A GAME OF CHICKEN
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s like trying to make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there. Cynthia Hudson
Any number of TV game shows had a feature called various versions of the money booth. Some lucky contestant had the chance to be closed into a tall glass tube with a fan under the floor, into which was dumped a bucket of dollar bills. The greenbacks flew around the hapless schmo for sixty seconds (on the clock!) who got to keep anything he or she could hang onto. For all the excitement, rarely did anyone come away with enough to justify making a fool of yourself on national television.
Many years later, I was co-chair of a commission for the Commonwealth of Virginia to promote diversity, equity and inclusiveness after the horrific events in Charlottesville in August of 2017. I had the great good fortune to serve with Cynthia Hudson, Deputy Attorney General. She is smart, organized and principled, and she made me feel a lot better about being confounded by the problems by sharing my sense of inadequacy about where even to begin.
The members of the commission were a cross-section of Virginia, though even the unwieldy number who were selected could not be comprehensive representatives of faith, geography, ethnicity, race, gender identity, economic strata, etc. As she and I struggled just to put together an agenda, she suddenly exclaimed in exasperation, “It’s like trying to make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there.”
I won’t pretend that we made a chicken. But her lament helped me understand (not in the moment – I was laughing too hard) that if we came in with the result in our heads instead of establshing the process, we could work as frantically as humanly possible and still be unable to grab enough feathers. I should have learned it from the money booth.
Our commissioners had remarkable insights into the mandate of the group. No one imagined they had the singular solution to the challenges of diversity, equity or inclusion, but they each had an idea about how to take a run at one or another of them. We were funded for a year and told by two governors that we could measure success by action, not merely words. When the term of the commission was about to end, we talked with the staff and came to the realization that there were still feathers all over the place and no clucking.
But it does not mean that we failed. In looking at the initiatives – legislative and otherwise – that emerged as recommendations and encouragements from religious and tribal leaders, social activists, legislators, businesspeople, non-profit professionals, educators, government officials, and a remarkable Deputy Attorney General, we were able to reassure our crew that we had made an honest start. And I have watched, in the intervening years, as initiatives in the public and private sectors have made progress toward the goal of a Virginia better able to provide opportunities for everyone from the children of natives and “first families” to those who arrived here voluntarily and not.
There is still plenty to do – more than plenty. But it will not be accomplished by frenetic activity that imagines the destination without considering the sometimes long and winding road to get there. You can’t make a fortune by snatching at the wind. You can’t make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there.
At the same time, the difficulty of the task ahead cannot be the excuse for inaction. Communities awaiting justice, and the individuals within those communities, rightly expect that the call for “patience” is not a euphemism for “no.” If there is any lesson of the events that provoked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to establish the commission, it is the danger of delay in addressing society’s most difficult dilemmas. When the absence of diversity, equity and inclusion is presumed to be the norm, the people privileged by that presumption will resist change mightily. And sometimes violently.
The winds of change power the flurry of feathers. Thanks to Cynthia, I have an answer to an age-old question. It’s the nurture of the egg that comes first.