By Yvonne Field
It can sometimes be difficult to find the words to describe a life experience which radically shifts and even transforms one’s thinking. When words elude me, which in all honesty is rarely, I usually feel a deep sense of something rather special unfolding.
I had the pleasure of meeting with the Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley, an African American retired Dean of Clark Atlanta University, Pastor Emeritus at Providence Baptist Church, pre-eminent civil rights leader who cites Andrew Young, amongst others, as one of his ‘big brothers’. One could also now call him an Environmental Justice Warrior as he takes this issue on as one of his newer causes. He described our meeting in Atlanta, Georgia as a Kairos moment.
‘Kairos’ is the ancient Greek that means the ‘right or opportune moment’. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens.
My final morning in Atlanta at the end of May, was spent with him, eating grits, catfish, pancakes and syrup at his local soul food cafe. We visited the Hall of Fame amongst other sites of significance at Morehouse College’s beautiful campus, which was founded in 1867 for African heritage young men. We also spent time at his recently acquired suite of rooms located in his former church building and continues to practice his faith based work and extensive community activities. He had been the priest in this community for 25 years before retiring late last year – the church is now led by a 32 year old young man.
I was also taken to a recently constructed stunning 46 x 1 bedroom purpose built apartment block providing affordable housing to African American elderly, the development of which he led and which is located in his neighbourhood. (Those of us who know of my desire to design and create new models of accommodation for the growing numbers of black elders in England will understand the deep significance of this).
Rev. Dr. Durley who has a Doctorate in Psychology, and went on to graduate from a seminary at almost 40 years of age, says that ‘..faith was the missing piece’, for him, after a number of years of community activism. He was also amongst the first young Peace Corps recruited in the mid 1960s, and was sent to work in Eastern Nigeria for two years. He shared many stories with me relating to his involvement in the Civil Rights and the non violent social change movement in the South and even came to notice of the government as a result of his activities.
His stories included those of white racists pushing ice cream and soft drinks in his face when he, along with other black students collectively strategised about how to purchase them at a white only restaurant counter, being thrown out of store for trying on a hat and refusing to buy it because it was too small for him, and being shaken upside down by a group of white people so that the US$ 6.5 for the hat (yes… six and half dollars!), could fall from his trouser pockets after which he was thrown from the store onto the street – the hat was not deemed by them to be fit to be placed on white man’s head thereafter.
He also shared how he worked with local communities to transform their neighbourhoods, for example raising to the ground the first ever black project (or housing estate) in the USA, which had become slums and just happened to be in his parish and rebuilding beautiful affordable houses for local people. I also witnessed him showing deep concern and offering words of encouragement and support to a young man who had spent considerable amount of time in jail for committing a serious crime.
Rev.Dr.Durley spoke to me candidly, with a deep sense of humour and just a hint of mischievousness, demonstrating how in his emerging environmental justice national spokesperson role, he gained the attention of national corporate leaders on environmental issues affecting poor black communities, when for example nuclear reactors were being built in black neighbourhoods. He recounted how he started coughing at increasing intervals and then into an uncontrollable fit just as he begun his speech, and was eventually asked if he needed a glass of water. He declined but informed the meeting whilst still coughing, that their plans and activities were making current and future black communities very sick (hence his ‘coughing’) – that children would be born deformed and life expectancy would fall dramatically among other negative health outcomes, even though local employment was needed and often welcomed by the resident black communities. We laughed when he said that he knew how to create a drama as a leader of a black church for 25 years, he had to create drama every week in order to keep his congregation engaged!
I wondered about the emblem he wore around his neck, which he eventually told me is one of only 35 such ‘pieces’ in the world, given to him by Coretta Scott King which he only wears on occasions when he is talking about his civil rights work. I was curious to learn from him about some of the key ingredients of strategic leadership and to explore how to be an authentic leadership whilst effecting deep lasting social change.
Whilst on my sojourn in Atlanta, I was also very keen to learn more about how entrepreneurial activities which could help build community wealth as well as how to design and implement new social programmes for community building – things that we are not doing here in black communities in the UK. I am deeply curious to see how after three or four generations we can actually move from survival mode (although sustainability is of course an essential) to actually thriving in inner cities communities in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
I was shown Down Town Atlanta where ‘gentrification’ was a metaphor for previously poor black neighbourhoods where young white ‘folk’ were now moving to in large numbers. It was explained that as black family structures and life change e.g. elders pass, and their children move to the more leafy suburbs of Atlanta, these large and run down properties are sold cheaply and young people buy up these properties and renovate them creating new and highly desirable ‘white’ neighbourhoods. I had already begun to think much more critically about why we feel that being upwardly mobile could include moving ‘out’ to Milton Keynes, Croydon, Thornton Heath, Peterborough and other ‘new towns’. whilst areas where our parents and grandparents previously resided such as Notting Hill and now Deptford and Brixton become ‘gentrified’ and transformed into creative hubs.
Conversely, I was taken to some of the poor black neighbourhoods surrounding Spelman and Morehouse Colleges to see how almost derelict properties have been transformed into high quality student housing by a mother who started out with an intention to house her son whilst he studied and has since built an impressive property portfolio and made a major improvement to some of these neighbourhoods as well as to the quality of available black student accommodation.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech and I am reflecting on my visit to the Martin Luther King Memorial Site where I listened to the recordings of his speeches and recall the images I saw of blatant racist discrimination on the segregated South. It was also a stark reminder of the racist policies and practices led to the development of black self reliance as his neighbourhood was the location of the richest African American street in America. I saw the footprints of famous African American people in the ‘Walk of Fame for Civil Rights’ these footprints included Rosa Parks, Sidney Poitier, Stevie Wonder, Lena Horne and Desmond Tutu and reminded me of some of the more ‘unlikely suspects’ who had taken an active stand against racism and oppression in their lives.
I also reflected on some of the people I encountered on my trip. I met a retired Spelman College professor who had attended the Spelman crèche when aged three old and then had gone on to graduate from there as a Valedictorian (top of her whole year). Both her maternal and paternal grandmother, as well as her mother and sister had also studied at Spelman. She shared with me how she had then taught and been a senior administrator there. She had a mission to offer continuing education / access opportunities to women who had been unable complete their education. I was actually introduced to her by a 60 year old undergraduate student, during the 9th Spelman Women of Colour Leadership Conference (which I have blogged about separately), who herself was a young widow and was a mother of eight university educated children and had only now been able to complete her studies. This student was attending the Pauline E. Drake Programme which was named after the retired professor, who played down her significant achievements and joked with me about some of her students being her cheerleaders, even though she had a Doctorate in English and a real passion for encouraging and supporting young and older women’s education.
It was interesting to hear the stories about past experiences of being a member of the first group of 50 black students entering Georgia State University and being asked by a white student to iron her clothes; and the experiences of being a young practicing Akan priestess and PhD student in an elite predominately white university and the determination to raise your children within a African spiritual community.
I was able to engage in dialogue about Morehouse College’s history of creating future generations of male black national and international male leaders – its’ most famous alumnae being Dr Martin Luther King. As a result of my meeting there, I was connected with a former black head of a London college who recently arrived there from London as a Visiting Research Fellow. We spoke at length just before I boarded my flight home, about the changing situation facing our community in England and the types of new strategies we might need to employ if we are to thrive there.
I was fortunate to attend one of the weekly coalition meetings of several different black organisations the main agenda item being how to create strategies to influence the outcome of national voting rights legislation which aims, amongst other things, to substantially reduce the number of available voting districts and precincts. I also had a ‘story circle’ luncheon hosted for me by a grassroots movement where my specific questions about leadership, social innovation and intergenerational connections guided our conversation. Listening to the insights of many of those present I became aware of the role that our mature young adults can play (those in their late 20’s to late 30’s), and how this group could be one of the significant links in helping our community build and sustain our intergenerational connections.
I also had ‘downtime’ and took in some of the sights and sounds of Atlanta through dropping by their annual jazz festival, visiting the African American Apex Museum, CNN headquarters and trying out numerous eating places and different food. Of course shopping was on my schedule – visits to Macy’s and Bloomingdales department stores and bargain hunting in TK Max and Marshalls.
I was also able to have lunch with a former housemate of mine, whom I had last seen 25 years ago when we shared a house in Guyana, South America. Time and space seemed to actually strengthen our friendship as we realised we are now on very similar paths.
I asked Rev. Dr. Durley how he had managed to achieve so much in, for and with his community. He told me that people had to believe in the leader. There was profound simplicity in that statement for me as my whole journey to Atlanta was a quest to help myself and a growing community of concerned black individuals design an innovative initiative for our community named Ubele, which is Swahili for ‘The Future’. I want to better understand how African heritage leadership emerges and social innovation involving new approaches to deal with our deep social issues can be designed, in order to better understand some of the work that we and future generations of Diaspora Africans might need to do to transform ourselves and the lives of our community. We are witnessing the creation of a new world order and most of us I feel, will need act with greater clarity and intention in order to create a different kind of future in the UK.
Briggs, 2011 suggests that Kairos is pregnant time, the time of possibility – moments in our day, our week, our month, our year or our lifetime that define us. It is a crossroads. It has the ripe opportunity to make you bitter or better. It is a teachable moment. It is the right or opportune moment. They are rarely neutral and always leave an impact on us.’
How could being in the presence of someone like Rev. Dr. Durley not provide a ripe opportunity for me to improve, to learn from him, and leave a deep impression on me? Even in the few hours we had spent together I knew I would if asked, follow him as a leader as I could see he was a man of extraordinary integrity, deep humility, humour as well as strategic actions. He was, as I understood, a man of his word.
I had experienced difficulty in actually connecting with Rev. Dr. Durley after an initial introduction through a family member of a close friend of mine. He and I had called each other on a number of occasions and were unable to speak to each other, were unable hear each other due to poor reception on more than one occasion and also had some difficulty agreeing an actual date and time. However, what has become increasingly clear to me since returning to London is that my Kairos moment spanned much of the time I stayed in Atlanta. I had wanted to visit Atlanta two decades earlier and although I was reflecting on how it might have been had I visited then, Rev. Dr. Durley informed me when he spoke about Karios, that it is also described as ‘God’s time.’
Rev. Dr. Durley gave me a number of significant gifts during my last day in Atlanta…one of the most important gifts was deeper insight, understanding and awareness of those defining moments time time. As my somewhat uncertain life path continues to unfold and some interesting and even exciting possibilities begin to emerge from this travel opportunity (even at this early stage), I am increasingly reminded that the divine universe and my ancestors are my main guides on this particular journey. I have amassed more than enough evidence that the tools I need to do the work I am being called to do through Ubele, be it in the form of teachers and guides, other resource people, life experiences, personal and professional support and supporters, financial and other resources are actually being provided. They pop up all the time, at the most unexpected moments as well as from the most unlikely places. I still however need to learn to be more patient and even more trusting at times as I have seen how things unexpectedly align to make the seemingly impossible happen, at the appointed time.
This adventure is still unfolding, as I have yet to complete my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship – I have a three week trip planned to New Zealand later this year. During my trip, I intend to immerse myself in two separate Maori communities to learn about their culture and how they create and deepen intergenerational connections.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all the people who took their time to tell me their stories, share their wisdom and offer me their expressions of love. I might not have made direct mention to you here in this blog, but I feel extremely privileged to have been given the opportunity to be in conversation with you.
Over the coming months, I will continue to reflect on and record my Atlanta experiences, produce a detailed report as well as implement specific actions and plans as part of Ubele.
1) Briggs, J.R.2011, The one Greek word you should know. (www.jrbriggs.com)
3) Fields, Anne M., and Karen R. Díaz. Fostering Community through Digital Storytelling: a Guide for Academic Libraries. Westport