The Vineyard: A Venue For Provocative Discourse

Peter Norton and Vernon Jordan are here this year but not President Obama or Former President Clinton.  However, fundraising is in full swing as Mitt Romney enjoyed a clam bake with his supporters and Valerie Jarrett welcomed President Obama’s  backers.

Martha’s Vineyard is a great vacation destination—terrific restaurants, great beaches and a cultural cornucopia of people who disembark by foot, ferry or plane.  Arriving on island, people leave their identities at home, and become Vineyarders.  It happens right away with warm smiles, easy conversations and serendipitous introductions that develop into life long friendships.  You can let your hair down here.  People are drawn to the Vineyard by the seemingly endless opportunities to have meaningful and provocative conversations.

But the Vineyard is much more and it is the reason that Presidents, executives, professionals, academics, teachers and entrepreneurs return year after year.   It’s easy here:  it’s as easy to create a relationship as it was in college.   Few people are “out of reach.” Just go to Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Mocha Motts coffee, or Mad Martha’s Ice cream and you will understand what I mean.  And, what comes with new friends? New perspectives, of course.

Few topics are off limits and I can tell you people dive into conversations with relish.  The subjects are not light and frothy summer fare.  The topics are timely, weighty and in some instances disturbing.  I had only been on the Vineyard for a few days when I found myself diverted from my usual business concerns to an immersion in social justice issues: race and gender in sports, voter suppression, prison industrial complex, and the disappearance of work in the inner city.

Frankly, I had lost touch (but not interest) in the working poor or those hopelessly entrapped in a cycle of poverty since my work with the Urban League. I had forgotten about the statistics until Larry Summers– yes, that Larry Summers–  said:  one in three African American men are not working.   And, now, here I am on Martha’s Vineyard forgoing my daytime at the beach to hear first hand accounts from scholars and experts participating in forums, brunches and receptions that at their core are about equality despite the obstacles.

Here are a few of the events, some of them standing-room-only, that I attended in just one week:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Charles Ogletree’s annual Martha’s Vineyard forum was entitled Between the Lines: Race and Gender in Sports and participants included Satch Sanders (Celtics #6), Wynomia Tyus and Dr. Skeeter McClure (both Olympic Gold Medalists), and Judge Jacqueline Frasier, daughter of Smokin’ Joe Frasier.  The common theme:  fortitude, the ability to turn the other cheek and the courage to raise a black-gloved fist at the Olympics and hear the cheers turn to boos.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Skip Gates presented the Du Bois Institute Charles Hutchins Forum entitled When Work Disappears. Moderated by Charlene Hunter Gault, the panelists included Lawrence Summers and David Simon, producer of television’s The Wire.

Sitting in Edgartown ‘s Old Whaling Church, we couldn’t have been further from the gang violence in Watts described by Connie Rice (yes, a cousin to Condoleezza). We were reminded that about 5000 people have died in Iraq/Afghanistan, while during that same period over 30,000 young people have died from gun violence in our country.  The majority of the victims were poor.

The panelists gave voice to the poor—not the working poor but the poor who are the underclass of this society, the people who are third-generation poor, who know no one in their immediate family or neighborhood community who has ever worked.  They painted a picture of the forgotten underbelly of America—the part of this society that panel member David Simon took out of the shadows and onto the HBO award-winning series entitled The Wire. Invisible, they die unnoticed, mourned only by their families who often murmur, “I knew this would happen.”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The room is packed for the annual literary lunch sponsored by Morgan Stanley when author Isabel Wilkerson reminds us, “Silence…we have to break the silence.  We should embrace the shadows, the hardship and the indignities.” The great African American migration that broke the race caste system of the South is described in Warmth of the Suns, Wilkerson’s book that tells the story of African Americans but resonates with all people who have made the difficult decision to live their home for a better future.

Callie Crossley moderated the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Voter Suppression conversation that included Lani Guinier among the panelists. This hot-button issue has Vineyarders all abuzz.  I am so pleased that I attended because I did not know that our constitution views voting as a privilege.  By definition, a privilege can be extended or taken away!  By contrast, in South Africa voting is a constitutional right.

It’s Provocative

It’s been one week and I continue to get tripped up by the Ryan/Romney campaign promise:  we promise equal opportunity not equal outcomes.  Why? One reason is that while Romney and Ryan are talking about the “middle class,” I have been reminded that there is another class – an invisible class—in America. This class has a different reality.  Its members don’t worry about losing a job because they have never had a “real” job.  They don’t worry about gas prices; they watch in silence as bus service is cut back to their neighborhood, once again. They don’t worry about health insurance because they have none; they rely on the emergency room for their heath care. They are the poor and the folks on the precipice to being in poverty.

The conversations on the Vineyard are not idle conversations—they are active and they produce results.  In September, we Vineyarders return to our year round communities leaving the “real” islanders behind.  In addition to the fond memories of the Wynton Marsalis concert, fireworks, bike rides, good food and great conversation, we carry an ability and desire to put issues into a more academic and fact-based context.

After my time as a Vineyarder, I am awake, alert, better informed and I know that others are too. Look for Vineyarders in your community.  You can spot them by their compassion, energy, and the urgency they bring to conversations.  I think that you will notice that on key issues that they are fired up and ready to go.


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