Tale of Two Cities
The intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis is in the midst of a “makeover,” a new idiom for the city’s beleaguered traffic engineers. The assignment? Design an urban experience that creates space for mourning, reflection, and unimpeded vehicular flow. Not your typical work order. The intersection’s unusual commemorative mission is borne of the culture-twisting, broad daylight murder it will ask us all to remember in perpetuity.
The facts of George Floyd’s killing are widely known and won’t be re-examined here – except to say that when the two backup law enforcement officers arrived, one of them walked into the middle of the scrum with a visible sense of purpose. Officer Derek Chauvin – namesake of the Napoleonic soldier whose pitiable and unearned sense of superiority gave rise to the word chauvinism – dragged the cuffed and panicked Mr. Floyd out of the squad car and maneuvered him to the ground. With a surgically positioned left knee, and amid anguished cries of mercy from witnesses and the dying man himself, Chauvin casually crushed Floyd’s neck for the eight or so minutes it took to send the pleading man’s soul to the hereafter. Yes – another blow to the much-speechified Sanctity of Life.
Explaining the Inexplicable
Two thousand miles away, Casey Rogers just wanted a way to explain the inexplicable to her kids, whose unavoidable exposure to the shattering imagery would invite an irreparable worldview. “I began reaching out to my ‘mom friends’ in Montecito,” she said. A philanthropic advisor and director of the Ellen Fund, Rogers knows from networks, and sought that connectivity “just to ask how they were talking with their kids about the murder, and about the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the country.” There were no takers.
Floyd’s killing was not unique in the checkered annals of race relations in the U.S. But even in that context, its casual brutality sent a shock wave across the country that set the conversation afire. Particularly galling was the killer’s facial expression of bored impunity; it was a longtime signifier of stacked decks and preordained outcomes. “The killing wasn’t a first by any means,” said Gwyn Lurie, Montecito Journal Media Group’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. “But it was a tipping point.” The murder unleashed a cyclone of rage that churned through and shattered commercial districts in cities across the country, torching cars, destroying businesses – and drawing the sort of chaste, boardroom reproof from a white establishment that blandly saw the conflagration as a strategic misstep. “People: Is this the best way to air your grievances?” As if the explosive outpouring were a miscalculated action item cooked up in a conference room. There may not be a starker differentiator than that highlighted by the corporate counsel of supportive whites.
Casey Rogers’ own processing had to start with, and be shaped by, that of her kids. She was having a hard time cornering a conversation partner. What’s there to talk about? “None of the moms I spoke with had spoken to their kids,” she said. “They weren’t quite sure what to say.” Montecito Union School District Superintendent Anthony Ranii pointed Rogers to someone with a yen for avid verbal communication, which had been amply demonstrated during her eight years on the Montecito Union School Board. “He shared with me that Gwyn Lurie had pulled together a group to talk about this moment of racial reckoning in America.” Rogers’ brief but eye-opening episode of The Conversationally Slippery Montecito Moms drove her to pick up the phone and call Lurie. Their conversation immediately slipped into a warm, light-throwing cause centered on the village they loved. Rogers unburdened herself. “When Gwyn and I spoke, I shared my wish for Montecito. If we could fast-forward ten years, we’d see visible, tangible signs of Montecito having taken action toward anti-racism.”
Conversation as Anti-toxin
What happens when you internalize an instance of injustice so screwed, it puts the bloodstream on a low boil? The question is not rhetorical; it’s answered somewhat by culture and geography. Choices in these parts include throwing a love seat through the plate glass; repeatedly striking a tree stump with an old Davis Imperial tennis racket; or pulling together what could be called a nonpolitical reaction committee. “Casey had reached out to me in a particular context,” Lurie said. “That of a white resident of Montecito beginning to feel frustrated at people who wanted to have the conversation and quickly move on.” The killing of George Floyd was at such a geographic, sociological and cultural remove from Montecito – many in the wooded enclave were unable to find traction in what it signaled. Aware of the gravity of the situation, they were averse to engaging in its particulars – understandably, it must be said. But that way lies unending chaos, injustice, and death. Not to be a downer.
“Casey said, ‘I think it’s important for our community to not stop having this conversation.’ And I told her, ‘Funny you should say that…’” Lurie had already begun to constructively use her anger by convening a diverse group of trusted pals whom she knew would be activated by discourse, and whose skills could lead to forward movement. Lurie and Rogers were on the same page. “I’m not sure exactly where this conversation is going,” Lurie told her, “but it feels good to think of coming together in a group where we can have honest conversations about race.”
The Institute for Social Inquiry
“When I was doing some freelance editing for the Montecito Journal, Gwyn Lurie approached me to join in what I believe was a formative conversation,” said Joe Donnelly. He’s an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor of the “admirably tall and balding” variety – a typist with a pugilist’s aura. And nose. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College, and editor of Red Canary Magazine. “The core group has changed and evolved with a couple of exceptions,” he said. “But right now we have a lot of momentum and it’s showing up in ways large and small.”
Among its rank and file, the group came to be called the Institute for Social Inquiry. Inaugural members climbed aboard through an organic process of discovery and referral. Writer Megan Waldrep facilitated an early conversation between Lurie and Waldrep’s mentor, UCSB professor and Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Jeffrey Stewart, who in turn introduced the group to UCSB Religious Studies professor Richard Hecht. Over time, differences of approach and the press of other commitments winnowed the number of participants. Present membership is comprised of Joe Donnelly, Casey Rogers, (Santa Barbara mayoral candidate and Coffee with a Black Guy innovator) James Joyce III, Montecito resident and data scientist Jeff Moore and Dr. Charlotte Gullap-Moore, and prize-winning novelist and short story writer Jervey Tervalon. The Institute’s putative founder, Gwyn Lurie, has taken a step back from operations. “It’s a struggle for me to have enough time for my kids right now,” she told me. “I just sort of said, ‘This is rolling, you guys.’ I’m here – and I will promote whatever they do. I jump in and out when possible.”
The group is morphing from an energetic social justice salon to an engine for Doing. What are they working on? “Everything from programming around anti-racism and education, to spotlighting under-told stories and cultural history. We have grassroots initiatives in the works to reward the creativity of students addressing social justice issues.” Donnelly pauses to underline that the group is not a bauble. “One of the great things about this group is that it is results-oriented. We focus on what we can do, where we can make an impact, and we pretty much get it done. We’ll continue to find ways to both model and push for a more equitable community.”
Is the Institute for Social Inquiry a think tank? A conversation? A list of evolving initiatives aimed at identifying and stripping out hard-wired injustice? A gaggle of skill sets thrown at an evolving series of action items? A platform for brokering sea change in the region’s self-awareness? A love song to getting along?
Yes, and yes.
Jeff Moore sums up: “We’re a group of concerned Americans of various races and backgrounds who are deeply moved by the history of race-motivated events in our country. We’ve formed a group that meets weekly to discuss ways in which we can engage large segments of the community in dialogue, conversation, and action.” Moore’s work as a data scientist adds some research to the group’s raison d’être. “I was introduced to the Institute for Social Inquiry after a chance meeting with James Joyce. He happened to be in Montecito last year and we had a chance to connect on a number of topics, including plans for Coffee with a Black Guy and this new group – the Institute. He thought Charlotte and I would be good additions to the team, and we felt the same.”
Perhaps it goes without saying that Joyce’s successful mayoral run would make him Santa Barbara’s first black mayor. Through the offices of his Coffee with a Black Guy platform (CWABG), he is also Fomenter-in-Chief of Uncomfortable but Ultimately Liberating White Self-Reflection in the Presence of a Talkative Black Man (not an actual title). Convulsed by the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016, the transplanted Santa Barbaran that year concocted a forum that pits one chatty black man against a roomful of inquisitive, lightly caffeinated whites – an Ask Me Anything for the racially pacific New Age.
CWABG has been a ringing success, and its presence as a model for mediating difficult public conversations made it a perfect vehicle for the Institute of Inquiry’s outreach mission. To that end, CWABG aligned with UCSB A&L’s “Race to Justice” lecture series, augmenting four of those campus speaking events with complementary programming through CWABG. In other words, it engages lecture audiences deeper into an unstructured gabfest without guardrails.
“The Institute of Social Inquiry is working towards a more equitable future through truth and reconciliation,” James said. “En route to this lofty aim, our discussions have ranged from local housing policy, questioning what privilege looks like in our community, to the domestic and global implications of the 1951 document delivered to the United Nations entitled ‘We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.’”
Tomorrow and Tomorrow
When George Floyd was pinned to the street until he died, a pissed-off Lurie started collaring friends. The result today is a human-powered mechanism for change. Activism may be in Lurie’s bones. “I came of age politically in college during the anti-apartheid movement,” she said. “I was student body president at UCLA and joined the movement, along with friends in what was then called the Black Students Alliance. We took over UCLA’s administration building and got the Regents to divest from corporations doing business in South Africa.”
Montecito – for all its forested estates, circular driveways, homies of Windsor, and flotilla of huge, white SUVs – is crawling with social justice mojo that knows no political or spiritual affiliation and simply draws a bright line between right and wrong. Where civilized people gather, the mercy and compassion of the heart keeps the lamps lit. And if there is a more civilized place than Montecito, lemme know.
Jeff Moore, data scientist, has his own vision. You would not confuse it with an algorithm.
“While I’m black and live in Montecito, I wanted to bring more to the group than just ticking some random checkboxes: Black? Check. Live in Montecito? Check. Experienced some form of racism? Check. Well, I can tell you – this group has legs! I’m excited about the potential to change one mind, to get one more person to take action so that the world is a better place – so that the pain of centuries of systematic racism can be rooted out, once and for all.” Moore paused and broke into a grin. “What’s the old saying? Teamwork can make the dream work!”