The swing states
Even on holiday, or perhaps only on holiday, you get the time to touch base with some heroes and legends.
Thus it was that on my swing through Maine, Massachusetts and New York (not to mention our Canadian cousins in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia), I got to meet up with restaurateur Francis Schott of Stage Left in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and famed urbanist Michael Sorkin (of Twenty Minutes in Manhattan fame).
Both men may be from different professions but they share a deep interest in building up communities and cities — Sorkin through thoughtful, people-first planning, Schott through fun places to eat and drink which become social networks and hubs (there was such a thing before Twitter or Facebook, you know). Indeed, I made Francis a ‘Belfast Ambassador’ for bringing the first business delegation in a generation from the US to Belfast last January.
I also had a chance to catch up on some reading, not least Across The Bridge, the collected ‘life lessons’ of civil rights icon John Lewis who was on that bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday 1965 and has been marching ever since. He was in Belfast earlier this year and kindly followed up by sending a copy of his thoughts on the ‘beloved community’ in his new book ‘Across That Bridge’.
I value the book greatly and note that John Lewis was taking part in a lunch counter protest (African Americans were not served at lunch counters, honest!) in our sister city of Nashville in the sixties. “When the waitress refused him service, John persisted until she seemed to have relented — but then she poured disinfectant down John’s back, and a pitcher of water over his food. The diner’s manager, meanwhile, trained a fumigation sprayer on him, burning him as he would a cockroach.”
And yet he didn’t miss a beat in the years that followed, right up to the present day. “The collective power of the people is not only a material, emotional and economic resource, but it is a spiritual force as well…we evolve by contending with the consequences of our decisions to reach that point where the collective mind is not tempted by injustice. Those of my philosophical framework call this process “building a Beloved Community.” We defined it as a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.”
Thoughts to bear in mind as we face into another tough period here at home. But the road is a long one and home will always be here. As Congressman Lewis writes: “We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week or one year…Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe, even many lifetimes, and each one of us, in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”
That’s why I am this week launching a new initiative to celebrate how far we have come and to focus our minds on the journey up ahead. This September the fifth Belfast One City Conference will take on a new theme: Homecoming. We are going to encourage those who have moved away fro Belfast or those among the Diaspora who simply wish to back the peace to engage, connect, invest and visit Belfast. We are taking some of our ideas from the mega-successful Gathering and some from Detroit’s Homecoming but mainly we are following the path on which we have been set for some time: building the beloved community of Belfast.