In this video, we feature the closing keynote address from this past spring’s Collective Impact Action Summit. In this talk, we hear from Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, who serves as President and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund. Dr. Wilson reflects on the challenging times that many of us are experiencing, and the ways we can reground ourselves and move forward, so that we can shift from states of languishing, disconnection, and numbness to a place where we can better connect to ourselves, our purpose, and our communities.
Introducing this keynote are Collective Impact Forum executive director Jennifer Splansky Juster and Sheri Brady, who is Vice President of Strategy and Programs at the Children’s Defense Fund. Longtime Forum fans wlll also know Sheri, since prior to CDF, she was our colleague at the Forum, and we were excited to have her back. This talk was held on April 28, 2022.
An audio version of this talk is available as an episode of our podcast.
Please find a full transcript below the video.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Now, I actually have a quick role and I am so delighted to welcome Sheri Brady to the virtual stage.
Sheri may be a familiar face to many of you who have joined the Collective Impact Forum events in the past, and she’s a former member of the Collective Impact Forum team, the past co-host of the Action Summit, and a dear friend.
Sheri is now in a new role as the vice president of strategy and program of the Children’s Defense Fund where she works closely with Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson. Sheri is really a bridge between the Collective Impact Forum and our keynote speaker today, Dr. Wilson. We’ve invited Sheri back to help introduce Dr. Wilson today. Hey, Sheri, over to you.
Sheri Brady: Hey, Jen. Hi, collective impact family. So glad to be with you all today. As Jen said, I’m Sheri Brady, vice president of strategy and program for the Children’s Defense Fund. I’m excited to introduce today’s plenary speaker, my boss, Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson. Dr. Wilson has an impressive bio, you can read that in the app. That’s not what this is going to be.
I first met Dr. Wilson at a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in 2014. He was then the president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, and he was on a panel of foundation leaders that were talking about putting values at the center of their work. I was so impressed by what he had to say that I actually waited in line to speak with him after he spoke, which is something I rarely do at a conference. I’m usually the first one out the door after a session. The line was way too long and I didn’t get a chance to speak with him but fortune did smile on me later that day. I found him in the company of a mutual friend and I got invited to lunch. After lunch, I emailed my colleagues at the Aspen Institute and the Collective Impact Forum to say that I was determined to get him in front of our networks because he was a voice that I really believe we needed to amplify. His message is not just equity and inclusion but of centering the voices of the community served was right on point for the work that we were doing.
Later in 2014, Dr. Wilson was appointed co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, which called for sweeping changes in policing the court’s child wellbeing and economic mobility in the Ferguson-St. Louis area. I was even more determined to get him to speak to our networks. But he was pretty busy. He was doing the work and fighting for justice, but eventually stars aligned. In 2016, he agreed to be on a panel at that year’s then called Collective Impact Convening in Seattle. After that, there was no escaping me Dr. Wilson found out.
I am most proud to say that I recruited him to be a part of the inaugural class, the Philanthropy Forward Leadership for Change Fellowship, which is another partnership of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions with one of their partners, Neighborhood Funders Group. In doing that, I actually managed to scoop him from another Aspen program. Not being petty or anything but that was fun. This allowed me to learn more about his leadership style, his values, and his visioning.
Move forward to December of 2020 when Dr. Wilson became the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund, succeeding an iconic leader, Marian Wright Edelman. I will say that CDF and Ms. Edelman had a big impact on my career trajectory. I really couldn’t think of a better choice for the large undertaking of building a legacy of this organization. I will say, though, I had a moment of questioning when he reached out to me to talk to me about my current position. But because I trusted him, I listened, and here we are.
CDF envisions a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their wellbeing, and communities wield the power to ensure that they thrive. Under Dr. Wilson’s leadership CDF is centering the voice of the 74 million children and youth under the age of 18, and 30 million young adults under the age of 25 that we serve and advocate on behalf of.
Understanding that the authority of our work comes not just from proximity to those we serve, but from listening to them and engaging them to guide our work. Dr. Wilson’s belief in the power of community and the agency of children, youth, and young adults to guide the work is the second thing I admire most about him. The first is his unabashed love for his family and his willingness to admit that his daughter has him wrapped around her little finger, hashtag girl dad. Seriously, though, I am humbled and grateful to be in service with Dr. Wilson to fulfill the vision of CDF. I am proud to be able to serve as a bridge here between my new work family of CDF and my collective impact family. So please join me in welcoming Rev. Dr. Wilson to the stage.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Good afternoon to you, collective impact community. I’m just glad to be able to be invited back. You make certain moves in life and in profession and you wonder whether you’ve become persona non grata to folks and reaching out to Sheri while it was indeed an exciting thing to do, a risky proposition to jump into her LinkedIn DMs and ask her for a conversation about coming to be with us. I also know about the strength and power of the collective impact networks that are here together, and I wondered whether that was a career-limiting move, so I feel heartened to have the opportunity to be with you again to engage in this honored setting of providing and closing a few reflections for you as you turn forth from the screens back to your communities, engage in new ways even in this virtual reality to build the villages that our children will grow up in and to advance visions for communities that are deeply resonate with our own hopes.
So thank you so much for this opportunity to share with you. I really look forward to engaging in some conversation with you. So thank you, Sheri, for that gracious and kind introduction. Thank you, Collective Impact Forum, Aspen Institute, and FSG, for receiving me yet again.
I want to talk today about a moment that we find ourselves in that frankly we have experienced before but we’ve come to pay more attention to. I want to raise the stakes a little bit. Based upon the work that Sheri and I are doing together and that we seek to work on behalf of America’s children, in conversation with what you all are doing. Collectives and organized networks across the country scaling critically important work, centering the voices of community and affirming the autonomy of folks impacted and affected by social conditions to determine the outcomes.
I want to talk about this new word I learned over the course of the last couple of years and maybe it was new to you too. I want to talk about leading from languishing to beloved community. Talk about leading from languishing to beloved community.
Over the last couple of years and perhaps it was named as the dominant emotion of 2021. Maybe just because we were sitting long enough to pay attention to what was really going on with us. Maybe because it was a new reality that has grown in the context of our collective thought in North America and indeed even across the globe. The concept of languishing, first believed to be named by Corey Keyes in 2002, has an emphasis on a certain emptiness, stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair. Not a new reality in the context of COVID-19, not something that came about only because of a racial reckoning in Minneapolis and across the country after the police-involved killing of George Floyd, but languishing is something we came to pay attention to and the best definition is not the sociological way, it’s actually not what Corey Keyes wrote. The best way to help people understand languishing is, “meh.”
It’s not depression, it is not clinically, diagnosably a mental health state. It is not burn out, which is directly tied to the realities of the workforce and the lack of life-work balance. Rather, it is this life state that impacts all of our realities that has something to do with a dissatisfaction, a lack of engagement, and apathy. Yes, Wendy, it’s wasting. This sense of wasting. Not moving forward, not moving back.
While it is new language for many of us and we began to read about in The Atlantic and other publications in 2021, a pre-pandemic study showed that 55 percent of the workforce may have been in a state of languishing at any given time. That is to say the folk whom you work with and among, the folk whom you know in your homes and in your workplace. It’s a coin toss at any given time as to whether the people that you are seeking to engage around critical social issues are dealing with a meh kind of feeling, blah in their lives, and that we have come to be able to name and frame this in the context of a reality of sheltering in place in the sense of uncertainty or an agency over our own conditions that the pandemic has reminded us of, a sense of our own finitude and limitations as we sit with circumstances that we cannot escape. Languishing. An individual reality that we experience in our lives but also a collective sensibility for what’s going on in our communities.
Some of you, if I want to just talk about a collective languishing in the context of our community work, I can talk about our desires even to plan for, believe for, and have a sense that we need that gathering of community and wonder about what the COVID protocols are going to say in a particular moment, to have the hope of that open moment that we all experienced there in the fall of last year and of this open moment where we believe there is lightening in the context of the pandemic so we can plan our gathered meeting but then to have the hope dashed and the stagnation of being set back by then having protocols increased because of Omicron or B2K variants, not B2K, but you get what I mean.
This sense that our communities who had desires to move forward and even before the pandemic felt that we had a little bit of progress moving on the critical social conditions and needles we were trying to move. We had begun to build the muscles of equity as the soul of collective impact. We had centered these communities who were impacted with advisory bodies and ongoing reflection with them, accountability in ways that they became the staff and even advanced to become the leaders and we had a sense of stagnated progress over the course of the last couple of years. Now those of us who have been in this work for a while feel a little bit of a meh, blah, about what’s really going on. This languishing, individually and collectively, calls for a certain mode of leadership to bring us back to the great visions that we had before.
One of the ways I think about the visions of what you are doing and you have a certain prerogative you get to take when you come in especially when you Zoom in as a keynote speaker. You get to make certain presumptions about the grandeur and the greatness and the power and privilege and the capacity of the people that you are meeting with, and I’ve got some hopes. I’ve hung around a few, you’ve heard, of these collective impact gatherings. I’ve seen from the stage the power of this collective network and so I believe you all are up to something and I believe you could do some remarkable things. I have believed deeply over the course of my years and public life and social ministry and philanthropy and advocacy in the concept. I believe that this is ultimately the macro hope of all of these collective impact efforts.
Yes, I’m going to be so presumptuous that I’m going to provide one large vision for all of these collective efforts. Just rock with me for a second. Before you walk away, before you tap off, before you log off or tap away, I want to argue that part of what you all are up to as a network of collective actors who have a social vision for that which is not yet in our communities but already in your hearts and your conversations and your visioning sessions. What you’re up to is pursuit of what Josiah Royce called the beloved community.
Josiah Royce was an American idealist. He articulated so many perspectives about social possibilities in our nation and in our world. His work, a word for the times, was critical in informing and grounding Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s state of the union address in 1936. 1936, a time when folks needed a sense of possibility for going forward. An American president reached for the words of Royce to suggest that the human race was passing through one of its great crises where further new ideas, new issues, a new call for humanity to call on the work of righteousness, of charity, of courage, of patience, and of loyalty.
Josiah Royce not only informed the words and the works to the nation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a critical time, he also informed the perspective, the study, and the public ministry of a young American prophet by the name of Martin King.
Martin King popularized for us this concept of beloved community as he understood all of America to be his pulpit and the public stage to be his chancel. He understood this concept as analyzed by another scholar by the name of Dr. Johnny Bernard Hill. He understood King’s beloved community and the way he spoke about it to be this. A multiethnic, multiracial community of peace and justice where love is the governing ethic. A multiracial, multiethnic community of peace and justice where love is the governing ethic. Beloved community as the answer, the conceptual answer, the visionary hope in response to our languishing. King’s thought, Johnny Bernard Hill says, “There is no clear distinction between the concept of beloved community and the actualization of justice.”
For King, this concept was the ultimate hope for the communities gathered. And it seems to me for those in the collective impact networks who are fighting to reduce, to prevent abuse of children in one segment, to advance academic access for students in another. To continue to promote degree attainment, to ensure the elimination of the disparities for maternal child health. These are things that approximate the bringing forth of justice. These are the realities that call for the disciplines that you are learning about together. This is the hope, beyond fidelity to these various modes and approaches to how we do our collective work together, the how of collective impact is absolutely critical but the why is the building of beloved community to give people hope beyond the languishing within which our land is pressed.
Leading beyond languishing requires the advancement of the concept of beloved community and that is big enough, wide enough, strong enough, hope-filled enough to provide an umbrella for all of the remarkable work that you are yet doing together. This is the oughtness of collective impact as an answer to the isness of our languishing. And this moment meets us. Even our period of languishing meets us with an opportunity.
Part of what I invited Sheri to help me figure out is how to make sense of this opportunity even in the challenge of 2020. The challenge of 2020—my god, in the midst of that, I asked her to make a move and enter into a new organization in the context of COVID-19, the midst of a pandemic pre-vaccination. I had the nerve and the unmitigated gall in the context of the realities of what she was wrestling with in her own life to ask her to come engage in a new work with and for America’s children. While we were still the context of wrestling with the pandemic, out on the streets that was disproportionately killing Black and Brown people, and while we were dealing with a presidential election that would be so consequential that it would lead to an insurrection, while we were dealing with shifts in the context of our communities because of a racialized protest movement, so protest, pandemic, and presidential election, I reached out to Sheri and said, “Sheri, I think you ought to come back to the place where you did your college internship because there is a unique opportunity,” and it is the same opportunity that is presented to each of you.
If the oughtness of beloved community is a multiethnic, multiracial community of peace and justice, where love is the governing ethic, then there has to be some contextual table setting. Generation Z and the demographics thereof created in 2020 and opening an opportunity for your leadership beyond languishing and for your leadership to extend to beloved community. What was the opening? In 2020 for the first time in American history, the demographics of children under the age of 18 changed to be majority children of color, beloved community. A multiethnic, multiracial community of peace and justice where love is the governing ethic, generation Z, the first generation in American history to be predominantly people of color. The demographic shifts have happened such that we have rising perhaps the first generation that has the demographic complexion to be the host of a multiracial, multiethnic community and society.
We have in this body of young people the demographic table setting to make this reality come forth but that’s just the first part of the definition of multiethnic, multiracial community with this peace and justice with love as the governing ethic are overriding conditions that you must create. Yeah, I came here today to drop heavy an anchor of responsibility upon those who have already accepted not only the call to work collectively but the discipline to do so with a framework that gives them some guidance on how you do it together. I didn’t want to cast my pearls before swine. I rather wanted to bring them to those who have already committed to some of this work.
I see that someone has this mute here. I want to make sure that I’ve not lost everyone.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: No, we can still hear you.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: OK, all right. This is the thing. I am—you may not have noticed this you all. I’m Black and I’m a preacher. And sometimes I need response just to make sure I’m keeping time so thank you very much.
Before we go on, I want to tell you about this opportunity, one more thing. When I invited Sheri to is what I’m inviting you to, this recognition of the demographics to work toward an element of beloved community that is an expression of justice, and that is the condition that is not yet of child wellbeing.
One of the ways scholars like Ramesh Raghavan of the Silver institute at New York University define child wellbeing is that children and youth are thriving. They’re growing and developing in stage-appropriate ways. That’s number one, the affirmation of childhood as a stage in and of itself, not just a preparatory ground for adulthood. Number two, those children and youth have the resources they need to grow into successful adults. They are appropriately in the context of children’s rights work, they’re not just protected but they are provided for, and finally that they can enjoy being children. Perhaps the appropriate—there are lots of appropriate metrics for child wellbeing but one of them has to be the joy of being able to be a child.
Now this is the thing. Dr. Raghavan and others, Asher Ben-Arieh from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and other places say that these are indeed appropriate conditions to name, these are appropriate metrics for child wellbeing. This is an appropriate thing to apply to the 74,000,000 children, predominantly Black and Brown, who are coming up as the rising generation in America, and they say, and this is where it comes back to you, that it is the community’s responsibility to create the conditions for all children, especially marginalized children, to thrive. Child wellbeing includes making sure that children are growing and developing at stage-appropriate ways. It includes making sure they have the resources they need to grow into successful adults, and it includes making sure they can enjoy being children but it is the responsibility and the obligation of the community to create the circumstances for these children to thrive.
You all know this. You know it because you affirm social determinants of health that suggest that it’s not just that there’s something wrong with the individual, that we need access to certain care, but the built environment at our neighborhoods can make us more or less healthy. But the same thing is happening now. This demographic shift in this coming generation of children has created the first part of the definition of beloved community for us, multiethnic, multiracial community, and the last part is our responsibility as those adults with our hands to the plow of collective work, gathering, organizing an impact in our communities to make the definition come forward.
So the question becomes—and I’ll just share a couple of things and then I’m done—what will it take to lead from languishing to the beloved community? I reflect and I draw in this experience not from my answers but from my questions. These are the questions that came up for me in the context of the period that Sheri named that I came to know her. A period of great confusion in my own life about my future and about my community.
In August of 2019, of 2014, of one week after my birthday as I was preparing to go before my congregation and talk about sending children back to school, having guests from the school district come in to talk about all the things we need to do as a community, Michael Brown, Jr., an 18-year-old recent graduate in Ferguson, was killed by police, and it was young people who decided to come out mourning and gathering around him and his loss and his opportunity that called me into question and my path toward leadership.
It was the commotion in my community over the course of a year when those same young people remained in the streets and challenged the forms, the frameworks, and the approaches of leadership in the moment that seemed insufficient. These were young people who had been told to defer gratification and get an education and put off some life choices and decisions until you have established yourself. They were told that if you handle your business in school, then everything will work out well for you, and they looked down at Michael Brown and they saw one of their own generation—oh, by the way, millennials, the most educated generation in American history—they saw one who grew up with the social conditions of an economic reality and they saw one that grew up in the context of social conditions of distrust and mistrust, and grew up on the dividing line between an accredited school district and an unaccredited school district, and they said what you sold us about education doesn’t work because of the economic crisis that we’re growing up in. What you have sold us about deferred gratification doesn’t work because we can be cut down at the age of 18. What you’ve sold us as a bill of goods about the American dream and the hopes of the west does not quite work, and because it broke down for them, and I love them so—I’m just a youth pastor at heart and now I just have 74,000,000 young people in my youth group, because it broke them so, it called into question how I had been formed as a leader, and the question became how do I lead them from that languishing into the concept of beloved community that I was preaching and the context of my intergenerational, interracial congregation every Sunday.
So I shifted all of my studies and every moment I had to try to learn something in between to inform how I was going to show up in that moment, began to wrestle with this question of leadership. Now I looked back into the civil rights era, and I looked into antiapartheid leadership in South Africa, and that moment for me of languishing in community and in our community helped to inform a few different approaches that I offer you from my questions, not just anybody’s answers.
First and foremost, I want to offer that in ancient studies of leadership I found these four different modes of leadership. Some were grounded in scripture, some we find in broader context of community. I am a preacher so grant me that part but I think we find it in wider modes, and I try to speak of it in a larger context but these four modes are icons of leadership fall into the categories of priest, prophet, monarch, and sage. Priest, prophet, monarch, and sage, and they serve different functions and roles. My analysis is informed by folks like Peter Paris, an ethicist from Union, New York, and others but I’ll just lay this out and offer these as resources for our conversation.
First, I think leading from languishing to beloved community requires the presence of a priest in the work of ritual. The presence of a priest in the work of ritual. I’m not saying you should wear a turned-around collar. I’m not saying that you should wear a dark suit. I’m not saying that you should be in any particular religious tradition. The work in ancient traditions of the priest was distinguishing between that which is sacred and that which is secular by the use of ritual. It is ordering a space in a unique way in order to transform the space to be what it needs to be.
One of the most remarkable examples in my lifetime is the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the 1990s. When I was getting ready for the prom in 1994, Archbishop Tutu was changing and transforming a bureaucracy, a public bureaucracy of the government of South Africa which is exactly what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was into a space of healing by use of his own garb being worn, by the sharing of incense, and by guiding people in what was essentially a public policy meeting in sacred song and hymnals. He was a priest doing the work of ritual. But it doesn’t take all that. Ritual is just what we do to make this space, this moment, this time different as those who would gather people from respective and different communities.
Part of the work of gathering in this moment has to help people distinguish when they come into your space, onto your Zoom, into your conversation from what they were experiencing outside of it. How do you set the room and the space? How do you order the conversation in order to make this moment different from the meh moment they brought or the blah setting they came from? The work of the priest is demonstrating present and creating a space through the use of certain marks and certain language. It makes a moment different.
If I can use another quick element of language, in a book from I guess about five or so years ago, Chip and Dan Heath talked about the power of moments. They told people not to do what I’m about to do so don’t tell them what I did when I do it. They gave these four unique elements of what creates a moment. They said don’t use then as an acronym but it makes it out to a nice word. EPIC. They say that transformative moments have elevation. They rise above the everyday. Pride, they capture us at our very best. Insight, they rewire our understanding of ourselves and the world, and connection, they are social in nature. The priest as leader, the leader as priest, has the capacity to set a room and a circle that helps to elevate a moment to be transformative, even epic, and in these languishing times, we need the presence of the priest in the work of ritual.
Not just the priest, I said there’s also the prophet. The prophet has the responsibility of facilitating participation by rallying the troops. Facilitating participation. A lot of people think about the prophet as the person who has the right word at the right time. In some religious traditions the prophet tells the future. That’s not what I’m talking about. The most prophetic thing we can do in these moments when people have been languishing in isolation is to create space for collective participation, and I want to argue that prophetic work doesn’t call for certain charism and certain personalities. Rather, prophetic work calls for processes that allow us to be deliberate about how we curate the voices and shape a space for other people to speak.
For me, a gift in this regard has been the facilitative leadership for social change framework of the Interaction Institute for Social Change. It was a gift for me in 2011 when I joined the staff of Deaconess Foundation and every staff member had been trained in this facilitative leadership method. As a matter of fact, I talked about it on the stage at that first meeting with Sheri. I talked about what it took to be able to hear from different types of people, and because we are who we are and we’ve got our own languishing stuff to deal with, and we’ve got our own human frailties and foibles, we need processes to help us facilitate the participation of others because the prophetic work of today is not, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, is not prophet versus king.
It’s not trying to critique the establishment alone. It is rather providing an alternative witness to the witness of systems that do not work. The alternative space allows voice for those who have no voice in the context of the system, and we need processes for that, and that participation is the work of the prophet. Not only do we need the presence of the priest and the work of ritual, not only do we need the participation facilitated by the prophet by rallying the troops but we also need public policy, set, stewarded, and championed, even administered by the role of the monarch.
The monarch. Here we want to talk about those who have responsibility for the ordering of public resources. Today they are congress people, they are senators, they are school board members, they are mayors, they are governors. You work with the monarchs. Again, I’m using modes from ancient antiquity and applying them to our context but here what I’m suggesting is we need a work and a way to impact public policy in order to make sustainable, in order to make sustainable the shifts that we desire.
My predecessor in this work, Marian Wright Edelman, was very clear that it would take public policy shifts to get senators, to get America to pay attention to the same agenda that she stewarded in the 1960s for the Poor People’s Campaign. Before founding the Children’s Defense Fund she was the public policy director for the Poor People’s Campaign. I remember chuckling at her first telling me the story that the physical address for the resurrection city encampment in Washington, D.C., on the mall was her little apartment in Washington, D.C. What she knew was that the desires that she hoped for for children had to be embedded in American public policy. So in 1968 when she first started the Washington Research Council that transformed to be the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, it was to pursue the same agenda of public policy that she and King had been working toward in the mobilization of the Poor People’s Campaign.
To be clear, public policy, and I’ll echo her voice here again, she said very clearly, if you don’t have a budget strategy, you don’t have a strategy. Public policy is about the purse strings and so if you really want to lead from languishing to beloved community, not only must you do the work of ritual, of the priest being present with the people and standing in the gap, not only must you rally them and get their participation through frameworks that allow for democratic participation and voice, but you better have a strategy to address what the monarch is doing on Capitol Hill and in the capitols in your communities, and at city halls, and that better have—Marian said it, I didn’t say it—you better have a budget strategy to make sure it sticks.
Finally, as I speak of Mrs. Edelman, I’ll advance toward a sage that even she learned from as well. Not only do we need these perspectives of the priest and the monarch and the process but we also need of course the perspective of the sage. The sage. Informing action by guiding reflection through personal witness and the curation of the tradition. The biblical traditions that I study, the sage knows and studies the oracles, knows which came before, helps to interpret that in the context of the moment for the work going forward so that that which we do not see yet is already in the vision and the perspective of the sage. And, yes, indeed, Cindy, Mrs. Edelman was and is a great leader, was a great leader for this organization, is a great and iconic leader for our country, and she learned from Ella Jo Baker. Ella Jo Baker, who guided and believed that a powerful people, a great people, don’t need great leaders. Rather, the curating perspective of the sage does not center itself but seeks to cultivate the perspectives of others. The sage pours into the generation that is coming so that they might become all that they collectively understand, discern, and desire themselves to be. The sage, Ella Baker, would suggest, and Ella Baker has modeled, creates a space for people to become all that they desire, and this is the capacity of this moment, and this is the vocation to which you are called.
What I tell you as I go is not to choose. Do not choose to be the priest only doing the work of ritual. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Do not choose to be the prophet seeking to facilitate the participation of the people and not care about what’s going on with the budget. Do not choose to do only policy work and do that work on its own with those who find themselves in authority alone. Do not choose to sit in a rocker and only be an elder pouring into the youngsters. These are icons of leadership. They are modes of leadership. They are not collective or selective choices. These are options. These are modes through which will shift based upon the needs of the moment, and when our communities as they are now are languishing, and before us is the opportunity to the rising, powerfully diverse generation to create the conditions for beloved community. We cannot afford to choose one or the other. We must learn, discern, engage, and hold one another accountable to work in all of these lanes as the moment calls.
This is how I think. This is what I believe is called for in this moment but I further believe that we better discern it together so I look forward to engaging in some conversation and discerning what is next for our communities beyond this languishing on the journey to a beloved community. Thanks for the opportunity to be with you, and let’s talk about this a little bit.
Jennifer Splansky Juster; Dr. Wilson, thank you. I’m just going to give a moment so you can scan all the love in the chat, all the appreciation so thank you, from languishing to beloved community, sit with that.
So folks, we do have time for questions. Dr. Wilson has graciously offered to take some. I have one here that has come in to the Q&A box, and we’ll keep our eyes on it. We have Brad Powell from United Way of Toledo here asking if you could speak a little bit about how one expands the horizons of social justice within faith-based groups to extend to those we work with as their partners whom they typically do not only include in consideration of beloved community, I mean the LGBTQIA2s+ community for example.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Thank you for this question. I think we’ve got to do really good—first of all, let me say folks are there. I commend you that I’m blessed to have fellowship and ordination standing in two denominations that have been progressive on these issues. Number one, the Progressive National Baptist Convention which was founded by Dr. King and others in the civil rights era because churches were not advancing, including Black churches—let’s be clear, including Black churches were not working hard to advance civil rights. And number two, the United Church of Christ, an open and affirming denomination that seeks to affirm and advance the ministries of LGBTQIA people, gender justice and marriage equality in all levels, and so I’d say first and foremost look for those partners in your community who are engaging in these progressive ways.
Some power analysis is about—there are two things my organizing friends tell me. Sometimes you map—when you’re mapping power, you find people who are powerful, you try to convince them to come to your side. There has to be some of that. Sometimes you find people who are on your side and you work to make them more powerful. So I’d say first and foremost, stop and find those partners in your community, those faith leaders in your community, folks like in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the United Church of Christ, and increasingly in the United Methodist churches, the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where there are more progressive people, and help to build them and make them more powerful. That’s number one.
Number two, create space to challenge theologies and moral frameworks for your faith leaders. Sheri and I just got off a call. We’ve developing a partnership with a seminary who is already engaged in really thoughtful work around child advocacy, and we’re saying if work is going to be sustainable for faith communities, it has to first be faith filled so we’re glad that faith communities are doing work as an aside, as a broad social justice commitment around children but we believe if they don’t understand children are central to their theology, if we don’t understand LGBTQIA folks to be central to the concept of human dignity in our kin and in our family, then it will always be an aside.
So I actually believe in creating space to challenge those leaders to theologize with you because part of what is happening is they’ve accepted frameworks that have been passed down rather than doing the real critical work of interrogating their own faith traditions. So that’s part of what we’re trying to do around our child advocacy work. We’re seeking to do that in partnership with denominations, and I encourage that around some of our work across the country around justice issues including in particular LGBTQIA issues.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Super, thank you. Another question here is how do you suggest motivating traditional system leaders to authentically engage in these models of leadership particularly with engaging beneficiaries of the work and seeing beneficiary perspectives as valid and sharing power with those beneficiaries?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: I mean some of this, I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know, right? So I think the power of story is really valuable of people being able to witness and share and putting community, put elected officials, put those monarchs in a position to hear and be transformed by the sharing of stories, absolutely critical, and never—Sheri says this a lot, no story without a statistic, no statistic without a story. I think that’s a really critical piece.
The other thing I’ll say is we should never underestimate the ability to change who those people are. I’m not about, and I think you are curating within your community those folks who should be those leaders, and so I encourage you also again building power and advancing from that regard but storytelling is critical, making sure people understand the real impact of these issues, and making sure that we’re organizing for it- an explicit call for community organizing, story banking, and holding people accountable but also not taking off the table that sometimes we’ve just got the wrong people. The quickest way to change a culture is change the people, and sometimes we’ve got to do that work as well.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: We have a question from Erin. Languishing resonates. Where do you start to get the community and youth orgs to work together when they’re often so fatigued by current work as it is?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: I think this is something that we’ve got to be integrated into the ways we work. I really appreciate the work that folks like Shawn Ginwright in California are doing around healing-centered organizing especially for youth, healing-centered youth organizing, taking a trauma-informed approach. I think these are critical things for us to do to be thoughtful about for our work.
I think we have to find ways of integrating from the beginning, if we accept first a perspective that there’s more value in the voices, there’s more truth in the collective voice, then we begin our work with an orientation to the outside, not just the margins, but to the outside. So what does it mean to say that we believe that the answers are in our community? If that is the case, then we’ve got the structure from the beginning for collaboration, structure from the beginning for an orientation of those who are not at the table and who may be defined as the other. I think that’s where we find the energy in the work, by starting outside and then coming inside. I think it’s the only way we ever authentically get there, is to start in that place.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Pulling on that a little bit more, a little bit of a personal question, what do you do for self-care and to keep yourself inspired?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Sheri already told you. I hang out with a six-year-old. I say this a lot. I tell people as ritual, it’s the first thing I ever said to the CDF team even before I came. I asked them to begin a practice of ritual, of closing their eyes and conjuring the image of the child—we all have one—that makes us smile. We can’t see the face of that child without cracking the corner of our mouth, right?
For me, that’s my daughter. She’s six years old. Now I have sons, they’re not cute anymore. They’re 17, and 14, and 12. They’re big enough to be a problem. My six-year-old, she’s the whole world. So for me like, I mean seriously, I don’t think people are going to do work for all children if you don’t care about one child. You won’t transform the world for one child, and so for me it’s really about that, making that connection.
Otherwise I have one. In the pandemic I had tried to outrun languishing so I ran a lot. I lost 30 pounds in the pandemic by running, first walking, and the running, and I’ve not done as good a job of it more recently because it’s run up against my other self-care. Now that my wife and my family just moved to D.C. at the end of the December, I had been here for a whole year without them kind of flying back and forth to Missouri. Once they got here, I didn’t want to leave the house so now I just sit at the house. It’s challenging my self-care things so I have to get back out running again because I picked up some of those pounds, not double digits but I picked some of them back up.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Nice, nice. So let’s see, OK. Folks, we have time for a couple more questions too if you want to put the in the Q&A but let me shift gears a little bit. Can you speak a bit more about the role of the priest-like actions with regard to rituals in this moment? I’ve historically reviewed rituals as less powerful because it is so much of the letter without as much of the spirit.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: I think some of it is about—I’ll use an example. When I came to CDF, I realized we have a program called CDF Freedom Schools. We’re in 128 cities across the country this summer where we have young people who are engaging in a program of literacy development, culturally responsive teaching methods. They are 70 percent Black, about 13 percent Hispanic but unlike the textbooks they see coming out of my home state of Texas, they’re going to see Black and Brown people in the books. They are going to connect with that and they’re learning goes up. They increase their summer learning and they reject summer learning loss through this.
Every day at Freedom School starts with something called Harambee, key Swahili, let’s pull together. It’s a time of celebration. It’s a time of joy. There’s a read-aloud component. There’s a guest. There are cheers. There’s chants. It sets the day in the moment, and it makes the Freedom School different than the school day that they came from. What it does is it shifts the energy in the space.
One of the things I recognized when I came to CDF is there was a staff member in California and there were a few more across the country who, because they were doing policy work or they were doing administrative work, they had never experienced Harambee which is such a critical part of what I understand to be our gift to 12,000 young people every year. So when we did a staff reorientation, we did a three-month reorientation of all staff. We started every session with Harambee. We did Harambee on Zoom, and we were cheering and we were chanting, and had that echo thing where nobody’s voice is really aligned, but it changed the atmosphere. We went from a staff meeting to all pulling together. We went from we’re going to get some information to we’re becoming a community. It shifts the energy, and I think that’s something that we can do and we’ve got to be more intentional about how we create those spaces. It can be nothing but just changing the order of the chairs in a room to put them in a circle versus having them around a table. It can be nothing more than when you begin a meeting.
I did this with every meeting I did. When I first came to CDF, I had meetings to meet all the staff. They were all on Zoom but when people came into the meeting, they heard music, and that just wasn’t what people were used to. I learned that from my friend, Greg Ellison with the project he leads called Fearless Dialogues. When people come into the room, they have music, it sets an atmosphere. It becomes a ritual sense of setting and it makes this moment different. That’s all I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just something to make this moment different.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Nice. Do you have a favorite song that you would welcome people in with?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Actually for our Freedom School stuff, there’s a song that’s called Something Inside So Strong, a South African song, and it really talks about the power of young people and that kind of inward grace and gift that would allow them to overcome the barriers in communities. So Something Inside So Strong is my favorite.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Nice. All right, here’s one more. How do you get leaders that have already gotten into the conflict and have open disappointment with representatives of the community? How do you go beyond that and pass that barrier?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: I’m not sure I totally understand. Would you re-read it?
Jennifer Splansky Juster: I think the question is for folks that have been doing the work and are really disappointed in the challenges they’re running up against and people not being responsive. How do you go beyond and past that barrier? I apologize to folks if I didn’t quite interpret it with your intent.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: I think we have to find new challenges. Sometimes we have to shrink the challenge and/or the problem, the scope of a campaign and/or a tactic in order to get energy to reenergize people who are working on it. So it may not be that we’re getting the big thing now but we’re able to scale to say, OK, what’s something that we can win, we can help people to win to reenergize their work. That’s one.
The other thing I’ll say is there is creativity. There is creative capacity in conflict and tension. Related to this in King’s work informing his concept of beloved community is deeply informed by a Christian mystic and theologian by the name of Howard Thurman who talked about the importance of suffering but also of tension and conflict in order to create something new, and if nothing else, I think we should not avoid conflict but seek to make of it and not try to avoid suffering but, in Thurman’s words, seek to make of it creative.
So what are the things that we can do in conflict that can expose and educate about the situation and the reality. This is really what nonviolent direct action is about. It’s about creative suffering in order to expose a wider challenge and/or reality but then there’s also this opportunity to create, to allow people rest and respite by creating a smaller issue to deal with, create opportunity and energy and a win, and sometimes framing, making sure that we are, even though we’ve got big visions, big goals, and big hopes, that we are framing a process and a path of wins that allow energy to be generated in smaller things in order to get to the bigger things.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s great. I think maybe we could squeeze in one last question. Do you have any experiences of bringing these concepts to those who are not organically working on it, like the business community, enterprises, etc.?
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Yeah, I think this is a hard—sometimes you can’t talk about it. Let me say this first, right? As I began to engage—it was around 2011—with these concepts of collective impact and network building and the like, there was a great intention around multisector approaches. I not going to always agree with that necessarily but early on wanted to make sure we check all the boxes of all the appropriate sectors. The business community was always for us a tough one in those early days around children’s work, and I’m speaking specifically of the regional work in St. Louis because there tended to be a more conserving perspective.
What I learned was something I’ve also learned about racial equity which is sometimes I have to be explicit and sometimes I have to be implicit in my language as it relates to those communities. I don’t talk about power in the same ways when I’m talking to my colleagues in St. Louis from the Regional Business Council or from the Civic Progress. They don’t want to hear about power. They may engage some stuff around civic engagement so part of my learning there is being choice about the rhetoric and being implicit sometimes about the aims rather than explicit, not talking as much about electoral strategy necessarily but speaking very specifically about how a public policy agenda and leaders who are aligned with that agenda might be supportive of other things that the business community sees and needs, and then always of course figuring out how to make a case for these different audiences is critical as well. So I think these concepts still work.
The final thing I’ll say is I have been pleasantly pleased and sometimes surprised by people’s willingness to be human versus being their title. It’s a bit of a risk to come to a group like this and to trade in language like beloved community or to lean on elements of my religious background with great knowledge of the pluralistic nature of our world and our work, and I have never spoken to someone as a human based upon their human hopes and dreams and been disappointed that they wanted me to address them in their capacity. I give a famous—a significant example for me. It’s not famous. I haven’t told the story very much. In the context of the work on Ferguson, I was appointed cochair of this commission by Governor Jeremiah Jay Nixon. Jeremiah, very intentional based upon his family’s background and religious sentiments, he was called Jeremiah. He went by Jay but I also learned during the process of this work over the course of the year of his own deep affinity for Lyndon Baines Johnson.
I’m originally from Texas and at one point as we came to the close of this work—to be clear, he also had aspirations and public aspirations to be the vice president of the United States, and so much had blown up in his state around racial issues in Ferguson that I finally chose a moment to tell him, when there was a quiet kind of gathering of just the closest advisors, I put before him as a human his past engagement with LBJ, his studying LBJ, as a student, his conversations that he had had with the family, and the fact that perhaps he was being presented with an opportunity to live into that kind of legacy of someone LBJ who didn’t go seeking civil rights as his critical political stand but was more consequential on racial justice issues than almost any president and perhaps any president in American history. They were very similar figures. They were kind of big guys, little bit of lumbering, seen as conserving but what I got to address was who he was as a human, and I got to put him into places where he would wrestle with that reality, and he did for about a year and a half. He ultimately chose some other things but seeing him as a human who wasn’t exactly always aligned with what I wanted him to do from a public policy perspective, created a moment of connection and creative long-term relationship that would not have been there otherwise. I think that is something that we should risk in this work as well, seeing people as human and treating them as such before any of their titles or positions.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: What a terrific note to send us out on. Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, thank you. It has been inspiring and such a treat, and just everything to be with you so thank you so much.
Dr. Starsky Wilson: Grateful for the opportunity. Thank you all.