Dear Decaturish – A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city

Posted by Dena Mellick May 15, 2015
Cover Photo from the Charter for Compassion's 2013 annual report.

Cover Photo from the Charter for Compassion’s 2013 annual report.

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Dear Decaturish,

In response to the May 5th article, “Decatur racial profiling concerns folded into a larger discussion about diversity,” we want to recognize the City of Decatur for adopting the Charter for Compassion and pursuing a “tangible community action plan” to help ensure a more compassionate Decatur. With recent unrest in communities from Ferguson, Mo., to NYC and Baltimore, it is clear that a compassionate vision for civic society is needed now more than ever.

In April 2014 the City of Decatur, along with the cities of Clarkston, Atlanta and Berkeley Lake, officially adopted The Charter for Compassion, joining Seattle and Louisville, Ky., among others, in a growing nationwide movement to restore compassion to the heart of civic society.

The Charter for Compassion was inspired by a 2008 TED Talk on the “Golden Rule” by Karen Armstrong, a British scholar and former nun. Armstrong said, “The golden rule asks us to look into our own heart, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anyone else.”

Armstrong won the $100,000 TED Prize that year, awarded annually to an individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change, to help make her dream of creating a more compassionate society come true.

So what does it mean to be a Compassionate City? Clearly, Decatur is a welcoming community, attracting new residents, businesses, and even the attention of a recent trendsetter profile in the NY Times.

More than that, however, Decatur is a place where many neighbors know each other by name and treat each other with kindness. Still, compassion requires us to go even deeper than superficial courtesy or simple civic promotion. As Karen Armstrong reminds us, “A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city.” It means we are willing to feel our neighbors’ pain as our own and forge meaningful remedies together. We do this naturally when we offer meals to a neighbor recovering from illness or lay flowers at the door of those grieving a death or other loss. As a compassionate city, we don’t look away.

Indeed, the Charter for Compassion asks us to “work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there…and to treat everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

In Decatur, the Leadership Circle directing the City’s “Better Together” initiative promises to do just that by “building deeper connections, understanding, and mutual respect among the community.”

With guidance from experienced leaders, including Mattice Haynes, Jon Abercrombie, and Linda Harris, we look forward to public discussions that “explore our strengths, weaknesses, perspectives, and misunderstandings.” The Leadership Circle’s willingness to forge a transparent action plan that entices new residents – while incorporating the voices of the City’s long-standing and diverse community – is deeply courageous and inspiring. Better still, it is an opportunity for the City to be a true beacon of community cohesion – even a regional and national role model.

And we know it can be done. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer personally led the city’s charge in 2011 to adopt the Charter for Compassion. Since then, Louisville has instituted numerous policy-level committees, including a task force working to develop a compassion curriculum for pre-K through 12th grade. To date, 22 schools in the city are self-identified “compassion schools.” As part of the city’s “Give a Day” week of volunteer service, Mayor Fischer leads an annual community-service drive. In 2014 alone, Louisville recorded 144,000 acts of compassion as part of this yearly effort.

At the national level, Mayor Fischer has introduced resolutions at the U.S. Conference of Mayors “to study compassion and to make this abstract concept a real and concrete part of daily life for the citizens of our community.” It is little wonder that Louisville was named the Most Livable Large City in 2012 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and recognized in 2013 as a leader in civic compassion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

As a leader, Louisville is also willing to freely share best practices with other cities. To date, Louisville has mentored more than 30 cities, including San Antonio, Toledo, and St. Louis, in learning how to deepen their commitment to compassionate community building.

Here in Decatur, against the backdrop of Dr. King’s dream for a more peaceful and just society, we are uniquely positioned to realize Karen Armstrong’s wish for a more compassionate world. Speaking from the pulpit of the MLK Int’l Chapel at Morehouse College, where she was being honored with the 2014 Gandhi/King/Ikeda Peacemakers Prize, Karen Armstrong reminded us that “our true willingness to feel each other’s pain – to let our hearts break – this is the impetus of compassion that will help us build a dynamic 21st century world.”


The Board of Directors, Compassionate Atlanta

Cheri Tiernan (Compassionate Decatur Co-Chair)

Marti Keller (Compassionate Decatur Co-Chair)

Candace Apple

Pam Glustrom

A.V. Powers

Rob Johnson

Rena Marroquin

Valerie Morvan

Austin Stewart

Bob Thompson

Gareth Young

To learn more about the Charter for Compassion and to access a free library of tools and resources, visit

About Dena Mellick

Dena Mellick is the Associate Editor of

View all posts by Dena Mellick

  • billjones

    Why are we mixing religion and government? There is a separation of church and state. Why are we adopting religious manifestos and asking our leaders to pass laws in furtherance of them? It’s been a bad idea since the beginning of civilization and it is a bad idea now. Whose against ‘compassion”? No one. Who defines compassion? That is the question. “Abstract concept” indeed. It should stay that way and not be redefined by people with a political agenda.

    Now we have a group that will tell us what it means and record our “Acts of Compassion” and keep tabs on its citizens. If you don’t like their government policies you are not “compassionate” as defined by them. We need a competent government. When making decisions with limited resources, compassion toward some means being uncompassionate toward others, by definition. This group wants to decide where tax dollars go. This group wants to direct policy.

    Compassion is an individual choice. Let people be compassionate voluntarily consistently with their conscience. Don’t try to force our government to adopt bad fiscal policies that are impossible to implement. I grew up with religious busy bodies trying to keep tabs on everyone and trying to direct conduct. This looks a lot like a quasi-religious or “secular humanist version” of that.

    No thanks. If you truly want people to be compassionate, then do it through private, religious or social outreach. Don’t try to project the way you feel people should live morally through government.

    • underscorex

      You nailed it, Bill. This private organization calling for compassion is actually a big-government plot to control our behavior.

      The Niceness Patrol is being dispatched to your position, Citizen. Assume the Goodtime Reception Position.

      • billjones

        No, it is a group who wants to control policy by innocently espousing a universal virtue to get their foot in the door. Compassion is great. Keep the busy-bodies out of city hall.

        If you can’t convince people to your way of thinking without directing tax dollars and forcing your position, then maybe it is not one to be basing policy on.

        Suspicion of mixing government and politics is a good thing. We don’t need groups with hidden agendas and hidden meetings inserting themselves between us and our elected officials.

        If that makes me “uncompassionate” (Orwellian emphasis added) then so be it.

  • Chris Billingsley

    Thank you Atlanta Board of Compassion, Cheri and Marti. The only thing I ask is that Decatur stop holding secret meetings and allow interested citizens to attend and have input on discussions that formulate future policy for the City of Decatur. In my opinion, this is required by the Georgia Open Meetings Law but even if I’m wrong, and it is not required by law, then the city commission of Decatur should set the example for the rest of Georgia and demand complete transparency for the Better Together committee. And if the city commission refuses to do this, I ask that individual members of the Decatur Better Together committee refuse to participate in future meeting until meetings are transparent and open to the public.
    There was a time in Georgia when semi-secret organizations formulated policy recommendatIons behind closed doors and then expected their elected representatives to enact laws to discriminated against minorities. You would think that the days of the Klu Kluxers are long gone but there are those who still cling to the idea that secrecy is necessary. I say no and ask that Decaturish and the AJC demand access to these meetings. There may be times when government needs secrecy, as in the case of the last City Commission when the mayor announce a future executive session, but the vast majority of local government activities should be scheduled in advance, held at a government building and open to all interested citizens.
    I look forward to the day when all citizens within the city limits are invited to the table to help shape policy recommendations for the City of Decatur.

  • Eric

    I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Please save me from the do-gooders who believe compassion requires governmental interference, task forces and school curricula.

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