I took the iPod out of my young friend’s ear and suggested he would make a great mayor. “I don’t want to be a mayor, he said. “I want to be a scientist.”
I was impressed.
“What kind of scientist?” I asked.
“An engineer,” and then he paused. “I want to be everything.”
My admiration grew. My friend is 10 years old — 11 next month. I met him at the Helping Hand Home for Children, where he’s spent the last couple of years after a rocky experience in the foster care system. Next week, he goes back to the family from which he was removed.
I replaced the earpod and looked at him. My friend is at the intersection of many of the great debates of our time — race, abortion, economic opportunity, multiculturalism. I don’t know why he was taken from his family, but whatever it was, it must have been pretty horrible. To become a scientist, a mayor, or a repairman in a power substation will require super-human work, hope and magic. If he fails to pull it off and becomes homeless, goes to jail or abuses his kids, we’ll be the ones who pay the price. Literally.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could make my friend’s path a little easier?
Solutions to complex problems happen when people begin to talk with one another. A few weeks ago, inspired by an editorial on civil exchange, I signed up for red bench training. The genesis of the idea came from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, a business consultant, poet, educator and administrator and communicator (who is also a native Texan and former director of LBJ Presidential Library):
I think people don’t feel they have permission to talk about something that makes them as vulnerable as love, so we don’t usually talk about it in public. I once had the idea of having a red bench in every corporation. And the red bench to be an invitation to conversations that matter. So if you sat on the red bench, you were saying, I’m open to having a conversation about love, or a conversation about truth, or something that matters to me. Dr. Betty Sue Flowers
Civil exchange is a prerequisite for collaboration, which is the way most things get done. Note that Dr. Flowers proposed red bench conversations as part of a project she did for Royal Dutch Shell. Here in Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas runs a program built around the idea. iACT Executive Director Tom Spencer wrote the editorial that prompted me to act. Check it out in your community.
We may be able to begin a conversation that will help my young friend. He would make a great mayor.