Friday, June 30, 2017

The Carpenter’s Assistant

Recently I have been thinking about a story I heard almost three decades back, and how the moral of this story should inform our behavior today. I have not found the story anywhere in writing. The late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Shapira, heard the story from a person who witnessed what happened, and he told it my rabbi, who told it to me.

One of the most prominent rabbinic icons of the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century was Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. Kagan was renowned not only for his scholarship, but for his exemplary interpersonal behavior and humility. He shied away from any formal office or appointment. Instead he and his wife ran a modest grocery store in the small Lithuanian town of Radin (now Radun, Belarus).
A portrait of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan
The story occurred towards the end of the great man’s life, in the early 1930s when he was in his nineties. He had heard that Radin’s carpenter’s assistant had died, and he informed his household that he would be attending the funeral. He asked them to find out when the funeral was, and let him know, as he did not want to miss it.

The members of his household were perplexed. Why on earth would one of the greatest rabbis of Europe attend the funeral of one of the simple workmen of Radin? They felt that this was not a good use of the rabbi’s time, and that he should conserve his strength. They, therefore, neglected to inform him of the time of the funeral, and instead let it come and go, hoping the rabbi would just forget about the whole thing.

Eventually, the rabbi found out that he had missed the funeral, and he became terribly upset. Try as they could, the members of his household could not mollify him. They became so worried that they called on Radin’s official town rabbi, to come and speak to him. The town rabbi said, “Rabbi Israel, I don’t understand why you are so upset. The deceased was just the carpenter’s assistant!”

The great man reacted as if he had been struck by lightning. He grabbed the lapels of the town rabbi’s jacket, and said, “You don’t understand! This man’s wife became an invalid, and could not care for herself, at all. He lovingly cared for her, feeding her, dressing her, tending to her every need, for twenty-two years, until she died. Not once did he complain or say a cross word to her or anyone else about this. Do you realize the level of godliness this man reached, through this saintly behavior? I was so looking forward to the great privilege of honoring this righteous man, by attending his funeral. Now, I will never get the chance to do so!” The town’s rabbi continued to try to console Rabbi Israel, but to no avail.
The building which housed the academy founded by Rabbi Israel, at 29 Sowiecka St.
I was wondering why I had been thinking of this story lately. Then it hit me. We, today, act just like the other characters in the story. We judge people by how they seem to us outwardly. We judge the rich to be worthier than the poor. We judge those who have had great luck and fortune in life to be, literally, worth more than those who have had bad luck. We judge those who have reached high office or professional prominence to be more important than those who merely toil in the shadows in jobs we regard as lesser.

What the great rabbi teaches us, more than eighty years after his death, is, quite simply, that we need to stop doing that. A person’s worth, worthiness and importance are, well, far too important to be based on such superficial things. The true worth of a human being is to be found in how they act, how much they give of themselves, and how much they sacrifice for others. And just like in the case of the carpenter’s assistant, we often have no idea what greatness hides behind the fa├žade of a seemingly simple person.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Addressing Racism and Homelessness in Dallas – a Progress Report

It’s hard to believe that the first time we discussed the disproportionate representation of African Americans in Dallas’ homeless population, on this blog, was just a little over nine months ago. Since then, we have endeavored to make the glaring racial disparities in homelessness an integral part of every conversation surrounding homelessness in our community.

With the help of a generous grant from United Way of Metropolitan DallasUnite Dallas Relief Fund, we are in the midst of a research and action program from the Center for Social Innovation (C4) titledRacism and Homelessness - Addressing Inequity in 10 American Cities”, nicknamed SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities). In the words of C4, “While no single initiative can end structural racism across all systems, we believe,” that through this initiative we can, “create positive change in attitudes and behaviors that will begin to close the racial gap that has led to the disproportionate prevalence… of homelessness among African Americans.”
Hard Conversations: Racism and Homelessness
We launched the program, with a number of activities in late November 2016, including a first round of training for service providers, and the first meeting of a planning body to help MDHA and C4 shepherd this program in Dallas. The highlight that month was an installment of our Hard Conversations series on Racism and Homelessness. It was a packed house, in what could only be described as a combination of a church service and rock concert, with some serious learning and consciousness raising.

In February, C4 staff spent a week here in Dallas collecting qualitative data. They held focus groups with individuals experiencing homelessness, case managers and other front-line professionals, and mid to upper management personnel of service providers. They recorded about twenty Story corps style interviews with persons experiencing homelessness, where these individuals shared their life histories. Through this qualitative research, which they are conducting in all participating cities, they are looking for patterns in how people of color enter homelessness and what barriers prevent them from rapidly and permanently exiting homelessness.

We also spent time that week, MDHA and C4 staff together, meeting with a variety of stakeholders in the community to seek their guidance and input, including a large group of African-American and allied clergy, and leaders of other anti-racism efforts in our community. We also had another in-person meeting of the local planning body we had formed to help us shepherd this effort, whom we have and continue to meet with regularly over the phone.
2017 State of the Homeless Address
During the State of the Homeless Address in March, Cindy J. Crain, MDHA’s President and CEO, shared the relevant data on racism and homelessness, from the 2017 Homeless Count, and the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). These numbers reiterated what the 2016 Homeless Count numbers showed us already: 60-70% of those experiencing homelessness in our community are African-American. She vowed that MDHA would continue to work to, “counter the systemic influences that created such extraordinary disparity with systemic changes.”
Along the way, we were heartened to see the media address these issues, with Tasha Tsiaperas’ Does Dallas' homeless population show the city is racist? in the Dallas Morning News, and Stephanie Kuo’s How Dallas' History Paved The Way For A Disproportionately Black Homeless Population, on KERA, as two prime examples. Race has also been constantly in the background of KERA’s excellent series, One Crisis Away: No Place to Go, which focuses on the plight of families in West Dallas, who are at risk of losing their homes.

Currently, as C4 analyzes the qualitative data collected here in Dallas at the end of February, they are also in the process of collecting quantative data from the HMIS system, which they will subject to rigorous analysis. They have also begun to connect us with the other cities they are working with in a budding online learning collaborative, where we are sharing our challenges, and how we are beginning to tackle them. It is fascinating to see the commonalities and differences between the different communities regarding the connections between racism and homelessness. 

C4 encouraged us, from the beginning of this process, to develop and incorporate structural changes that could begin to move the needle on racism and homelessness in Dallas. To that end, as we developed our new Continuum of Care (CoC) Strategic Work Plan, with our partners in the CoC General Assembly, we included as an overarching goal, addressing racial disparities in homelessness and service delivery. We encourage you, the reader, to review these action items to see how you can help. 

A key action item pertains to one of our most important innovations in our homeless response system this year, the MDHA Homeless Response System Community Dashboard. It provides a quarterly snapshot of the core system metrics that inform us on achievements in moving individuals to permanent housing. We will add an addendum to this important tool, which will capture, along racial and ethnic lines, who is homeless and in need of housing. Even more importantly, it will inform the community on how well we are utilizing the housing resources we have, in a way that promotes racial equity and begins to eliminate racial disparities in service delivery.

Promoting racial equity in service delivery begins “at home”. What do we mean by that? During the State of the Homeless Address, Cindy Crain shared a slide that showed the racial and gender breakdown of the CEOs/Executive Directors of the main thirty-two service providers in the homeless arena in Dallas. The numbers are troubling, to put it mildly: 44% white males, 44% white females, 6% black males, 6% black females. A key action item is to build on this, and conduct and publish an annual demographic survey of all senior management and board officers of federally funded homeless response system agencies. We can and must begin to move to a more diverse make-up of senior staff, as well as lay and professional leadership, that better reflects the population we are all here to serve.
Last Hard Conversation with Randy Mayeux on Housing First
Later this month, we will host another public event, related to racism and homelessness, as we seek to keep this issue front and center in our work.  MDHA, CitySquare, and the Dallas Public Library will present a book synopsis of Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future. Randy Mayeux, renowned scholar and longtime book reviewer at CitySquare’s Urban Engagement Book Club, will lead the discussion. Larry James and Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, will join him for the Q&A portion. They will expound on how the lessons of Toxic Inequality can be applied to race, poverty and homelessness in Dallas. RSVP today, so you don’t miss this exciting and informative event!

We look forward to continuing to work with C4, with our partners, and with the community at large on addressing this important issue. Together, we can fulfill the vision we started this process with, and “create positive change in attitudes and behaviors that will begin to close the racial gap that has led to the disproportionate prevalence… of homelessness among African Americans.”