Sunday, January 16, 2011

Should Martin Luther King Day be a "Holiday"?

Depending on your definition of "holiday", maybe not.

For about 10 of the past 20 years, I've started Martin Luther King Day early, with the privilege of attending the annual MLK Breakfast, in Minneapolis. I've listened in person to luminaries such as Harry Belafonte (more than just a singer, believe me!), General Colin Powell, Andrew Young, Cornel West, Julian Bond, and others. In addition, twice, I attended neighborhood breakfasts, watching the annual event on a large screen, alongside others from my Saint Paul neighborhood and from the broader community. Each year, such events offer time to reflect on the principles and the values which Dr. King espoused, the inspiration he provided to us in the sixties, before his assassination, and the continuing relevance of his words to the challenges of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, in the nineties, as many organizations debated whether to offer their employees a three day weekend, or to retain Martin Luther King Day as a work day, I expressed some concerns. Might Martin Luther King Day become no more than an opportunity for recreation, with no time spent on reflection about the importance of this great human being and about the effect of all that he accomplished for our country?

Other holidays don’t have much effect on us, do they? How many of our nation's residents take time on Presidents Day to reflect on the presidency and the importance of our Constitution, the Executive Branch, and the separation of powers? How many use Washington's Birthday as an opportunity to remember the history and principles of the American Revolution, the original "Tea Party", the evolution from monarchy to democracy? How many pause on February 12 to remember the man who led our country through the struggle to free slaves and promote equality?

I suggested that we might produce more benefits by having people report for work, but requiring workplace education and discussion of the life and values of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, such a provocative suggestion lacked political correctness; it garnered little support.

My concern returns every year, including this one. Consider this:

  • Several colleagues noted less traffic during their Friday commutes. They guessed that some commuters had likely begun their weekend early, turning it into a four-day occasion. Had people left for the weekend to visit the King historic site in Atlanta (an excellent museum; as you know if you have been there)? Had they traveled to Washington, D.C., or to any other place with special events this weekend? I think I know your answer.
  • This year, in contrast to the early years of the Minneapolis MLK Breakfast, some organizations which purchased one or more tables’ worth of tickets had trouble finding enough employees willing to attend. Why should someone get up and get out of bed at 6:00 a.m. on their “holiday”?

In fairness, Martin Luther King Day does bring out crowds to events in Minnesota – true to our deserved reputation as some of the most engaged people in the country. (See However, is it enough?

At the 2010 MLK Breakfast, the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Lowery, encouraged us to move from “charity” to “love”. He suggested that we not just focus on occasional, episodic endeavors to work for the good of our fellow humans, but rather that we apply ourselves continually to empowering all members of our communities to do more to increase our quality of life.

Doing what’s necessary to make this world a better place requires more than taking a “day off” on Martin Luther King Day. It requires making each of the 365 days of the year a “day on”, living out the values and vision of Dr. King, and encouraging others to do so. Let’s all make this third Monday of January 2011 a day to work hard to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. We all deserve relaxation, fun, and time with family and friends; but let’s do the work of the holiday, before we play.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Top National News Events, with Local Implications

What happened in our nation in 2010 that will undoubtedly have implications at our local level?

Merriam-Webster’s identified “austerity” as the word of the year. That single word may well encapsulate the major themes underlying my “top 7” list.

1. Health care reform: significant movement forward; a missed opportunity. On the positive side, the nation made progress on health care. An overhaul of the health care system did occur. New legislation makes care more affordable and eliminates restrictions based on pre-existing conditions, for example. This will help to reduce health disparities and promote greater effectiveness of care for everyone. However, failure to provide free, universal health coverage to all Americans puts us behind other first-world countries. In the U.K., where I lived for a year and visit frequently, everyone, from poorest to richest, goes to sleep at night secure in the feeling that they have health coverage. What a difference it would make if everyone in the U.S. had the same reassuring feeling. What if all of our children’s physical and mental health needs received attention, and did not detract from their ability to learn at school? I don’t care whether we adopt a Democrat plan or a Republican plan. My vote would go to a referendum to require Congress and their families to go without health insurance until all of their constituents have coverage. We could have free universal health care in a very short period of time!

2. National and state elections; the “shellacking” of the President. Voters delivered a message; the President, in his own words, said he was “shellacked”. With a House Republican majority (242 to 193) and a Senate Democrat majority (53 to 47), can we expect any bipartisan cooperation, or only endless, partisan stalemate? If the latter, we will have to do more on our own at the local level to promote education, jobs, and housing initiatives that will maintain our quality of life.

3. Economy perhaps gaining; jobs not. We seemed to begin to emerge during 2010 from a bad recession. However, job creation has not rebounded; unemployment remains high; the housing market has not recovered. (What little job growth we experienced in the first part of the year became insignificant in the face of cuts and a slowing of the job growth rate for much of the rest of the year.) Jobs are crucial; economic stability is vital for families. For many of the issues we encounter in education, for many of the problems that confront our communities – a healthy economy, including an adequate number of jobs, provides prevention and solutions. Efforts to improve our communities in 2011 will fare better if we can improve the economic infrastructure.

4. Arizona immigration controversy. Arizona’s law, the strictest in the nation, requiring people to carry their registration cards, drew intense attention to the topic of immigration. Heightened attention can have many benefits, if informed by facts. Our immigration research and public seminar this year, with the Minneapolis Foundation, convened people who understand that, in our globally interdependent modern world, we cannot simply put up fences, literally and figuratively. We must understand immigration within the larger context of our changing demographics, our desire to remain competitive in the world economy, and the necessity of forming positive relationships with countries throughout the world. The future of our nation and neighborhoods depends on it.

5. “Racing to the top” in education (but not yet winning the race). In 2010, our federal government committed billions of dollars to promote the “race to the top”. Nine states and the District of Columbia won grants to develop new standards to promote student success, to develop data systems to promote and measure progress, to recruit and retain effective principals and teachers, and to turn around their lowest performing schools. “Waiting for Superman” broadened the awareness of the general public regarding the quality of our nation’s schools. However, also in 2010, international data showed that we’re slipping. The United States ranks far from the top in Science, Reading, and Mathematics – well below places such as China, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Australia, on all measures. On some measures, the U.S. could not outperform much smaller countries like Iceland, Poland, Slovenia, Finland, and Estonia. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented: “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

6. Tea Parties. Whether you participated or not, whether you love the partiers or despise them, you must acknowledge that the tea party movement constitutes a strong, clear manifestation of what it means to live in a democratic society. The movement emerged, and then drew energy from the grassroots. It profoundly influenced the 2010 elections; it will continue to influence policy. We who care about human services and community development must recognize that the movement offers another dimension to the broader, less strident, and less partisan concern among voters of many different political persuasions that we must show tangible results from the money we raise in taxes and spend on programs.

7. Poverty rates announced as highest since 1994. The Census Bureau issued this announcement in September of 2010, for 2009: an overall poverty rate of 14.3% (43.6 million people in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase). We had higher rates of poverty in this country in the 1960s, especially among older people. Nonetheless, this is a new peak for the past couple of decades. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported that the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009, while the percentage increased from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent over the same period. Let’s hope that changes in a positive direction, as a result of the 2010 health care legislation.

Austerity. By the way, you might want to take a look at the Merriam-Webster web site, if you’re curious about 2010’s top words. I used “austerity” in a speech several weeks ago – perhaps contributing to propelling it into first place. As the lexicographers explained: Topping the list is austerity, defined as "enforced or extreme economy." Lookups for austerity peaked dramatically several times throughout the year, as people's attention was drawn to global economic conditions and the debt crises in Europe, but lookups also remained strong throughout the year, reflecting widespread use of the word in many contexts. "Austerity clearly resonates with many people," said Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, who monitors online dictionary searches. "We often hear it used in the context of government measures, but we also apply it to our own personal finances and what is sometimes called the new normal."

Happy New Year! I wish you the best; and I look forward to working with you on these issues that face our communities.