And Now, a Word About the Good Guys

It’s easy to get discouraged about what is happening to America, easy to forget how many really wonderful people are working in every community to make a positive difference and fulfill America’s promise.


I have been working on a small research project. Most recently, that research has involved interviewing the directors of community and human development organizations. These people head up all kinds of projects, from all parts of the country—there’s a Mission on an Arizona reservation, several neighborhood organizers in Chicago and Indianapolis, a youth leadership program in Witchita, and many others.


These were very different people, with very different organizational missions. But all were dedicated, street-smart, and utterly without self-importance. Their offices were often difficult to find (admittedly, I’m direction-impaired), and always what real estate types would classify as “Type C” or worse. They had computers, but no gee-whiz technologies. No self-respecting CEO would work an hour for what they were being paid.


What they did have were compelling stories: of this refugee helped to create a new life, of that worker still able to get to his job thanks to a campaign that kept the neighborhood’s bus service, of the garbage collector given the encouragement (and tutoring) that allowed him to address a state senate committee and ultimately change public policy, of the middle manager who had been a welfare mother the organization taught to read while providing child care.


Not earth-shattering victories, to be sure. But the people I interviewed were nothing if not realists. They relished their victories, small as those might seem to our political pontificators. Every single one used the phrase “one on one” to describe their work with clients and volunteers. Every single one cited “patience” as a necessary quality for the changes they were trying to effect. Every single one stressed the importance of listening—to their volunteers, to their clients, and to their communities. There wasn’t an ideologue among them.  


Coincidentally, I’d just gotten home from a round of these interviews when I picked up the Indianapolis Star and saw that Karl Schneider had died. Karl was vice-Principal at Arsenal Tech when I first moved downtown with three teenage boys still in school. I’d heard about how “dangerous” Tech was, and that was the image I took to my first conversation with Karl. He looked at me over his glasses, and asked “have your sons had fights at their other schools?” When I said no, he said “Then they probably won’t here. If kids want to find trouble, they can find it at Tech; if they don’t, they won’t.”


He was right. My kids had a fabulous experience at Tech. Karl was one of Tech’s many dedicated, gifted teachers who believed in young people, and in the power of education.


On this 4th of July, I celebrated the Americans like Karl Schneider and the people I had interviewed. Their unsung, unrelenting, and often unrewarded efforts to achieve America’s promise of “equality and justice for all,” may save us yet.