The author of the following post is C.E.O. of BlocPower—a black enterprise that cultivates green energy projects in under-served communities. (BlocPower is a business that’s shaped by a social commitment: “at every point in our value chain we seek out and hire underemployed workers from vulnerable communities.”)
One of my favorite sermons by Dr. King is called “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” It starts: “A French philosopher once said that ‘No man is so strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked’…
The idealists are not usually realists, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not usually passive, and the passive are not usually militant… But life at its best is a creative synthesis. It is the binding together of opposites into fruitful harmony. As the philosopher Hegel said, truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.
Dr. King goes on to quote the Gospel of Matthew: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
“It is pretty difficult,” King continues, “to imagine a single person having the characteristics of the serpent and the dove simultaneously…We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove…To have serpent-like qualities devoid of dove-like qualities is to be passionless, mean and selfish. To have dove-like qualities without serpent-like qualities is to be sentimental, anemic and aimless. We must combine in our characters antithesis, strongly marked.”
I love this speech because I think King is outlining the characteristics that he believes are necessary to help build a better world. Advocates, and activists and social entrepreneurs should take note: the speech is a mini-instruction manual for those who hope to drive social and environmental change.
In Industrial Areas Foundation led community organizing and leadership development trainings—which Senator Barack Obama told me in 2006 was the most valuable education he’d ever received—the concept of the “World as it Is” v. the “World as it Should Be” is central.
The “World as it Should Be” is an ideal, where society operates according to enlightened self interest, self sacrifice, compassion, and our highest and most moral shared values. The “World as it Is” is more brutal, zero-sum, and operates based on who has power, and who doesn’t. It operates on narrow self interest. You get what you’re strong enough to get. As Thucydides wrote, “The strong take what they can, and the weak take what they must.”
In this speech, Dr. King reminds us that our job is to use our tough mindedness to steel ourselves to navigate the “World as it Is,” while using tenderheartedness to keep the vision and goal of the “World as it Should Be” as our North Star.
Dr. King’s I have a Dream speech outlined the World As It Should Be.
Dr. King’s selection of which segregated cities and sheriffs might prove to be winnable targets, his use of the media, his relationship to the White House, his relationship to labor unions, and his decision to allow the children of Birmingham to march and protest against rabid local police—despite the likelihood that those children would be beaten and arrested–demonstrate a tough mindedness without which he and the Civil Rights movement would have failed.
For those of us who care about climate, and equality, in a world as it Should Be, make no mistake: we are entering what seems to be a very dark period. Many of us are still processing and thinking through how to appropriately respond to our new political context. We may feel that we have been dragged backwards, at a time when we need to move forward by leaps and bounds. We need to be as wise as serpents, indeed.
At BlocPower, our core strategy depends on a certain amount of tough mindedness while incorporating a certain amount of tenderheartedness. We are bringing clean energy and energy efficient technologies to buildings in some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, and in the process creating jobs, economic development, and paving the way for a national transition to renewable energy.
We believe that the green energy industry has the potential to lift historically disenfranchised communities out of poverty, across the country, at massive historical scale.
We believe that the climate change movement in the United States has absolutely no hope of succeeding without substantively engaging low income communities and communities of color around economic impact.
We know that many of our clients have dangerously unhealthy buildings that need a lot of help, with high rates of risk for lead poisoning, and chronic asthma inducing internal air pollution in building residents.
On the other hand, to have a chance at succeeding, we must be tough-minded. No matter how great their need, our clients have to have a track record of paying their electricity bills, revenue that will sustain the institution year over year, and a building that can benefit from our platform. Helping clients in our market is important, but we have to do so with a rigor that will facilitate long term sustainability.
Our hypothesis is that for folks who care about climate change, and who care about the inequalities of inner cities, that our mix of tough-mindedness and tender heartedness will allow BlocPower to serve as a bridge between the World as It Is, and the World as it Should Be.
We’ve listed three of our projects in New York: a Methodist congregation in the Bronx that wants to lead a green revolution, an African Methodist Episcopal church in Manhattan that focuses on serving local low income seniors throughout the week, and a Unitarian church on Staten Island that used to be a site on the Underground Railroad. All three buildings have served their communities and functioned as houses of worship for several decades, and they want to go green to lower energy costs and reduce carbon emissions.
If you’d like to donate or make a loan, please do so. But we are also interested in tough-minded feedback and critique. Please visit the BlocPower.io site, and let us know what we can do to improve it.