Forgiveness and understanding
April 24th, 2007The massacre that took place this past Monday at Virginia Tech is horrific and tragic. My heart, prayers and sympathy all go out to the family and friends of the 32 people killed by a student who was on a rampage and exhibited such rage that it hurts just to think about it and imagine the terror felt by the professors and students who were targeted.
I could wax on about the media coverage or the many other facets of the tragedy like the outpouring of sympathy throughout the country and the emotions expressed by a shocked nation and global community.
There are two areas that haven't been touched on very much these past few days. One is the difficulty that people have with mental illness and the other is the rawness of feelings and disbelief that the murderer's family must feel. Reports have surfaced that the young man who murdered 32 people, injured many more and then killed himself, had been diagnosed with unidentified, at this point, mental illness. In the April 19th edition of The New York Times, an article written by Shaila Dewan and Marc Santora noted the history that Seung-Hui Cho had with the mental health system and the attempts made to help him.
Mental illness is grossly misunderstood and often ostracized in our society. If a child or adult has a physical ailment or diagnosed with cancer or other disease, it is accepted and support can be found more readily. However, mental illness in all its various forms still is misunderstood by some and feared by many. Our community's mental health authority, network 180, has been trying to change the perception for many years. There are many agencies that address mental illness and organizations that try to inform the public to take the "mystery" out of it and provide information on how this affects children, adults, families and the entire community.
Why do I write this? Many people know that I was attacked back in 1973 when I first moved to Grand Rapids from Detroit marrying a young man from this area. (I do not write this for sympathy but to help understand my personal framework for writing these comments.) Living in an apartment complex at the time, I was attacked by a man as I was climbing the stairs up to my apartment loaded down by bags of groceries. Without any warning, the man stabbed me in the back and we tumbled down a flight of concrete stairs landing on the next level where he stabbed me several more times. To say he was out of control would be an understatement. I heard later on that he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Back 34 years ago, treatment for mental illness was truly not as readily available as it is today. However, today the health insurance providers do have a long way to go regarding payment for treatment - woefully insufficient for many individuals and families.
I recovered and regained my strength and vigor for living. However, it has taken me years to recover emotionally yet I have greater optimism and love for life than many people I know. That is truly a gift out of an individual tragedy. My mom has told me countless times how horrible the journey was the night that she and my dad received the phone call at their home in the Detroit area. The feelings she had resurfaced as she watched the images this past week and her heart definitely goes out as does mine to the families who are now suffering from inexplicable loss and pain.
My one regret in my personal struggle was the fact that I never had the emotional capacity to reach out to the family of the young man who hurt me. I received a phone call many months later from the father who was begging us to please accept some kind of remuneration for our many medical expenses that were not covered by insurance. How I wish I could play back that life tape and have the family receive some relief from their suffering.
So as the next few weeks unfold with the blame game going full tilt, the tragic loss for all the friends and families of the victims, please remember that the family of Seung-Hui Cho needs support as well. The family did release a heartfelt apology and emotion filled statement as of this writing. Healing will take time - and frankly not all the emotional wounds will heal. My heart and soul goes out to everyone affected.
Dilemma or opportunity?
April 14th, 2007I am at a point in a variety of community change efforts where I just want to throw up my hands and say "forget it and all of you just swim in the muck and figure it out!" Every leader of community and social change has these times - in fact Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz wrote about it in their great book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.
Adaptive leadership requires time, vision and tenacity. When dealing with issues like the state's economy, the inability of our state leaders - both executive and legislative - to get their act together, and the growing divide between cultures, it seems beyond daunting and that doesn't even include world politics and problems!
Every time I meet with Rob Collier the president of the Council of Michigan Foundations, he enlightens (depresses?) me with more news about the situation in Lansing. He is one of the most optimistic people I know and is my barometer of things to come. The news is not good and likely will get worse before it gets better. (I chair the CMF board this year.)
. . . back to my original statement. This week I was heartened by the County Commission's reaction to an evaluation study that they have invested in regarding the effectiveness of our community's prevention programming relating to child abuse and neglect. The good news is that the programs that families and their children do make their way into are making a positive difference. However we are still experiencing spikes in the incidence of abuse and neglect but we also experienced a large jump in the level of people living in poverty in the past few years which is a fact that the general public may not be aware of as we look at the evidence of growth particularly downtown. Not to diminish the importance of the growth - it is what will fuel our efforts to address these problems! However, families are being missed and we have more work to do!
As a leader in the Kent County Family and Children's Coordinating Council (a strong and effective organization of the county commission), I participate in many discussions that are continually looking at ways to address the needs of all families in our community. This foundation initiated a program entitled Perspective 21 in 1992 addressing prevention programming and many organizations and county governmental agencies are actively involved in funding efforts. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation is still hanging in there with money and human resources - we have expended more than $2.6 million in the past decade and countless hours of our time and leadership. We will continue to be a key player in this.
I was puzzled at a recent meeting to hear from one of the committee members that he felt that "this community" jumps from issue to issue and never lands on one. Whew! And this was after discussing the 15 year community collaborative working on prevention, early childhood issues and much more. Nobody is jumping around - we are focused and working hard. Made me wonder where that observation came from. It doesn't mean that in other venues that we aren't working on issues relating to education, needs of older citizens and environmental concerns.
More on this in future posts - we do not rest; we just keep pushing on!
It must be so much fun to give away money!
April 2nd, 2007One of the most common comments I receive from people in our community is that it must be so great to be able to just give away money. Frankly it is a privilege and an honor. It is an enormous job to make grant decisions and it is hard work to go through the right steps of due diligence. And sometimes it feels like people don't place too much value on actually how serious the job is of making grant decisions. . . "It just must be so much fun"!
In the past fifteen years or so the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has become much more active in taking stands on key community issues and the board and staff find that it is much more important to not back off of taking positions.
One of our key strategies guiding the direction of the Foundation is: Lead significant social change. In order to do that, we must immerse ourselves with information and map out how we plan to address an issue. Here are just some of the areas we have taken action on in the past few years:
* Taking a strong prevention focus relating to child abuse and neglect in spite of forces that would have preferred us to stand back.
* Raising the awareness to the fact that Kent County has seen a
disproportionate percentage of children of color being removed from their homes and placed with families who are caring but not reflective of the background of the child being placed.
* Turning our attention to building strong neighborhoods by partnering with effective nonprofit organizations who are providing affordable housing and who can encourage small businesses to locate in many areas of the core city.
* Addressing the achievement levels of students in the schools within the city of Grand Rapids. It is this challenge that has been the most contentious and met with suspicion consistently with each administration of the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
* Anticipating the needs of aging baby boomers and trying to build a "Community for a Lifetime".
* And much, much more.
Bold leadership is needed now and in the future. Having had my hands slapped a few times has only taught me that I must be tireless in following through on the key issues that the Foundation has determined to be critical. It is our and my responsibility.
Yes we do make grants - giving away money. While raising the money to ensure a positive future along with providing donors with impeccable service are important, so is raising our voice to address the most complicated problems facing our community.
We are also a part of a strong statewide network of philanthropic organizations making decisions as to the leadership role that we need to play to address Michigan's economy. The Governor has asked foundations to play a role - increasingly economic development organizations are asking us to play a role - many community foundations like GRCF have been playing active and engaged roles for years. We just need to coalesce and work together to make a stronger impact.
We never run out of areas of concern and it takes unlimited brain power, courage and leadership to determine how our dollars are spent and what issues we need to address.