Love Across Differences Makes a Difference

R. Thomas Browning was a fighter pilot, prisoner of war for more than six years in Vietnam, a brigadier general in the Airforce and a civic leader. He had a reserved smile, a steady, measuring gaze and usually wore crisp blue suits. I am a Quaker, entrepreneur and a passionate justice worker with an eye for fashion art and, who knows, might show up with an auburn streak through my hair.

Our differences were obvious when I began working with Tom in the 1990s when he headed Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business membership organization. We united quickly, however, around our similarities: a passion for justice through equipping people to create healthy cities and towns and the importance of shared commitment to this greater vision.

Tom passed away in July 2018, and I miss him. This story is part of his story and the love story of people who, despite their differences, came together and cared. My words are dedicated to them all.

When I began working with Tom in 1992, shocking images of the Los Angeles riots filled the airwaves. Cars overturned, buildings on fire, smashed windows. The riots stemmed from issues of crime, poverty, police violence and failing schools – a troubling stew that fed a decline of confidence in the United States.

I was a young mother at the time working to facilitate the development of healthy cities and towns across Arizona when Tom Browning asked me to launch and lead a community-building organization we called Neighborhood Partners, Inc.

The work of Neighborhood Partners required us to not only examine the roots of our community distress, but also to explore the strengths of the people in who region who could join forces in the name of justice. While the struggle for quality education, economic justice and community-based policing continues to be of concern in Phoenix today, I am proud to have known and worked closely with individuals who have grown up in this struggle and who to this day remain quiet leaders still doing good work.

These people, who were neighborhood members and leaders, local school students, teachers and principals, bankers and business owners, church pastors and local police, City park and recreation as well as neighborhood planning staff, joined forces through Neighborhood Partners. Many of them had never met. They came in an array of shapes, sizes, racial, economic and ethnic backgrounds with widely different experiences in life.

We had great partners like Brian Hassett who was then president of Valley of the Sun United Way. Dan Duncan, president of the Mesa United Way, who also worked with the Asset Based Community Development Center ( ). We learned from the best like the Dudley Street Initiative folks in Roxbury MA. (  We had tremendous volunteers like Kathy Gerber who, as a geologist, changed remediating environmental hazards in south central Phoenix. Her work with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA improved the health of thousands of residents in south central Phoenix. We had a strong, committed staff, all of whom work today for justice and health in Phoenix.

Over the years, dilapidated houses were restored to healthy homes, playgrounds and gardens were constructed, crime was reduced, and environmental toxins were cleaned up, school children learned from neighbors, pastors, and local business partners that there was a place for them in our community.

More than $300 million in community investment was captured and used to rebuild neighborhoods. Tom and I differed on how to deal with the root causes of our distress, but we put those differences aside as we worked on the most pressing problems facing the neighborhoods. Together, we honored our communities. Our work required us to look beyond polarizing attitudes and work together to inspire the young adults and children in the 1990’s, who as adults today, continue to lead.

Two years ago, in January 2016, over 100 of these people came together to honor and reflect on our accomplishments. Here are a few quotes from interviews and an image that was created from this gathering of people.

  • “It was the kids, seeing myself in the kids, they did not have hope. Bringing people and resources together we saw hope in their eyes.”
  • The trick was being together and learning about the issues facing our communities, the economy. We learned working together can make a difference. I understand the value of relationships within the community.
  • We learned about power structures, how to tap into that power. It became clear we had access through engagement with others. We learned about how to deal with environmental justice and land use”

At the core of what we did is invite seemingly disparate people to get to know each other and work together for the greater good. Today this work is often labeled, “Collective Impact” and “Radical Hospitality.” At its root, it is a form of ministry where one person calls to another in love and acceptance, putting differences aside and uniting for the common good.

We fostered love. We fostered hope. We fostered vision. These young people are social workers in inner city hospitals, teachers, business leaders, police officers, and even the Phoenix police chief.  They all maintain the momentum now by engaging the youth in their communities. This is a watershed way for changed lives and changed communities .

Figure 1. An Image of the words of the people who have worked and continue to work for healthy neighborhoods.

Tom knew that leadership was critical for this work to succeed. He leaned in and stepped up as he always had throughout his life. For Tom, this work was for love of country. This work relied on faith and strength in dark times.

Our current crisis across the U.S. cries out for this work. We need to strengthen relationships and look at the roots of our social distress. “Intersectional” is the current term used to describe a focus on where our differences intersect and then work together from that point of unity and shared commitment.  An approach that requires study and understanding of actions that improve paths of collaboration. These pathways require tough conversations on race, gender, socio-economic class while also exploring unique experiences of oppression and privilege.

Tom’s model of leadership grew from a time when “intersectional” was a word applied to streets and not human behavior. But his instincts were intersectional. He innately reached across differences and united people based on their shared dreams and visions. Tom’s community-building skills have been passed along to many of the children and youth in our partnerships who are today’s leaders.  Many of these people have shared with me that their hope is to pass these skills on to their children as a means of lasting change.

Tom’s legacy is watershed change. He will remain in my heart forever, and it brings me extraordinary joy to know his work, his legacy of change, will be carried forward by so many of the individuals whose lives were touched and transformed by his commitment and vision.

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