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Economy for life?

By Jim Cochrane

CitySquare: a riffed mix between a metal-clad warehouse and a retro architect’s office building, and a potent center of activities for the homeless of Dallas. No mere warehouse or office, it’s a fabulous mix of services, facilities and people that reaches far beyond what anyone can see. “We fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship,” is its mission.

As so often on our journey, the words convey almost nothing of the potent passion we saw that turns the words into something extraordinary. Like Magritte’s famous painting (“This is not a pipe”) the three-dimensional reality of CitySquare surpasses any two-dimensional pamphlet, conference presentation, or off-site meeting we can imagine.

A non-profit organization started in 1988 as the Central Dallas Food Pantry under businessman Jim Sowell, it has been led by its current CEO, Larry James, since 1994, morphing first into Central Dallas Ministries, then CitySquare. There’s the first clue. The name signals the intent. CitySquare intends to create a public space where the voices of those otherwise not heard in the halls of power and prestige find a place and a purpose; to address hunger, health, housing, and hope. Already running 17 social service programs that provide more than 50,000 “human touches” in Dallas, Waco, and Denver, Colorado, a new initiative is under way to turn a city theatre area into a new array of services gathered around the arts and the theatre—all still in the name, and with the direct participation, of those who have no home.

Talking with Larry James a question popped into my mind that has been with me constantly as we have travelled. However extraordinary and deeply inspiring (really!) work like this is, why are there so many homeless people in the first place? Equally I could have asked why people are suffering disproportionately from cardiovascular disease in Southeastern San Diego, or, for a lack of means of transport are unable to access health care in Lubbock, or have to place large numbers of children into foster care in Arizona? Why on earth—I could say “how in hell”—is it possible that so much preventable harm and suffering occurs in one of the richest countries this world has ever seen where the knowledge, the human power, and the resources are unquestionably adequate to the challenges we keep encountering?

I can hardly speak from some moral high horse here. After all, I am from the country with the highest level of measurable inequality in the world, where the insidious patterns of racism that have contributed to this remain potently alive, and where many White South Africans—of which I am one—fail to comprehend their complicity as beneficiaries of this history or are willing to do anything about it. So my question in the USA is fundamentally the same one I would ask back home, or most anywhere in the world for that matter.

We are not talking about a lack of resources, certainly not in the aggregate. We are not faced with ignorance about how to prevent a great deal more than we do; in fact our knowledge and technologies are capable of extraordinary things. We are not dealing merely with the unintended consequences that accompany all human action but with things we actually know how to counter. Skills are not missing. Will might be, at least of the kind that does not systematically and intentionally place self-interest, prestige, and status above the dignity and well-being of others.

So what did Larry James’s say? That the system is in a mess and that the heaps of charity one finds everywhere (“the professionalization of poverty”?) changes nothing in the systemic disparities that separate North Dallas from South. “The most squandered hours in Dallas,” he said, “are when somebody stands up and preaches on Sunday and everyone goes away and Dallas is the same on Monday.”

Andy McCarroll, an old friend from Memphis and General Counsel to an investment firm, a generous man whose mind sparks with ideas in every direction way beyond his day job, is also convinced that the science and skills are available but that the will is lacking. Offering another clue, he is now working with a group of forward-thinking people from around the country on the future of a sustainable agriculture that “gives people jobs but – unlike the industrial agricultural industry, whose mistakes we still have to deal with – doesn’t turn them into commodities.” That suggests an economic order whose most fundamental aim is neither the bottom line (however much one needs to watch that for a sustainable enterprise) nor the maximization of profit (which might serve innovation but more commonly serves particular self-interests) but the “leading causes of life.”

It’s not impossible. On this journey across the US South, I have been captivated by the extraordinary will that so many people express to beat out the hurt and harm that befalls fellow citizens. That will knows little of the fears and boundaries or borders that political manipulation seeks to exploit in their name. I expected to see animosity and division wherever we go. Instead we have seen what compassion means everywhere among those who care. It’s almost as if all that stoking of fear and exploitation of economic loss is so much froth on the real beer, not really part of the lives of almost everyone we have met in many towns and cities who know this is not what matters in the end. Larry James, in relation to poverty and racism in Dallas, perhaps expressed it best: “We do the hard work but we don’t quit.” It’s impossible not to be deeply moved and profoundly impressed.

Near the end of our journey at the Third Annual John Hatch FaithHealth Lecture in Shaw University, Raleigh, NC, Dr Jerry Winslow (he had hosted us in San Bernardino at the beginning of our epic journey), interviewing Dr Hatch, an icon in public health, asked about his hope. Dr Hatch said something like this: “It’s terrible to live in a society like this where people are still malnourished. Somewhere there’s a failure of will. There’s no reason for this otherwise.”

The root meaning of economy has nothing to do with Adam Smith’s hidden hand of God or with the mathematical formulae we use to analyze it. The oikos nomos(Greek) is about “ordering of our common household,” the conscious adaptation of means to an end. We, human beings, are the ones who consciously decide what means we will use towards what ends. That’s a matter of will, not of supply and demand or any other theory. And that will is not the possession alone of experts and elites. That’s a message for everyone and a call to take on the responsibility of shaping the will that is needed to change the way things are. Dr Hatch—along with so many we met along the way—is onto something.

 

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