Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Veterans Day... A story from the front lines of empathy

Six days before Veterans Day 2010, Afghanistan War veteran and author Wes Moore had this message:

“As a society, we need to be more empathetic, tolerant and proactive.”

This was unlike other speeches I would hear in the week leading up to Nov. 11. It was a crowd of some 700 people whose mission includes empathy, tolerance and activism. It is the annual gathering of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. While I’m sure there were military veterans in the room, most attendees you would fall under that term sneared at by Mrs. Palin and her pals -- community organizers.

Lest you think that Mr. Moore is some namby-pamby community organizer…. Well, he is a community organizer. Not much namby in his pamby (or vice versa).

He served in Afghanistan in 2005-2006 with the U.S. Army’s elite First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne. Trained in the art of combat and the art of jumping out of planes in full battle gear. He grew up in a single-parent family in a tough Baltimore neighborhood. He graduated from military school and Johns Hopkins. He later became a Rhodes Scholar and studied in scores of foreign countries. He was special assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007. He writes. He thinks. Soon, he’ll be a father for the first time.

We should be thanking him for his service. Instead, he thanked us.

“Thanks for the work you do,” he said on this chilly Atlanta Friday. “There’s no way we can advance in society with only a sliver of society engaging in the conversation.”

He added that there are “no expendable kids and no expendable zip codes.”

As a teen, Moore felt that he was expendable. He started getting in trouble. His mom was scared. She found a military school who agreed to take her son. He went to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania -- but wasn’t happy about it. Moore ran away. His mom sent him back. He ran away again. His mom sent him back. After returning from his fifth AWOL, Moore felt something click in him. He found himself in the midst of an opportunity. He was being encouraged to excel.

So he did.

As he pursued military service and education, Moore discovered that others who had grown up in his neighborhood were falling through the cracks in those beat-up mean streets.

One was Wes Moore – the one in the title of the book The Other Wes Moore. He and three other young men robbed a jewelry store. As they fled with $400,000 in stolen goods, one of the men drew a gun and shot and killed an off-duty Baltimore police officer. A multi-state manhunt ensued. The robbers were captured and tried. The other Wes Moore now serves a life sentence without parole in prison.

“This was the wind in the back of the project – I wanted people to understand these neighborhoods we come from.”

Moore corresponded with the other Wes Moore and later they met face-to-face. Soldier Moore found out that Prisoner Moore was smart and tough. He wanted no pity but agreed with Soldier Moore that action was needed to save other neighborhood kids.

“We can’t look at them as ‘those kids,’ “ Moore said. “We need to say ‘our kids.’ “

He added: “Potential in the U.S. is universal but opportunity is not. The biggest gap we have in our country is the expectation gap.”

We applauded wildly, of course. We all agreed on the mission. How could we not. Poor kids and kids of a different color and kids with mental health issues all need to be considered “our kids.” But we diverge on the methods.

Moore asked us to consider some things.

"You are out there every day and know we can’t wait for someone else to figure it out,” he said. “Answers don’t lie in state capitol buildings, they lie in our communities.

“You are all the change agents.”

He didn’t say it but I was thinking it – you can’t count on solutions from the federal government. We are moving away from that dynamic. Community organizers need to think more creatively about the first word in this description – community. For too long, we’ve looked at money and answers to come raining down from D.C. Most of the time, the answers were coming from us, although there was that fed cash, too.

But the rains have turned to showers and, once the weird new Congress is in place, a drought will surely follow.

We’ve already seen that with our Wyoming federation affiliate. Some of the government funding sources are drying up. Corporate and private sources don’t have the cash to spare. How will our youth get services during the coming drought?

Moore isn’t waiting around for someone else to take the lead. He wrote a book. He’s speaking to all kinds of groups, motivating grass-roots work on mental health and fatherhood in the black community and prison recidivism. He works with the kids in his old neighborhood and in New Jersey where he now lives (in the photo, Wes is talking to students at Patterson Middle School). He’s tackling it head-on, just the tactic you might expect from an Army officer turned community organizer.

“We have a saying in the Army – you can’t hit a target you can’t see,” he said. That got a spirited hoo-ah from the back of the room. Moore acknowledged it and moved on. He’s a mover.

Wes, since I didn’t get a chance to say this last week when you signed my book: “Thanks for your service. Happy Veterans Day.”

Wes Moore's book info: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, 256 pages, Spiegel & Grau, ISBN-10: 0385528191; ISBN-13: 978-0385528191


Joanne Kennedy said...

Great post, Mike - very inspiring. I especially agree that we need to see children as "our kids," not "those kids" and take responsibility for seeing them through.

Ken McCauley said...


great article! Well written.

i especially like the part about looking at kids as "our kids," and answers don't lie in state capitol buildings.

As a community we must start addressing the issues that are at the core of our problems. I think too often we are trying to put a bandaid on problems.

We do have some good programs here in Cheyenne. Unfortunately, they are lacking in funding, volunteers, etc. Fortunately, we have people like you who not only volunteer, but are engaged, and are blogging in an effort to keep this issues at the forefront of our conscience.


Michael Shay said...

Thanks for the comments. "Our kids" is exactly right. Now to read the book...