Listening is an Act of Love



I’m not always a good listener.  But I know how important it is to listen.  So I felt a little better about my shortcomings when I heard David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps and the person who has said that “listening is an act of love,” confess that other than when interviewing people, he can be a really terrible listener.  He’s impatient. (I can relate).  Listening takes a lot of focus and energy, and all of us have our moments.  In the interview, it was noted that listening is not something that we do all the time. It’s work. It’s a commitment. But we want to make room for listening. And as David Isay said, “It’s something you never regret.”

He also told a story that I want to pass along, in honor of Mother Theresa, who was recently named a saint by Pope Francis.  Isay said,

“I don’t know if this is an apocryphal story or not, but there’s a story about Dan Rather interviewing Mother Theresa. And he asked her what she said during her prayers. And she said, ‘I listen.’ And, Rather then said, ‘Well, then, what does God say to you?’ And she said, ‘He listens.’”

If listening is good enough for Mother Theresa and God, then perhaps I need to work harder.

More to come…


Preservation with an International Focus

Speaking to FAI Staff

DJB – with INTO Chair Dame Fiona Reynolds looking on – speaking to the FAI (Italian National Trust) staff in Milan

I have returned to Italy for the second time this year for a short meeting of the executive committee of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO).  Our host for this year’s meeting is Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI) or the Italian National Trust, a remarkable INTO member which has saved 54 properties and protected 6 million square meters of historic landscape in Italy since 1975.  Over the past two days we have been meeting with the FAI staff at their headquarters in Milan and have toured three wonderful – and unique – FAI properties.  Along the way the 15 members of the INTO executive committee have learned more about the Italian model of preservation while we share our own experiences and shape strategy for the group for the year ahead.

FAI’s headquarters in Milan is in a historic equestrian exercise rink that has been marvelously repurposed for 21st century office use.  The space, desks, and equipment are all modern and set up for strong collaboration, yet the entire new three-floor interior addition could be removed without damaging the historic fabric of the walls and windows.  Along with other members of the executive committee, I had the privilege of speaking to more than 100 staff of FAI, in my case telling them of NTHP’s work on the future of preservation and our ReUrbanism efforts launched just last week.

FAI headquarters

Headquarters of FAI – the Italian National Trust – in Milan

After a day of work at FAI headquarters, we traveled to Villa Necchi Campiglio – a 1930s villa in the heart of Milan – for a tour by FAI volunteers and dinner with the organization’s senior management.

Porch and sliding door

Porch and sliding door at Villa Necchi Campiglio


Villa Necchi Campiglio

Entrance hall to Villa Necchi Campiglio

This villa was designed by Piero Portaluppi and showcases the lifestyle of the Milanese upper-middle class in the period before WWII.  It was a delightful evening, where connections were made for future work together.

Friday began bright and early, as we headed to Lake Como to begin a day of touring of two extraordinary sites, including FAI’s most popular – and heavily visited – villa.  I’ll end with a shot to whet the appetite, but due to the late hour here in Milan and the slowness of my wireless connection, I’ll post many more pictures later.

Villa del Balbianello

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

More to come…



We Learn to Walk by Falling Down


Walking shoes

I heard the line “We learn to walk by falling down” recently and was reminded that we can’t do anything unless we’re willing to fail.  In our work, in our lives, in our relationships with others, in everything we do we have to be willing to try, fall down, get back up, learn, and try again.

All of us want our work and lives to make a difference.  Being willing to fall down and get up again is part and parcel of making a difference, and I believe that supporting others on this journey as we all “learn to walk” is at the heart of what we’re called to do.

Let’s look for ways to learn together.

More to come…


Hope is Grounded in Memory

Mary Dixie and George Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my grandparents and part of the memory that gives me hope

Last Saturday marked my 20th anniversary at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about hope in the context of life’s milestones.  Not a greeting card kind of hope or optimism, but “hope that’s kind of gritty…the kind,” as described by songwriter and author Carrie Newcomer, “that gets up every morning and chooses to try to make the world just a little kinder (or better) in your own way.”

The thought that “hope is grounded in memory” has influenced the work of  another writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit. In a recent interview, she notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but…(if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’….(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things.”  Knowing history gives me hope.

To be fair, hope is hard.  Cynicism – where I have gone on occasion – is easy. But in thinking about 20 years of work at the National Trust, sharing experiences and losses and triumphs with some incredible colleagues, I have a hope that comes from our past and looks expectantly to the future.  When the individuals came together 50 years ago to propose what became the National Historic Preservation Act, they were working against the very powerful forces of urban renewal.  Forces that wanted to erase community, who said that the past didn’t matter. Now 50 years later, thousands of communities, in various ways, recognize the people who came before, and why their lives and work and places matter today and for the future. In thinking about where preservation goes in the next 50 years, we are facing different but equally powerful forces that again want to erase what came before. But my hope for the future comes from seeing what’s happened in the past 20, the past 50, the past 100 years.

I like the idea of hope being grounded in memory.  Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things – powerful things – can happen.

But hope doesn’t always have to be grand work and gestures.  It is a choice.  A practice.  To illustrate, let me end with a story.

I have a clock in my living room that is part of my earliest memories from childhood.  The clock sat on the mantle in a bedroom in my grandparents’ home in Franklin, Tennessee, and when I visited I slept in that room.  The first night I was frequently awakened by the ticking of the clock and the ringing of the chimes.  Soon, however, they became comforting sounds that only registered in my subconscious.  We’ve had the clock in our house now for more than a decade and it continues to provide accurate time and comforting rhythms to our lives.

I hadn’t thought much about my routine of winding the clock by hand each week until I recently read several thoughts from E.B. White about hope.  White – the author of wonderful books for children such as Charlotte’s Web and countless New Yorker essays – knows that hope alone will not carry us forward. (Or as many consultants say, “Hope is not a strategy.”) We have to act as well.  So White will “Get up on Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”

As I reflect on this, winding my grandparents’ clock is a way of looking ahead expectantly.  When I turn those cranks, I am reminding myself – through the memories of all my parents and grandparents accomplished – that there is another week ahead to do the good work we are asked to do.  Or, as my grandmother would say, “To make yourself useful as well as ornamental.”

We live in a surprising world – which should give us hope.  So follow E.B. White’s advice:  “Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Grandmother's clock

A small symbol of hope

More to come…


The Firebrand and the First Lady

Pauli Murray

The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott

During August I took the time to read Patricia Bell-Scott’s recent book “The Firebrand and the First Lady” about the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Both women were instrumental in the struggle for social justice in the 20th century.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and impact is well documented.  But Murray’s story – that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint – has fascinated me ever since our colleague Karen Nickless brought Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, to the attention of the National Trust.  Early in 2015 we named the house a National Treasure, and are at work in support of its preservation and its listing as a National Historic Landmark.

The release of this 2016 book was timely, as it raised the level of attention to the work and legacy of Murray while also showcasing the possibilities for using the place where she spent important parts of her childhood to further that work into the 21st century.

Bell-Scott’s work is rich in detail of the unlikely relationship built between Murray and ER (as the First Lady is referred to throughout the book). It is also an excellent read.  Pauli Murray was a trailblazer, often taking steps that other – more celebrated – individuals took many years later.  Bell-Scott notes that “Murray’s politics, temperament, and resolve to be herself frequently frustrated her family, friends, and people in organizations she admired, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Episcopal Church.”  The author also suggests that “these difficulties also contributed to her marginalization, until recently, in the historical record.”

Irin Carmon, the co-author of The Notorious RBG:  The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, points to Murray’s role as a “before her time” brilliant, yet individualistic, leader in a laudatory review of the book in the New York Times.

“You could say Pauli Murray was born too soon, and saying so captures the essential injustice of her life, but it would also rob her of credit for making her own time the best she could. “I’m really a submerged writer,” Murray once told her friends, “but the exigencies of the period have driven me into social action.” The granddaughter of a woman born into slavery and a mixed-race Union soldier, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of a bus 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycott and for participating in restaurant sit-ins in the early 1940s, long before the 1960 sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter. She led a national campaign on behalf of a black sharecropper on death row.”

Seeing the modest house that is being restored for the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina, and reading Bell-Scott’s book about the life that transformed – and continues to impact – so many other lives today, I am reminded of President Obama’s message when he named Pullman a National Monument“That places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary.”

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray House before restoration (2015) and after exterior work (2016) (Photo credit: Pauli Murray Project)

Pauli Murray certainly came from a place that looked very ordinary.  But her life – as chronicled in The Firebrand and the First Lady – is nothing short of extraordinary.

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

Near the end of this compelling and highly recommended book, Bell-Scott quotes Murray’s comments at a 1982 conference on ER’s role as first lady – the first major conference on the subject following her death two decades earlier.  Previously, Murray had been reluctant to talk publicly about her friendship, but she “hit her stride” when speaking at the conference of ER’s impact on her life.

“I learned by watching her in action over a period of three decades that each of us is culture-bound by the era in which we live, and that the greatest challenge to the individual is to try to move to the very  boundaries of our historical limitations and to project ourselves toward future centuries.  Mrs. Roosevelt, a product of late nineteenth century Victorianism, did just that, and she moved far beyond many of her contemporaries.  I like to think that I am one of the young women of her time, touched by her spirit of commitment to the universal dignity of the human being created in the image of God (which we theologians call “imago dei”).  Hopefully, we have picked up the candle that she lighted in the darkness and we are trying to carry it forward to the close of our own lives.”

 This quote – and the whole book – speaks to how we can both challenge and support each other in our work toward social justice and human wholeness.  There is much to consider in these few lines, especially in light of current events.  I’m pleased that the National Trust is doing its part to ensure that the life and legacy of Pauli Murray – as seen through the place where she was nurtured – lives on, providing inspiration to today’s citizens and generations to come.

More to come…