David Dodson: The plumb line and the right path
The theologically trained president of MDC, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating barriers to opportunity, describes his work as a “secular expression of faith.”
Updated: David Dodson retired from MDC in June 2020 and now serves there as a senior fellow.
David Dodson’s first job was as an ethicist in a Fortune 500 company, bringing what he’d learned in divinity school to bear on questions people in the company faced every day.
As president of MDC -- which is focused on helping people and communities out of poverty, particularly in the American South -- he still measures by the same “plumb line.”
“I do this work because of my interest in social justice and fairness … and helping the world come more into alignment with the picture that God has for it. So this is a secular expression of faith,” he said.
Dodson, who has led the organization since 1999, is a lifelong Episcopalian who earned an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School and a master’s degree in public and private management from the Yale School of Organization and Management.
MDC, based in Durham, N.C., was founded in 1967 to design job training to help Southern workers transition from an agricultural to an integrated, industrial economy. Since then, MDC has collaborated with communities and organizations to close the gaps that separate people from opportunity and success. The organization works to remove the barriers to education, improve the financial security of low-income families, and connect more youth and young adults to living-wage jobs.
MDC staff does this by first getting to know the history of a community and connecting its leaders across social and political lines. Then, using historical and statistical data, they help community leaders understand the particular barriers they face.
MDC also advises regional foundations on using their capital -- financial, intellectual and reputational -- to address enduring social challenges in their communities.
Dodson spoke with Faith & Leadership about the role his theological education has played in his career, as well as the work that MDC does. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How does your faith influence your work?
I do this work because of my interest in social justice and fairness. And that is inspired by my faith and my upbringing, which was rooted in social justice and helping the world come more into alignment with the picture that God has for it. So this is a secular expression of faith.
Q: You have an M.Div. What role does that play?
It was the most formative education I had, because it allowed a regular and natural conversation about good and evil, life and death, and the “plumb line,” as Amos says, about the right path and how on- or off-center we are with respect to it.
I was really influenced by the prophets when I was in divinity school, because I approached it out of an interest and concern for social change and fairness. I was inspired by the power of that critique and the call to action.
Divinity school had a really powerful influence on me. It was very heavily prophetic writings that spoke to me and that I discovered in a new depth when I was there.
And I had a great professor in Letty Russell, who was an early feminist theologian who had spent her ministry -- she was a Presbyterian minister -- in East Harlem. She was in charge of field practice at the divinity school and the person we did our disciplines and reflection with, and she was a phenomenal activist and theologian. She had a huge influence not only on me but on a whole generation of people there.
Q: So you were influenced by the prophetic witness and the social justice and activism …
And living in a city that was troubled, a Puritan city that was troubled by economic dislocation and ethnic tension. It was a ripe place to look around and see what you were called to apply your learning to.
Q: Did you ever consider going into ministry?
No. I got a fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education [now the Forum for Theological Exploration] and went, and after my first year found this very powerful. I stayed to get a degree, but it was not with an assumption of being ordained.
Q: So social justice was always a part of your interest in theological education?
And ethics, which was what I did at my first job [at Cummins Inc.], applying ethics, and social ethics -- in this case, in an industry. I helped people to come to a deeper discernment about right action and then to have the courage to take that action.
They hired theologically trained people to be in the corporate responsibility division to look at corporate policy and help people understand and work in alignment with the values of the company, which were really beautifully and powerfully stated and very important to how the company operated. It was a great first job.
The office I was in existed to help people who were encountering dilemmas -- ethical dilemmas -- in the workplace understand how they could conduct themselves in alignment with the policies of the company.
Dilemmas would arise, for example, if a layoff was required or if there was an order that came in from a country that raised questions about how the engines that we made might be used in a politically repressive environment.
Those orders didn’t just get filled; they got questioned.
The culture was that anybody who had a question or felt that they were encountering a decision that was pointing them in a direction inconsistent with the ethical policies of the company could call me and ask for consultation. And if that wasn’t sufficient, they could call the chairman of the company.
Q: And was it because of the Christian values of the owner of the company?
It was because of his religious values. J. Irwin Miller came from a family of Christian pastors, but he was not sectarian or denominational.
He just believed there were fundamental precepts in all religions that had to do with how you treated people, and that if you had power and influence, you were called to be much more alert and conscious of what that power and influence could do.
He was head of the National Council of Churches. He was a great sponsor of theological education and a great philanthropist, on the board of the Ford Foundation, a scholar of the New Testament, just an amazing [person] -- as was his sister, who [compiled and published a] hymnal for the Disciples of Christ denomination.
Q: After working at Cummins, you moved into the nonprofit sector. Describe what MDC does.
Well, we exist to reduce -- we’d like to say eliminate -- the barriers that stand in the way of people and opportunity.
We do that by helping people progress and succeed in their education, get credentials that are valuable, get work that is valuable and then strengthen their financial security. Our work is mostly in the South, where the problems of poverty and opportunity are most pronounced, unfortunately. So a lot of our work is here.
We do that through programs, by working with leaders to change policy and by working with institutions to change the way they operate.
Q: MDC makes a distinction between equity and equality. What is it?
Equity is about two things. First, treating people in a way that their situation or position requires -- which is the definition of fairness -- and then working toward balanced outcomes, so that pernicious gaps in well-being are reduced.
Equality has to do with equivalent treatment regardless of one’s situation. That’s an important precept, but if you treat unequal people or situations equally, you’ll get unequal outcomes.
It’s like having a scale that’s out of balance and putting the same weight in both sides. It’s still going to be out of balance.
And if you treat a situation that begins with inequality with equity, you would do something disproportionate for the more troubled side and try to get things into balance. So that’s what we do.
Q: What do you do to make that happen?
We’ve got a situation here in Durham where one-third of our young people are not in school, not working, and are disconnected from opportunity. And we have an economy that is generating a lot of jobs and the potential for well-being for many, many people.
So we’re trying to build what we call “pathways to opportunity” that will let young people experience educational success, get introduced to work and then become comfortable enough for employers to consider hiring them for the long term.
So we convened the Made in Durham Task Force to help build a more systemic way of connecting young people to the education and work experience that will prepare them to enter the sectors of the economy that have good, living-wage jobs with a future.
That means working with the public schools, the community colleges, our universities, and with employers to build what we call “work-based learning experiences.”
That means going to your classroom and supplementing what you learn with internships and apprenticeships, which advantaged young people get but disadvantaged young people don’t, because they often don’t have social connections, and their schools don’t know how to provide them.
Q: One of your goals is to build capacity and broaden the local leadership base. How does an organization do that?
Well, one of the ways we do it is by helping people look at information. That essentially means getting a picture of the world as it is and talking about why it is that way, how it could be better and what they’re doing to move outcomes in a different direction.
So we create a space where people can look objectively at information about how the system they are in -- the community -- is functioning and ask questions about why it’s working that way, and then ask questions about how it could be better.
That is a capacity -- the ability to look at data, to ask questions, to inquire underneath the reality that presents itself on the face. So that’s an intellectual discipline.
But then we also help people sit together who might not understand each other and build trust so they can actually be candid.
Instead of saying, “Well, this situation is X, and it’s your fault,” they say, “Oh my gosh, this is a community system. How can we collaboratively move this to a different place?”
And that’s the capacity of collaboration, of being able to trust and work collaboratively.
So this sounds very basic, but it’s a fractured society. People don’t know each other, and therefore they can’t trust each other. So they certainly can’t solve problems together.
Q: Part of your process, as I understand it, is examining a community's history. How do you do that, and why?
This is something that I learned from my work with Lilly Endowment almost 30 years ago. The head of evaluation, Susan Wisely, always encouraged us to look at the history of the thing we were aspiring to change before just leaping in to try to change it.
So we’ve evolved a method called a “community timeline.” We ask the community to generate relevant facts about the evolution of the community’s history. We array it on a wall that is outlined by the major national and international events over time. Then on that national timeline map we place the local events.
Then we ask questions: Is this a community that has reacted to or anticipated crises? When there is a crisis, what has been the resulting action?
And then the most important question: Who has benefited from the decisions we’ve made, and who hasn’t? And whose voice is represented in this history, and whose isn’t?
Every time we do that, it raises a question about inclusion, exclusion, privilege, disconnection and who is marginalized.
Then we ask the question, If we were to visit this history 50 years from now, what about your history do you want to retain?
Your history is your community’s DNA, its habitual way of responding when something happens. So what about your DNA do you like, and what about your DNA don’t you like?
The history never lies.
We had one community where we were doing the timeline, and we got up to 1945 -- this was a Southern community -- and there were no local events on the timeline between 1945 and 1970. None.
Meanwhile, across the national timeline we had the bus boycott, civil rights movement, Vietnam War, women’s movement -- all of these things. Nothing on the local timeline.
So my colleagues simply said, “This is very interesting. This was a very rich period in America. Are you saying that nothing happened here?”
And the group we were working with was dead silent. Then finally one voice said, “Well, it wasn’t a very happy period.” And my colleague said, “Well, why don’t you talk about the ways in which it wasn’t happy?”
And out poured this story. This community had been one of the most resistant in the civil rights movement; hoses had been turned on citizens who had protested.
One of the leading citizens in the community, who was at this event, told the story of how he had watched a restaurant owner, serving a black family who had ordered hot dogs at a drive-in, take frozen hot dogs, put them into a warm hot dog bun, put mustard and relish on them, wrap it in foil and serve the family frozen hot dogs.
Then this person said, “And all of us laughed.”
In other words, he had been a bystander to this. In telling the story, he had put himself in the story, probably for the first time ever.
The whole history then just cracked open, and people became honest. It’s a very powerful tool.
They learn a great deal, and they can never retreat after that, because the history has been made public. It’s really confessional in some sense.
We have to be able to open those things up. You can’t move into the future if that stuff hasn’t been opened up, because you’ll repeat it. That’s the learned pattern of community behavior. It’s going to keep getting repeated.
Q: How do you help people sustain the momentum once your involvement has ended?
Because we are almost always an agent coming from the outside, we work with a partner. Sometimes it’s a community-based development organization. Sometimes it’s a community college. Sometimes it’s a congregation.
In the course of doing our work, we help them learn how to deploy some of the tools and processes that we use so they can continue to work with people as local leaders and build their leadership.
Wherever possible, we try to bring philanthropy or some funding organization into the mix so that they are in at the beginning and then have an interest in helping to sustain what happens.
We got involved in this work by doing really explicit leadership development where we would get large groups of people, 30 or 40 in a single community, and have them go through a learning experience to explore the history and future of their economy and how people could be better off. These were residential.
I remember we did this in Belle Glade, Fla., once, and we had people stay overnight in an inn, and it was the first time several of these adults had spent the night in the same room with a person of another race. One woman found herself in the room with the owner of a farm operation where her own family had been sharecroppers.
The human relations got totally changed just by getting people to sit with each other, live with each other. I mean, we didn’t announce that on the front end, but it was intentional.
Even if the projects came and went, people were in relationship in a different way, and I think that’s the key to sustainability.
Q: MDC has been in existence for 47 years. Do you have lessons that you would share with others doing community work?
We’ve got a monograph about our 20 years of work in the community of Danville, Va., where we’ve worked intensively over time with an ever-expanding group of leaders to bring about change.
This was a mill town, and mill towns have a culture that isn’t always about opportunity for everyone. So when the mill goes away, what is the mill town left with? It has to reinvent itself, and this is really the story of how we’ve worked to help Danville reinvent itself.
We also have a book called “Building Community by Design,” about how you do these processes.
But I think the lessons probably are about listening and creating a space where people can examine the past and its lessons and understand what holds things in place as they are, as a basis then for figuring out what needs to change. That is the starting point of this work.
I like this quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
That’s what I think the lesson is.
Q: Having done this work for many years, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I feel realistic. What is wonderful is that people very often rise to their better selves when they have a chance to do this.
What’s dispiriting is we have learned patterns that are still keeping us stuck, and we fall into those very easily.
So I think we always need prophetic action and a mirror to hold up, and you always have to keep working on it.