Lauren Casteel and I recently had the honor of meeting with Dr. Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology. Dr. Harding graciously agreed to talk to us about The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project. Because he was so eloquent, I have decided not to try to paraphrase his words. Instead, I am presenting this in interview format. We did not tape record the conversation, so Dr. Harding’s comments are not reported verbatim. However, he reviewed, edited, and approved them before we posted this. This is a long post; I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have time.
Denver Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to let us pick your brain about the future of The Denver Foundation and philanthropic needs in our community.
Dr. Harding: You may pick my brain as long as you also pick my heart.
Your question has touched a spigot. The first thing that came to my mind was a conversation my wife Rose and I had with María Guajardo when we first came to Denver in 1981. María reminded us that demographers were predicting that Denver was a few decades ahead of the United States in terms of its diversity. Therefore, what we do here is not limited to our city. We in Denver can make a contribution to the entire country.
I am currently writing an article for Sojourners magazine about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Martin said he dreamt of a time when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. The question that follows is how do you measure the content of a person’s character? You must know that person as an equal, as a fellow human being. We do not have the social or other structures to draw us into the encounters which will make it possible for us to be able to measure each other’s character.
Secondly, Martin dreamt of the time when little black and white girls and boys will be able to join hands. Here again, the question is how they can get close enough to join hands when society today is pulling them apart.
So, this is on my mind when I think about what our community needs. The Denver Foundation should convene people frequently. The foundation should help to measure the character of people and to bring children close enough to be able to join hands. Children start out with the need to join hands, but they can be discouraged by silence and by the absence of opportunities for touching and being touched.
The Denver Foundation: What could the process of bridge building mean? How do you practice the process of building common ground? Is the current economic and political environment changing this?
Dr. Harding: The United States Social Forum recently met in Detroit. This is a group of community organizers whose manifesto, which started in Brazil, says, “Another world is possible.” They’re developing models for what a post-industrial city should look like and be like. Grace Boggs, widow of the late Jimmy Boggs, is a first generation Chinese-American who speaks about this. She notes that there are two aspects of the Chinese character for crisis: a time of great danger and a time of great opportunity.
The Great Depression caused a lot of pain but also generated a lot of creativity.
A West African, during the liberation struggles against colonialism in the 1960s, said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” You have to dream something before it can happen.
The Gardening Angels are a group of African-Americans in Detroit who moved there from the South. They are teaching young children about community gardens. They are one image that comes to my mind. Schools in Detroit are now developing school gardens, where food goes straight into the school lunch program. Look for opportunities for children to do things creatively together.
In our Ambassadors of Hope Project, we had diverse teens living together for a few weeks on the University of Denver campus. None of these kids had ever lived with people from a different racial group. One of these teens is now a youth organizer for Padres Unidos. There, he is trying to bring black and brown children together. We can help dozens of young people like him.
What kind of education is necessary to nurture young people who will be leaders in the development of a multiracial, compassionate democratic society? How do you create compassionate democratic leaders? How do you nurture people who can lead a multiracial society? The Denver Foundation, located in a city like this, is well positioned to help with this work.
You do not become democratic just by being born here. The democratic spirit has to be nurtured and developed.
Until Montgomery, most of us in the North (black and white) looked at rural southern black people as being somewhat backward. Those people surprised us and became the heart of the movement to transform our entire nation. “At risk” kids are really children of promise.
The Denver Foundation: We are increasingly concerned about boys in our society. What do you think?
Dr. Harding: I have seen what great things young men can do. But they have to be surrounded by people who value them. We need to encourage young men to be all that they can be. The New Jim Crow talks about how the U.S. penal system is turning young men into outcasts without any sense of future. The author talks about the school-to- prison pipeline.
The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this work without being top down?
Dr. Harding: Start with people like Terrance Roberts from Prodigal Son and women from Mi Casa who are already working in the community. The Denver Foundation should be honest brokers. Bring together people from multiple generations, from separated communities.
The Denver Foundation: For the last four years, we have hosted a paid internship program for college students to work in local nonprofit organizations. We focus on students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the nonprofit sector.
Dr. Harding: This sounds like a great program. You should ask your interns what is their purpose now. Many of them have overcome huge obstacles. The question is, what next? Do they want to be famous or make money, or do they want to help create the country that does not yet exist?
I remember that in the years before the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement picked up momentum many black (and some white) southerners dealt with the terrors and injustices of white supremacy by leaving the south. It was only after a new generation of young people decided to stay and work for change that the south and the nation could be transformed. (For instance, Martin Luther King declined numerous job offers in the North in order to return to the South.) The work is clearly not complete but it could not have been begun unless a generation decided to stay and commit themselves to the dangerous and magnificent work of change. I believe the same commitment, vision and courage are needed to creatively transform our urban areas—South, North, East and West including Denver, Colorado. I don’t think that it’s wise to give our best and brightest young people the signal that their ultimate goal should be to escape from their home communities. Young people who do succeed in overcoming difficult circumstances should do more than just buy their momma a house. We need to encourage them to help transform the communities from which they came.
The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this?
Dr. Harding: For starters, find people like me who have been through that experience who can talk to them, also, give people regular opportunities to come together. We need to develop new institutions for nurturing people – this used to be done by families, churches and schools. Your internship program sounds good, but do not drop them at the end of the summer.
The Denver Foundation: Who has been most influential in you life?
Dr. Harding: There are so many people: my mother, my wife, my daughter, and many of my teachers.
The Denver Foundation: What role do you think The Denver Foundation should play in education?
Dr. Harding: The Denver Foundation should help to create a humane public-school education experience for the children of this city. Young people have to be nurtured in the meaning and beauty of multiracial democratic life. People have discomfort taking on issues of race and class in America. We have to address these questions with our young people. Something has to be done to help teachers talk creatively about race and the gifts of a multiracial society.
— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation