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Luis Cortés: Esperanza builds an ‘opportunity community’ for Latinos in Philadelphia

Don’t tell the Rev. Luis Cortés that Esperanza is something special.

It is, of course. And he appreciates the compliment. But he doesn’t think that an institution like Esperanza, which serves the Latino community in North Philadelphia, should be special.

“A place like Esperanza should be normative. We have 30 neighborhoods in the city; there should be 30 Esperanzas,” he said. “There should be 30 places where you can participate in the arts, where you can learn about and play music, where you can experience different forms of dance, where you can learn photography, where you can learn how to add and subtract.”

Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same things that everyone needs for a good life, he said.

Founded in 1987, Esperanza seeks to help the residents of Hunting Park, a majority-Latino neighborhood, have the same opportunities that other residents of the city enjoy. It focuses on education and economic development, including affordable housing, schools, housing counseling, immigration legal services, workforce development, youth leader training, and a fully accredited branch campus, Esperanza College of Eastern University.

The organization — its name means “hope” in Spanish — has more than 600 employees and a budget of more than $70 million and is a model for other institutions across the country.

Cortés, who is a Baptist pastor, worked with Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia to found Esperanza. He earned an M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in economic development from Southern New Hampshire University. 

Rev Cortes
The Rev. Luis Cortés

In this interview, he talks to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about why he founded Esperanza and why he thinks institution building is key to social change. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have a goal of building an “opportunity community.” What do you mean by that?

Luis Cortés: Our ontology has a set of concepts and categories, and the relationships between these are fundamental. There is a Creator, and there are the created. Those are givens, as fact. So we start there. The other thing that’s given, as fact, is that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes.

If you believe that, then you must believe that we should try to provide a great opportunity for everyone to become that which God would have them become. To be in service to humanity is to assist everyone to develop to their highest potential. That’s our modus operandi.

This understanding then is followed by the question, what do you do with the poor? The mission work is to create a place where you provide all residents the opportunity to live a quality life. What must you provide for people to reach their ultimate goals, to be able to serve humanity better despite their economic situation and to have them feel they have a good quality of life?

This is what becomes an opportunity community, the development of all things needed for individuals to reach their potential. As an example, we built a theater and we have cultural pieces, like teaching dance, teaching music, all from a cultural perspective.

students practicing music
Students learn music, dance and other disciplines at Esperanza schools, which also bring in the top arts organizations in the city to perform and teach.

All people come from and have a culture. We have a language, we have music, and for Latines, we are in exile — we’re away from where our culture was based.

What do we do to create an opportunity community — a community that understands your class and your culture and helps you build so that you can have a great life staying here in this neighborhood or you can use what you learn here and have a great life elsewhere?

F&L: How did Esperanza begin?

LC: I was the founder of Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia in 1981, an outgrowth of developing a field education system for Latine students at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was about 26 clergy from about 18 different denominational entities.

These clergy were all in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, and they had never really worked together until we organized as a field education consortium. As a group of clergy, when we would get together, like any group of highly motivated concerned citizens, we inevitably become active on challenging issues of the day.

We were getting together to discuss field education, quite mundane. And then all of a sudden, conversations shifted to, “They shot a guy here last week” or, “The police did or didn’t perform,” and we just moved in the direction of the conversations and became a civil rights organization.

During that time, Pew Charitable Trusts did a study on religious institutions, and as a result, we got funded for three years to start Esperanza and to work in clergy education. The clergy hired me to do it, with the mandate to do the clergy education and create a proactive organization, Esperanza.

In the beginning, the more we helped an individual family, the more it hurt the local church. As we helped individuals, the family moved farther away from their church, eventually joining a suburban congregation.

What we learned as a group was, it doesn’t matter if our people leave to improve their lot, as long as we create an institution that remains to assist those that stay or can’t get out.

Our philosophy became that we will work together to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We began working on that theory of institution building where we could control the mission and agenda of our community, as opposed to the present-day external control.

We as Hispanic people in this nation have never focused on this on a large scale. We’ve never created our own institutions. What we do is we assume that we will inherit the institutions of America as we become a larger part of America. But that is not how it works. The institutions that provide for and control our neighborhoods are all managed externally: police, fire, schools, streets, most businesses.

So we decided we only wanted to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We had enough Hispanic institutions that were doing social service, so we decided to not compete with our follow Latine agencies. We focused on education and economic development.

We wanted to do education because education is the first step and we understand institution-building as economic development.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”

F&L: How did you come to appreciate institutions in this time when there’s a lot of cynicism, a lot of distrust, a lot of anger around institutions?

LC: Since our nation’s beginning, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that it is associations and the institutions that they create that make Americas unique.

We’ve got to think positive. We serve our communities and our neighbors. So if everybody would do as well as they can at their community-serving job, whatever that is, we should be headed to a better place.

As the religious population lessens, there will have to be alternative institutions that defend the rights of the poor. Historically, the church has responded to the poor first through charity, then the development of institutions like hospitals or schools. Advocating to change unjust laws.

If that faith role dwindles, we have to figure out who or what replaces that. I see that as a major problem for the future.

F&L: In addition to the institutions, you are making change in individuals. The documentary “Esperanza: Hope for Our Cities,” for example, shows that commitment. Why do you stress self-belief, grit and confidence?

LC: I went to public school in Spanish Harlem. When I got to elementary school, they said to me, “You can be president of the United States.” And I looked around, and it’s old, it’s decrepit, it’s dirty, it’s outdated, and I’m like, “Nah, no way.”

For many people, it’s hard to self-motivate if you don’t see anyone else around you achieve success. We need our youth to “make it.” Last year, in our graduating high school class, we had MIT, two people at Carnegie Mellon, and one girl went to Wellesley, among a plethora of state colleges and universities. It is now normative.

Part of our model is we must have modern equipment. The space must be super clean. Visitors come to our place and they say, “Wow, this is so clean.” It’s a compliment. I understand. But it also says something about their expectation.

When I’m told, “Wow, this place is clean. This lab is so modern,” what are they saying? That in their preconception of economic poverty, they did not expect a first-class lab here. They did not expect, because of the economics, this place to be spotless. They do not expect your top five students to go to those schools, and you have one of the top college-graduating high schools for Hispanics. They do not expect that.

Whatever prejudice they brought in begins to be challenged, right? It’s like — look at this: MIT, Harvard, Penn. When they see that, they say, “Something special is happening.”

While there may be truth to that, it’s only special because other people won’t do it. Our team at Esperanza figured out how to do it, creating a culture of opportunity.

I believe there’s nothing that we can’t do. It’s just about how much time you have and what are your priorities. People ask me about this all the time — “How did you do it?”

Well, you find the need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution behind it, then find the next need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution that survives until it can thrive.

F&L: You mentioned the cleanliness, and you also insist on giving Esperanza’s students and other participants the best in other ways. Why is that important?

LC: We start with the concept that we should have what any community has. If you look at most communities and the arts, for example, they have access to experiences and ways to learn; they have ways to experience music, acting, dance and painting or visual. We have to create the avenues.

First we got the theater, and then through the theater, we do dance. But we also brought the best of the region. So the Philadelphia Orchestra plays at our theater; Opera Philadelphia sings in our theater; the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra plays at our theater; Philadanco and the Philadelphia Ballet dance in our theater.

We communicated to these arts institutions, “When you come to our neighborhood, it has to be your A team.” Normally when they go to a community, they send the B and C team so they can work and practice as they serve a neighborhood project. At Esperanza, if the A team ain’t coming, you don’t come.

The artistic talent also has to give time during the week to work with students. Not just Esperanza schools, but there are about 10,000 public school children in our neighborhood. They do workshops and our community youth interact with them. After their theatrical performance, they sit and answer audience questions for 15 minutes. We have found the arts groups love these interactions as much as our residents do.

F&L: You also work on gentrification. How much of an issue is that for you?

LC: The bottom line is that urban communities near centers of our American cities where working-class Spanish-speaking people live are being dismantled by an upper middle class and above who wants their land and their housing so they can capitalize economically and culturally. It is happening everywhere.

Cities are happy with the gentrification or displacement of our neighborhoods, because it means a better tax base for the city. So when the city gains, the economically disadvantaged lose. That’s a constant struggle.

We need to build up equity in Black and brown communities. The No. 1 equity builder in Black and brown communities is not giant companies; it’s mom-and-pop commercial shops and home ownership. What we can show is, as we lose the housing, these mom-and-pop shops are destroyed.

So, the real question is, do we really want to help Black and brown people, or are we just saying we do while we actually cash in on their assets?

In America, they’re taking our neighborhoods under the guise of mixed income communities. In St. Louis, Black neighborhoods are being bought up by universities. West Philadelphia, it’s universities and science centers. North Philadelphia, it’s another university and the corporate needs. So they push people out of their long serving neighborhoods.

Today, young professionals don’t want to spend money on a car to live in the suburbs. They prefer to live in the city, not have a car. They’ll just Uber and use the money saved on transportation for restaurants and recreation, which is fine. But the economic burden falls on the economically disadvantaged, who need to move farther away to more expensive housing, losing the businesses that cater to their needs.

It’s interesting that progressive communities are the ones that gentrify Black and brown neighborhoods. It’s not the conservatives. Conservatives avoid minority communities, while progressives enjoy moving into a culturally mixed neighborhood until they extinct the original ethnic group that was there.

Progressives move in during their early professional career, purchase housing cheaply, live there for five years and make six figures on their “investment.”

It’s a real interesting dynamic where we fight the conservatives on one side and we have to fight the progressives on the other. They do have one thing in common: they’re white.

The role of the church should be different. How do we talk to progressives to say, “Listen, I know you can make money by moving into my neighborhood, but you’re hurting us. How do we really build a mixed income community?”

There’s a dynamic that’s happening in our country. San Bernardino, Phoenix, Calle Ocho in Miami, San Antonio, Philadelphia. Chicago, with three distinct Hispanic neighborhoods. They’re all under the same pressure.

F&L: How do you keep from being overwhelmed when everything you describe is extremely complex? It’s difficult. Yet almost 40 years later, you’re still hopeful.

LC: I am a minister. I believe in God. And in the end, we are all called to serve others. Despite all the problems, our job is to persevere and pursue. And persistence is the name of the game.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”

In 2011, the Rev. Paul Abernathy, then an Orthodox priest fresh out of seminary, started a neighborhood ministry in the Hill District, a predominantly Black section of Pittsburgh that had long suffered from economic decline. He did what he could to make an impact: providing food and clothing, offering comfort or a prayer when someone was in distress. But he soon realized there were even deeper needs.

“What really struck me early on,” Abernathy said, “was the immense amount of suffering.”

A person would come in asking for help getting a doctor’s appointment or a bus pass and would end up talking about eviction, gun violence, systemic racism, unemployment, food insecurity, abuse, addiction or incarceration. 

The serious experiences that came up all represented ongoing traumas. It reminded Abernathy of the post-traumatic stress he had been warned about when he was an Army staff sergeant in Iraq. Moreover, the traumas affected everyone in the neighborhood.

a man walks across the street
A man walks in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Even if someone didn’t have a direct experience of trauma, that trauma was all around, all the time,” he said.

Abernathy, who is African American and was raised Catholic, attended a Black Baptist church in college before converting to Orthodoxy in 2002. He became convinced that unless that underlying suffering could be addressed, any efforts to help his constituents wouldn’t last.

“I’ve seen too many people get jobs and lose jobs,” he said in a 2016 TEDx talk. “I’ve seen too many people get into housing and lose housing. Why? Because they have been traumatized to the point that they are not healthy enough to sustain the opportunities that were placed at their feet.”

True community development, he came to believe, first required healing.

The Hill District has long suffered from economic decline.

Abernathy found two researchers at nearby Duquesne University who were specialists in trauma counseling and community mental health and facilitated a series of discussions with them and community members.

He learned that 65% of African Americans have a lifetime exposure to trauma — long-term, repeated experiences that are stressful or frightening. He learned that trauma can be passed from generation to generation, with tangible effects on health. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the average life expectancy in parts of the Hill District is nearly 20 years less than in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

These discussions ultimately led to the creation of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a multifaceted, faith-based community outreach program headquartered in the Hill District, with Abernathy as its CEO and his wife Kristina Abernathy as its chief development officer.

What are the underlying issues impacting your community?

Father Abernathy
The Rev. Paul Abernathy leads a daily prayer service.

Now in its 12th year, the project offers wide-ranging services, from a food pantry, support groups and educational seminars to a trauma response team that’s dispatched after incidents of gun violence. The project serves people not just in the Hill District but throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. It’s also attracted attention from a number of communities elsewhere, all seeking to learn from a model Abernathy calls trauma-informed community development.

Food, clothing and dental checkups

On a recent Wednesday morning at the Neighborhood Resilience Project’s headquarters, a three-story building on the northern edge of the Hill District, social worker Kathy Pehanich is meeting with a woman who recently lost her job and came in for help with paying her rent and utilities.

Resilience Project building
The front of the Neighborhood Resilience Project

Pehanich’s office is cramped — not much bigger than a walk-in closet — with cinder block walls painted white and hung with prints of several Orthodox icons. (Orthodox iconography can be seen on walls throughout the site: St. Luke the Evangelist, St. Thais of Egypt, Christ Pantokrator, Holy Mother of God, St. Nicholas and others.) Pehanich was a drug and alcohol counselor earlier in her career; she began volunteering at the Neighborhood Resilience Project one day a week and now is part of the paid staff.

Much like an emergency room staffer, Pehanich never knows who might walk in next — perhaps a job seeker needing help getting a birth certificate, a tenant with a rent payment overdue, a woman fleeing domestic abuse. In the winter especially, Pehanich fields calls daily from people needing a place to sleep, and she works the phones in hopes of getting them beds at one of the city’s homeless shelters.

Some regulars show up a few times a week just to socialize, have a cup of coffee or attend the daily Orthodox service at noon. The steady flow of clientele creates a sense of community that Pehanich didn’t sense when she was a substance abuse counselor and saw each client once a week at most.

In the basement, volunteers and staff have formed an assembly line, stuffing food items into plastic bags for the Backpack Feeding Program. The Neighborhood Resilience Project delivers more than 1,200 bags each week to 25 area schools, rec centers and other sites, where they’re distributed to children who need them.

“For some kids, their only meal is what they get at school,” said Bisrat Tesfagiorgis, who oversees the effort. “Our program works to make sure that the children are fed over the weekend.”

Bisrat Tesfagiorgis and a view of downtown Pittsburgh from the Hill District.

In the early years of the program, the food items (ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, animal crackers, small boxes of cereal, boxed juice) were delivered in a backpack — hence the program’s name. But getting more than a thousand students to return the backpacks for reuse each week proved unrealistic, so now the food is packed into plastic grocery bags.

The building’s lower level also houses a food pantry and a clothing pantry (socks in particular are always in demand). Tesfagiorgis remembers a recent incident typical of the multiple ways the Neighborhood Resilience Project can help.

A man showed up one day, upset about the death of a close family member. “We were talking,” Tesfagiorgis said, “and I was just trying to pray, asking, ‘How can I be helpful?’ Then he said, ‘I wish I could go to the funeral, but I don’t have anything nice to wear.’ So I brought him down here,” she said, gesturing to the clothing pantry. The man quickly found a suit and a pair of shoes, and — at least for the moment — his mood noticeably brightened.

clothing pantry
Employees at the Neighborhood Resilience Project sort donated clothes.

On the third floor, a health clinic staffed by volunteer physicians and dentists provides free care to a clientele that largely has no health insurance. With two exam rooms, two dental rooms and a medical lab, providers can offer a range of primary care services and make basic medications available at no cost.

For more advanced care, the Neighborhood Resilience Project can refer a patient to one of its partners — a local cardiologist who has agreed to see patients for free, for example, or another free clinic that happens to have a pulmonologist on staff. In addition, according to patient care specialist Paige Sarkaria, many area hospitals offer financial assistance.

“We can refer a patient to a hospital for, say, an imaging procedure, and then we help them apply for the hospital’s assistance program,” she said.

Like most of the services of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, the clinic has grown. In 2022, it recorded 244 patient visits; in 2023, that number jumped to 421.

dental clinic
Retired dentist Diane Karnavas (left) and a dental student Sadiya Khatoon (right) work with a patient.

The health outreach isn’t confined to the Neighborhood Resilience Project building. A team of trained community health deputies spends time out on the streets, educating residents about health issues.

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, more than 100 deputies, often with Abernathy in the lead, went door to door to talk about how to stay safe from the virus — a special challenge in neighborhoods where multiple generations live together in crowded homes. They also recruited Black volunteers to take part in Moderna vaccine trials at the University of Pittsburgh, mindful that the pool of participants in such trials too often is predominantly white.

Psychological first aid

Perhaps the most innovative service that the Neighborhood Resilience Project provides, and the one that best exemplifies its trauma-centered approach, is the trauma response team. The team’s job is simple yet ambitious: to provide a healing presence — psychological first aid, they call it — at the scene of gun violence.

Each morning, four staff members gather in a room on the top floor of the Neighborhood Resilience Project building and begin to sift through the available information on any new homicides in the county.

The intel comes from social media, police reports, news stories online and tips from police or social workers. Ultimately, the staff may conclude that a deployment is needed, and the call goes out to a team of volunteers (who, like the staff, are trained in public safety, CPR, first aid and mental health first aid).

The staff and volunteers gather at the building, undergo a briefing on the details of the situation, pray together and then head out in one of two 31-foot RVs emblazoned with the Neighborhood Resilience Project logo.

How can your ministries embrace being trauma-informed?

trauma response RVs
The trauma response team uses two RVs and a van when they respond to violence in the neighborhood.

They park near the scene for several hours; some team members go out canvassing, introducing themselves to people they encounter, while others wait in the RV in case someone knocks on the door and says, “I need to talk.”

The RV has water bottles, food, a private room and stuffed animals (“trauma teddies”) for helping comfort children. The idea is to serve as a sympathetic ear to whoever needs it: a family member of the victim or perpetrator, a bystander — anyone who has been affected. Sometimes they help the person notify relatives. Sometimes they pray. Often they hand out a card with the Neighborhood Resilience Project phone number and a list of other available resources.

Andre Jacobs is program manager for the trauma response team. A native of Pittsburgh, he served three deployments with the Marines in Afghanistan and suffered afterward with PTSD. He credits his faith with helping him recover — “I had to have the courage to say, ‘I’m not OK, God,’” he said — and sees his work with the trauma response team as a way of giving back.

“I would just be foolish not to pass on the teachings and understandings that I now have,” Jacobs said. He also makes sure that the team isn’t known solely for its work at the scene of tragedies; they’ve also set up a hamburger grill on occasion at various neighborhood locations — “you know, just to put a few smiles on faces,” he said — and they conduct educational programs to help raise awareness of the trauma that often underlies violence.

A team approach to reducing violence

The Neighborhood Resilience Project is also taking the lead on a countywide project to reduce gun violence. Allegheny County sees more than 120 homicides per year on average, according to county data, and while Black men make up just 6% of the county population, they are the victims in 66% of the homicides. Gun violence tends to be geographically concentrated, according to Abernathy.

“There are 30,000 blocks in Allegheny County, and of those 30,000 blocks, gun violence happens in 0.3% of them. About 90 blocks.” Several of those hot spots are in the Hill District.

What challenges should be addressed in early collaborations?

A small mural laments young lives lost in the Hill District.

In early 2023, the county’s Department of Human Services pledged at least $50 million over five years toward its new Community Violence Reduction Initiative, with an emphasis on a public health approach — treating gun violence as a disease and addressing its underlying causes.

It’s in sync with the trauma-informed approach that Abernathy embraces, and in fact, the Neighborhood Resilience Project was chosen to be the countywide convener of the effort. The Neighborhood Resilience Project hosted the first summit on violence reduction last June, bringing together 200 partners from organizations throughout the county.

“We talked about what collaboration looks like,” said Quinten Boose, the director of violence reduction at the Neighborhood Resilience Project. “We talked about the hot spots, the data, the generational traumas, the root causes — how are we as a county going to address that.”

Boose is a former Pittsburgh city police officer with experience as a special victims unit detective and crisis negotiator; in 2023, he finished a master of public policy and management degree at the University of Pittsburgh. His job in the countywide project is to corral hundreds of partners from dozens of community and government organizations to work together.

It’s early in the process, but Boose is especially intrigued by an approach called the Omaha 360 model, which heavily emphasizes the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. A primary component of the model is weekly meetings involving law enforcement and residents, to reduce the disconnect between police and community members. Omaha 360 led to a 74% decrease in gun violence over a 10-year period in Omaha and has since been used as a model by other cities.

How do you foster a culture of continuous learning in your collaborations?

Meanwhile, the Neighborhood Resilience Project overall is proving to be a model for other communities throughout the country. In addition to his TEDx talk, Abernathy has given numerous media interviews, convened two trauma-informed community development institutes, and hosted officials from such locations as Richmond, Virginia; Indianapolis, Indiana; Sarasota, Florida; and the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Some have replicated the Neighborhood Resilience Project in their communities or begun a variant of it. They are exploring ways that they, too, can adopt the Neighborhood Resilience Project’s goal: to heal neighborhoods, one block at a time.

Questions to consider

  • What are the underlying issues impacting your community?
  • How can your ministries embrace being trauma-informed?
  • What challenges should be addressed in early collaborations?
  • How do you foster a culture of continuous learning in your collaborations?

More than 16 years ago, on the first day of my first real job in higher education, my supervisor treated me to lunch. Over grilled cheese and tomato soup, she said something that has stuck with me all this time: “I believe in you, and I want this job to be an opportunity for your growth and development, so let’s be sure to focus on that.”

I was coming out of a toxic church situation, and my new supervisor’s offer of support and mentorship gave me hope in my new role.

I am grateful for having had many wonderful mentors in my career as a pastor and higher education administrator. Their generous investment in me has inspired me to mentor others.

My first leadership mentor was my mother, who, after serving as a super church volunteer for more than 30 years, finally accepted a call to ordained ministry and served for 15 years as a senior pastor.

My mother modeled inclusion; for example, she took a special interest in the youth group kids. Every year, we hosted a big Halloween party at my parents’ farm in rural Illinois, with my dad driving the hayride tractor. Mom would work the phones, organizing transportation to make sure all the kids could get there.

She frequently disrupted our church system by not only serving as a woman in a leadership role but also including other women in leadership positions.

Achieving inclusion in leadership continues to be a problem across institutions. The number of women, and particularly women of color, who reach senior leadership roles continues to be small. In higher education, a clear majority (58%) of college students are women, yet only 33% of college presidents are women. Approximately half of college students identify as a race other than white, yet 73% of college presidents identify as white.

Representation is not more abundant in the church world, and in many ways, is worse. In my own United Methodist Church, where women are widely accepted for ordination and are a clear majority of members, only 32% of clergy are women. And the church remains one of the most racially segregated institutions in the United States.

This lack of representation in senior leadership roles is a wicked problem that requires individual, institutional and systemic solutions. I’ve come to believe that one important piece of the solution on an individual level is mentoring.

All along the way, I have felt frustrated that I am not making a bigger impact — and a bit terrified that I, as a white male, will do more harm than good by seeking to mentor people with identities different from mine. It puts a knot in my stomach to write publicly about my intentions in this area where I have so much to learn, but it is starting to seem more problematic to be silent. I recognize that white men can play a key role as gatekeepers.

I’ve had successes and failures. I’m happy to say that of the 21 employees I have had the privilege of hiring, most have been women and/or people of color, and most of them are thriving in new leadership roles. One of my proudest professional accomplishments was pivoting the leadership of a church I planted to a woman who has since led that church for more than 10 years.

I’ve also made mistakes. In one instance, I pushed one mentee too hard in my eagerness to develop what I saw to be her talents. In the end, I apologized and acknowledged, “I did a bad job of listening.”

In the academic literature on leadership development for women and people of color, mentoring comes up frequently. Recent studies that center the voices of women and people of color suggest that while mentoring may be helpful, what’s needed most are people who will move beyond merely mentoring to advocacy on their behalf.

I am now convinced that mentoring and advocating for mentees is crucial to progress. I’ve found success with a particular style of mentoring I think of as “mindful mentoring.”

Mindful mentoring moves beyond simply investing in someone to identifying, addressing and dismantling the systems that lead to disparity and inequity. The starting point is awareness of who is in your sphere of influence.

One theory I find useful is Leader-Member Exchange (LMX), which attempts to describe the quality of exchange in the relationship between leaders and the people influenced by them.

It describes an in-group and an out-group. In the workplace, those in the in-group have a deep connection and high-quality relationships with the leader. Studies have shown that being in the in-group leads to higher job satisfaction, commitment, performance and innovative behavior.

Those in the out-group are under the supervision of the leader but lack the high-quality connection of the in-group, and all the outcomes previously mentioned are worse.

The first step to being a mindful mentor is awareness. I know how easy it is for a white male in a senior position to forget his privilege, and I recommend a simple exercise to help leaders be mindful of their relationships.

Take a sheet of paper and draw two large circles, one inside the other. Label the inner circle “in-group” and the outer circle “out-group.” Next, write in the in-group circle the names of the people in your sphere of leadership with whom you have a great connection.

Then fill in the out-group circle. Finally, apply the lens of gender and race to the names on the paper. Who is in your circle(s) of influence? Who is missing?

When I first tried this exercise, I was surprised and disappointed to see how many people in my inner circle looked like me. I now complete this exercise twice a year. It’s helped me be aware of who is in my in-group and to strategize about how to move women and people of color from the out-group to the in-group.

Being a mindful mentor includes doing your own work of self-awareness, striving for cultural humility, uncovering your own implicit biases, and perpetually attempting to understand why these representation disparities exist in the first place.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the scale and scope of the work that needs to be done, but being a mindful mentor is practicing hope by focusing on what is within your control. Be aware of your immediate context and think concretely about what you can do today to make a difference.

I have two little daughters, and my deep desire is that they will grow up in a world where their gender will not limit the leaders they can be. Currently, their primary care physician is a woman, and we have many female family friends who are medical professionals. The other day, one of my daughters asked me, “Daddy, can boys be doctors too?”

I said, “Yes, boys can choose to be doctors too.” This kind of upside-down thinking motivates me to be the best mindful mentor I can be.

Late last spring, I stood at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a group of about 20 church folks. The asphalt and metal span curved upward ahead of us, obscuring the view of the other side. We were about to walk across, warmed by brilliant sunshine and inspired by our dayslong pilgrimage to some of the most significant civil rights landmarks in Georgia and Alabama.

The bridge, of course, was the site of Bloody Sunday — a vicious, racist attack on 600 peaceful civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. Agents of the state made up the mob that beat them — armed troopers and deputy sheriffs backed by white supremacy.

In photos and on film, it’s not completely clear that you can’t see what’s on the bridge’s far side until you reach its peak. But in person, the bend blocks your view until what’s ahead is inevitable.

As we crossed the narrow walkway, the Alabama River below us, history felt proximate, more like memory. Within my lifetime, a movement rooted in the essentials of human dignity had marched into the face of terrorist hate. The structure at that march’s center stands still as a memorial and monument to a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Faithful people talk a lot these days about building bridges —working to close divisions through conversation and collaboration — but the Edmund Pettus Bridge reminds us that not all divides can be solved with compromise.

Some modern-day bridge builders are committed to the holy work of healing, fully recognizing that reparative justice is required first. But the anguished sincerity of others can feel more like performative reconciliation, perhaps focused on easing their discomfort more than on resolving conflict.

Bridge building requires effort from both sides. What can be lost in earnest eagerness to move past differences is the work and sacrifice of all the people whose tenuous status in this nation has already required that they concede essential parts of themselves to survive. Members of marginalized communities have had to be builders, constructing connections on the pillars and pilings of their ancestors’ bodies in the process.

That can get washed out in the language of “healing what separates us.”

If the request is for further sacrifice, whose dignity stands to be compromised? How faithfully Christian is it to crush someone’s soul so that the dialogue can be “fruitful” and “productive”?

As a quote often attributed to James Baldwin explains, some things must be nonnegotiable: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was not about finding common ground. That would have required those powered by white supremacy to lay down their arms and for the marchers to be empowered.

Beyond the heroes of great liberation movements, there is the work of the day to day. For all the people who have ever modulated their voices, moderated their tone, changed their hairstyles or otherwise essentially altered who they were, that is the unacknowledged work of staying safe, employable and marginally accepted. How much more than self-abnegation is required?

In “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” Austin Channing Brown writes about her name.

“We knew that anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you are a white man,” her mother explained the choice. “One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”

Later, Brown shares her experience with a series of demeaning microaggressions only to face the suggestion that she spend more time with the offender so she “could see his heart.”

“Oftentimes the responsibility to extend compassion falls on me,” she writes.

The transformative, liberative work of collaboration and community wouldn’t be possible without compromise. But that requires more than shallow demands for a middle ground.

Among her prayers in “Black Liturgies,” Cole Arthur Riley writes:

Thank you for being a God who enters the suffering of the world — who doesn’t run from those in pain but rushes to the site of blood, of tears. Release us from empty cravings of unity that come at no cost to the oppressor, and guide us toward a solidarity that demands something of us. Let us learn to risk ourselves on behalf of the vulnerable, believing that when one of us is harmed, we all are. Help us to remember that justice and liberation are not a scarcity, and that our survival and dignity are wrapped up in one another. And God, keep us from those who will demonize the fight in us. Who would prefer us complacent and far from one another. Secure in us the courage to stand, knowing together we will restore what the world has tried to suffocate in us. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers on their second attempt to cross the Pettus Bridge, but he turned back when the group was confronted again. They completed the 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery on the third try, under federal protection.

The marchers were never the ones holding up progress. Far more than building a metaphorical bridge, they were actively building beloved community. That reality, their reality, our nation’s reality replays like the music from a scratched vinyl record, skipping crucial parts and repeating others.

Even when well intentioned, the talk of bridge building too often misrepresents or fails to acknowledge those who have long been doing the work as well as those who have actively opposed it.

If that work truly matters more than a sense of personal ease, then on whom, to whom and for whom are we building? Who has already done their part? And who is yet to do the work required of them?