particular city’s biggest challenges. The key to this function does not simply lie in the creation of a program, but rather the way in which it is created. LF engages leaders and organizations throughout the city to bring their knowledge, resources, and capacity to bear around a particular issue. This collective effort has the net effect of creating concrete and contextually appropriate programs while also developing meaningful relationships and a sense of community as people unite around a common goal.
Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation is using this function- developing joint programming initiatives- to create convergence and improve their city through The Leaders Collaborative. This 12 month cohort experience require leaders to place their trust in other leaders as they “get clear on vocation, work to understand how to effectively build their influence and grow deep, rich mutual friendships built on common desires to be culture makers and agents of shalom in the city.” This demonstration of LF’s third function embodies the movement of the Holy Spirit’s way of abundant love and grace.
While we know it is difficult work setting out to transform our global cities, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, “At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” Thus we seek joint initiatives, a convergence of our desire for leaders of good faith and good will to come together to create permanent redemptive change in cities around the world.