Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots.  Smith is among the great observers of our time.  She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.

I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace.  The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky.  Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her.  I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal.  She let me down easy.  When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.

Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post.  She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.”  She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith.  We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:

What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.

Kagame on Aid: Not Your Mother’s Peace Corps

June 12, 2009

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has written a powerful piece for the Huffington Post that invites readers to have “A Different Discussion About Aid.” He uses the occasion of the Peace Corps’ return to Rwanda for the first time since the 1994 genocide to propose that we stop thinking about foreign aid as a one-way transfer of resources and knowledge, that we begin to define it as a global “exchange of values and ideas.”

He starts with the exchange of symbols and traditions.  The examples are consistent with our understanding of the gifts that a young Peace Corps volunteer might receive in the process of serving — the exposure to Rwandan foods and traditions, to an African concept of family, where “an entire generation treats the next as its own children.”  These images are satisfying and comfortable.  They reinforce our belief in the value of global engagement.  We are not surprised to learn that Africa can teach us things about food and family.

But the power of the essay is in where he goes next.  Kagame throws open the doors to Rwandan “restaurants…staff rooms and classrooms,” and challenges us to engage his fellow citizens on the great questions of our time:  how to build societies that work, how to create prosperity without destroying the planet, how to identify and nurture the next generation of leaders.  Under Kagame’s extraordinary leadership, Rwanda has been focused on these questions with an intensity and moral purpose that is difficult for us to imagine in the West.  And the results have been exceptional, as Kagame points out, including an 11% rise in GDP last year as the world economy contracted.

We are not used to looking to Africa for these kinds of insights.  We are used to speaking not listening.  Kagame’s invitation is revolutionary.  He follows it with a final offering to his readers, a leadership act with global resonance. Kagame closes by modeling the spirit of shared humanity we’ll need to not only think differently about aid, but to make the whole concept obsolete:

…the only investment with the possibility of infinite returns is in our children, and…after a couple of years in Rwanda, working and learning with our people, these Peace Corps volunteers will be our sons and daughters, too.