What do David Lewis, Sonya Tinsley, Virginia Ramirez and former President of Poland, Lech Walesa have in common?
On the surface, not much, but we if scan slightly deeper we quickly discover each belong to the unique organization known as ordinary people who achieve extraordinary things. That is the essence of Paul Loeb's revised edition, Soul of a Citizen: Living with conviction in Challenging Times.
Soul of a Citizen was first released 11 years ago to the acclaim of many who are no longer with us. Susan Sontag, Howard Zinn, and Kurt Vonnegut all offered their words of support for this effort the first time around. America has made significant changes since Loeb initially wrote Soul of a Citizen; it's time for new voices to once again be inspired by this groundbreaking effort.
Soul of a Citizen shows how everyday Americans, complete with their own set of personal challenges, can improve their world, their lives, and the lives of others through citizen engagement. Soul of a Citizen explores new landscape for individuals to engage in active involvement; with its mix of opportunity and challenges it speaks to people of all backgrounds, political perspectives and interests. The obvious question that I raised with Loeb: why the need for a revised edition after 11 years?
"The new version is a vehicle to help people act now. After President Obama was elected, it seems people went back to their TV screens or Internet screens watching it all unfold with dashed hopes. What I'm trying to do with this book is to offer a long-term framework for change," Loeb said.
In the revised edition, one of the individuals Loeb highlights in that framework for change is David Lewis. Growing up in East Palo Alto, CA, as Lewis describes himself in the book, he "liked being the kid with no future, the kid people were afraid of."
When Lewis was 18 he was sent to San Quentin prison on an armed robbery conviction. He subsequently spent the next 17 years riding a social carousel taking him from prison to release, back to prison. By his own admission, he had no social skills and he was addicted to heroine.
In 1989, during a stint in prison, Lewis was preparing to watch Game Three of the World Series when something figuratively and literally shook his outlook.
The Loma Prieta earthquake didn't merely shake the foundation at San Quentin it also shook the foundation of Lewis' soul.
"I felt helpless and hopeless, locked in a cage. I thought of my 27-year-old son, who I had when I was 17. Now he seemed headed for jail too. I wondered if both of us might die here," Lewis said.
Upon his release, Lewis was determined to turn his life around. He stayed in rehab for nine months. He regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
After appearing on Bill Moyers PBS program, Lewis received a call for the mayor of East Palo Alto, who wanted him to help stop community violence.
Drawing on his own experiences, Lewis started a drug and alcohol rehab center called Free at Last. Lewis built the organization through public and private grants. Initially he drew no salary, keeping his job as an HIV outreach worker.
In 15 years, under Lewis' leadership, Free at Last has grown to 54 staff workers mostly African American and Latino, two-thirds are in recovery.
Seventy-Five percent of those who graduate from Free at Last remain clean and sober and gainfully employed. Moreover, Lewis has developed similar programs in Tanzania, Kenya, and Kazakhstan.
I find the real value of Loeb's revised work is to remind us of the essence of America. It is a country where many of its great moments are achieved when ordinary men and women go beyond self, often times without fanfare.
The men and women that Loeb chronicles are indeed testimonies to the hope and courage that too often appears to lie dormant. But these inspiring stories remind us of the clarion call to what is possible.
While it seems much of our lead news stories reflect anger and frustration, Soul of a Citizen quietly stands in stark opposition to the dissonance that masquerades as political discourse. Hopefully Loeb's revised work will remain relevant for the next decade unleashing a contagious and transformative ethic of courage throughout the country in its myriad forms.
Those who desire more information about Loeb's work can go to soulofacitizen.org.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com
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