Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Challenges of our time

Thousands of philanthropists gathered in Seattle this week for the annual Council of Foundations gathering, held this year with Philanthropy Northwest. The subject: "The Challenges of our Time: Making a Difference at Home and Around the Globe."

Here are a few of the things I found striking:

1. Witnessing an opening to the conference led by leaders of the Duwamish and Suquamish Tribes. It is a welcome sign of respect to see events like this begin with a blessing from the first peoples of the land.

I was especially pleased in this case, since I have worked closely with the tribe on such projects as the return of a park that once was the site of the famous longhouse where Chief Seattle once lived. Now, as a member of the board of the Suquamish Foundation, I am working with tribal and community leaders to raise funds to replace that longhouse, which was burned to the ground by the U.S. military. But that's another story ...

2. Hearing some thoughtful analysis of the possibilities for new, citizens' journalism to democratize news gathering — including the plans MTV is making to get young people to report on the presidential campaign in their local area. (I hope they go beyond the "horse race" and consider "the challenges of the time" and how candidates do, or don't, meet those challenges.)

3. Hearing what went right in Houston after Hurricane Katrina in a panel chaired by Angela Glover Blackwell. While the federal government and Louisiana leadership fell apart, the city of Houston took in hundreds of thousands of people, and treated them like human beings. What was the key? Networks of trust, formed before the disaster, that allowed government, businesses, and non-profits to put aside questions of turf and buck-passing, and get the job done. A commitment to treating people humanely. Good plans, but no rigid adherence to plans (you can't plan for every eventuality). Willingness to provide leadership, to put human needs ahead of political pay-offs (or another way to say it — you can't be an effective government leader if you hate government).

4. On the immigration debate, hearing that a sane immigration policy may not be that far off — but that fundamental issues are still not being addressed. Only one speaker mentioned in passing that the disruption of the Mexican economy (by NAFTA) is a major reason for immigration. When people lose land and livelihood, they start moving in search of a way to support their family. The upcoming issue of YES! shows how countries further to the south are taking back their economies and the prospects for livelihoods closer to home. Stay tuned.

5. Handing my newly completed article on Cuba's global health care initiatives to Dr. Paul Farmer, whose extraordinary work is chronicled in Mountains Beyond Mountains. I quote him in my article saying Cuba is showing that "you can introduce the notion of a right to health care and wipe out the diseases of poverty." Not just a health clinic here or there, but the elimination of unnecessary disease and suffering.

That boldness has possibilities. Again, I'm inspired by the people I met in South America on this count. "Quit being afraid," they told me when I asked what message they have for us in the North. "Together, we can take on the causes of poverty, disease, and war."

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