Donald Trump’s Racism Diminishes America

Depiction of Du Sable taken from A.T. Andreas’ book History of Chicago (1884). Reprinted from Wikipedia

Greetings from the U.S. city founded by a Haitian immigrant.

Sometime in the 1780s, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, reportedly born of a French father and an African slave mother, who had gained some education in France and made his way from New Orleans to the Midwest, settled with his Potawatomi wife on the north shore of the Chicago River. He developed what became a prosperous trading post before eventually selling it for $1,200 (no small sum in the early 1800s) before relocating to St. Charles, in what is now Missouri, where he died in 1818. According to the best-known assumption about his date of birth (1845), he would by then have been 73, a ripe age on the early American frontier. You can learn more about the admittedly sketchy details of his life here as well as through the link above. However, Chicago has long claimed him as part of its heritage, and his origins speak volumes about not only Chicago but the diversity of the American frontier despite the attempts in some quarters to continue to paint a much whiter portrait of the nation’s history than the truth affords. His story, and those of many others, can be viewed at the Du Sable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side.

Du Sable Museum of African American History, photo from Wikipedia

What does this have to do with President Donald Trump? As almost anyone not living in a cave knows by now, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has said that Trump, while Durbin was at the White House for a meeting with the President and several Republican members of Congress to discuss a possible compromise on legislation concerning immigration and border security, began a verbal tirade asking why the nation was allowing so many immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Africa and Haiti. Yes, Trump now denies saying it, but there were other witnesses, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) acknowledges it and reports confronting Trump personally about his remarks. Moreover, the sad fact is that such remarks are consistent with a much broader pattern of similar comments ranging from his initial campaign announcement decrying Mexican “rapists” to provably untrue tweets to his infamous praise of “truly fine” people among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan members protesting the pending removal of Confederate statues in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Since those comments last August, Trump has continued to lacerate the Twitterscape with new gems of disingenuous absurdity.

It also betrays a disturbing lack of depth of any historical knowledge that might ground Trump in the truth. There is surely little question that Haiti is one of the poorest and most environmentally beleaguered nations in the Western Hemisphere. But it helps to know how it got there, which takes us back to what was happening in Du Sable’s lifetime. Emulating the ideals of both the American and French revolutions, including the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, deeply oppressed African slaves rebelled in 1791. An ill-advised expedition sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to suppress the revolution—Napoleon was more interested in financing his European wars with Haitian revenue than in honoring liberty among Africans—failed miserably when nearly 80 percent of 57,000 French troops first fell victim to yellow fever before being pounced upon by Haitian revolutionaries in their weakened state. Only a small contingent ever made it back to France alive. As time went on, however, Haiti found itself isolated in the New World. The United States, under presidents from Thomas Jefferson onward until the Civil War, refused to recognize the new republic, fearing a similar uprising among its own growing population of slaves in the South. Recognition finally happened in 1862, with the Confederacy in full rebellion against the Union and with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. The story gets much, much worse, including Haiti’s long-time mistreatment by France, its former colonial overseer, but those with more intellectual curiosity than our current U.S. president can read about it in a variety of books including Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois; the fictionalized but brutally vivid and historically accurate trilogy (starting with All Souls’ Rising) by Madison Smartt Bell, whom I met 20 years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; and the more modern history of exploitation, The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. There is much more; just search Amazon or your local library. It is all there for the learning. We are at least partly responsible for helping to create the historical pattern of misery and poverty in Haiti. Its people have suffered through vicious, greedy dictators like the Duvaliers and yet bravely insisted on creating a democracy despite all obstacles.

Why do I review all this? Because, especially as we celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday and the ideals of the civil rights movement, history matters. For the President of the United States, at least a respectable knowledge of history matters, as do an open mind and a willingness to learn what matters. Little of that has been in evidence over the past year. And that remains a tragic loss for the nation.

Instead, we have a President who, before taking office, spent five years helping to peddle the canard that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and thus not a native-born U.S. citizen as required by the U.S. Constitution. Based on his recent comments, one might suspect that, all along, he regarded Kenya as among the “shithole countries.” It is small wonder, then, that he holds Obama’s legacy in such low regard. (Several years ago, while in Oahu, my wife and I met a Punahou School high school classmate of Obama, working as a tour guide, who said he knew Obama’s grandparents. “I was not in the delivery room,” he mused, but “I think I would have known” if Obama had not been born in Honolulu.)

The problem, as millions of Americans seem to understand, is that, despite Trump’s claim that these nations “do not send us their best,” our nation has a history of watching greatness arise from humble origins. Abraham Lincoln, in fact, arose from starker poverty in Kentucky and southern Illinois than many immigrants even from African nations have ever seen. Major League Baseball might be considerably diminished without the many Dominicans who have striven mightily to escape poverty and succeed, more than a few making it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (I worked in the Dominican Republic in 2000-2001, organizing HUD-funded Spanish-language training on site planning for design professionals working on reconstruction after Hurricane Georges, and can attest first-hand to the national pride Dominicans feel about their achievements in the U.S.) How many Americans visit doctors who emanated from India, Nigeria, and other countries who saw opportunity here to expand their talents and contribute to this nation’s welfare? And, lest we forget, Steve Jobs, who created more and better American jobs through Apple than Trump ever dreamed of creating, was the son of Syrian immigrants.

Only willful ignorance and prejudice can blind us to these contributions and lead us to accept the validity of Trump’s vile observations. As adjunct assistant professor, I teach a graduate-level seminar (Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery) each year at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Since this began in 2008, I have taught not only Americans but high-quality students—in a few cases, Fulbright scholars—from places like Zambia, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They do not see themselves as coming from “shithole countries,” but they do perceive that they are availing themselves of excellent educational opportunities in a nation they have typically seen as a paragon of democratic ideals. Now we are undermining that perception at a breakneck pace. These students, whose full tuition helps undergird the finances of American universities, know there are viable alternatives for a modern education in Britain, France, Germany, and Canada, but until now they have believed in the promise of America.

Meanwhile, Europeans—the very people whom Trump apparently would like to see more of among our immigrant ranks—are watching this charade with alarm and dismay. I know this evidence is anecdotal, but my wife and I, as noted in recent blog posts, traveled to Norway last July. We encountered New Zealand, South African, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, German, British, and Norwegian citizens, among others, as we traveled. Almost no one we met was impressed with Trump. This is a new development in European perception of American leadership. Moreover, our perceptions then are supported by reporting in the last few days on reaction to Trump’s comments. Despite Trump asking why we cannot have more immigrants from Norway, NBC News reports that Norwegians are largely rejecting this call as “backhanded praise.” If we want more European immigration to the U.S., we would do far better impressing them with our sophistication and our commitment to the democratic ideals we have all shared since World War II.

Beyond all this, it must be noted that thousands of dedicated Americans serve overseas in the nations Trump has insulted, wearing the uniforms of the Armed Services, staffing diplomatic missions, and representing their nation in other ways. No true patriot would thoughtlessly place them in jeopardy and make their jobs more awkward than they need to be. It is one thing to face the hostility of Islamic State or other terrorist-oriented entities because of U.S. policy. Those who enlist or take overseas jobs with the U.S. government understand those risks. It is another to engender needless fear and hostility among nations that historically have been open to American influence and leadership. How do we mend fences once they perceive the U.S. President as an unapologetic bigot?

That question leads to another, more troubling one. Silence effectively becomes complicity, but far too few Republican members of Congress have found the moral backbone to confront the reality that both their party’s and their nation’s reputation will suffer lasting damage if they remain too timid to stand up to the schoolyard bully they helped elect. A few, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Mitt Romney, and members of the Bush family, have demonstrated such integrity, but most have not. It is one thing to recognize that you badly misjudged the character of the man you nominated and helped elect. It is another entirely to refuse to speak up once it is obvious. Admittedly, Democrats right now have the easier job. But this problem transcends partisan boundaries. It is about America’s badly damaged license to lead in the world. We either reclaim it, or we begin the long, slow torture of forfeiting it.

Jim Schwab

Short Visit to Charlottesville

Few people live for the excitement of radical demonstrations. Most of us want to enjoy life and, if we can, contribute something positive to society along the way. Thus, it is small surprise that, when hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, and engaged in open intimidation of counterdemonstrators the following day, almost no residents were happy, and many made their displeasure clear. In the end, one Nazi sympathizer from Ohio chose to drive his car into a crowd, injuring numerous bystanders and killing Heather Heyer, a young local paralegal with an admirable history of assisting the disadvantaged.

Thanks to extremely unfortunate and ill-considered comments on the matter by President Donald Trump, Charlottesville has become shorthand in many people’s minds for a controversy about intolerance. But what really happens as a community tries to resume normal life after such distasteful episodes? What happens after the intruders, who among other things took issue with the proposed removal of statues of Confederate leaders, finally leave town and go back where they came from? Only one organizer was a Charlottesville resident, not a particularly popular one at that, and the vast majority of right-wing demonstrators were from outside Virginia—a point emphasized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his condemnation of their activities.

I had the opportunity to visit Charlottesville last Monday. To be clear, my primary motive was to visit two retired friends who moved there from suburban Washington, D.C. They had invited me long before the demonstrations took place. I took them up on the offer largely because I had been asked to speak at the North Carolina state conference of the American Planning Association, which began on September 26. I flew into Richmond the previous day and drove to Charlottesville that afternoon. They wanted to show off their new home town and took me to the University of Virginia campus and then downtown, where we eventually had dinner followed by some late-night conversation. I drove to Greenville, North Carolina, the next morning.

I mention all this because I am sharing casual observations, not dedicated reporting or profound knowledge of the city, which I had never previously visited. Even so, I think my observations have some modest value. For one, Charlottesville is a normal, mostly attractive city, a university town of average size (just under 50,000). It is well forested in places and sports some attractive scenery, like much of Virginia. It is easy to see why people would like living there.

It is also largely a progressive city, not unusual for a community with a strong academic history. The Rotunda, the original core of the University of Virginia campus, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the years after he retired from the presidency to his home at nearby Monticello. The campus thus has a noteworthy history dating back more than two centuries to America’s earliest days. The university has a noteworthy academic history and has produced its fair share of meritorious scholarship. Historic preservation clearly is part of the university’s DNA.

But that history contains a dark side that long remained unacknowledged until more recent times. Much of Jefferson’s architectural handiwork was achieved with slave labor. The slaves who helped build the campus spent many decades deprived of access to the educational opportunities the university provided. Social justice has become a significant focus of the university’s attention in recent decades, once the civil rights movement had forced the entire state to think seriously about racial equality. This is the state, after all, that in the 1960s gave the nation Loving v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

To its credit, however, the University of Virginia has been coming to terms with its history. Surely, one can credit Jefferson for remarkable skills and a certain practical genius in both politics and architectural design. His achievements are not to be gainsaid. At the same time, there is no question that much of his life was predicated on and enabled by inequality and the suppression of opportunity for people of color, enslaved or free. His political courage never extended to the liberation of his African-American servants. University walking tours now include very factual discussions of the role of enslaved African Americans, some of whom were openly abused and maltreated on the antebellum campus. Their story deserves to be told along with that of the leaders who created much of the university’s unique heritage. Brochures and information related to historic buildings suggest that university historians have spent time documenting this history for the benefit of future generations. The contributions of African Americans, willing or involuntary, to the university need to be part of the public record. The educational displays in the Rotunda acknowledge that history.

But it was through this very campus that the Klansmen and Nazis marched on that August night, carrying torches and chanting offensive slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” They made a point of marching in front of a downtown synagogue. I may be Christian, not Jewish, but I can easily imagine how angry I would feel if that were my place of worship. It has never even occurred to me to disrespect someone else’s house of worship in any way. Part of being American, in my humble opinion, lies in respecting other people’s ethnic or racial heritage and freedom of religion. I am aware that there are plenty of examples of disrespect for diversity in American history, but they should fill us with shame, not pride, because they contradict our stated principles as a nation.

Shrouded statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

As in any such city, the university is a major presence in the life of Charlottesville. But it was downtown where the Saturday rally and confrontations occurred. There seems to be some serious public discontent with the role of the police that day in containing the violence that occurred, quite possibly because public safety officials failed to take seriously enough the full extent of the threat, expecting a much smaller demonstration. Certainly, no one expected James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from a Toledo, Ohio, suburb to drive his vehicle through a crowd with the express purpose of producing mayhem among those opposed to the right-wing protest, but it also is not clear to all concerned that police had taken all appropriate measures to secure the area to prevent such an outcome. I am not judging; I am merely reporting the apparent public sentiment.

Two statues whose preservation was the object of the protest, those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have been shrouded from public view with a “no trespassing” sign to bar fans of the Confederacy from removing the shrouds. I will not take up the arguments about the fate of the statues here. I am merely noting that many would like to see them go, even as others make a case for preserving them. But it does seem to me that there is a serious difference between exploring and understanding the history of the Civil War and providing people who fought to preserve slavery and against the United States with a place of honor on public property. Equating knowledge of American heritage with statue preservation strikes me as simplistic and even disingenuous.

But most striking in this city seeking to reestablish normal life after a harrowing episode involving domestic terrorism and racial hatred is the simple campaign that has been launched to demonstrate a municipal identity in the wake of those events. Throughout downtown, posters and displays proclaim that “Charlottesville Stands for Love.” It is a simple, almost unsophisticated declaration that captures a sentiment that informs the Klan and the Nazis that they are out of place in Charlottesville, that the community simply is not interested in fomenting or disseminating hatred. This is a city looking to the future, not interested in perpetuating the animosities and bigotries of the past. It is time to move on.

The display in the photo above appears in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall, which reminded me in its design features of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. It is a place of small shops, of funky and independent restaurants, of people who accept diversity. It is a place for people to find locally oriented businesses, to relax, to meet each other, and to foster a culture of mutual respect. It is its own message: We all just want to get along and lead productive lives. We have our problems, like any city, but hate is not welcome here.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.


Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.


Jim Schwab

On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.


Jim Schwab

Greening Greater Racine

How often do any of us look around our communities closely enough to fully understand the extent of the greening activity that is taking place? My guess would be that the vast majority of us—and I include myself—have no idea of the sheer volume of hours and effort that is expended, particularly on a volunteer basis, to keep our cities green and healthy.

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

I had the opportunity this weekend to get a glimpse of all that effort in a city of about 80,000 just an hour and a half north of Chicago, in Racine, Wisconsin, a lakefront community about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. The gift to me was an invitation from David Rhoads to be the featured guest speaker for an event on Friday evening, March 18, which set the stage for an Eco-Fest the following day at Gateway Technical College. The evening event took place at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater, a building with a flying saucer appearance on the grounds of the SC Johnson Co. in downtown Racine. I should note that this company has for years sponsored environmental programs in and around Racine and provided backing through its Johnson Foundation for the famous Wingspread conference center, often used for important policy discussions related to environmental and resilience issues.

Inside the Golden Rondelle

Inside the Golden Rondelle

My theme was “Green and Healthy: The Future of Cities,” but I did not speak about Racine because, frankly, I did not know nearly enough about it, but also because my mission was to introduce the audience to the wider range of urban forestry and green energy activities around the nation. In the bargain, I discussed the role of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning in creating resilient communities that minimize the waste of destruction from natural hazards, concluding with the examples of Joplin, Missouri, which included major reforestation efforts in its recovery from a major 2011 tornado, and Greensburg, Kansas, which engineered a green recovery that has made the town 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. In short, my mission was to paint a holistic impression of what it takes to create green and healthy communities.

But David does know very well what has been happening in Racine, which was one reason he was introducing me that evening. We have known each other for nearly 25 years since he was a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and I was chairing the Environmental Concerns Working Group for the Metro Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. David has always been intensely interested in the theology of creation and environmental stewardship. The Working Group mission became, and remains, financing and enabling energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits for Lutheran churches in the synod, which covers four counties and roughly 200 congregations. David and his wife, Sandy, also a pastor, have made Racine their home and are actively engaged in environmental activism on the local scene, including faith-based environmental awareness efforts. I was thus more than pleased to honor David’s invitation.

Because the intent of my own presentation was to “set the table,” in David’s words, for discussing the greening of Racine, I was followed by a panel of four local professionals: Julie Kinzleman of the Racine City Health Department, who spoke on healthy beaches and water supply; Nan Calvert, on environmental education centers in the area; Matt Koepnick, on urban forestry; and the Rev. Bill Thompkins, an African-American church leader, on neighborhood beautification. Without detracting from the other three in any way, I must say I was particularly taken by Thompkins’s approach. After stating that his inner-city church had asked the question “you don’t necessarily want to ask,” namely, what would happen if your church were no longer present in the neighborhood, he and his parishioners and neighbors undertook to reclaim a city park that had become a gang battleground and began to distribute and plant thousands of plants and trees. What difference does that make? As Thompkins explained, people are more likely to treasure an attractive neighborhood than a neglected one, and to begin to take responsibility for their local environment. Greening the neighborhood, in effect, was a way of restoring the social health of the people in the neighborhood. That echoed a theme I had introduced earlier, citing our APA work in Planning the Urban Forest, that trees have actual mental health benefits that have been documented in social scientific studies. A city that is green is also a city that is healthy for its people.

But what also struck me was the diversity of the efforts underway, including not one but several environmental education centers in the area, and an ongoing expansion of tree-planting efforts in Racine. David asked me for a one-minute closing observation on the program, and that was the one point I chose to make. Look around. See how much is going on around you that you did not know was happening.

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

The entire program set the stage for a much better attended event the following morning at Gateway Technical College, a school on the lakefront that provides training in environmental technologies. Eco-Fest Racine featured more than 50 displays by groups large and small, activist and educational, including children’s activities, which attracted the immediate interest of my wife, a retired elementary school teacher. Display topics ranged from garbage disposal to recycling to energy audits to urban gardening and forestry to environmental education and advocacy. It included secular groups and Racine Green Congregations, where a woman named Margie informed me ruefully that Wisconsin, under Gov. Scott Walker, an ideological conservative, has been losing its best scientists from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources because of anti-scientific bias from the administration. In the space of just a few hours, neither my wife nor I could absorb all that was offered in this cornucopia of information, but I came to realize one thing: Such events serve a critical purpose in exposing all of us to the breadth of activity that is present in our communities. I do not think Racine is unique, though it is blessed. I think other communities might contemplate the model of this program, the first of its kind in Racine, according to David, as a way of connecting people.  We need to be more aware of the ways in which we support each other so that those at work improving their communities can feel less alone. Networking, after all, is an important form of empowerment.


Jim Schwab

Resolve to Get Your Hands Dirty

DSCF1169More often than not, New Year’s resolutions involve aspirations for some type of self-improvement: eating a better diet; exercising more; getting better grades in school; or achieving something in one’s profession. I am no stranger to such resolutions. I am still living with the decision two years ago to start working with a personal trainer. Having slogged through a year following Hurricane Sandy with 23 business trips, three others to Iowa in connection with my adjunct professorship at the University of Iowa, and some personal trips, I finally decided that, if I were to sustain the stamina to continue at such a pace, something needed to change. I signed up at X Sports Fitness, but then was delayed in implementing my plan when I injured myself with a pinched nerve on New Year’s Eve by carelessly tossing a heavy laptop on my shoulder at Barnes & Noble. I started 2014 with a few weeks of therapy to ease the pinched nerve before finally launching my plan. But I have never looked back and recently became my trainer’s first client to do a two-minute plank, just before my 66th birthday.

So I understand and applaud the best intentions if they become real. But I am going to suggest something much riskier and more profound if you are ready to follow me into the deep water. Oh, yes, learning to swim is also a legitimate resolution.

I suggest that you at least consider resolving to get your hands dirty this year. Metaphorically, that is. On behalf of creating a better society, if not changing the world in some small way.

By getting your hands dirty, I do not necessarily mean protesting in the streets, but what I mean may include some vocal advocacy. It does not mean simply charitable work, such as Toys for Tots, as helpful as that may be. What I mean is getting involved in some way that entails some risk of learning to see the world in a new way because you must be open to new perspectives in order to be effective at what you choose to do. It may involve some reputational risk if others do not immediately see the benefit of what you are trying to accomplish. Some of the greatest leaders in the world had to endure significant opprobrium in order to produce fundamental changes in society that have benefited us all. But the change you initiate most likely will not be so grand and may even be invisible to most people. Let me share our own example.

A quarter-century ago, my wife and I began to explore options for adoption through foster care. One can talk all day long about what may need to change in improving the lives of our most vulnerable children, but until you actually get down in the trenches, accepting one or much children into your home, learning of the life circumstances that brought them there, and really committing to better outcomes, you can never learn what obstacles exist to producing real change. It is deep one-on-one commitment, a leap of faith into generally unknown and sometimes unknowable backgrounds that power deeply engrained reactions by children to the world around them. This blog does not begin to offer sufficient space to explore this topic—I actually started a memoir about 12 years ago that I have never finished—but it does allow me to use this as an object lesson in, first, making some kind of a difference, and second, in how easily you can underestimate how difficult that is.

Children who have suffered some type of abuse or neglect at the hands of natural parents are among the most prolonged sufferers of post-traumatic stress syndrome precisely because they have usually suffered at a time when they were too young to make sense of their surroundings or to understand that what was happening to them was not normal or acceptable. Their supple young minds are simply programmed to react to stimuli that, when they cease to exist in real life, still haunt them in ways they cannot articulate and can only begin to understand with the help of sustained therapy. Sometimes, an overloaded child welfare system compounds the problem by placing them in new abusive circumstances that only add to a child’s confusion, depression, and withdrawal.

Jean with two of our grandchildren, Angel and EJ.

Jean with two of our grandchildren, Angel and EJ.

And then, as a foster parent with intent to adopt, you step in with the objective of trying to help fix all that. If you are like us, you step in with a modest amount of training before certification, but you quickly learn that what you know is a tiny fragment of what you will come to know. Our two daughters are now grown and have their own children, and we and they are all still learning. Yet many people see the system as one in which children are emancipated at age 18, and these new adults who never had a proper childhood are now expected to act and proceed as if they have all the tools to succeed in life, and some foster parents operate on the same assumptions. Our society can be incredibly naïve at times.

Or incredibly judgmental. Unfortunately, one daughter’s penchant for running away, both literally and figuratively, from her problems led to a few encounters with police. It is seldom possible for police to understand even a small portion of the background that leads to such encounters, and most understand that, but that does not prevent some from harshly assuming that the problems were created by your bad parenting, especially when they do not know they are dealing with adoptive parents. There may even be some truth to their judgment at some times, but it is also true, and I know this as deeply as I know anything, that you can make errors of parental judgment simply because you do not know what emotional triggers lie deep within someone’s early childhood experience. It may take years, which is why we try to remain close and supportive but also instructive. Making a positive difference can take a long, long time.

Granddaughter Lashauna engages at the Chicago Public Library.

Granddaughter Lashauna engages at the Chicago Public Library.

I will not elaborate further because it is not my intent to highlight foster care and adoption as the only ways to get your hands dirty. You can undertake many other initiatives, and many of them may involve direct attempts to influence public policy. What I am suggesting is that, if you want truly to make a lasting difference, choose something that challenges your preconceptions, that liberates you from simplistic assumptions, and makes you rethink, over and over again, exactly what difference you are making, why you want to make it, and the best way to achieve it. The most important risk you can take is to be open to challenging your own assumptions about how that change is going to occur and what it may ultimately mean. It means getting close enough to people to get hurt once in a while.

The world is not a simple place, and there is, as some have said, a world of hurt out there. Resolve to change some of that, and in the process, to put as much of your ego aside as possible. Resolve to get your hands dirty. God will appreciate what you do even if no one else does.


Jim Schwab

It’s Okay to Fail (Sometimes)

Ascension Parish Strike SceneJust in case anyone out there is unduly impressed with my intelligence, I have a revelation: I flunked calculus in my first quarter of my freshman year in college. I was attending Cleveland State University on Kiwanis scholarship money, no less. Not that I really understood what hit me or saw it coming, and that’s the point. I entered with high SAT scores, and the guidance counselor duly noted that I had high placement scores for both Spanish and Mathematics. She recommended a fifth-quarter placement for Spanish though my three years in high school ordinarily equated to fourth-quarter placement. We ended up choosing more conservatively, and I aced both the fourth and fifth quarters of Spanish to complete my language requirement. I probably should have skipped that fourth quarter and taken the advanced placement. On the other hand, we stuck with the advanced placement in calculus, and it backfired. Not so good.

A little background is helpful, as it almost always is in understanding how and why any student performs at the college level. I entered the fall quarter on crutches because of an industrial accident late in the summer. I was earning money working in a chemical plant in a nearby Cleveland suburb, but the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my ankle, which was fractured. I collected worker compensation for the next six weeks until the doctor removed the cast, at which time I hobbled for a while until I rebuilt strength in my left leg. That was certainly a distraction, but not a dire impediment. More importantly, but exacerbated by the injury, I had a tendency developed earlier in life not to reach out for help when I needed it, in part because of a stubborn tendency to assume I could figure things out, which I very often had done. I was in deep water in that calculus class, and by the time I realized I could not swim, I was drowning—even though the ankle had healed just fine.

In a subsequent quarter, I asserted some hard-working grit by getting permission to take 20 credits (the limit was 18), five courses instead of four, in order to regain the lost ground from that failed class. And I pushed my through that grinding schedule with respectable grades.

Failing that class, which may have cost me a renewal of the scholarship (I never found out), may have been vital, however, for my growth as a student. I worked two more summers in that chemical plant, which would only qualify as easy work if you enjoy such activities as unloading 50-pound bags of sulfur on a dolly from a railcar in 95-degree heat while wearing a face mask. I should note that my father worked there, too. He ran the garage and was the lead mechanic, repairing and maintaining all the trucks and forklifts and such. When I started college, he too was temporarily disabled. He was in the hospital with a disk injury that required lower back surgery that kept him out of work for six months. Suffice it to say that all the undergraduate tuition for my education came from my own savings from those summer and other seasonal jobs. Thank God for union wages. But it did mean that my education was for me a valuable commodity, hard earned and well paid for. Although I attended college from 1968 to 1973, in the midst of the civil rights, Vietnam war, and environmental protest era, and I did participate in all those causes, I was decidedly not inclined to get silly about drugs, sex, and parties because it was my money that was paying for that education. It makes a difference.

There is a certain right-wing mythology in American politics that says such self-reliance induces a conservative outlook in life. What it does, which has little to do with modern American conservatism in my opinion, is instill a strong dose of resilience and common sense. That may or may not lead to a conservative political outlook. In my case, it led to a strong identification with those struggling to get ahead and a willingness to balance the social scales better than we typically do. My intellectual curiosity drove me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles and perspectives.

I should also add that I had a powerful hankering to write, one that has asserted itself repeatedly throughout my life and career. It seemed at first that majoring in English made sense; the university did not offer a major in journalism. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and 17th-century English novelists for a while, and the honors English classes in which I was placed were stimulating. But I soon realized that another part of me was itching to be born. In high school, perhaps in part because of nerdy tendencies, such as they came in the 1960s, I was somewhat withdrawn. Our high school was a high performer, and I was on an academic quiz show team, but no matter. I never felt that I fit in very easily, but I was president of the Writers Club and active in one or two other groups—but nothing major.

At Cleveland State, however, I quickly found that my inner extrovert was eagerly waiting to burst its shell, and the higher intellectual climate was just what I needed to find my comfort zone. I started doing less well in those honors English classes as I became heavily involved in campus politics, at one point running credibly but unsuccessfully for president of the student government. I founded Cleveland State’s first student environmental group and led it for three years. It was time to blend my academic studies with my real life aspirations, and I shifted my major to political science, which undoubtedly aided my GPA. Suddenly my activities and my studies bore some relation to each other. I could excel again.

None of this led to instant change. It led to perpetual evolution. It took years for many of the seeds planted in those college years to grow and mature, and failure contributed to that growth and maturation every bit as much as any success along the way. Someday I may need a whole book to relate the entire story, and right now I lack the free time to write it thoughtfully and thoroughly. But in all the discussion of resilient communities of which I am a part, I am at least willing to offer that, beneath all the intellectual definitions of resilience, some of us also harbor perspectives on resilience that are built on a solid foundation of personal experience. And in real life, those perspectives matter every bit as much in collectively defining resilience as any words in a dictionary or scientific report.


Jim Schwab



The Past and Future of Disaster Research and Practice

Interdisciplinary disaster studies are still relatively new, compared to long-standing fields like geology or even psychology. I spent last week (July 19-23) in Broomfield, Colorado, first at the Natural Hazards Workshop, sponsored by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center, and then at the one-day add-on conference of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association (NHMA). The International Research Committee on Disasters Researchers Meeting took place at the same time as the NHMA gathering. The main event marked the 40th year of the Natural Hazards Workshop, launched in 1976, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), by the Natural Hazards Center’s renowned founder, Gilbert F. White, who virtually pioneered studies of flooding in the 1930s as a geographer who served in the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, later taught at the University of Chicago, and finally found his home in Boulder, where he died in 2006 at age 94. You can read a full biography of White, a true scientific pioneer, in Robert E. Hinshaw’s Living with Nature’s Extremes, published shortly after White’s death.

To mark this milestone, current NHC director Kathleen Tierney invited several of us to join a panel for the opening plenary on July 20 to discuss both retrospective and prospective views of disaster research and practice within four disciplines. I spoke about urban planning; Howard Kunreuther spoke by video on economics; Tricia Wachtendorf of the University of Delaware on sociology; and Ken Mitchell of Rutgers University on geography. In the end, of course, we all use and benefit from each other’s insights, so it was intriguing to hear the comparisons in how our fields have approached problems of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. The forum was moderated by long-time NSF program director Dennis Wenger, who previously served at Texas A&M University, where he was Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center.

Wenger himself had a story to tell before introducing his panel, one involving more than 800 projects funded by NSF for more than $200 million over the years his program, Infrastructure Systems Management and Extreme Events, has been in place to fund research on hazards. It has not always had that name; as Wenger humorously noted, however, its four name changes over some four decades is “not bad for NSF.” The ballroom of 500 disaster practitioners and researchers from multiple disciplines contained more than a few people whose research has benefited from those NSF grants, which have moved the field forward in numerous and remarkable ways.

The American Planning Association taped the opening plenary and has made it available on its multimedia Recovery News blog at The blog post includes the PowerPoint accompanying my presentation.


Jim Schwab

Pencils of Promise

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”

That was the concluding line from Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, at a luncheon today at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton for the Heller School of Business at Roosevelt University. I don’t have any affiliation with Roosevelt, so why was I there? My wife and I were invited by our attorney, Michaeline Gordon of the Dolgin Law Group, which sponsored a table to which Michaeline had invited a number of us, including someone she wanted us to meet for insurance purposes. And surely, such networking is always important.

But the important thing about the event was the presentation by Braun. Frankly, I had never heard of this 29-year-old man before being invited, and had no real idea who he was until he began to speak. His life experiences, his family background, and his dedication to his cause make one expect someone much older, but Braun has packed a lot into a few short years. He has made the kinds of decisions that make others agonize, yet which he seems to swallow as a matter of routine. Given a choice at age 23 between a six-figure position at Lehmann Brothers and a lesser-paid position at Bain Capital that offered more learning, he took the latter. As it turns out, a year later Lehmann filed bankruptcy, and Braun’s decision looks prescient in retrospect. But even he would not claim that he foresaw that outcome. What he saw was that learning at a young age was more important than starting salary. I have never worked on Wall Street, andI never will, but I can still relate to his decision because I have always leaned to the notion that learning should be a lifelong activity–and that it should ultimately serve a purpose. But I don’t interpret the connections between those two statements too narrowly. I have often learned things that seemed to serve no purpose at all, only to reveal their value years later in some completely unexpected context.

But back to Braun. This young man who values education highly had traveled cheaply at a very young age. His adventures exposed him to the lifestyles and needs of those in developing countries. He also shared early in his presentation his near-death experience aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean that nearly sank due to being disabled by a rogue wave, which led Adam in that moment of crisis to wonder what purpose his life would have served. In his subsequent travels, he began to ask young children what they most wanted in life. The seminal moment came in India when a young boy replied, “a pencil.” Such a simple need highlighted the stark fact that what most of us take for granted, just simple literacy and basic education, was merely a dream for this youngster. The idea that a pencil could change a life apparently changed Adam Braun’s life as well.

In the end, he had to choose between making money at Bain Capital or building his organization, which he insists is not a “nonprofit” organization but a “for-purpose” organization. He firmly believes that “for-purpose” organizations, whether for-profit or not, will come to dominate the landscape of the future, replacing the simplistic notion that getting ahead is strictly about compensation in the form of cash.

In fact, he says, cash is only one of three forms of compensation, the other two being learning and purpose. People ultimately want to attach meaning to their work, he says, and working for a purpose will overwhelm mere mercenary motivation in the end. In fact, he offers three “M’s” in this arena as not entirely divorced, but certainly distinct, forms of compensation: meaning, money, and motivation.

Repeatedly, he discussed undertaking efforts that seemed quixotic but actually betrayed an underlying savvy typical of the motivated millennials, working atop platforms that seemed to be burning beneath his feet, but stirred him to greater levels of effort and wisdom, including the choice to leave Bain Capital with no cushion beneath him as he shifted gears to a full-time focus on his newfound passion for raising money to build schools in developing nations, so far including Laos, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ghana. A brief video highlighted scenes from these various places, and Braun stressed that, while Western donors could certainly visit the schools, their construction was best left to those who would benefit from them. “But you can sit back and watch,” he suggested. In my experience, he had already learned what many international nonprofits have learned only after decades of struggle with doing too much and expecting too little of their beneficiaries. Adam Braun is on to something.

After the presentation, my wife, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, bought his book (The Promise of a Pencil), which he signed, “Thank you for your wonderful work.” He seems to be someone who would understand the value of a good teacher in ways that many in our affluent society do not. Let us hope there are more young people like him emerging in the years to come. With young women being denied education, or threatened for seeking it, in some parts of the world like Pakistan and Nigeria, the world needs all the help it can get from organizations like his.


Jim Schwab