A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.
17 April 2018. I want to talk about my miscarriage –
I am heartbroken, and I’m begging you to ask me why.
I had been moving through the world with a secret. I dreamed of this secret as a little girl, through adolescence and even more regularly once I was married. But I had to keep this secret close in case it slipped away. I couldn’t let it out until I knew for certain that my secret was here to stay.
My entire being changed the moment I found out that I was pregnant. I felt new light inside of me. Now it was my time to gripe about the struggles of new motherhood—grievances I’d been aching to have. My new narrative would be anchored in sleep deprivation, cracked nipples and hair loss. I couldn’t wait to be a part of that world, part of The Club.
When you are trying to conceive you want nothing more than to experience those struggles, as opposed to the monthly cramps, tampons and ovulation monitors that remind you of your lack of fertility. A combination of working in healthcare and wanting a baby for as long as I can remember equipped me with extensive knowledge on pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood.
I knew the risks of miscarriage and how common this tragedy occurs. I knew that one in four women will lose their baby in the first trimester. Knowing this, I resisted letting myself speak too freely about my excitement. Even when I let people in on the secret of my pregnancy I reiterated the facts about miscarriage.
Several days after multiple positive pregnancy tests I announced my secret to my immediate family, and then to some very close friends a few weeks later. But I was still just out of reach of the supposed safety of 12 weeks. ‘Stay silent until then.’ That way no one will ever know that you were even pregnant.
Why do we do this? Miscarriages happen all the time. We know that they are random physiological errors that can happen to anyone and not the result of poor care. Going to work was tasking. I was nauseous, exhausted and foggy. Perhaps if I had not kept my secret so close for so long, my employers would have had more empathy and compassion for what I was experiencing. Perhaps they would even have shared in my excitement and offered support. Perhaps they would have supported me when I experienced my loss.
I miscarried the day of my first ultrasound. I noticed blood between my legs that night and as I stood up, I knew. My secret was leaving my body, and I felt like I was being wrung from the inside out. I couldn’t control my tears as I tried to wake up from this nightmare. My husband was pale, completely helpless. We drove to the hospital where it was confirmed that I was actively miscarrying. There’s no shortage of first person accounts of miscarriage, but they do nothing to dull or ease the rawness of the experience.
And that’s the thing. We live in a culture that encourages withholding news during the first trimester, but this is the time when pregnant mothers might need the most support. The range of physical, emotional, and psychological adjustments that accompany early pregnancy can be debilitating even though the source of these symptoms is incredibly powerful and should be celebrated. As a community, we need to start reframing the way we respond to pregnancy. Knowing about it earlier could prevent lost work, protect the quality of work by creating new accommodations, prepare employers for a maternity leave further in advance, and support people if they do miscarry.
My own experience demonstrated the lack of understanding of the catastrophic void that this loss leaves in its wake. Losing a long awaited pregnancy can feel like a bomb detonating from your deepest core, shattering through each layer of your being. You will never get the dreams of that baby back. You will never get back the announcement to your friends, family and partner. I hated the task of deleting the pregnancy app from my phone and returning it to “menstruation” mode.
We don’t talk about miscarriage nearly enough. When we do, the discussion is focused on rates and statistics, as if that provides any comfort. Perhaps it does to some, but we rarely talk about all the aspects of loss that can occur when you miscarry and the ripple effects they can have. Miscarriage is not an isolated moment in time that has a start and a finish.
Body and mind need time to adjust to the loss and often they don’t heal in tandem. Hormones take longer to level out, and the telltale signs of pregnancy don’t just disappear. Your body is still pregnant but there is no baby. Emotionally, you don’t know how to make sense of this new normal. You shared your body and now you don’t. The nature of your secret is now very, very different.
It is not the bleeding that’s so significant—it’s the time afterwards, the telling people and watching their faces as they struggle to understand, or cancelling preparations for a new nursery. Ironically, when I divulged this new secret no one wanted to talk about it. It was too uncomfortable for them, but I want to talk about it, I need to, I’m begging you to ask me about it. I need to talk about it as a part of my journey, my experience, and the scars that I am left with.
Stepping into the uncomfortable and asking hard questions can provide someone with the opportunity to grieve and celebrate something that was. Avoiding the topic in the hope that you don’t upset them isn’t doing them a favor. It’s not protecting them, though it may be protecting you.
The overwhelming anger I feel comes from the people close to me who were aware of my loss but didn’t want to broach it. Maybe they were trying to get my mind off the pain, but my mind and my heart wanted to be exactly focused on that lost baby, on my secret. Friends who did reach out and inquire allowed me to address the fact that I was not okay. Providing the space to do that was a gift.
My anger is also rooted in the environment we’ve created that governs when we can and cannot talk about pregnancy A colleague at work advised me not to let people in on my secret because it would be “career suicide.” What have we done to create this narrative? Are we so afraid that employers will become aware that we hope to be pregnant, or that we have miscarried?
Others who have experienced such loss tell me that there’s no space to talk about it, even though the need for such spaces is intense—not just to heal from the loss but also to keep spirits alive, cherished and celebrated. I want everyone to know that I was pregnant and I want everyone to know that I had a miscarriage. It was not my fault. It was not my husband’s fault. There was nothing we could have done to guarantee a different outcome. But what can be done is to help those around me to understand that I am heartbroken. I feel like less of a woman, unworthy of another pregnancy.
I don’t think that we all need to talk about our pregnancies. If you are more comfortable keeping it to yourself then that’s the best decision for you. But 12 weeks of secrecy makes no sense. We all have a responsibility to lift each other up during these times. Our norms and systems need to shift in order to focus on support for the human beings involved, not for the benefit of a business bottom line or administrative convenience. Support should be available at each step of the family planning process.
I’ve learned a lot from my own miscarriage, especially the value and importance of disclosing pregnancy early on, and then being asked about it, again and again and again. The internal scars don’t heal overnight. Healing takes a very long time, physically, emotionally and spiritually. So don’t be afraid to ask: you never know, people may have secrets of their own they need to talk about.
We need to practice economic disobedience so that radical alternatives can flourish.
It’s not easy to get in touch with Enric Duran. Dubbed the ‘Robin Hood of the Banks’ by the mainstream media, the Catalan activist defrauded the Spanish banking system of nearly half a million euros in the period 2006 to 2008. He used the money to fund a range of local and global initiatives aimed at building alternative structures outside the state.
In 2013 he skipped bail and has since been on the run within the EU, living what he calls a “nomadic” existence. For many, Duran is a living symbol of the power of civil disobedience. For others, including the Spanish government, he’s a naive criminal. Either way, his ideas around the right to resist state power and the importance of building autonomous financial systems have gained fresh relevance today, both through the upheavals in Catalonia and the rapid growth of the cryptocurrency sector.
I’ve been chatting to him for some time on the secure messaging service Telegram and we eventually set up a connection through the open source conferencing programme Jitsi. With his black beard and heavy-set eyebrows and a gap between his front teeth, Duran looks like a typical 41-year old Mediterranean man. Behind him is a framed print of a tulip, reminiscent of a hotel room. I smile as I ask him where he is, and he smiles as he responds that he can’t tell me. “It doesn’t need to be known in any public intervention,” he explains. This is a typical response from a man who seems to view all of his personal actions within the frame of achieving social change and what he calls “integral revolution.”
“Integral revolution means comprehensive transformation from below of all aspects of life like culture, economic, social, personal, ecological,” he says. “We achieve this by empowering communities from below to build a new society, new systems that are not based on the state or capitalism.” It’s the familiar goal of prefigurative politics: building a new world in the shell of the old.
In order to achieve this goal, Duran helped set up the Catalan Integral Cooperative, a loose network of cooperative ventures. He has never revealed how much of the loan money was funnelled into projects related to the CIC, preferring to say his “action with the banks” had a “direct consequence” on its foundation. Today the cooperative facilitates everything from barter markets to housing projects and stores, with over two and a half thousand members taking part in its local exchange groups.
“It’s clear that you can't build this kind of alternative if you don't break the laws of the state,” Duran says. “We need to practice economic disobedience in a way that supports these alternatives.” Duran has many inspirations, including the Zapatista movement, the revolutionary political and militant rebels who have established a network of autonomous communities in southern Mexico.
I ask him if he ever had any doubts during the three years where he took out 68 different loans from banks across Spain, from car loans to credit cards, with no intention of paying them back. He shrugs. “No, I had no doubts. I feel I did the right thing, it was powerful and I had to do it…I had been a full-time activist since I was 20, I was quite detached from my family life since I was very young. So in my case perhaps it was more easy.”
He understands that personal courage is needed to commit acts of civil disobedience and has consistently used his own story to encourage others to follow suit. In 2012, after a public prosecutor along with 16 banking institutions called for him to serve an eight-year sentence, Duran posted a video called “a mass invitation to civil disobedience.” In it he justifies his position, drawing on the right to rebellion where governments fail to meet their citizens’ human rights, as well as pointing to the corruption of the legal system. He cites “the September 2011 Spanish constitutional reform to benefit the banks…without citizen consultation” and “the lack of legal action upon the speculative ‘disappearance’ of millions of Euros in the financial world,” emphasising the human cost of reckless misconduct in the banking system and consequent austerity policies.
According to a study on the world’s constitutions, roughly a fifth of countries have some kind of legally enshrined right to resist. In his video, Duran quotes the American revolutionary Marquis of Lafayette: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is the most sacred of rights and the most essential of our duties.” Spain has no such legal provision, which is pertinent to the current constitutional disputes around the Catalonian independence movement. On October 1 last year, 43 per cent of the electorate turned out to participate in an illegal independence referendum, with 90 per cent of votes backing secession from Spain.
The operation intended to stop the vote quickly descended into violence, with police firing rubber bullets and beating voters with batons, injuring hundreds. Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Together for Catalonia, fled the country along with several other separatist leaders, many of whom face decades in prison for their involvement. Puigdemont was arrested in Germany and was recently released on bail.
“What’s going on in Catalonia is very interesting,” says Duran. “There’s a big population that are trusting less [sic] the laws and the state as it is right now. Most of them want to create a Catalonian state that is within the establishment, but they [the Spanish government] won't let them do it. And that brings the need to build transversal sovereignty in daily life.” While the Catalan Integral Cooperative has no official link with the independence cause, Duran believes that the existence of a strong network of autonomous community projects in the region has a more general influence. “I think the future will show that this experience has been important for the Catalan independence movement,” he says. “There is a role for integral revolution in this process. For sure I would like to be there…but now my experience of exile is extending to more and more people.”
Duran admits he has no hard proof for this claim. It’s easy to dismiss his thinking as utopian. Yet dreaming big and focusing on financial rebellion have led him to achieve a substantial amount over the last decade. After leaving Catalonia, he founded the global cooperative FairCoop. Like the CIC, it allows small and independent producers to trade outside of banking systems, but this time on an international level through the use of cryptocurrency.
In 2014, Duran bought 10 million FairCoins, roughly twenty per cent of the entire supply, in order to set up the FairCoop. He chose the coin because he liked the name and judged it to be the most suitable for building an ethical currency system. “The FairCoop ecosystem is not just a currency network,” Duran explains, “it is creating an alternative society where the currency is a tool for this.” Today there are hubs, or ‘local nodes’ as they’re called, in dozens of countries around the world, with most activity in Spain and Greece.
Yet the law is catching up to the crypto world. Having long been surrounded by legal muddy water, the industry’s astronomical expansion in 2017 has led to regulatory frameworks being established across the world. In March, FairCoin was delisted from Bittrex, a major US-based trading platform, for refusing to answer questions apparently intended to gather information and check the coin’s legality. “FairCoop doesn't have a legal form,” says Duran. “We said we're not centralised, there’s no company behind us, so we couldn't answer what they were asking. It was a political statement.”
After the delisting, the market price of FairCoin plummeted. When I ask him about this, Duran reminds me with a twinkle in his eye that the FairCoop community agree its own price democratically, unrelated to the capitalist system. “It’s very important to understand that the crypto currency world just shows the market price, but this is not our world. Our world is building an alternative economy and alternative society. We want a technology that works according to our values, so people don't get more power over others.” But not everybody will be happy with the price drop. Holders of the coin can still buy FairCoop products at a good rate, but trading with euros or any other currencies outside of the coop now looks like a very bad idea.
The Bittrex decision highlights the challenge of building a new world in the shell of old. Sometimes the two just don’t match up. Still, Duran is used to taking risks. In fact, his latest venture is the Bank of the Commons, a platform for investing in cooperative initiatives, using financial tools to strengthen the eco-system of like-minded projects around the world.
I ask Duran if he misses anything about his old life before the bank action. “Sometimes I feel I'm travelling so much it can be a bit tiring. It’s a way of living that’s very intense, so you need to be in very good health to do it.” He tells me about his mother, who is the one member of his family who supported his actions and was politicised by them. It was his mother who collected the Human Rights Award he received in 2016 from the Barcelona Film and Human Rights Festival, previously given to Julian Assange. The festival called for his return to Catalonia, referring to the longstanding ReturnWithFreedom campaign.
Duran’s return to Catalonia doesn’t seem likely, at least in the foreseeable future. In any case, he has insisted many times that energy around the campaign for justice be directed instead to encouraging more acts of civil disobedience, emphasising the importance of financial rebellion. “We might have problems, but to be really free we need to act on what we believe in,” he says, “Be brave, do it, but try to share it with people in your area or globally.”
13 April 2018. Have you been watching porn? –
We champion digital rights at the same time as we champion sexual freedom because we know that the two are perilously entwined.
Last night, we opened our doors and welcomed the queer and curious crowd to the Horse Hospital for the second installment of the London Porn Film Festival. We were extremely proud to open with Local Heroes, a selection of shorts either made in the UK or produced by British pornographers.
Last year we began this festival in a climate of fear and anxiety; we were emulating the Berlin Porn Film Festival, with the hope that we might foster a kind of mini-Berlin on these shores. But we also did it because of the Digital Economy Act 2017, a set of regulations that formed part of the government’s digital strategy which included “age verification” for adult websites, and which received royal assent shortly after the festival.
Age verification essentially means that in the future, you will need to provide proof that you are over eighteen before you can access adult websites. This is to prevent children stumbling across pornography while looking for Pokémon. The technology to enforce this policy was going to be handed over to a large corporation called MindGeek.
Who are they, you might ask, and what right do they have to assume so much power over who can access pornography? MindGeek are the world’s largest internet porn company, owning hundreds of streaming sites and studios, and the plan was that they would develop the age verification technology and in so doing keep a detailed record of the porn-surfing habits of millions of Britons, directly linked to their personal information—not only on their own sites but also on thousands of others.
Besides the blatant invasion of privacy, risk of data leakage and problematic surveillance involved, what alarmed us about this bid to “save the children” was how it compounded other pieces of legislation: the Audiovisual Media Act of 2014 (which spawned face-sitting protests outside of Parliament) and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which obliges your internet service provider to retain a record of every website you visit for twelve months among other things.
True, the Digital Economy Act has been delayed. This was a victory for campaign groups such as ORG, who have long championed digital rights and understand the subtle implications for marginal, undesirable and underrepresented groups in society, as well as the potential for abuse. But it is still law. And buried deep within a press release dated March 10th 2018, the government announced that despite this delay, its:
“priority is to make the internet safer for children...we believe this is best achieved by taking time to get the implementation of the policy right. We will therefore allow time for the BBFC as regulator to undertake a public consultation on its draft guidance which will be launched later this month…It is anticipated age verification will be enforceable by the end of the year.”
Hence as a festival we continue to operate in a climate of uncertainty; the films we are screening form part of a culture that is slowly being forced into the shadows through economic strangulation and murky legal waters. Just as with Section 28—a piece of homophobic legislation that created fear and encouraged misinterpretation—so the Digital Economy Act casts a shadow over the future of queer feminist porn.
But unlike last year, we are feeling much braver. The festival now lasts for four days, and we have Pandora Blake as our guest of honour, a forthright producer, performer and campaigner (who, if we’re honest, was also one of the key inspirations for starting the festival.) The Local Heroes programme shows that we have a healthy British queer porn scene that is steadily expanding, plus, a keen audience who are willing to step outside the norm and experience porn collectively, with other queer people, in a badly needed queer space.
Several of our programmes directly address this issue of collectivity: All the Babes depicts group sexual activities and features several shorts that show how collective exploration can validate queer identity. Transhuman Romp addresses how we might transcend ourselves and our bodies. We are lucky to have an incredible Latin American Post-Porn programme, with kick-ass films from all over South and Central America curated by writer, filmmaker and academic Erica Sarmet, which are particularly relevant in the wake of the political shooting of black queer councilwoman Marielle Franco.
Where the UK porn laws seek to “save the children” by curtailing the freedoms of consenting adults (and give everyone the nagging sense that they are being watched) as a festival we hope to empower participants to create their own films that reflect their politics and desires; make an explicit link between digital and physical freedoms; make sex education relevant to people’s actual desires and bodies; and ensure that politicised queerness (which remains a political fight) is defended as a valid life choice, with all of the radical structural and systemic critiques it contains. Oh, and we want to provide wonderful screenings in which we can experience queer feminist pornography anew.
Because—at the risk of sounding like a particularly insidious shopping list—there are a raft of incredibly worrying surveillance trends in the UK that we think will work in concert with structures such as age verification, which by itself isn’t the (whole) problem. Recently, Grindr revealed it had shared users’ HIV statuses. Facebook has been in the dock for inappropriate sharing of user data with shady company Cambridge Analytica, which is suspected to have disproportionately affected the EU referendum.
Article 13, which part of the EU’s copyright directive, would force internet companies to scan everything users upload in an attempt to curb copyright infringement. The government has proposed that immigrants be exempt from knowing what information is held about them. If you want to know how your data is being gathered more generally, read up on PRISM, MUSCULAR, and TEMPORA (all revealed by Whistleblower Edward Snowden) and SOCMINT. These are deeply worrying and wide ranging programmes of surveillance that have become part of our everyday lives. Surveillance is not the exception, it’s the norm, and although it’s not possible to protect yourself completely you can take some precautions.
The fact that governments and corporations are overstepping the mark and invading the private lives of citizens is nothing new. The demonisation of pornography goes hand in hand with the limitation of other freedoms. As our culture shifts towards fear, surveillance and caution, we hope that the London Porn Film Festival will be one node in a greater network of resistance.
This resistance doesn’t have to be limited to spiky actions like shutting down airports or invading parliament. Resistance can also be self-development: consciously and actively choosing to create and consume the work you wish to see in the world, or, as our programmer Max Disgrace put it on opening night, joining this “community of agitators.” In community we are simultaneously sex workers, porn performers and producers; migrants, primary school teachers, filmmakers, artists and activists; fat and thin, affluent and poor, and from many different cultural backgrounds.
We’ve attended demonstrations such as the recent Women’s Strike on international women’s day, which saw political rage and joyful solidarity among differing groups; and we’ve seen campaigns to end detention, defend the Picturehouse strikers, and support sex workers seeking full decriminalisation and trans people acting for better policy around the gender recognition act and against cisnormativity.
We champion digital rights at the same time as we champion sexual freedom because we know that the two are perilously entwined, and that it’s crucial that our intersectional struggles employ a variety of tactics. To paraphrase the famous queer saying about the relationship between the personal and the political, “between the sheets and on the streets:” our fight is on the screen and on the green. Join us!
11 April 2018. What Standing Rock gave the world –
The Indigenous struggle that goes hand in hand with protecting the Earth was made visible for everyone.
At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.
It was a show of international solidarity between the Indigenous Sami and the Lakota. “They got tattoos because of the Norwegian money invested in the pipeline,” said Jan Rune Måsø, editor of the Sami news division of Norway’s largest media company, NRK.
Rune Måsø said the story about the tattoos was just one of about a hundred that his team of journalists covered over the course of the months-long pipeline battle in North Dakota. One of them, “The War on the Black Snake,” was awarded top honors at a journalism conference held in Trømsø in November. That story revealed large investments Norwegian banks had made to advance the $3.8 billion energy project, spurring a divestment campaign by the Sami Parliament.
The backstory can be told simply. As early as April 2016, Indigenous activists protested the pipeline’s threat to the Standing Rock Sioux’s primary water supply, the Missouri River. While battles were fought in federal courts, representatives of hundreds of Indigenous groups from around the world—the Maori, the Sami, and the Sarayaku, to name a few—arrived. Temporary communities of thousands were created on the reservation borderlands in nonviolent resistance against the crude oil project.
Police arrested more than 800 people, and many water protectors faced attack dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and, once, a water cannon on a freezing night in November. Last February, armored vehicles and police in riot gear cleared the last of the encampments. Recently, investigative journalism by The Intercept has documented that the paramilitary security firm TigerSwan was hired by DAPL parent Energy Transfer Partners to guide North Dakota law enforcement in treating the movement as a “national security threat.”
Oil now flows through the pipeline under the Missouri. But this Indigenous-led disruption, the awakening resolve that was cultivated at Standing Rock, did not dissolve after February. Rather, it spread in so many different directions that we may never fully realize its reach. The spirit of resistance can easily be found in the half-dozen or so other pipeline battles across the United States. Beyond that, the movement amplified the greater struggle worldwide: treaty rights, sacred sites, and the overall stand to protect Indigenous land and life.
To be sure, post-colonization has always demanded acknowledgment of Indigenous autonomy. It’s what spurred months of international advocacy when Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh attempted to speak before the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1923. He wanted to remind the world that European colonizers had honored Iroquois Confederacy nationhood upon entering treaty agreements under the two row wampum.
The stand at Standing Rock, then, was not anything new—just more modern.
Google the words “the next Standing Rock” and you get a smattering of circumstances, mostly posed in the form of a question: Bears Ears, Line 3, Yucca Mountain. “The Next Standing Rock?” the headlines ask.
The story of White Clay, Nebraska, is indicative. When the last tipis came down at Standing Rock, Clarence Matthew III, a middle-aged Sicangu Lakota man better known by his camp nickname, Curly, spared little time migrating to the South Dakota–Nebraska border. There, another fight for justice was mounting, for families living on the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This one focused on a decades-long dispute over beer sales targeted at Native American customers mostly prone to alcohol addiction.
Demands turned to broader issues: investigation of dozens of unsolved crimes in White Clay against Native Americans. “Once we got down there, they started telling us about the problems they’ve had, more than just alcohol, the murders, the rapes, and everything that was on the bad side of that alcohol problem,” Matthew said. “It just broke my heart to hear all that.”
Matthew had been caretaker of one of the main communities at Standing Rock, and he settled right in at Camp Justice at the edge of Pine Ridge. He was there with his “water protector family,” others who have adopted camping as an active form of protest.
For all the momentum that the resistance at Standing Rock brought, the Indigenous rights movement in the 21st century faces increasing challenges. Tribal nations tread cautiously under the administration of Donald Trump. Internationally, the militarized protection of extractive energy projects and theft of land persist, despite glaring media attention paid to the rising number of Indigenous peoples killed or jailed for their activism in the face of it.
In a final push for re-election last fall, Standing Rock’s Dave Archambault II gave what would be his last interview as chairman to tribal radio station KLND. Archambault used the airtime to speak matter-of-factly about how the movement had shifted the tribe’s potent public image away from the reservation. “It used to be cool to be Indian; now it’s cool to be from Standing Rock.
“This movement was significant, not just for Standing Rock, but for all of Indian Country and around the world. We made some noise and now we’re starting to see other Indigenous communities rise up and say, Let us all speak now, and it’s pretty powerful and moving,” he said.
Less than a week later and on the same day that the state of North Dakota accepted a $15 million gift from Energy Transfer Partners, Archambault was unseated by former council member Mike Faith, who has said publicly that he believes the overall movement hurt Standing Rock’s economy and neglected daily life for tribal members.
The difference of opinion between the two leaders is a conflict that often lies at the heart of tribal community: protecting the Earth or protecting the Indigenous peoples.
On the eve of Thanksgiving 2017, when the Keystone pipeline ruptured and spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in neighboring South Dakota, the newly elected Faith remained notably silent while water protectors responded with outrage, most loudly, closest to home.
“Ironically, this week most Americans will be sitting down and giving thanks when last year at this time my people were being shot, gassed, and beaten for trying to keep this very thing from happening,” Chairman Harold Frazier from the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux tribe said in a statement. Like Archambault and other tribal leaders, Frazier was arrested for participating in the Standing Rock occupation.
Leadership in the Indigenous world is not only a difficult balance, but also dangerous. In Honduras, activist Bertha Zuniga Cáceres is fighting for Indigenous rights in one of the most militarized regions in the world. She is the daughter of Berta Cáceres, the Indigenous Lenca woman who was assassinated after leading a successful campaign to halt construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. Now she is seeking justice for her mother’s death.
The 26-year-old Cáceres is also campaigning to suspend all U.S. military aid to Honduras. In July, she survived an attack by a group of assailants wielding machetes. Just weeks earlier she had been named the new leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the nonprofit organization formerly led by her mother.
“Many organizations, many NGOs, many Indigenous groups are struggling in how to sustain the work that they are doing in the face of these attacks,” said Katharina Rall, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Last year, after the military-style assaults on the camps at Standing Rock, Human Rights Watch expanded its agenda to include a program focused on the environment as a human right. “The fact that we now have an environment and human rights program at our organization is a reflection of this reality that a lot of people face,” Rall said.
Meantime, the organization Global Witness reports that it has never been deadlier to take a stand against companies that steal land and destroy the Earth. In 2016, the watchdog group found that nearly four activists a week are murdered fighting against mining, logging, and other extractive resource development.
As disturbing as this reality is, it is unsurprising then to recall the military-style violence at Standing Rock: the rows of riot police pointing their guns at unarmed activists standing in the river; tanks shooting water in freezing temperatures at a crowd of people gathered on a bridge. In this one regard, Standing Rock was not unique in the world. It had become crucially important. Americans saw the global struggle faced by the estimated 370 million Indigenous people—the violence, stolen resources, colluding corporations and governments that go hand in hand with protecting the Earth.
Sustaining this awakening is the next great task. Climate change poses one of the most serious reminders of why the sacred fires ignited at Standing Rock must continue to burn: Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and value systems matter.
At November’s COP23 climate conference in Bonn, Germany, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim was dressed in traditional Mbororo regalia when she stood in a conference hall demanding that Indigenous knowledge systems be properly acknowledged in Paris Agreement negotiations. The girl who once tended cattle in the region of Chad bordering northeastern Nigeria has now become a bridge for her people and government officials making decisions impacting the fragile ecosystem of Lake Chad, the lifeline for the Mbororo.
“Traditional knowledge has kept us from century to century to be in harmony with Mother Earth,” Ibrahim said. “These knowledges will make for all the difference, but we cannot wait years and years, because climate is changing, and it’s impacting the Earth.”
Other members of the Indigenous Caucus at Bonn say inserting traditional knowledge into the climate talks doesn’t go far enough. Jannie Staffansson, a representative of the Saami Council, wants what Chief Deskaheh had petitioned to the League of Nations nearly a century earlier: sovereign recognition for Indigenous Peoples on an international scale. It would allow equity at the negotiating table—a level playing field to fairly deal with the consequences of a warming planet in the face of land grabs and natural resource extraction.
“Why is it always that Indigenous peoples need to pay for other people’s wealth?” said Staffansson. She paused to check the Snapchat account she had been using to engage with a young Sami audience while at COP, a demographic similar to the teens who got tattoos of the black snake.
“I had friends that went to Standing Rock,” said the 27-year-old. “I was envious of their trip to support self-determination. Self-determination and a just transition is what we have to take into account.”
“We need climate justice in everything we do.”
“This business of loving enemies mattered to me. That was a command I had to obey.”
The Northern Ireland peace process was once held up as a model to the world, but given the current impasse in the region’s politics and the cultural conflicts that replaced the violence this model has inevitably been tarnished. In reality, the popular, male-centric version of the model was never a true representation of a process that involved other groups, especially women. On the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement it’s time to acknowledge the contributions of these groups and consider the alternative visions and aspirations they put forward for a new and better society.
Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams and other members of the “Peace People’ are well-known, but the actions of other groups of Catholic and Protestant women are not. They represent an important example of what Fidelma Ashe describes as the suppression of alternative visions of peace and their “potential to create more meaningful, progressive and inclusive forms of peacebuilding in the region.”
A recent series of witness seminars that I initiated in Belfast brought together Catholic sisters, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland women in conversation, and recorded their experiences of the ‘Troubles.’ Their collective remembering revealed that women of faith were ahead of their time in terms of developing approaches to repairing the harms that were caused by the conflict for individuals and their communities. Moreover, they were party to innovative examples of ecumenical activism and community living that defied and transcended sectarianism, including integrated education.
Equally important, though previously unknown to the general public, such women were participants in the secret back-channel talks between politicians from Northern Ireland, mainland Britain, the Republic of Ireland, the US and different groupings of combatants that were critical in bringing about a cessation of the violence. At least in the initial stages of the dialogue, they appear to have been the only women involved. It’s important to recognise that women of faith secured a place in these talks not because men thought they should be there, but because they thought they should be there.
That their participation has remained undisclosed and undocumented for so long has significant implications. It provides telling insights into the peace process, the narratives that undergird it, the ways in which it was implemented, and the extent to which the history of the Troubles in all its dimensions is still a male preserve.
Margaret Ward pointed to the “omission of women from consideration of the past” on Open Democracy in June 2013. Arguing that women’s contribution to the maintenance of communities during the conflict and to the development of a more peaceful society afterwards was largely ignored, she highlighted how peacebuilding was still seen as “an activity that primarily involves men.”
Feminist scholars have worked hard to redress this neglect, but the activism of women of faith in Northern Ireland remained virtually unexplored prior to the witness seminar project. Moreover, a general lack of attention was encouraged by one-dimensional characterizations of such women in the media which disregarded their historical commitment to contemporary values like reconciliation, communal repair, the need for bridge-building across the sectarian divide, and the articulation of meaningful forms of peace.
The erasure of women of faith from the historical record can partially be attributed to assumptions that they form another element of a backward-looking, conservative past that needs to be challenged in the present in order to build a progressive and forward-looking Northern Ireland. In fact, the evidence of their activism during the conflict suggests that they, along with other marginalised groups, could help to revitalise a process that is presently paralysed and visionless.
Women of faith worked with and through myriad groups and organisations, linking their own activism to a range of ideas, concepts and ethical ideologies supportive of peacebuilding work. This combination had both practical application and emotional appeal in being able to move the human imagination beyond simply the cessation of violence.
One example was “Cornerstone,” “a live-in Community, a praying Community of reconciliation involved in the local area and networking with other groups…Being a ‘Presence’ was the most important thing in a divided community—to show that Catholics and Protestants could actually live together and cook and do the shopping and just be a community” as one of the seminar participants put it.
Another was WAVE (“Widows Against Violence Empowered”), a group that came out of a Catholic Sister’s feelings of helplessness in the face of tragedy. It is still there today: “going from strength to strength, and now it has an organization for Trauma…it was one little space for women who had been deeply affected by the Troubles just to tell their stories…and get strength from each other.”
The premium that women of faith placed on obedience to God meant, for some, challenging powerful groups within and outside of the Church in their endeavours—not simply a call to end the conflict but an attempt to lay the foundations for a more just and equal post-conflict society that worked toward overcoming sectarianism. As another of the seminar participants explained (reflecting a strongly held view among the group):
“This business of loving enemies mattered to me. That wasn’t something that I understood Jesus to just say as a kind of a throw-away—‘you might think about loving your enemies.’ That was a command that I had to obey.”
The tendency to ignore these stories disregards the rich and complex histories of women of faith that stretch back centuries. Those histories are replete with narratives of struggle against violence, injustice, poverty and oppression. They include resistance to male control and endeavours to fulfil gospel imperatives to help—indeed love—the most marginalized in society. Not all religious women lived lives of service and sacrifice, but enough did to make a difference, including in Northern Ireland.
Nevertheless, in the public imagination such women are still identified with the preservation of normative gender roles and the conservative narratives that underpin them. But the witness seminars revealed that during the conflict, some women contested patriarchal restrictions and value systems through a variety of means, from the known—like grassroots community activism—to the unknown, including their participation in secret talks.
Their activism was a factor in creating the climate on the ground and the depth of communications between the warring parties that facilitated the peace process. At times this required confronting powerful groups within and outside of the Church, transgressing normative gender roles, challenging traditional gender stereotypes, and demonstrating that feminism's reach extended to encompass religious women.
With religious values as core to their activism, women of faith negotiated their roles within the church, and at times, they also negotiated their own ethno-religious identities. They were closely monitored within their own communities and by the security and paramilitary forces. Their experiences and recollections illustrate the effects of male hierarchies, violence, social deprivation and religious and community norms on different groups of women.
The conversations recorded during the seminars capture an intricate web of women creating spaces through activism within and across communal, moral and religious boundaries, and often exposed the gendered conflicts provoked by these forms of activism. As one seminar participant explained, being “on the margins [and] always intended to be on the periphery” had advantages in facilitating “the mission of love, reconciliation, justice and the spread of the Kingdom of God.” Women of faith discovered that inhabiting the margins empowered them to “cross boundaries and sabotage establishments.”
These women belonged to churches with long histories of silencing them. Their conditioned tendencies toward self-effacement, getting on with the job at hand, and doing what needed to be done with no thought of self-promotion or posterity further facilitated their erasure. This silencing was compounded by the long-entrenched male tradition in Northern Ireland of marginalising women. Above all, the context of the conflict demanded silence because of the suspicion and mistrust that permeated communities, a fear of the ‘other’ and also of your own side, and the danger that reaching out could designate you as part of the ‘enemy within.’ Yet reaching out was precisely what women of faith did best.
The research to date indicates that their interventions were critical in breaking the deadlock when the peace talks descended into familiar patterns of each side blaming the other and the process going nowhere. Women were acutely conscious of how ‘going nowhere’ meant more suffering and more grief for people who were already worn down and beleaguered. They were unafraid of expressing what this meant in uncompromising, human terms that left no doubt about the irreparable damage done to communities, the lives destroyed, and the horror and hurt felt by everybody.
The seminar conversations about the secret talks revealed that women of faith brought an element of raw emotion into the room that helped to facilitate a break-through, whereby the meetings shifted from attributing blame to sharing pain. This became a common feature that helped each side to understand the other, and to reinforce what all sides already knew—that for the sake of everyone the conflict had to stop.
This is as true of the future as the past. For the sake of all, the voices of women of faith and other marginalised groups must be heard in any discussions about the future of Northern Ireland. It is time to break the silence.
5 April 2018. How to build a progressive movement in a divided country –
Since we can expect more polarization ahead, how can we use its heat and volatility to create something useful?
This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.
Whether it’s assault rifles, racial justice, immigration or fossil fuels, the US is rocked by conflicting narratives and rising passions. In a recent national poll, 70 percent of Americans say the political divide is at least as big as during the Vietnam War.
In December, I completed a year-and-a-half book tour in over 80 towns and cities in United States. From Arizona to Alaska to North Dakota to Georgia, I heard a worry in common from people active in struggles for justice. They talk about the political polarization they see around them.
Many assume that polarization is a barrier to making change. They observe more shouting and less listening, more drama and less reflection, and an escalation at the extremes. They note that mass media journalists have less time to cover the range of activist initiatives, which are therefore drowned out by the shouting. From coast to coast activists asked me: Does this condition leave us stuck?
My answer included both good news and bad news. Most people wanted the latter first.
The bad news about divisiveness.
We are not dealing with a passing fad or temporary trend. The research of a trio of political scientists found that political polarization follows the curve of economic inequality. For decades after World War II, white male inequality in the United States was relatively low and governance was largely bi-partisan in spirit. But, as income inequality began to polarize, so too did our politics. Not surprisingly, perhaps, by 2015, income inequality was greater than at any other point in U.S. history, according to economists Jeffrey Gale Williamson and Peter Lindert. The tax bill passed in January will add even more fuel to the fire.
Progressives need to breathe deeply and make our peace with the reality. Division expresses an economic arrangement, and it’s not something we can fix through urging more civil discourse. Even though we’ll want to use our conflict resolution skills in order to cope, we can also expect more drama at the extreme ends of our polarizations, and more ugliness and violence.
Even some of the people who carry progressive values like anti-oppression can be expected to become harsher and more dogmatic, as if inspired by the witch-hunting Massachusetts Puritans of yore.
The dynamic of polarization is contagious—it doesn’t confine itself to tweeting public officials, radio talk shows and political junkies. I believe there’s little point in blaming our progressive movement comrades who pick up the infection around us. Instead, it helps to remember that this trend is much, much bigger than we are. We might as well forgive ourselves and each other, and focus on the positive openings that are given to us in this period.
The good news about polarization.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the United States and European countries polarized dramatically. In Italy and Germany, fascists were marching and communists were organizing for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even on Europe’s northwest periphery, Sweden and Norway faced the most extreme polarization they’d ever had, complete with Nazis marching in the streets.
The outcomes of polarization for those four countries were, however, very different. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini came to power. In Sweden and Norway democratic socialist movements pushed their economic elites off their pedestals and invented the egalitarian Nordic economic model. Saying goodbye to their old class-ridden days of poverty, Swedes and Norwegians generated historically new levels of equality, individual freedom and shared abundance.
The contrasting outcomes could not be more dramatic. All four countries experienced extreme polarization in the 1920s and ‘30s. Two fell into disaster, and two climbed out of poverty and oppression to the top tier of progressive national achievement. From these examples we can see that polarization may guarantee a big political fight, but it doesn’t determine whether the outcome will be dictatorship or democracy.
U.S. history also shows that polarization does not determine outcomes. In the United States in 1920s and ‘30s, the Ku Klux Klan was riding high as well as a growing Nazi movement. On the radical left, movements grew as well. The outcome was not fascist dictatorship, but instead Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Out of that polarization came the most progressive decade of the first half of the 20th century in the United States.
Fast forward to the divided 1960s, which boiled over into the ‘70s, when environmentalists, feminists and LGBT people joined the ferment initiated by the civil rights and other movements of the ‘60s. Once again the Nazis grew along with the Ku Klux Klan, while on the left we remember the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Nevertheless, in the midst of strong polarization, the United States made its greatest progress in the second half of the 20th century.
Letting the heat work for progress.
While book touring in England, I stayed with a metal sculptor who showed me his blacksmith’s hearth, essential for creating the beautiful designs that filled his studio. I saw a useful metaphor: Progressives need polarization like blacksmiths and artists need heat to make cold hard metal flexible enough to change its shape.
Heat creates volatility, in metal and in society. It breaks up crystalized patterns. It makes possible something new to replace the rigid oppressive structures that express themselves through sexual and racist violence, endemic poverty alongside extreme wealth, environmental destruction, political corruption and militarism.
Since we can expect more polarization ahead, how can we use its heat and volatility to create something as serviceable as a horseshoe, or even a sculpture of beauty? We can give ourselves a head start by learning what worked in previous periods of polarization and strengthening them for our context.
Because planning is an empowering practice, I’ve organized what’s worked for others into a kind of roadmap, consisting of five stages. There is some reason to the sequence, but not enough to be rigid about it.
A roadmap to transformation.
1. Tell people you meet that we are creating a plan.
Acquaintances may believe you are simply ‘a protester’ or like to hang out with your activist friend—they may not know it’s even possible to create a plan to work together to get ourselves out of this mess. According to the American Psychological Association, 63 percent of Americans say that concerns about the nation’s future are a major source of stress in their lives.
Planning is on the side of positivity, capability and empowerment. Tell people how those are showing up in your life by participating in the plan.
2. Build the infrastructure of the new society.
Governmental dysfunction in the United States is becoming ever more obvious. Tourists come back with tales of wonder from Scandinavia, while people stateside see inept responses to disasters like lead poisoning and Hurricane Katrina. The Pew Research Center found that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing.
A century ago the Nordics also had low trust. Organizers supported them to work together through cultural groups and co-ops, empowering themselves to meet each others’ needs. Americans may be ready for this: The same Pew study found that 55 percent believe ordinary Americans would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.
Make the most of this opportunity to reach “beyond the choir,” building groups and institutions with people who didn’t previously know each other. Increasing your range of connection may be easier if people know you are thoughtful about everyone.
3. Build movements through bold nonviolent direct action campaigns.
Teenagers in Florida instinctively knew what most adults in the gun control lobby refused to accept—it takes bold direct action to open doors. To keep the doors open, the teens will learn, it takes direct action campaigning. In the process they may turn the lobby into a movement.
Most Swedes and Norwegians came to realize that the economic elite ruled their countries and that their parliaments were pretend democracies. Loving efficiency, they preferred to skip the middlemen and go straight to the top, by focusing their campaigns on the owners rather than the politicians. Making this shift in the United States will help each movement to become sharper and clearer, more visionary, and—by refusing to be co-opted by a political party—more ready to align with others to build a movement of movements. They may also, as did the Nordics, stay close to the alternative infrastructure being built on a local level.
4. Gain unity among movements around a broad vision of what will replace dysfunctional and unjust institutions.
Many Nordics understood that politicians’ promises of small reform steps were inadequate, even insulting—something incrementalist Hillary Clinton discovered in the 2016 U.S. election. The large majority of Americans who tell pollsters that the country is “headed in the wrong direction” increasingly match their words with their deeds and stay away from the polls.
The Nordic democratic socialists succeeded because their vision was radical, showed deep respect for the people and made sense at the same time. One example was promising universal services instead of programs for the poor.
Few people want to go with you if they don’t know where you’re going. Nordic movements grew partly because organizers explained the destination. By sharing the vision, organizers showed they respected people more than manipulative politicians. Fortunately, in the United States, the Movement for Black Lives has already offered a vision, and more are emerging. When there is vision, stronger movements may grow out of nonviolent direct action campaigns.
5. Build a movement of movements powerful enough to dislodge the 1 percent from dominance.
That’s what the Swedes and Norwegians did. Movements worked together to raise the level of nonviolent struggle to that point, even though their opponents tried to repress them with violence. Movements cooperated because they saw that their individual goals were opposed by the same force—the economic elite.
This is just as true in the United States, where the aspirations of both white and black workers, women and sexual minorities, immigrants and activists for climate justice, students and gun reform activists are all frustrated by the 1 percent. Cooperation for deep struggle becomes more likely when we create a vision in common that speaks to diverse interests.
So, where are we with this roadmap? The good news is that people are hard at work on the second and third steps already. As we gain confidence, we’ll tackle the fourth as well, which will increase our credibility and invite the gain in numbers that makes the fifth possible.
What about polarization?
I lived in Norway 25 years after the struggle that resulted in a power shift. I observed a remarkably peaceful society with a high degree of consensus. The whole political spectrum had shifted significantly to the left—the politics of the Norwegian right-wing was to the left of America’s Democratic Party. The overall direction of the economy was decided by the people as a whole. They enjoyed lively debates about the issues of the day, confident that the majority’s decisions would be carried out without corruption. And they hoped some day, without spending much money on it, to win a lot of Olympic medals.
3 April 2018. Where are all the leaders? –
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination—a good time to reflect on leadership and moral courage.
Ten days before he was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. answered questions from the audience at the old Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It was his final public appearance before he arrived in Memphis to deliver the words that seemed to presage his own assassination: “I have been to the mountaintop,” he said, “and though I may not get there with you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The Concord was located just down the road from where I live in the “Borscht Belt” of Sullivan County—the place where Jewish comedians from Danny Kaye to Jerry Seinfeld honed their skills and now the site of a shiny new casino. King wasn’t upstate for the slot machines or the jokes of course; he was there to speak about leadership at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly—an annual convention of orthodox Jewish leaders—though he was introduced by the radical Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel who was celebrating his sixtieth birthday.
In his opening remarks Heschel spoke about the need for a particular kind of leader in the struggle for justice, freedom and equality:
“Where does moral leadership in America come from today? The politicians are astute, the establishment is proud and the market place is busy. Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel?”
In the wide ranging question-and-answer session that followed, members of the audience probed King on who he actually ‘represented’ in the black community, how racism and anti-Semitism were connected, whether activists should seek alliances with members of the ‘establishment,’ how issues like war and poverty intersect, and how he navigated the different tactics of nonviolence and Black Power—all issues that resonate just as loudly in politics and social activism today.
Heschel answered his own question by calling King “a voice, a vision and a way,” though even in the 1960s this overestimated the influence of a single individual. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people ask ‘what would King do if he was still alive’ or ‘who’s the next Martin Luther King.’ These questions are invidious. There was only one, and he was killed fifty years ago today. New leaders are all around us if we have the foresight to see them, but they may not fit a standard template or occupy positions of formal power.
Think of Emma Gonzalez from Parkland High School in Florida for example, who electrified the crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue during the March For Our Lives in Washington DC last week, or Rio de Janeiro councilor Marielle Franco who was murdered in Brazil on March 14, or the many leaders of Black Lives Matter, or the hundreds of thousands of less famous examples that you could name in your own communities.
We can’t clone leaders and we shouldn’t try, but we can encourage and protect them from co-option and attacks. Against that background it’s more useful to ask what kind of leader was Martin Luther King, what kept him from being silenced or captured by vested interests, and what conditions encouraged his remarkable personal example—all things that we can learn from more broadly. What is it that distinguishes visionaries and change agents from the parade of overpaid administrators that pass for leaders in most government positions, political parties, businesses and charities today?
I’d start with authenticity and moral courage, which are difficult to describe but you know them when you see them—or rather when you feel them. In the few times I’ve encountered visionary leaders that’s how they’ve come across, as people who combine all forms of intelligence into one and strive to ‘be the change they want to see.’ It’s an emotional connection as well as one of strategy or politics. These are leaders who have something that you and I don’t, and who use it to inspire courageous action among large numbers of other people.
Inspiration creates waves of change that go way beyond a particular policy or party platform or incremental reforms. King had that quality. So did nonviolence trainer and theorist Gene Sharp who Timothy Gee remembered recently on openDemocracy. Sharp inspired large-scale nonviolent uprisings the world over but he never lost his sense of humility and grounding, his open mind, his willingness to listen, and his commitment to make time for others however famous he became or however ‘unimportant’ they might be.
Sharp, King and other civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker represent the mirror image of the fakes and faux radicals who rise to the top in most areas of life today. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd gave a perfect description of such people’s in-authenticity when describing ex-Trump spokesman Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci: “a self-promoter extraordinaire and master salesman who doesn’t mind pushing a bad product—and probably sees it as more fun.”
By contrast—and here’s the second important marker—visionary leaders are deadly serious about accountability—the willingness to hold yourself responsible for your actions and be held to account by others, even if you outrank them. Any movement that wants to achieve large-scale change has to motivate a great body of people into action, so leaders have to be willing to share power rather than accumulating it to themselves.
That’s one of the lessons learned by the current iteration of King’s Poor People’s Campaign led by Reverends William J. Barber and Liz Theoharis, which has adopted a more decentralized and distributed leadership model. It’s the opposite of current realities in which leaders spend more time avoiding accountability than embracing it, especially if it comes from the bottom up or the outside in.
Behind every institutional scandal is a failure in accountability, when individuals or groups of leaders look the other way, bow to pressure, accept financial inducements or cover up mistakes. Their moral clarity and courage fails them at crucial moments, and the higher you rise in a hierarchy the stronger the temptations become. That’s because the costs of falling are that much greater.
In a 2016 article in the Journal of Management Studies called “Why the Assholes are Winning,” Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer describes how proximity to wealth and power can lead to “moral rationalization and decoupling” when the boundaries between honesty and deceit, altruism and self interest are seemingly dissolved. That’s a lesson that business figures like Mark Zuckerberg still have to learn. Visionary leaders accept it and act accordingly.
Accountability is also a key to my third marker of leadership which is self-sacrifice. Prototypical leaders are everywhere, but few of them make it to positions of formal power and influence, and many of those who do are muzzled or co-opted along the way through a process of elite capture. The reasons are pretty obvious, especially in times of rising precarity and repression when the risks of speaking out are so much higher.
“You have a choice. You can be an insider or an outsider. Outsiders can say what they want but people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticize other insiders.”
Visionary leaders find ways through these dilemmas by accepting the costs of that outsider status but maintaining various kinds of dialogue and interaction with those on the inside of mainstream institutions—much as King did with President Johnson and his Administration in the 1960s. That’s why such examples are instructive; they show how the trend towards co-option can be countermanded through a mix of continuous self-reflection, external accountability, intellectual clarity, sacrifice and moral courage.
Self-sacrifice is important because leadership positions (even informal ones) bring with them potential personal benefits which can act as another platform for co-option—prizes and awards, foundation grants, seats on corporate boards, power over staff and supporters, and access to the revolving doors of the establishment. Setting these things aside in order to stay focused on the mission of a movement and honor the democratic structures of decision-making and accountability requires a willingness to say no to these temptations—just as King did when he turned over his Nobel Peace Prize money to the civil rights movement.
An unbroken line stretches from before King to his oldest granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, who also spoke at the March For Our Lives, but such leaders remain the exception rather than the rule. Closing that gap is partly a matter of structures and training and incentives—or at least more security and protection since so many of them have been targeted or killed—but mostly an issue of moral courage, which is something that exists inside each one of us but is normally suppressed.
Goodness knows we need many more such people to help us find our way out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves. Where are all the leaders? Just as Heschel said 50 years ago, “The politicians are astute, the establishment is proud and the market place is busy.” We can look to others for inspiration and example, but if we really want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King we should look to ourselves.
1 April 2018. Whatever happened to civil society? –
In the last 40 years the architecture of voluntary citizen action has been transformed. Why aren’t we fighting back?
the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum
in Davos, ‘civil society’ is referenced in virtually every presentation and
fireside conversation. The world, it seems, no longer consists of two sectors—public
and private, state and market—there is a third: NGOs and INGOs, charities and
philanthropists, human rights watchdogs, aid and development agencies and
global environmental campaigns to name but a few. The ‘Third Sector’ has arrived, and Its CEOs
now mingle seamlessly with those from banks, energy companies, media giants and
The problem with this embrace of ‘civil society’ is that it bears little resemblance to what civil society actually is or means. Most of civil society is not constituted formally or headed up by a CEO. Just 40 years ago, very few not-for-profits or charities had CEOs at all: that term was associated with the corporate sector, and few community groups or charities had even contemplated mimicking the language and culture of such a different sphere. But in just four decades all this has changed, and it has changed at an extraordinarily rapid rate, with very little public discussion or scrutiny of the enormity of the organizational transformation involved and its social and political impact.
The absence of public debate is partly attributable to the complexity of the social sector and its diverse forms and purposes. Some parts of the sector identify as NGOs while others rely on informal social bonds and practices. Some have representative ‘peak’ bodies but many do not. Some identify as part of a Third Sector but most are unfamiliar with this term. Fewer still understand themselves to be part of the ‘civil society’ that is now routinely referred to in UN management-speak and business discourse.
The principal factor, however, in driving both the transformation of the social sector and the relatively low level of critical public debate about it has been the global rise of the managerial class and its capture of much of the not-for-profit world. In the wake of the 1960s/1970s social movements, governments invested heavily in a plethora of welfare state programs and services, and universities churned out an army of social science practitioners with an insatiable demand for things to manage.
Not-for-profits and charities were easy pickings, so voluntary associations of all kinds were transformed into instruments of service delivery, ‘community representation’ and ‘therapeutic welfare’ in the public interest. Traditional bodies such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, church missions and voluntary health societies fell like dominos to ‘management capture’ and quickly became unrecogniseable to those who knew them a generation before.
To be sure, there was resistance to this process, but it was sporadic, weak and disorganised, much like the resistance of indigenous cultures to colonising empires. The victorious managerial class had no interest in trumpeting its takeover of these voluntary associations, or in promoting critical discussion of this process; hence the conspicuous lack of public scrutiny of the not-for-profit sector and its transformation. That is, until now.
In Australia, there are 700,000
voluntarily-formed community organisations. Of these, just 35,000 or five per
cent are run by professional managers; the other 95 per cent are entirely
voluntary in character, with no paid staff. Should any Australian
not-for-profit be invited to Davos, you can be certain that it would be one of
the small minority that are run by paid managers. The rest don’t register on the radar screens
of public and private sector executives. The five per cent do almost all of the
public talking about civil society, and impose their own self-understanding and
culture on the sector as a whole.
Furthermore, outside of these 700,000 formal community organizations there’s a vast array of additional social forms—family and kinship networks, neighbourhoods, friendship circles and informal support groups. These too are part of civil society, as are faith and religious associations and a broad range of micro-economic units constituted as family businesses, family farms, and household production and trading entities.
This vast array of social relationships and associations is what constitutes civil society. It is made up of the things we do as ‘civilians’, freely and voluntarily, in association with others, outside of the state and the market. Social well-being is largely determined in and through our relationships in this civil sphere, which are personal and horizontal in nature. By contrast, state-citizen relationships are vertical and coercive, while business-customer interactions are (usually unequal) monetary exchanges.
experience of love, care and belonging are formed by our relationships in the
civil sphere, not by the state or the market. Our lives are subsequently
shaped, battered and sometimes improved by the state and the market, but the
primary formation of our unique selves and our values is the work of civil society.
Given the importance of civil society to our personal and social life, how is it possible that the Great and the Good at Davos can confuse all this with the CEOs of NGOs? In fairness, they are reflecting wider trends that have been developing for decades, and which have privileged the NGO component of this universe. This is not an accident. When the larger NGOs began speaking the same language as the managerial elites of the public and private sectors, they were embraced as long lost cousins. The rest of civil society—the dispersed and anonymous mix of relational ties and associations that shape our personal and social lives—is invisible to politicians, governments and public policy elites.
the official recognition of civil society by these elites is an impediment to civil
society’s regeneration. Instead of re-discovering the diversity of civil
society and its importance for nurturing personal and social well-being, the
Great and the Good have embraced a reductive, hollowed-out, managerial
definition while ignoring the continued incursion of states and markets into
the civil sphere of life.
The fact is that centralised states and concentrated markets are corroding civil society and colonizing the all-important voluntary and relational components of social life. In higher-income countries, many not-for-profit organisations have been turned into service delivery instruments for the state. In lower-income countries, a large proportion of NGOs have become instruments for the delivery of foreign aid. In both settings, transactional dealings have overturned relational models of functioning. NGOs drawn into these processes have become corporatised beyond recognition and detached from their founding purpose and culture.
then is to be done? One thing is clear: regulation is not the answer.
Government regulators tend to be drawn from the same managerial culture that
has overtaken the not-for-profit sector, and they have a habit of reproducing
that culture in their diagnoses.
Nor is reform likely to come from established political movements of Left or Right. In the transformations of the last 40 years civil society was ignored across the political spectrum. It had few defenders against the colonisations of state and market. For its part, the Left was quite comfortable with the capture of civil society by the post-1970s managerial class, because this generation of managers tended to identify with the political Left: the capture of civil society was one component of Rudi Deutschke's now largely completed “Long March through the Institutions.”
the Right was equally comfortable with the rise of the managerial class: it
embraced extensions of managerial culture across charities, universities,
philanthropy, religious and sporting bodies under the promise of more
'efficiency', leaner management and better business discipline in areas thought
to need these changes. In a very real sense, Left and Right combined in driving
the anti civil society revolution.
It is now clear that the regeneration of civil society can come only from civil society itself—from citizens, volunteers, residents, carers, neighbours, parents, activists, mentors and donors—whose agency and participation in social life is voluntary, associational and relational in character, and is therefore free from vested industry interests. But can such a diverse universe get organised and mobilised sufficiently to do the job?
For a long period civil society itself was poorly conceptualized and lacked a self-generated leadership capable of articulating its critical importance to personal and social well-being. This made it very vulnerable to capture by the managerial class in the four decades that followed the 1970s. In part, the decentralized and diffuse nature of civil society made it difficult to connect and organise its various constituent parts.
Today, in an age of distributed networks and powered by the internet, the costs and logistical difficulties of linking disparate components together have more chance of being overcome. It may be possible to connect vast social constituencies anchored in communities, with deep pools of cultural and intellectual resources, and extensive networks of networks, without imposing centralized direction or top-down regulation.
it is possible to conceptualise a common voice and agenda for civil society
around the authentic representation of itself in the public arena and a reversal
of the power transfers from civil society to states and markets that have characterized
much of the last century. Technologically, it is now much more feasible to
activate this common voice and agenda.
Imagine the collective power of civil society if it organised itself in pursuit of this agenda. It would have the elites at Davos quaking in their boots.
29 March 2018. Decolonizing birth –
Indigenous women are taking back their power as life-givers.
Zintkala Mahpiya Win Blackowl didn’t plan to have her sixth baby in a tipi on the windy plains of North Dakota during a historic resistance. Thousands of people had gathered for months in camps sprawled along the northern borderlands of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the Dakota Access pipeline. But Blackowl already knew that she would birth her babies outside of a hospital, in the comfort and safety of a sacred space.
“So much of how women experience birth today has to do with how we are socialized,” says Blackowl, 36, whose first five children were born at home with the aid of certified and traditional Indigenous midwives. “We are told that you have to be hospitalized, that doctors know best, and that you can trust them with your life.”
In August 2016, having traveled from her home in Ashland, Oregon, to the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation borderlands, she felt overwhelmed by the energy of the movement. Blackowl is Sicangu Lakota and Ihanktonwan Dakota, with origins and ancestral ties in the Dakotas, but she had spent most of her adult life in Oregon and Idaho. “I was pregnant, and I hadn’t been home [to the Dakotas] for 12 years,” she says, “but I saw that I was capable of coming to Standing Rock, and I had a responsibility to provide that support. It was about responsibility to my people.”
When she returned to the resistance camps in the fall, Blackowl was in her third trimester. Early on Oct. 12, while everyone slept, she delivered her daughter alone in her tipi, not long after her husband left to get female relatives. The baby girl was born without complication and in perfect health. She was named Mni Wiconi, “Water of Life.”
The arrival was a momentous event in the camps. But also in the larger Indigenous birth movement as Native American women take back their roles as life-givers and birth-workers and reclaim rights to their bodies, their traditions, and their birthing experiences. Interest is growing, from Indigenous certified nurse midwives—14 total, today, trained at the the American College of Nurse-Midwives—to mothers educating themselves and choosing to have unassisted births at home.
Measuring the complexity and scale of this grassroots movement is impossible, but evidence is plentiful. The Facebook page Indigenous Midwifery was launched in December 2013 and has since grown to almost 10,000 followers. Several popular artworks honoring traditional birth and motherhood, most notably by ledger artist Wakeah Jhane of the Comanche, Blackfeet, and Kiowa tribes, have been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Santa Fe Indian Market.
Since the late 1800s, Native Americans’ lives largely have been dictated by federal government policies designed to stamp out traditions and create dependency on white institutions. Many traditions and ceremonies were outlawed, and families were separated as Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes to be placed in Indian boarding schools, where their language and culture were forbidden. Then, in 1955, the federal Indian Health Service was established to manage the health care of Native Americans. Birth became a medicalized affair and was, more often than not, directed by white male obstetricians.
But that morning in Standing Rock, intersecting movements for Indigenous self-determination and human rights created the backdrop for an extraordinary traditional birth with women at the helm.
“A lot of the time in hospitals, people don’t approach women in a way that says to them that they are the center of the birth, or in a way that gives the woman control,” says Nicolle Gonzales, 36, a Navajo nurse midwife from New Mexico who was nearby when Blackowl gave birth. “When a woman is birthing, it’s her space, and we have to honor that space. But nobody tells you that.”
Gonzales traveled to Standing Rock to show solidarity and to help provide culturally responsive and respectful care for women at camp. While working as a nurse for two years in an IHS hospital in New Mexico, Gonzales recognized a need for better prenatal and birthing care for Indigenous women, and this inspired her to pursue training as a midwife.
Gonzales is a mother of three and the founder and executive director of the Changing Woman Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe working to renew Indigenous birth knowledge. The initiative is planning a culturally centered clinic and birth center committed to providing family-centered care where the woman is the decision-maker.
“Indigenous midwifery is not a new thing,” Gonzales says. “It has always been here. We’re just beginning to bring those Indigenous perspectives forward again.”
In the span of just a century on reservations, Indigenous women were stripped of their power as matriarchs, once foundational to their communities—as knowledge keepers, decision-makers, and birth workers. Native American communities overall had been threatened by genocidal government policies from the early colonies to the 1970s. At least 25 percent of Native American women who received care in IHS hospitals were involuntarily sterilized, according to a 2000 American Indian Quarterly report.
But Indigenous women are trying to regain that power. Jodi Lynn Maracle, 33, a traditional doula from the Tyendinaga Mohawk nation, says the effort is fivefold. “We talk about reclaiming language, and ceremony, and tradition, but it’s also about reclaiming our bodies and our relationship to our bodies, especially as women.”
Maracle is mother to a 3-year-old boy. She is a doula with training from the Seventh Generation Midwives in Toronto and from the Six Nations Birthing Centre. She is pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Buffalo in New York, centering her research on Haudenosaunee midwifery and birth work.
“During the boarding school era, there weren’t many choices for Indigenous people,” Maracle says. “Today, there are so many choices. I think the empowerment is just in having people say that you have a choice.”
Women who choose to have their babies in hospitals still have ways to incorporate traditions. Simple adjustments can be made during birth: singing traditional songs; facing the bed toward the east, where the sun rises; squatting versus lying down; or cleansing the area with sage or other traditional medicines. The key is for women to ask a lot of questions and to educate themselves as much as possible about their options before, during, and after birth.
Yet reaching back to traditions, or decolonizing birth, is not so straightforward in many Indigenous communities. Some tribes have fewer teachings intact today, and it may not be as simple as asking an elder. Women may have to consult historical records or reach out to sister tribes, and above all, re-establish a relationship with their bodies and intuitive power as women.
After the births of each of her children, Blackowl chose to root her newborn babies to the physical world by burying their placentas in the ground—a tradition tied to Lakota/Dakota birth. During the Standing Rock resistance, Blackowl buried the placenta that nurtured Mni Wiconi near the place of her birth, at the height of a movement for Indigenous self-determination.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.
27 March 2018. The necessary transience of happiness –
The happiness industry is booming, yet few of us are happier. Why not?
When sociologists look back on my generation they might well view happiness as the defining cultural issue of the times. Governments monitor our levels of happiness, universities fund whole departments to research it, and the world’s largest companies including Google employ ‘happiness gurus’ to proselytise to their employees. We trade smiling emojis with each other on social networks, walk past billboards encouraging us to “#choosehappiness,” and spend over one billion dollars a year on self-help books. Put simply, we’re obsessed: get happy or die trying.
As the historian Darrin McMahon writes, happiness “is the last great organizing principle of life. We no longer live our lives according to beauty or honor or virtue, we want to live in order to be happy”—with happiness invariably described as an individualistic endeavour to be achieved through self-help, self-care or materialistic selfishness.
But this obsession with happiness clearly isn’t working. Sixty years of human progress and huge increases in GDP have barely touched the life satisfaction scores of most people in higher-income countries. For example, the United States’ General Social Survey shows almost no change in levels of general happiness since records began in 1972.
On an individual level happiness is also remarkably inflexible. Births, marriages, deaths, promotions and demotions do have transient effects on self-reported happiness scores, but they typically return to previous levels after six months or so. While chronic deprivation affects life satisfaction significantly, happiness has a marked resilience to most other life events. Why is this?
According to Oxford University researcher Michael Plant, the reason is something called ‘hedonic adaptation’—the tendency to return to stable levels of happiness after most life events. “We are extraordinarily good at getting used to things” he says, “such that very few events in life have a long-term impact on our happiness. If you don’t believe me, think how annoyed you get when the WiFi doesn’t work, then consider that humanity existed quite happily without it for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Hedonic adaptation is a well-known psychological phenomenon that has been proven by studies analysing the experiences of lottery winners and those who have experienced disabling accidents. Yet this evidence remains counter-intuitive for most of us. No matter how many studies are cited, we continue to seek gratification through individual wealth, ambition and good health, in fierce denial of the futility of our actions.
The happiness industry suggests that—if only we could adapt our environment, perhaps by finding a new job or entering a new relationship—we could achieve more happiness. Yet the evidence shows that we can’t, and evolutionary psychology reveals why. Rather than an individualistic commodity that can be achieved or accumulated like home ownership or a job promotion, happiness is evolution’s chief motivator. Designed to promote a range of behaviours associated with increased survival, the motivational purpose of happiness is revealed by its tendency to dissipate soon after the achievements it inspires. That’s why the ideal of constant euphoria marketed by the happiness industry is impossible: it flies in the face of the physiological basis of happiness itself.
Why else would we put such thought, effort and care into our own futures if not for the promise of happiness? Just like an addict longing for another dose of drugs, hedonic adaptation leaves us forever chasing greater happiness—and crafting a future that searches for but never finds it. The transience of happiness is completely unremarkable in this sense; evolution cares only for our survival, not our experience of surviving.
What is most surprising about the evolutionary mechanism of hedonic adaptation is how skilfully it has been co-opted by the powerful in society. Our economies depend on that elusive promise of happiness, which also provides companies with industrious employees. Governments promote home ownership, ensuring that people take out mortgages and other debts, which helps to guarantee an obedient workforce who must pay them off. Even social traditions like marriage have their roots in the illusion of utopian happiness, despite being criticised for upholding patriarchal attitudes. In a social Darwinist world, it is the most ruthless who take advantage of these evolutionary myths. What then, can we do?
Before making a diagnosis, a good psychiatrist always asks for a patient’s own thoughts and perspectives of their symptoms. When diagnosing a patient with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example, particular attention is paid to the level of distress a patient attributes to their obsessive thoughts. It’s an introspective and reflective approach common in the management of mental health conditions, derived from the principle that the guiding factor for intervention should be a patient’s own experience of their condition.
The approach of the happiness industry couldn’t be more different. Rather than asking whether individuals are comfortable with their own melancholy, we are bombarded with indiscriminate campaigns which tell us that such feelings are unhealthy, unnecessary and undesirable. Last year a group of psychologists at the University of Melbourne in Australia set out to investigate whether such an approach was helpful. What if campaigns encouraging us to perfect our experiences were actually making our lives less pleasurable?
The researchers encouraged over 100 participants to document how they felt in a daily diary for a month, as well as how much social pressure they experienced urging them not to feel too ‘down.’ Interestingly, the researchers identified a measurable relationship between the two; more social pressure not to feel depressed reliably predicted increased symptoms of depression the following day.
Having identified this correlation, the team investigated further. What if the social environment which pressures a person to be happy could be recreated in order to monitor its effects? To test this hypothesis the researchers separated participants into two groups; one to undertake a series of tasks in a “happy room” decorated with motivational posters and positive imagery; and the other to perform a series of tasks in a room that was plain. It turned out that the “happy room” group were three times more likely to ruminate over the tasks they failed to accomplish, and that was associated with a higher rate of depressive symptoms.
This research is far from conclusive, but it should serve as a warning: our cultural obsession with happiness risks transforming society into a place intolerable to melancholy, where we are made to feel as though our lives are failing if we aren’t happy all the time—a scaled-up version of that “happy room.” Meanwhile, the happiness industry continues to sell us the biological lie that a constant state of happiness is actually achievable, which achieves nothing but addiction to the happiness industry itself and its products.
We often think of our lives as going somewhere. The structures we’re taught from an early age—in which we graduate from one class to the next and then on to high school and university—provide us with a framework through which we approach other areas of life. Hence we progress from renting to home ownership, dating to marriage and work to retirement. Yet with each of these supposed achievements, hedonic adaptation returns us to the beginning, and we are left yearning once more for that illusory utopia of constant happiness.
That is, until we realise that life has passed us by. Nearing the end of his own life, the philosopher Alan Watts described this flawed way of thinking:
“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end. Success, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”
Contemporary analyses of happiness are consistent with Watt’s decades-old lesson. “If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts,” says Michael Plant. “We try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house. A few of us think about trying to spend less time working. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think.”
Plant recommends mindfulness-based stress reduction, a technique which “helps people accept, rather than fight, negative emotions and so reduce the suffering they cause.” The principle isn’t to fetishize happiness but almost to ignore it completely, encouraging people to enjoy the present regardless of whether it can be classified as ‘truly happy.’ Strategies include meditation, muscle relaxation and non-judgemental awareness of daily life.
Such techniques have been criticised for seemingly ignoring injustice and encouraging people to ‘think their way out of’ oppression. These are important concerns, but we should be equally wary of the ways in which capitalist societies use the concept of happiness for their own ends. By selling a myth about the nature of happiness, capitalism creates atomistically-ambitious but socially-obedient individuals who can be distracted from collective values and aspirations.
The risk is not only that social ties are weakened but that individuals are permanently dissatisfied. If we are encouraged to pursue a vision of constant, utopian happiness, we may begin to approach moments of transient happiness with entitlement rather than gratitude, regardless of our relative fortunes. Our joyful experiences may then come to be viewed as glimpses of what should be achieved permanently rather than precious moments to cherish for their own merit.
To return to Alan Watts, the solution might be to move away from the analogy of life as a pilgrimage towards something very different: life is best understood as a piece of music, and a beautiful one at that. Why would we want to wish it away in the hope of one spectacular note at the end?
27 March 2018. A message for UNESCO on World Theatre Day –
"And they cannot stop us. Each night we will reappear..."
Half a mile from the Cyraneican coast in Northern Libya is a vast rock shelter. 80 metres wide and 20 high. In the local dialect it is called the Hauh Fteah. In 1951, carbon dating analysis showed an uninterrupted human occupation of at least 100,000 years. Amongst the artefacts unearthed was a bone flute dated to anywhere between 40 and 70,000 years ago. As a boy when I heard this I asked my father
“They had music?”
He smiled at me.
“As all human communities.”
My father was an American born prehistorian, the first to excavate the Hauh Fteah in Cyraneica.
I am very honoured and happy to be the European representative at this year’s World Theatre Day.
In 1963, my predecessor, the great Arthur Miller said as the threat of nuclear war lay heavy over the world:
“When asked to write in a time when diplomacy and politics have such terribly short and feeble arms, the delicate but sometimes lengthy reach of art must bear the burden of holding together the human community."
The meaning of the word Drama derives from the Greek “dran’ which means “to do”… and the word theatre originates from the Greek, “Theatron”, literally meaning the “seeing place”. A place not only where we look, but where we 'see', we 'get', we understand.
2400 years ago, Polykleitos the younger designed the great theatre of Epidaurus. Seating up to 14,000 people the astonishing accoustics of this open air space are miraculous. A match lit in the centre of the stage, can be heard in all 14,000 seats. As was usual for Greek theatres, when you gazed at the actors, you would also see past to the landscape beyond. This not only assembled several places at once, the community, the theatre and the natural world, but also brought together all times. As the play evoked past myths in present time, you could look over the stage to what would be your ultimate future. Nature.
One of the most remarkable revelations of the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe in London is also to do with what you see. This revelation is...light. Open to the skies, both stage and auditorium are equally illuminated. Performers and public can each see one another. Always. Everywhere you look are people. And one of the consequences is that we are reminded that the great soliloquies of, say, Hamlet or Macbeth were not merely private meditations, but public debates.
We live in a time when it is hard to see clearly. We are surrounded by more fiction than at any other time in history or prehistory. (Although paradoxically we are watched continually; it is said that on a normal outing when I travel from my home to central London I will be filmed at least 300 times on CCTV.) Any ‘fact’ can be challenged, any anecdote can have claim on our attention as ‘truth’. One fiction in particular surrounds us continually. The one that seeks to divide us. From the truth. And from one another. That we are separate. People from people. Women from men. Human beings from nature.
But just as we live in a time of division, and fragmentation, we also live in a time of immense movement. More than at any other time in history, people are on the move; frequently fleeing; walking, swimming if need be, migrating; all over the world. And this is only just beginning. The response, as we know, has been to close borders. Build walls. Shut out. Isolate. We live in a world order that is tyrannical, where indifference is the currency and hope a contraband cargo. And part of this tyranny is the way control is asserted and enforced: not only over space, but also time. The time we live in eschews the present. It concentrates on the recent past and near future. I do not have that. I will buy this. Now I have bought it, I need to have the next… thing. The result of this endless insatiable gratification? The deep past is obliterated. The future of no consequence...
There are many who say that theatre will not or cannot change any of this. But theatre will not go away. Because theatre is a site, I am tempted to say a refuge. Where people congregate and instantly form communities. As we have always done. All theatres are the size of the first human communities from 50 souls to 14,000. From a nomadic caravan to a third of ancient Athens.
And because theatre only exists in the present, it also challenges this disastrous view of time. The present moment is always theatre’s subject. Its meanings are constructed in a communal act between performer and public. Not only here, but now. Without the act of the performer the audience could not believe. Without the belief of the audience the performance would not be complete. We laugh at the same moment. We are moved. We gasp or are shocked into silence. And at that moment through drama we discover this most profound truth: that what we thought was the most private, intimate division between us, the boundary of our own individual consciousness, is also without frontier. It is something we share.
And they cannot stop us. Each night we will reappear. Every night the actors and audience will reassemble and the same drama will be re-enacted. Because, as the writer John Berger says “Deep within the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual return”. Which is why it has always been the art form of the dispossessed, which, because of this dismantling of our world, is what we all are. Wherever there are performers and audiences stories will be enacted which cannot be told anywhere else, whether in the opera houses and theatres of our great cities, or the camps sheltering migrants and refugees in Northern Libya and all over the world. We will always be bound together, communally, in this reenactment.
And if we were in Epidauros we could look up and see how we share this with a larger landscape. That we are always part of nature and we cannot escape it just as we cannot escape the planet. If we were in the Globe we would see how apparently private questions are posed for us all. And if we were to hold the Cyraneican flute from 40,000 years ago, we would understand the past and the present here are indivisible, and the chain of human community can never be broken by the tyrants and demagogues.
25 March 2018. Will Cuba become a test case for a post-postmodern future? –
Metamodern mindfulness offers a new way of thinking about the ideological conflicts of the past.
Last month I was invited to speak with students and faculty at a theological colloquium in the Cuban coastal city of Matanzas. This is a new moment for Cuba, and I imagine that the next time I travel there I won’t find the same country I visited this time around.
In April, Cuba’s National Assembly will elect a new president, who, likely for the first time since the 1959 Revolution, will not be a Castro (though Raul Castro will retain party and military leadership for now). As the revolutionary generation passes away, other post-Castro changes are in the air too, including the eventual relaxation (post-Trump) of US sanctions on direct investment and travel, and with it the gradual incorporation of the world’s last functioning socialist nation into the global financial system.
Little may change in the short-run, but ultimately Cuba will face serious questions about how to protect the gains of its revolution. Will the country follow China’s mixed socialist-capitalist one-party path toward economic integration? Will it evolve into a multi-party liberal democracy? How will Cuba defend an educated, egalitarian society—one that proudly ‘puts people at the center’—from rising inequality? The colloquium left me wondering how the next generation of civil society leaders will navigate Cuba’s opening to the wider neoliberal world.
Of course, this challenge isn’t unique to Cuba. Progressive leaders everywhere are struggling to create a coherent vision for a world of freedom, equality and human flourishing. Specifically, they are frustrated with postmodernism’s inability to articulate a positive political challenge to the false promises of neoliberal development, and are looking beyond it for post-postmodern alternatives that aren’t locked into conventional left/right, socialist/capitalist dichotomies.
What might such a post-postmodern consciousness look like? Two young Dutch cultural scholars, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robbin van den Akker, believe they have found it in a growing trend that they call ‘metamodernism’—a concept that has struck a chord with a wide audience since their landmark paper “Notes on Metamodernism” was published in 2010. But what does it mean?
Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that the way the world feels to us—our sensibility about the world order—changed profoundly in the first decade of the new millennium. They describe this feeling as a shift in ‘affect’ (our emotional reactions), and a change in the cultural logic we use to sort the world out. Think of this as a shift in our collective ‘structure of feeling,’ or as Charles Taylor calls it, our ‘social imaginary.’
This mood shift is partly circumstantial: 9/11, the Great Recession, the Iraq war, accelerating climate change, mass-migration, structural racism, inequality, and worker precarity have greatly undermined our confidence in social, economic and political institutions. For a generation raised on the glitter of globalization in the booming 1990s, the inept, even corrupt, performance of virtually every public and private institution since then has crushed their hopes. They sense that all that is solid melted into the air a long time ago; that uncertainty, complexity and chaos are the new normal; and that our cultural and social reflexes tell us that something ominous is happening to the world.
Vermeulen and van den Akker discern this shifting affect in the aesthetics of a rising generation of artists who are looking for a way beyond postmodernism. They find it, first, in the ‘new sincerity’ of writers like David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers; the band Arcade Fire; Wes Anderson’s ‘quirky’ film style; and even the American hit TV series “Parks and Recreation.” These artists directly confront postmodern irony, cynicism and social disengagement with a fresh commitment to authentic feeling and relationships.
They also find it in a return to romanticism that is rooted in human reconciliation with the earth and with a return to more hopeful, utopian visions—for example, in the architecture of Swiss design firm Herzog and de Meuron and a return to figurative and narrative painting. Vermeulen and van den Akker’s analysis is echoed in the US by Seth Abramson who blogs about the metamodern condition at the Huffington Post.
Along with a near universal disillusionment with the current order, these artists, writers and activists perceive a deepening realism and seriousness about the condition of society among long-comfortable westerners who once took their ease for granted, but who now realize that even they can be crushed by unaccountable global power structures (as self-centered as this may seem to the rest of the world). Their great fear is nihilism; their greatest desire is to find a source of hope and a new political narrative to guide them into a better future.
Such efforts express a popular longing to escape postmodernism’s cultural logic and its council of despair that surrendered the world to neoliberalism—its ‘end-of-everything’ cynicism, sarcasm and irony; its bottomless critique, crippling political passivity and infatuation with cultural ‘power’.
Instead, they see the re-appearance of values that the postmoderns disrespected as merely ‘modern’—things like sincerity in place of irony, commitment instead of detachment, and a depth (versus surface) sense of reality; a return of historical consciousness (the belief that the future can be better than the past); a willingness to create big-picture theories of the world or new ‘metanarratives;’ and a renewed belief in ‘progress’ and transcendent visions—something, that is, to believe in and fight for.
Underlying this new structure of feeling is a deeper philosophical turn and a richer historical sensibility. Metamodernism abandons notions of history as an orderly, evolutionary sequence of cultural ‘beads-on-a-string’ that cancel each other out as each period passes by. Instead, it argues that past forms of consciousness are really not past at all.
In the west, for example, elements of the medieval, theological consciousness still sit alongside those from modern (theoretical) and postmodern (critical) consciousness, remaining simultaneously present and mutually influential. When combined rather than pitted against each other, the most productive elements of each form of consciousness can be re-assembled to create a rich array of resources to direct our emerging social, political and economic development.
In metamodernism, the prefix ‘meta’ is not used to mean ‘after’ or ‘above’, though it does carry a soft meaning as somehow ‘transcendent’ or ‘beyond.’ But drawing from the Greek philosophical term metaxy, ‘meta’s’ hard meaning is to be ‘in-between’, a mediation between two poles. To be metamodern is to practice a form of mindfulness that refuses the zero-sum game that pits one form of consciousness against another.
Instead, one moves back and forth between different poles in order to look for integration rather than contradiction. To think metaxologically means to stand among the ‘isms’—socialism, capitalism, collectivism, individualism, theism and atheism—and allow them to interact and interpret each other, rather than standing with one ‘ism’ against the others.
In this way, metamodern mindfulness interrogates, and seeks to resolve, opposites that subdivide our individual consciousness and alienate us from each other: identity/universality, local/global, nihilism/meaning, cynicism/trust, detachment/commitment, materialism/spirituality, nature/culture, hierarchy/anarchy, markets/politics, and so on down the list. The point is not that we can resolve these opposites into neat new packages, but that by constantly interrogating one in terms of the others we can generate new meanings and richer possibilities.
How is all this relevant to Cuba? At the colloquium I attended, a University of Havana psychologist put Cuba’s social ferment like this: “Given our high levels of education, Cubans have a first-world sensibility but live in third-world poverty.” The young are left frustrated. Instead of the revolution they dream of Miami, and unless something changes many of them will move there.
If, or when, Cuba cautiously opens to outside investment and global integration, will its civil and political leaders take advantage of this new metamodern mood to reframe their country’s expectations and paths to the future? There will be many ‘opposites’ to resolve that other countries are struggling with—property rights versus personal rights for dignity, subsistence and security, for example, or reconciling socialist collectivism and capitalist individualism, two very different structures of feeling.
Metamodern mindfulness offers a new way of thinking about the ideological conflicts of the past—a new frame through which to assess class conflict, egalitarianism, liberal freedoms and religious values—and the possibility of new syntheses within and between these things. For Cuba to perfect its revolution rather than abandon it or see it consumed from the outside, a re-definition of the kind of utopia it desires is necessary, along with a new mood of sincerity and commitment to build and sustain it.
Cuba once captured the left’s imagination. It can do so again for a new generation of leaders if it succeeds in lifting its people out of poverty while preserving the human gains of its revolution, but this time it will be different. Latin America, locked in its seemingly eternal cycles of left/right conflict, can certainly use new models that work in practice. And maybe Cuba’s giant neighbor to the north will learn something too.
22 March 2018. Is toxic masculinity a mask for anxiety? –
What is it that makes so many boys grow up to believe that sex is theirs for the taking?
The widespread discussion of sexual harassment and what is being defined as 'toxic masculinity' leads to questions about what it is in the ways in which we are raising young boys that would make so many of them (though definitely not all) grow up to believe that sex is theirs for the taking, and that consent is an undefined state that is theirs to manipulate and interpret as they see fit.
Just like too many women who were once girls who were taught to be compliant and polite and to be afraid of men and their power, so are way too many boys being taught that their pleasure is paramount and coercion is part of what they need to do to in order to get their needs satisfied.
So what are we doing wrong and how can we change our social and cultural expectations of boys so that they grow up to be men who are more inclined to protect and respect their sexual partners instead of exploiting and denigrating them?
What is 'toxic' masculinity?
Perusing many definitions—whether in the hip Urban Dictionary or summarized from various social science articles—‘toxic masculinity’ refers to the social expectations that men, and thus also boys, should be sexually aggressive, physically violent, unemotional and homophobic, and should also devalue women. It is the kind of behavior that is stereotypically referred to as 'locker room' or 'frat-boy behavior.' It is also the type of behavior that emphasizes competition based on physical power, risk-taking and sexual prowess and promiscuity.
The impact of toxic masculinity on mental health.
In a meta-study that looked at the findings of more than 70 studies of conformity to masculine norms, researchers found that these norms were "unfavorably, robustly and consistently" related to negative mental health outcomes and reduced the likelihood of men seeking out mental health services. The three most powerful masculine norms that predicted these negative outcomes were self-reliance, power over women and the pursuit of sexual promiscuity.
In an interview, Y. Joel Wong of Indiana University at Bloomington (one of the authors of the study) said that the links to sexism mean that these behaviors are particularly problematic, because society has changed and sexism is no longer acceptable behavior—though the multitude of reports of sexual harassment in the last few months make it quite clear that, even if unacceptable, such attacks are still suffered in silence by too many women.
But women are not the only ones suffering in silence, because the emphasis on self-reliance and the rigidity of the ways in which we perceive masculinity mean that many men feel that they have no other choice but to fulfill these social expectations. Wong argues that men feel trapped by these norms even if they do not align with their personal values; they perpetuate such norms because they fear not being perceived as 'masculine.' So what does this mean for boys?
Toxic masculinity and boys.
There are many efforts to undo this toxicity including courses and initiatives in masculinity on university campuses such as Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Wisconsin, Duke University and others. These efforts reflect a broader societal effort to change the way we define and express masculinity.
But why wait until boys get to college to change the way they see themselves? Masculinities scholar Ronald Levant, author of The Psychology of Men and Masculinities, shows how the socialization of boys into behaviors such as dominance, emotional restriction, toughness and self-reliance begins as young as infancy, and is transmitted through parents, the media and the world at large.
Therefore, it would seem that these behaviors and beliefs would have the same negative impacts for young people in high school and earlier, yet a search of the PsycInfo database (the leading database of psychology articles) does not find any articles linking 'toxic masculinity' with 'boys' or 'adolescents', though there are lots of studies exploring the impact of gender stereotypes on adolescent males.
As stated by University of Illinois Chicago sociologist Barbara Risman, "boys make fun of other boys if they step just a little outside the rigid masculine stereotype." Families may even become socially ostracized and threatened with violence because their son gravitates towards more feminine toys such as Barbies and Disney princesses.
According to psychologist Tali Shenfield, author of popular anxiety tests for children, negative emotionality is one of the most common triggers for anxiety. Fear of rejection can cause anxiety and anger in boys, with the 'lone wolf' stereotype being implicated in instances of violence that include Columbine and other shootings.
The bullying that many boys experience if they deviate from dominant social norms is a source of anxiety, as shown by recent studies by researchers at Duke University and at University College London. Dealing with this anxiety may help male adolescents find less problematic ways to express their frustration, and help to build emotional resilience.
Having strategies to deal with this anxiety and being able to foster broader definitions of masculinity will help boys to grow up to be less attached to stereotyped ways of being, especially those which are no longer valued in a society where gender equity, cooperation, and emotional expression are more socially acceptable.
Broadening the definition of masculinity.
Many articles are being written about the shifting definitions of masculinity and the difficulties that some men are having in adapting to these new norms. In an article in the Monitor on Psychology published by the American Psychological Association entitled "The Men America Left Behind," Kristin Weir explores the disconnection that many men, particularly white men, now feel because of this shift in social expectations regarding male roles.
Allowing boys the freedom to be who they are without defining such behaviors as masculine or feminine will decrease the cognitive dissonance and emotional stress that so many men feel as they try to navigate changing social norms. Encouraging expressions of emotionality such as tears — whether of joy or sadness — will reduce the stress of stifling emotions that often are expressed in less healthy ways such as violence. Encouraging boys to talk about their feelings will help them build social support networks that go beyond typical ways of 'male bonding.'
Teaching boys healthy ways to express their sexuality through mutual respect and communication will help them to understand how to have sexual relations that produce enjoyment and satisfaction for both parties. Sex as shared instead of sex that is taken is something that too many adult men find difficult to understand in terms of acceptable forms of sexual engagement.
It requires all of us to shift our expectations of men and boys so that these new norms are rewarded. Women will no longer 'protect' men by suffering in silence, and men need to hold each other responsible for being masculine without the toxicity that creates so many problems for us all.
21 March 2018. An atlas of real utopias? –
TNI today presents its Atlas of Utopias, part of the Transformative Cities initiative, sharing 32 stories of radical transformation that demonstrate that another world is possible, and already exists.
Utopia lies at the horizon. When I
draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps
forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never
reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.
- Eduardo Galeano
In an age of Trump and trolls, it may be strange to talk about utopia. Not only has a divisive reactionary right-wing privileged minority surged to the fore, but social inequality, militarism and the climate crisis have worsened too. There does seem, however, to be one arena for hope for progressive solutions and that is in the city. Worldwide, mayors are increasingly a progressive and fearless voice advancing bold agendas on climate change, welcoming refugees and trialling new forms of democratic participation.
The question remains: can these cities offer solutions that address multiple systemic crises instead of pursuing, as Greg Sharzer suggests, a “way to avoid, rather than confront capitalism” by focusing on “piecemeal reforms around the edges”? Can a group of cities really offer any fundamental solutions to a crisis created by the immense power of corporate capital?
To try and answer this question, the Transnational Institute in 2017 launched Transformative Cities, asking communities to share their stories of radical transformation, in particular in the areas of water, energy and housing. Our research, particularly in the areas of water and energy had revealed a significant global counter-trend to privatisation, showing that 1,600 municipalities in 45 countries had brought their public services under public control since 2000.
We wanted to explore this more deeply to see whether and how cities could be part of building systemic solutions. American sociologist Erik Olin Wright, in his assessment of strategies for confronting capitalism, says that we need to escape from delusions that we can either overthrow capitalism or tame capitalism – arguing that the answer is to erode capitalism. He argues for the building of “real utopias” which are constructs that have “the potential to contribute to eroding the dominance of capitalism when they expand the economic space within which anti-capitalist emancipatory ideals can operate”. As we argued in a previous piece, cities offer many advantages for pushing forward these kinds of radical emancipatory ideals, that in the language of this initiative we call ‘transformative’.
At the same time, it is clear that what ‘transformative’ looks like will vary radically according to the context, the culture, and the process. Cities may make transformative changes in one area and still be regressive in others. As the Zapatistas have cogently argued and shown in practice, the revolution depends on stepping out and asking questions as we move forwards (Caminando preguntamos). We have a clear analysis that the key crises we face are due to a capitalist system of production that has concentrated economic and political power in the hands of transnational corporations and a small elite while bringing our ecological systems to a dangerous point of collapse. However, we have an open mind regarding what the truly transformative city and politics looks like.
As a result of the call, TNI is today presenting its Atlas of Utopias, telling the stories of 32 communities from 19 countries, ranging from small peri-urban indigenous communities in Bolivia to major urban metropolises such as Paris. Their contexts are starkly different, and their initiatives vary widely in terms of time, scale and impacts. Thirty-two cases are also just a tiny snapshot of the range of exciting transformative initiatives taking place around the world.
Nevertheless, the stories showcased in this Atlas of Utopias are deeply inspiring. Despite the diversity, there are also common threads to radical transformative practice. We would like to share four of them here:
- Organising locally can take on corporate power and national governments. It would seem that the balance of power between local governments and the national government and multinational corporations would make victories difficult but, in many cases, determined campaigners have defeated both. They have done this by taking advantage of people’s loyalty to their city, their greater control over local policy and by naming and shaming corporations and their failures to run city services effectively. In Berlin, for example, residents took on the federal government as well as the multinationals RWE and Veolia that did everything they could politically and legally to block remunicipalisation of the city’s water. Eventually political pressure – including a referendum in which 98% demanded that the government publish secretive contracts – led to water remunicipalisation in 2014.
Organising around access to basic rights such as water, energy, housing can engage many people and be part of a bigger transformation including tackling climate change. The advantage of organising around tangible issues such as energy or housing is that these are essential to everyone’s daily life, which is why these struggles have been so emblematic to the rise of municipalist movements everywhere. They also can be an opening to building a bigger progressive radical agenda. In Richmond, California, initial protests against air pollution by the Chevron refinery has led to a surge of support for the Richmond Progressive Alliance, their election to the council and a sea of change in local policy. This oil company town has subsequently raised its local minimum wage, brought in rent control measures that protect 40% of Richmond tenants, and rolled out successful community policing led by a visionary gay police chief. In Nicaragua, an association of rural development workers not only organised to build a community hydro to provide electricity to a rural population for the first time, it used the income from its surplus electricity to create an additional US $300,000 of revenue for investment in further development projects for the region.
Worker engagement is usually critical to transformation. As Hilary Wainwright has argued, workers are not just important for their bargaining power against capital, they are also uniquely positioned because of their knowledge and experience in running services and their pivotal role within community relations. Remunicipalisation and transformative practices work best when they can draw on this knowledge and creativity. In Jamundi, Colombia, the local trade union has not only stopped the privatisation of water, but has also become a fierce defender of the human right to water, developing four community water systems. In Mumbai, India, former mill workers have succeeded in staying mobilised even after the mills closed and have won the construction of 26,000 homes for workers. They have successfully challenged and defeated real estate developers who sought to build malls and luxury housing.
Changes in one city can inspire many others. Many cities report that their actions have led to interest by many others and therefore sparked changes way beyond the community. Grenoble’s bold water remunicipalisation in 2001 – that included high levels of citizen accountability, social tariffs and ecological measures – inspired Paris to do the same. In Mexico, a special school has been set up to encourage lawyers, engineers, accountants, geographers and teachers in 16 states to defend public water for all, helping ensure that good practice becomes viral. The victory of the citizen-movement platform Barcelona en Comú has similarly sparked a new wave of municipalist movements worldwide. This perhaps answers one of Olin Wright’s challenges for establishing real utopias – the need for these networks to expand so that they can be in a position to challenge ‘the dominance of capitalism’.
In the next month, we plan to explore nine cases in more depth, sharing their process of change. Then in mid-April, the public will be invited to vote on their favourites. In addition, we have been working with a number of evaluators to draw out the learning which will be turned into publications in a variety of media formats to inspire and assist other communities involved in the same struggles.
There is a lot to learn about both the individual cases, their durability in terms of transformation, and whether they contain the elements for eventually “challenging the dominance of capitalism”. The latter still seems very far off, and it remains an open question and debate over whether an ever-expanding municipalist movement will ever reach the position of challenging the hegemony of transnational corporations and client neoliberal states.
What is clear already is that the first step for transformation begins when a group of people in a community decide to say no to the corporate takeover of public resources, and when they start to imagine an alternative.
Throughout the atlas, we witness individuals and organisations who have dared to dream and who have trusted that people can make decisions more justly than corporations driven by profit. In the process, they are building the social relationships that can take on corporate capital and most of all creating the imaginary that another world is not only possible but is on the way.
20 March 2018. Culture shift: redirecting humanity’s path to a flourishing future –
It’s time to build a new worldview around a deeper sense of connectedness.
What do all these ideas have in common—a tax on carbon, big investments in renewable energy, a livable minimum wage, and freely accessible healthcare? The answer is that we need all of them, but even taken together they’re utterly insufficient to redirect humanity away from impending catastrophe and toward a truly flourishing future.
That’s because the problems these ideas are designed to solve, critical as they are, are symptoms of an even more profound problem: the implicit values of a global economic and political system that is driving civilization toward a precipice.
Even with the best of intentions, those actively working to reform the current system are a bit like software engineers valiantly trying to fix multiple bugs in a faulty software program: each fix complicates the code, leading inevitably to a new set of bugs that require even more heroic workarounds. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t just the software: an entirely new operating system is required to get where we need to go.
This realization dawned on me gradually over the years I spent researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. My research began as a personal search for meaning. I’d been through a personal crisis when the certainties on which I’d built my early life came crashing down around me. I wanted my life going forward to be truly meaningful—but based on what foundation? I was determined to sort through the received narratives of meaning until I came across a foundation I could really believe in.
My drive to answer these questions led me to explore the patterns of meaning that different cultures throughout history have constructed. Just like peeling an onion, I realized that one layer of meaning frequently covered deeper layers that structure the daily thoughts and values that most people take for granted. It was a journey of nearly ten years, during which I dedicated myself to deep research in disciplines such as neuroscience, history and anthropology.
Finally, I discovered that what makes humans unique is that we—to a greater extent than any other species—have what I call a ‘patterning instinct:’ we are driven to pattern meaning into our world. That drive is what led humans to develop language, myth, and culture. It enabled us to invent tools and develop science, giving us tremendous benefits but also putting us on a collision course with the natural world.
Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.
Early hunter-gatherers, for example, understood nature as a ‘giving parent,’ seeing themselves as part of a large extended family, intrinsically connected with the spirits of the natural world around them. When agriculture first emerged about twelve thousand years ago, new values such as property, hierarchy and wealth appeared, leading early civilizations to view the universe as dominated by a hierarchy of gods who required propitiation through worship, ritual and sacrifice.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a radically new, dualistic way of thinking about the universe emerged, conceiving a split cosmos divided between a heavenly domain of eternal abstraction and a worldly domain polluted with imperfection. This cosmological split was paralleled by the conception of a split human being composed of an eternal soul temporarily imprisoned in a physical body that is destined to die. Christianity, the world’s first systematic dualistic cosmology, built on the Greek model by placing the source of meaning in an external God in the heavens, while the natural world became merely a desacralized theater for the human drama to be enacted.
The Christian cosmos set the stage for the modern worldview that emerged in seventeenth century Europe with the Scientific Revolution. The belief in the divinity of reason, inherited from the ancient Greeks, served as an inspiration for the scientific discoveries of pioneers such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who all believed that they were glimpsing ‘the mind of God.’
But the worldview that inspired these breakthroughs had a darker side. The Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age. The entailments of a dualistic cosmos inherited from the Greeks have defined our received beliefs, many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.
We are told that humans are fundamentally selfish—indeed even our genes are selfish—and that an efficiently functioning society is one where everyone rationally pursues their own self-interest. We accept technocratic fixes to problems that require more integrated, systemic solutions on the premise that nature is just a very complicated machine—one that is entirely separate from humanity.
Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product is seen as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. And the world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.
These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of disconnection. Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.
However, the same human patterning instinct that has brought us to this precipice is also capable of turning us around and onto a path of sustainable flourishing. We have the capacity to build an alternative worldview around a sense of connectedness within the web of life—a sense shared by indigenous cultures around the world from the earliest times.
I’ve seen this idea disparaged as a New Agey, kumbaya-style mentality even by otherwise progressive thinkers. However, modern scientific findings validate the underlying connectedness of all living beings. Insights from complexity theory and systems biology show that the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. Life itself is now understood as a self-organizing, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth.
Human beings, too, are best understood not by their selfish drives for power but by cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, human beings evolved to become the most cooperative of primates, working collaboratively on complex tasks and creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization. In the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, it was our intrinsic sense of fairness that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of the modern world such as freedom, equality and representative government.
Just as the values of previous generations shaped history, so the values we collectively choose to live by today will shape our future. The cognitive patterns instilled in us by the dominant culture are the results of a particular worldview that arose at a specific time and place in human history. This worldview has now passed its expiration date. It is causing enormous unnecessary suffering throughout the globe and driving our civilization toward collapse.
Rather than trying to transcend what we are, our most important task is to peel away this received worldview, reach within ourselves to feel our deepest motivations as living beings embedded in the web of life, and act on them.
18 March 2018. Foreign aid is a waste of money—unless it’s used for transformation –
Simplistic stories of saving children trap aid agencies inside a self-defeating logic
The ongoing outcry about sexual misconduct in charities and international organisations is breathing much needed fresh air into the global aid community. However, there’s little indication that this particular scandal will have a meaningful impact on how foreign aid supports development and social change.
After all, there have been plenty of aid scandals in the past, but instead of helping donor publics to develop a better grasp of the challenges involved they’ve reinforced a survival logic that focuses on quick wins instead of longer-term institutional, economic and social transformation.
Take the case of Ireland in 2012, for example, when Irish Aid suspended its entire assistance programme in Uganda after it was revealed that four million Euros that were destined to help rebuild the country’s war-torn northern region had been siphoned off to a personal account by the Office of the Prime Minister.
The Tánaiste—Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of Irish Aid—was reportedly ‘absolutely disgusted’ by the revelation, which was followed by a sudden burst of op-eds and public debates not unlike those surrounding the current #Aidtoo moment. Then, in January of 2013, the Ugandan government repaid the misappropriated funds, and by 2014 Irish aid was once again flowing into the country. As public attention moved on, aid professionals got on with business more or less as usual.
The disconnect between the public outcry in Dublin and the pragmatism on display in Kampala might seem jarring. But when one takes a critical look at public conversations about foreign aid it quickly becomes evident that they hardly ever concern development at all: most of the time they revolve around money, and sometimes around partisan competition that itself breeds disinformation.
In the United States in 2013, for example, the Pew Research Center asked which federal government programmes the public would increase, decrease, or maintain at the same level. Of the nineteen categories surveyed, foreign aid had the biggest partisan gap, with 45 per cent more Republicans than Democrats supporting a decrease; the gap was wider than for high-profile, controversial issues such as unemployment benefits and public healthcare.
This hyper-partisanship probably explains the widespread misperception among American voters about the size of the US aid budget, which they estimated as 26 per cent of the total federal budget in a 2015 survey. The actual figure is ten times smaller.
Such misperceptions are possible because most people know remarkably little about what foreign aid actually does. Processes of development in Africa or Asia are as contentious as in Europe or the USA. Change takes time and needs activist reformers, people willing to challenge the status quo in order to build something different.
Take Valentine Collier, for example, an old-school civil servant in Sierra Leone who shook up the country’s post-war politics when he became anticorruption commissioner in 2000 and, against all the odds, decided to take the job seriously—to the point of investigating sitting ministers and embracing an open confrontation between his office and that of the president who appointed him. Collier was ultimately let go, but not before raising the political profile of corruption as an issue and thereby ensuring that the next government strengthened the anti-corruption regime.
Across the border in Liberia, a young man called John Morlu turned the General Auditing Commission into a political threat to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, between 2007 and 2010. This was at a time when, as one foreign diplomat said to me, the country could have “a capable government, or a clean one, but not both.”
In cases like these, reformers were able to wage dangerous political battles in part because they had support from external partners and resources from foreign aid. Morlu was recruited and his office supported by the European Union, granting him financial autonomy and a modicum of political cover that were rare in a politicized public sector, but essential for the job of Auditor General. Collier was supported by a British deputy, and his Anti-Corruption Commission supported financially by the United Kingdom. It was the UK, in fact, that mediated between Collier and the Sierra Leonean president when their confrontation escalated, keeping him active until the political pressure became unbearable.
Taxpayers in donor countries are unlikely to read such stories in the media, or even in reports produced by NGOs and other donor agencies themselves. Instead, they are treated to simplistic stories of how their Pounds and Dollars are saving children, or shallow polemics supporting one end of the political spectrum or the other, though they are particularly common in certain corners of the conservative movement.
For example, in 2016 Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development at the time (Priti Patel) declared that ‘British aid is being wasted and stolen’ in the pages of the Daily Mail. Despite the lack of evidence to substantiate such claims, strident rhetoric and simplistic success stories encourage aid agencies to choose quick, technical fixes over support for long-term transformation.
Controversial programmes usually close all too quickly, their lessons ignored or silenced in favour of expenditure reports and spreadsheets full of arcane indicators and metrics. Aid is trapped in a process of chasing quick wins which reinforce the message that development is easy, ignoring “a central principle of development theory that those development programmes that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programmes that are the most transformational are the least measured,” in the words of former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios.
The examples of Collier in Sierra Leone and Morlu in Liberia could easily feed conventional anti-aid critiques: after all, neither project worked as intended and money was wasted, end of story. But this is a myopic reading of the evidence. What aid achieved in both countries may not have looked like much of an achievement according to reductive, quantitative indicators, but it helped to launch and sustain episodes of institutional reform, social mobilisation and political accountability that prompted a re-examination of political norms and development objectives.
In the process aid helped to empower local actors by providing funds and skills that encouraged them to continue fighting (even after the donors left) as part of a broader process that de-legitimised corrupt incumbents and, in some instances, helped to topple presidents who preyed on their own countries. External support gave reformers more hope and more capacity to turn it into concrete action.
The problem with current aid debates is that they ignore or demean the work of Collier, Morlu and thousands of other people who risk their careers, reputations, and in some cases even their livelihoods to achieve the kinds of transformations that could make their states more effective, their politics more democratic, and their economies more vibrant. They challenge power and get beaten down for it. It is not their fault that their struggles don’t fit the technocratic, short-term, results-oriented frameworks of the aid industry or the superficial rhetoric of partisan politics.
Reformers will continue to do the messier jobs of development long after donors lose patience or shift their attention to the next crisis of the day. It is bad enough that aid usually offers them such lukewarm support in their battles; but even worse when their work is sacrificed at the altar of quantifiable evidence or supplanted by white saviour stories sold by NGOs to the public.
Foreign aid is not a good investment: the risks are generally high and the dividends far too uncertain. No wonder many people in donor countries think it’s a waste of money. At the same time, aid is exactly the right kind of investment to make when it is patient, hands-off and sensitively applied. It can play a crucial role in development by supporting reformers who choose to pursue the greater good against sometimes insurmountable odds.
This is a role that’s consistent with the experience of social, economic and political transformation in donor countries, and which is compatible with basic human values beyond partisan divides. However, it is also a role that requires a fundamental revision of how we think, speak, and debate about aid at home and internationally, moving beyond the idea of a transaction—‘one pound in exchange for one educated child’—in order to acknowledge the messy and conflicted realities of social transformation.
18 March 2018. With Marielle's killing in Rio, a dream breaks into pieces –
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for DemocraciaAbierta, following this year’s political carnival in Rio where I reflected on resistance against –and repression from—the Brazilian government, and on how challenging the times that lay ahead were.
Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, I am here writing again in the wake of this tragedy that occurred last night in Rio.
Marielle Franco, a member of the leftist party PSOL, who had the fifth most votes as a candidate for city councilor in Rio de Janeiro (2016), was shot dead on her way back from an event about black women’s empowerment.
Marielle (aged 38) was black and lesbian. She came from a very deprived background; she was raised (and currently lived) in Favela da Maré (Maré Favela), one of the poorest slums in Rio de Janeiro.
She was in her car when nine shots were fired at her from another vehicle. Marielle and Anderson Gomes (her driver) were killed at the scene and the Councilor’s PR assistant was injured.
Initially, the terrible fact was broadcasted by the Brazilian mainstream media withoutan appropriate focus on its highly political implications, but it was the international press who immediately stressed the political dimension of such a tragic and highly symbolic crime.
Marielle (aged 38) was black and lesbian. She came from a very deprived background; she was raised (and currently lived) in Favela da Maré (Maré Favela), one of the poorest slums in Rio de Janeiro. Her outstanding career was marked by her fight for human rights and fairer realities for minorities in her city.
The Councilor had to battle her own reality in order to become a Sociologist, as well as an MA in public administration. With a defiant platform focused on minorities and inclusion, she beat the odds when elected for the Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Chamber in 2017.
Marielle’s fiercest fight was against the brutal police violence enforced towards Rio’s embattled favela populations. Only a day prior to her assassination, referring to the killing of a favela resident, she tweeted: Another young man’ homicide that can be credited to the PM (police) account. Matheus Melo was leaving the church. How many more deaths will it be needed in order to end this war?
The increasing support for her causes stirred up fear among conservative layers of Rio’s administration, as her platform posed a threat to the status quo.
The fact that her life had such a violent end, by an allegedly targeted and racist assassination, does not provide hope for those fighting for change. Brazil’s cities have become so filled with criminal violence, and there has been so many charades with the justice system, that this is inevitably leading to a total breakdown of trust between the people and their institutions.
The President’s order to put the military in charge of Rio was justified by the need for 'securitization', the need for improving safety and increasing protection of the citizens.
Rio’s military intervention one month ago was very concerning, and now, when something of this magnitude happens, it becomes highly alarming. The President’s order to put the military in charge of Rio was justified by the need for 'securitization', the need for improving safety and increasing protection of the citizens. Wait. Improvement of safety?! For whom?
Aurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva, a member of the PSOL party and the most voted city councilor in the city of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, who also identifies herself as an activist black woman, spoke to me in the light of recent events and for the occasion of this article, stressing the heartfelt note released by her office, and expressing her profound pain and deep concern for what is in store for politicians and activists that fight for minorities, such as herself in her heartfelt note released by her office.
We shared a common dream of a better country. Today, while the body of another black woman falls to the ground, this very dream breaks into pieces.
She described Marielle as: Comrade and tireless defender of Human Rights, a black lesbian woman from the favelas, an inspiration and a sister. You will be, forever present! Aurea Carolina stated the feeling of hopelessness that her death brings about: we shared a common dream of a better country. Today, while the body of another black woman falls to the ground, this very dream breaks into pieces.
Throughout Brazil, marches have been organized by political movements and civil society organizations and the word has been spread through social media, with the hope to gather the highest amount of people possible to protest against the increasing violence and militarization in the country.
This tragic event immediately reminds us of darker periods in the history of Brazil, when activists and advocates for change and human rights were abducted, tortured and killed during a highly oppressive military dictatorship (1967-1985).
Ahead of a worrying presidential election due later this year, and amidst political processes and corruption trials targeting a good tranche of the political class, President Temer’s latest appointments of military personnel to security posts, including the first non-civilian to be the head of the Ministry of Defense since the late 90’s, have prompted the fear of a possible come back of military rule.
President Temer’s latest appointments of military personnel to security post have prompted the fear of a possible come back of military rule.
The lyrics of O Tempo Não Para, a famous song by Cazuza, a renowned Brazilian rock star from the 80s, comes to my head: ‘I see the future repeating the past…’. So, if this is where we are and where we are heading to, it can become true disaster indeed.
Today, a red line has been crossed in our country. It is a very sad day for minorities’ and human rights defenders, and also for all of us who, only a week ago, were chanting and marching the streets of our cities across the globe and hoping for a future without violence, without abuse.
How one city is repairing the damage caused by marijuana prohibition for the people who’ve been most affected.
Decades of marijuana prohibition in California are coming to an end thanks to ballot initiative Proposition 64, or the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Approved by a majority of voters in November 2016, Prop 64 reduces criminal penalties for various marijuana-related offenses for adults and juveniles and allows marijuana entrepreneurs to participate in the recreational sale of cannabis to adults.
Yet Californians didn’t just legalize marijuana. In Los Angeles, the City Council went one step further, enacting some of the most progressive criminal justice reforms in the country to rectify the disproportionate effect the war on drugs has had on minority communities.
“We are L.A. We are leaders. We take on the tough issues,” City CouncilPresident Herb Wesson said Dec. 6 right before the bill passed, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Proposition 64 legalizes a marijuana industry that experts estimate will add $4 billion to $7 billion to the state economy that, if California were its own country, would be sixth largest in the world. And within that huge economy, L.A. has become the world’s largest market to approve the sale of recreational cannabis.
California was on the front lines of the war on drugs for decades. The state experienced nearly 500,000 marijuana arrests between 2006 and 2015, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
The new ordinances in L.A. create a “social equity” tier of applicants who will receive priority for licenses to own and operate marijuana businesses. These are people who have past convictions for marijuana-related crimes, or who live in an L.A. neighborhood that was a verifiable target of enforcement during the drug war. It’s an attempt at restorative justice for the minority communities most negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition.
The law takes effect even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverses U.S. Justice Department guidance to leave enforcement of marijuana laws to the states. It’s unclear yet what effect new federal policies would have.
L.A. resident Donnie Anderson plans to remain vigilant during the city’s implementation of the rules. As chairman of California Minority State Alliance, Anderson advocated for the social equity program that they hope will play a major role in deciding which marijuana businesses will be allowed to open.
“The difference is justice is at the forefront,” Anderson says.
Anderson and Virgil Grant own MedEX, a medical cannabis dispensary in South L.A. Since 1996, when medical marijuana was legalized in California, 135 shops have been licensed to sell cannabis to patients.
According to the proposed rules, medical dispensaries will be first in line to receive a license to expand into recreational sales. However, Anderson and Grant and other groups like California NORML and the NAACP fought to ensure people with previous convictions wouldn’t be disqualified.
“[They] fought for cannabis to make sure we can build generational wealth from this plant,” says Walter Lance Edwards, who has a past drug-related conviction and plans to open a cannabis delivery service.
Anderson is helping Edwards obtain a fair shot at reaping the rewards of an industry that experts predict will bring in over $50 million in local tax revenue in 2018.
“We’ve been the ones going to prison for it,” Edwards said. “Now it’s time for us to own it and operate it in a business.”
As the nation’s attitudes toward marijuana shift—eight states have legalized recreational pot so far—Anderson believes the social equity program offers minorities in L.A. a chance at justice, equity, and fair development.
“It’s about those who’ve been harmed by the failed war on drugs,” Anderson says. “Our goal is about the socio-economics, and that’s what social equity really means.”
Because federal law still prohibits marijuana, federally insured banks won’t lend to marijuana businesses or handle cash from the proceeds of marijuana sales. This would place Edwards and other would-be entrepreneurs on unequal footing when competing with well-funded cannabis operations that have pockets deep enough not to need the assistance of commercial banks.
L.A.’s plan is to waive or defer fees and provide startup loans at low interest rates to create equal opportunities for social equity applicants. It’s a move Edwards calls “a good start.”
Another component of the new regulations would ensure that people with low incomes, residents of neighborhoods heavily affected by marijuana arrests, or those who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes make up at least half of the workforce in the city’s new cannabis businesses. Both Edwards and Anderson grew up in South L.A. neighborhoods that were hotspots for drug arrests.
“I’m still rising out of the ashes from this, and the effects are still here,” Edwards says.
In ’82 and ’83 you saw Black “fathers in the household, mothers working,” Anderson says. The war on drugs, he says, “took the man, took the woman, and put the children in foster care. It created a warfare that I’ve never seen in my lifetime and I never want to see it again.”
Edwards says that over the years, as good industrial jobs abandoned the neighborhood, few options were left other than selling marijuana. “What do you got to do to feed your family?” he says. “It’s by all means necessary.”
Decades of independent studies confirm Edwards’ firsthand experience—while people of every race are equally likely to buy, use, and sell drugs, Black people are more than three times as likely to be charged, convicted, and harshly sentenced.
Instead of crackdowns, under the new equity program, the L.A. city council set up a neighborhood health fund that will direct a portion of city revenue from taxing marijuana businesses to pay for community beautification, addiction treatment, youth extracurricular education, and mental health services in areas affected by the war on drugs.
Taxes from legal cannabis will also go to community-based legal service providers that have already helped at least 4,500 people petition to have their convictions for low-level nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession and petty theft, changed from felonies to misdemeanors.
That reclassification of most drug- and theft-related crimes is a result of Proposition 47, which went into effect in 2014. As a result, the number of drug arrests in Los Angeles County has dropped by a third and, according to the Washington Post, it’s led to hundreds of thousands of people applying to get their previous drug convictions revised or erased.
Eunisses Hernandez, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, organizes expungement clinics where translators and attorneys working pro bono help 50–100 people file the paperwork to remove those convictions.
“They’re coming, many of them with months or years of struggling to get a job or housing, and just that weight is really heavy, and you can sense that weight in the room,” Hernandez says.
What’s happening in L.A. and across California echoes a movement to atone for harsh penalties during the war on drugs. At least nine states, including Maryland, Oregon, and Vermont, have passed laws expunging or reducing marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, even while the sale, transportation, or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Getting those stains removed from their records is something most people expected never to happen after their experiences during the years of marijuana prohibition.
“People leave [the expungement clinics] crying because they never thought they could get these offenses taken care of—especially for free,” Hernandez says.
“The point of this is to repair the damages caused by marijuana prohibition … for the people who’ve been most severely impacted,” she says. “We wanted to be that resource to repair those harms.”
13 March 2018. The Great Society versus the Poor People’s Campaign –
What can we learn from contrasting efforts to combat poverty and injustice in 1960s America?
A dramatic scene is unfolding this month in Washington, D.C. Angry activists march and chant outside the White House demanding an end to the violence that’s killing America’s youth. Politicians squabble and point fingers, assigning blame and deepening divisions. A chasm has opened within the Democratic Party, exposing the disconnect between wealthy, white party elites and the hardships faced by poor people in small-town America.
This story is not, however, about high schoolers pressuring for gun reform or Congressional deadlock on passing the national budget. It’s the story of The Great Society, a theatrical performance which premiered at The Arena Stage in Washington in February 2018. The play tells of President Lyndon Johnson’s vision of poverty reduction through massive government programs aimed at improving access to basic needs like education and health care, and the interplay between Johnson’s efforts and the struggles of civil rights leaders for racial and economic equality.
Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play explores how, as the Vietnam War escalated, Johnson felt forced to divert funding from anti-poverty programs to the war effort, as protesters demonstrated outside the White House in outrage at the killing of young Americans for a seemingly-endless conflict.
While Johnson’s vision of “The Great Society” was initially supported by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, it was later denounced as top-down and out of touch with the realities that faced the American poor. This eventually led King to declare a different approach to addressing economic inequality by announcing a “Poor People’s Campaign” led by the poor themselves. He was assassinated shortly thereafter, and the Campaign is often regarded as a major unfinished part of King’s work.
The play could not have opened at a more opportune moment. Indeed, much of the drama on the Arena Stage can be seen unfolding in US politics today. The show depicts the growing sense of anger and urgency that was felt among youth activists and organizers as the corruption and in-fighting surrounding the Great Society prevented funds from reaching people in need.
This is mirrored today in the explosion of grassroots organizing around injustice and inequality that’s taking place across the country, including the youth-led mobilization around gun violence that captured national attention during February 2018. It also coincides with the re-launch of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, led by Reverends William J. Barber and Liz Theoharis, which re-traces King’s steps through communities across the country and is gearing up for 40 days of mass civil disobedience in May.
Examining the reasons behind the failure of Johnson’s Great Society and how King’s Poor People’s Campaign embodied a different vision provides important historical context that is often omitted from the narrative surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. It also puts the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign into perspective, illuminating the ways in which today’s grassroots organizing both follows in the footsteps of the past and tries to overcome some of the challenges that social movements have faced.
Understanding the split between Johnson and King’s approaches to inequality.
When President Johnson originally proposed the idea of the Great Society, King welcomed it—he was excited about the idea of uplifting the poor, and saw poverty as a crucial issue underlying racial inequality in the United States. In pursuit of this vision, Johnson sought to wage a “War on Poverty” by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yet in February of that year Johnson initiated airstrikes on Vietnam, enlarging America’s military presence in the country and diverting billions of dollars away from anti-poverty programs. Even before this diversion, King saw that the Great Society espoused an inherent contradiction—reliant as it was on powerful, predominantly white lawmakers devising solutions. Eradicating economic inequality would threaten the power of wealthy elites, but those elites were the same people charged with devising the programs. King became more critical of the broader economic system itself, and how capitalism creates and upholds the structures of inequality.
One example of the Great Society’s flawed programs is embodied in its approach to education through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose resources were largely diverted to wealthy, white suburbs and not the inner cities that were in greatest need. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party at the time, received substantial funding from the Johnson administration for poverty reduction but focused the money on white government workers in the city who were Daley’s political supporters, with no real benefits reaching the urban poor. Chicago Superintendent Benjamin Willis was accused of earmarking some of the $32 million for non-poor white children rather than the children of the poor.
Senator Robert Kennedy was critical of the local implementation of poverty reduction through the Great Society program, and he was not alone. Riots and demonstrations erupted around the country as people demanded economic opportunities for survival. In the summer of 1965, a riot broke out in Watts, California. King spoke at the rally before it turned hostile. A man in the audience shouted at him, “All we want is jobs! We get jobs, we don’t bother nobody. We don’t get no jobs, we’ll tear up Los Angeles, period.”
Similar feelings spread across urban America. While Johnson denounced the riots and supported the imposition of ‘law and order’ by police, King was confronted with the reality of economic hardship that was pushing people to the brink. He began to criticize Johnson’s approach to poverty reduction and the war in Vietnam, and started to develop an understanding which united the “Triple Evils” of poverty, racism and militarism—a trio he articulated in his speech at the Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4 1967.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” King said in his speech, “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
Inspiring the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign.
Much of King’s vision for a movement that was led by the poor, for the poor is embodied in the contemporary revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. The problems that emerged in the split between Johnson and King—including political corruption, the draining of domestic resources for social services by militarism, and divisions within the Democratic Party’s leadership—are just as relevant today.
The current Campaign focuses on four central issues: racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation, three of which King focused on during the original movement. But it’s not only ideological similarities that tie the two Campaigns together. Reverend Barber is retracing the same route that King took through impoverished communities, holding “barnstorming” events along the way to hear people’s personal stories and spread the word about joining the movement.
In a single day in March 1968, King barnstormed the state of Mississippi, traveling from small impoverished towns to Hattiesburg. Rev. Barber’s barnstorming drew even larger numbers than King did. King spoke to a crowd of 600 people in Chapel Hill, but only two signed up for the journey to Washington. In October 2017, hundreds of people volunteered to risk arrest after Barber’s barnstorm event in Binghamton, New York.
On February 12, 2018, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign marched with fast food workers in the $15Now movement in Memphis, Tennessee. Marchers walked the same route taken by workers in the 1968 sanitation worker strike, when 1,300 people walked off their jobs demanding the right to join a union, higher safety standards and a living wage. For the 50th anniversary of the strike, a crowd of low-income, non-unionized workers led clergy, union workers and allies, while sanitation workers who had been part of the 1968 strike spoke to the crowd alongside fast food workers demanding changes in the racism and poverty that plague Memphis to this day.
In several ways, the Poor People’s Campaign of today is poised to overcome some of the challenges that stifled the movement fifty years ago. One key difference is the dispersal of power to state and local chapters. When King organized the campaign in 1968, staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were tasked with organizing most of the logistical details, including the planning of caravans to travel simultaneously across the country to Washington. Today’s movement incorporates more decentralized local branches of organizers, and embodies a more horizontal leadership structure behind the scenes.
Of course, the contemporary campaign has the advantage of being a product of a longer history, one in which King’s personal transformation in how best to combat poverty eventually led to the grassroots mobilization which is mirrored around the United States today. King’s journey to launch the original Poor People’s Campaign—illustrated through the arc of his relationship with President Johnson and the Great Society—tells an important story about the power of local organizing in comparison to a top-down policy approach to social change. It also shows how grassroots movements respond to shifting circumstances like escalating tensions, public outrage and political deadlock by shifting leaders away from an ineffective establishment.
During 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign holds the potential to pick up where King’s left off by addressing many of the same problems he faced in the 1960s—while elevating the voices of the poor across the country through mass mobilization for systemic change.
11 March 2018. Three more ways to build solidarity across our differences –
For most people divisive rhetoric isn’t new; they’ve been developing ways to counter it for years.
In 2017 we reported on the work we’ve been doing with the Skills Network in south London to nurture less siloed communities in the context of the post-Brexit debate. Reactions to that article encouraged us to go one step further in deepening our learning with other groups trying to build collective forms of support and social justice. For most people divisive rhetoric isn’t new; they’ve been developing ways to counter it for years. Here are three more lessons from our experience.
1. We have more in common than divides us, but our situations are never equal.
”You’ve got to remember when you bring all these people together in the beginning…they’ve got to have someone to shout at…Both sides have got to be equal. It’s got to be a level playing field otherwise it doesn’t work…(to do this) you need to create a ‘them and us’ situation...But the goal is to work towards the ‘us.’” (Steve Scott, long-term Groundswell activist)
When we started Skills Network we were keen to focus on our shared experiences and values. We wanted the space to feel safe and positive, to ‘enact’ our ideal world, so we played down differences between us. But as we developed as a cooperative, frustrations at these differences came out in unexpected, sometimes disruptive ways, forcing us to think about more explicit ways to confront them.
The reality is that there are inequalities between people—financial and in terms of status, confidence to voice opinions, general life opportunities and expectations. These differences are often internalised, glossed over by well-meaning attempts to ‘bridge divides’ and ‘build communities.’ It’s difficult to get the balance right between acknowledging them and letting them define the group, but some groups manage this balancing act better than others.
Groundswell, for example, facilitates peer-to-peer support and advocacy around homelessness, and for many years has been training local councils and other organisations in user involvement. The organisation started in the 1990s as a movement "very explicitly campaigning for the homeless and roofless–engaging with people who were having those experiences and following their agenda" as Simone Helleren from Groundswell puts it. Over time it grew into a network of smaller groups doing localised ‘self-help’ which started to advocate for more fundamental changes to policies and attitudes around housing.
Groundswell recognised the crucial importance of taking the knowledge and anger of people at the sharp end of inequality seriously. The group pioneered the ‘Speakout’ model which brought together self-help groups, people experiencing homelessness, and people working in the sector to learn from each other through workshops and debates. These events brought homeless people into direct dialogue with policymakers and gave them an opportunity to express their opinions.
Allowing space for those who had experienced homelessness to share their feelings with those responsible for making and implementing housing policy helped the group to move past these divisions and laid the groundwork for years of productive collaboration. Over time speakouts evolved into citizens’ juries which were at the centre of the group’s radical inquiry into UK housing policy: the Homeless People’s Commission. The key was to confront, not suppress, the injustices and inequalities that divide people, and to build connections and communities that eventually overcame them.
2. Create frameworks that recognise we all have things to give and take.
“The difference between traditional charity and timebanking? It’s the power thing, isn’t it? It’s more equal. You get to feel good about yourself by giving and remembering ‘oh yeah I am actually quite good at things.’ And you get help back as well -rather than one set of people are always the givers and then the other lot are the passive beneficiaries.” (Alison Paule, Paxton Green Timebank Coordinator).
We initially thought at Skills Network that a flat pay-rate and shared decision-making would ensure everyone’s contributions felt equally valued. But ‘conventional’ hierarchies kept creeping into our dynamics. Searching for learning from other organisations in South London, we discovered Rushey Green and Paxton Green Timebanks. The timebanking movement seeks to create ‘operating systems’ which consciously facilitate exchange and support in a way that makes clear that “nobody is better than anybody else.” They do this by focusing on ‘proactive’ time as the principal unit of currency.
For every hour participants ‘deposit’ in a timebank they can ‘withdraw’ the equivalent in support when they need something—“ironing or accounting…an hour is an hour.” In this context being ‘in need’ is not stigmatizing or shameful—it’s a normal part of everyone’s life.
Timebanks globally have different characteristics. In south London, they bring together individuals who live very near each other but otherwise are worlds apart. Paule notes that “it quite surprises people to start with, probably more so for the posher people – ‘oh these are different people that I don’t usually interact with! And they are quite nice actually." One older woman member described the effects of a friendship that had grown out of her involvement:
“My friend who subsequently has died, she actually lived down the bottom of my road and I would never have listened and talked to her. She was afro-Caribbean, from Jamaica…I would never had actually been able to [sighing] comprehend, understand certain aspects of other people lives if it wasn’t for her.”
But these new relationships and insights don’t happen overnight. They evolve very gradually as people engage in mutual support. “When you first get involved it may be quite passive” according to Robert, a member of both timebanks, “just coming along (to an event), drinking a cup of tea. But the aim is to give people the opportunity to grow, to get more involved.”
This framework acknowledges that some people have had knock-backs in their lives and may need support in taking the lead on something—perhaps from something “really small like (starting) a knitting group…helping them think through the steps…Where do you want to have the group? What day of the week? What time? We’ve got spare kettles, tea, biscuits.”
The careful, slow work that happens within timebanks may seem insignificant to the untrained eye, focusing as it does on tiny interactions and exchanges and incremental shifts in people’s understanding of themselves and each other. These shifts are difficult to capture and count, but they can have profound resonance because they break down the sense of difference that those involved often have about each-other.
“It felt very different, completely different from anything that had been going on before. You started to feel as if you have got some value to give. And lo and behold somebody is giving you something that you never expected.” (Marilyn, Paxton Green member)
3. Having an equal conversation is a deliberate, political act.
Even a single conversation in which people feel like they are interacting as equals can help to shift the status quo in hierarchies, but it’s a challenge, and one that often overwhelmed us at Skills Network. ‘Transformative organising’ approaches (which came out of community organising in the US) have taught us a lot about how to do it better. It starts by acknowledging the entrenched hierarchies that play out in all our interactions, but which are often more obvious to those with less power who are used to subtly deferring to, agreeing with or apologising to those who have more.
These approaches use specific techniques to slowly equalise these hierarchies, like ‘Intentional Peer Support,’ which was developed in the 1990s as a challenge to top-down mental health services but has since become a wider method in community organising. Core to this method is the disruption of the tendency to replicate unequal ‘helping’ dynamics by building awareness of the power roles we all fall into, and by finding ways to be more aware of our own tendencies and assumptions.
Their listening and questioning techniques help people engage with each other with real curiosity and openness, and form connections across divides, shifting from notions of ‘helping’ towards ones of ‘learning together.’ Key to transformative approaches is the conviction that they form a continual and relentless process, and one that will keep being slightly undone by the rest of the world—meaning the job is never ‘done.’
Many people are looking for new ways to heal divides and that’s heartening. But enacting these sentiments in a long-lasting way is complex and challenging, especially when some people face very real resource shortages and others may have internalised very different notions of their power. If we are to come together across the entrenched divisions and disillusionment that many people are feeling, our starting point is clear: engage as equals.
That means a continuous, ever-evolving process in which we must all be self-aware and open to being challenged again and again. It involves challenging the structures and values that set up inequalities between us through our daily interactions and with everyone we meet. Our plea is for people who have been relatively inoculated from the effects of divisive rhetoric and policy to really try and ‘see’ the inspirational alternatives that are already being enacted around them—and bring their knowledge and skills to this existing, slow, un-photogenic, but potentially transformative experience.
In Alabama, religiously-affiliated private adoption agencies can legally discriminate against same-sex couples, but the law may be having the opposite effect.
This article was first published in Scalawag.
Childersburg is a typical river town in Alabama: tackle shops, Waffle House, a Piggly Wiggly. Near the Glassco house, a Cajun restaurant called Bigman’s serves grilled gator and BBQ.
But the Glasscos aren’t exactly the typical Childersburg family, because, as they’d say, of the whole lesbian thing.
When I meet Chelsey and Bailey Glassco on a Wednesday afternoon in their new home in a neighborhood called Pleasant Valley, they’re a few weeks into the semester at the private Christian Academy where they’re both teachers, and their foster son, Jay (that’s not his real name), is in first grade. Bailey teaches high school English. Chelsey teaches music and Spanish to the younger grades. They welcome me inside still buttoned-up from the day, preppy: slacks, loafers, dress shirts.
The house is buzzing with new home-owner energy: Jay is bouncing between his two dogs and us, asking if I’d like to see his room, if I’d like to play, if I’d like to eat ice cream with him. Chelsey is apologizing for the move-in mess and shuffling the dogs back into the yard. Bailey, who grew up, as she says, “in the wilderness” near Sand Mountain, Alabama, is on the phone giving directions to a social worker from their adoption agency, Ashley Douthard, by offering local, posted road names instead of state-issued monikers on maps. I get the feeling Bailey can rebuild engines while quoting Eudora Welty. (On the way to their house, when I got lost, too, and called for help, she told me, “Turn back and hang a right at the little pew-jumping church.” When I laughed, she added, “That’s not a judgment. Just a description.”)
They’re only the second owners of the property, a midcentury fixer-upper on 3.7 acres. Signs of the couple who built the house half a century ago are everywhere: a wheelchair ramp off the back deck, a glass collection carefully stacked in the butler pantry. Everything is a little worn-in from age but full of potential.
When I ask to go to the bathroom, Chelsey takes me down the hall, following me to point out the ‘50s-era ceramic work. We’ve known one another two minutes, and we’re admiring tiling around a toilet together. A dentist’s daughter from Bonifay, Florida, who grew up singing in an Assembly of God church, Chelsey speaks like the talky tracks of Loretta Lynn records, sweetly Southern, bitingly witty. Back in the living room, Jay dashes outside and we stand amid empty boxes, watching their boy through a bank of west-facing windows.
Jay trots up the grassy slope of his new backyard in boots and a yellow T-shirt, waving a stick toward the sky, two dogs trailing behind. The whole scene is downright Norman Rockwell-ish.
The irony of being in a neighborhood called Pleasant Valley hits me when Chelsey cuts the chitchat to tell me Jay has had a hard week, and I remember why I’m here.
In May, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed HB24 into law, protecting adoption agencies when they deem parents unfit on the basis of religious beliefs. I’m here because the law means religious-affiliated private adoption agencies can now legally discriminate against same-sex couples like the Glasscos.
Jay has a condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder.
When the Glasscos met Jay, his family had been in the system for two years, and he’d cycled through multiple placements. He was underweight. He was balding. His skin itched nonstop from stress-induced psoriasis and eczema. “He’s constantly telling us he’s afraid he’s not going to be fed,” Bailey says.
Common in children raised in orphanages or environments of neglect, Bailey describes RAD as a wiring malfunction that happens when a young child is forced to self-soothe in moments when they need to be cuddled or fed. The result can be a lifelong struggle with relationships.
The Glasscos work with Jay each day on understanding boundaries and establishing appropriate trust. He sees a therapist. He takes medicine. They receive weekly support from Douthard, the social worker. They’re waiting on a special, weighted vest to arrive in the mail, a garment that’s supposed to help comfort Jay when they physically can’t hold and calm him.
Today, Douthard is coming for an emergency visit. As a therapeutic social worker for the foster and adoption agency working with the Glasscos (they asked we not name the agency to protect Jay’s privacy), Douthard offers weekly check-in sessions to families fostering children like Jay who are undergoing medical treatment for psychological or behavioral disorders.
Going to school has been challenging for Jay, navigating the social landscape, and to cope, he’s been hitting himself and his classmates. Violence is common in RAD kids. As they begin to make attachments, something in their brain fires off a warning, and they lash out. Without treatment, this behavior can continue into adulthood with potentially horrific results. To give a point of reference for the difference between a child who does or doesn’t receive help, Chelsey names two famous examples of people with RAD, “You could be Helen Keller or Ted Bundy.”
The frustrating part to Chelsey is that RAD is 100 percent preventable, but once kids have the disorder, they have it for life. She says Jay’s biological family struggled to meet his basic needs. “It’s a really sad situation,” Chelsey says. “Everybody and their mama, no pun intended, had been abused in [Jay’s] family.” Because the Glasscos will be in court soon, they can’t offer details publicly of Jay’s history.
I spoke to other foster parents for this story who were also in the middle of court proceedings and didn’t want their names to be public. Many of those foster kids came from families where no one has a job or a car to get to a job, where multiple generations suffer from drug addiction, and where state intervention is common. Finding family members to offer these children safer homes can be difficult.
Jay has lived with the Glasscos for six months. It’s the longest he’s lived anywhere. “When we hit the three-month mark,” Bailey says, “he started to ask if he was staying with us. His internal clock knew it was time to be moved to another foster home.”
Outside, Jay is running, hollering down to us that he’s “supah fast.” His white athletic socks are poking out of the tops of his boots, and it’s the sight of those socks that kills me. My own son is 16 months old. I think about all the socks he’s tossed off in the car, the grocery store, wherever. Hundreds of times a day he needs me or my husband to hold him, to help him. I can’t even think about Jay when he was a baby.
When I ask if this is how the Glasscos envisioned parenthood, Chelsey says they think about having a baby—“Bailey has always wanted to be pregnant. I’d love to plan four hospital routes and be the one going ‘you can do this!’”—but every time they’ve seriously considered it, another kid has needed them. They met their first foster kid when she was in high school and living in a group home. “[She] was going to have to be housed back with her mother who was a drug dealer. And she didn’t have another option,” Chelsey says. “So we got certified.”
But the Glasscos say they were denied by a dozen adoption agencies before finding one willing to work with a same-sex couple—all prior to the passing of HB24. Chelsey drops into a snooty voice, joking, “We were like, ‘We don’t want to work with you guys anyways.’” Bailey says they didn’t worry about the other agencies, and never considered legal action, focusing instead on helping their foster teen transition to adulthood, figure out how to get job, a car, an apartment. She lived with them until she turned 18 and got her own apartment.
“We have a soft spot for that age, because we were so vulnerable during that time,” Chelsey says. When Chelsey and Bailey themselves were entering adulthood, they were homeless.
They met at a small all-women’s Baptist College, where Bailey was a star on the volleyball team and Chelsey sang in Sunday services. (Even though Chelsey came out at 15, she wanted a challenging academic environment where she could better explore religion. Her folks wanted her to be a Christian singer. “Like Amy Grant?” I ask, half-kidding. “Exactly. Actually, she was my first crush,” she says.)
When they made their relationship public, their families launched campaigns to pray them straight. The congregation of Chelsey’s church back in Bonifay began calling and sending letters. Bailey’s family contacted teachers and administrators at their school. Certain administrators at the university contacted ministers at churches where Chelsey sang, worried she might have spread propaganda like rainbow flags.
“We’re some potent gay,” Bailey jokes.
By the time they graduated, they didn’t have anywhere to go. They lost contact with nearly everyone, from youth group buddies to their own brothers.
“Our families were basically like goodbye and good luck,” Chelsey says. A handful of people they met—through churches—helped them get on their feet but things still weren’t easy. They lost teaching jobs when a board member at a school didn’t want lesbians on staff, so they moved to a new town and took jobs at Olive Garden and Firehouse Subs until finding the school where they now teach.
Jay pops in to ask for water. He pants like the dog at his hip to show us how hard he’s been playing.
I realize I haven’t asked how old they are (Bailey’s 28, Chesley’s 27) or how long they’ve been married (seven years). “That’s our numerical age,” Bailey says, “but we say it’s about the mileage.”
Now, Chelsey says they’re visiting an LGBT-affirming church in Birmingham, where they’ve found a preacher willing to be a male mentor for Jay, and where he can grow up in “a village” like they did. Even though her old congregation no longer serves as her support system, Chelsey says, growing up, there were “16 people I could have called if I needed something. Foster kids don’t have that. That’s the reason they’re in foster care.”
When Douthard arrives, I wander around a bit, tagging along for a tour of the house before heading to the backyard to pet the dogs and stay out of the way. Jay is telling the social worker about mowing the lawn, how his moms are going to let him do it someday but first he has to master picking up sticks, and I see Chelsey and Bailey reach for one another’s hand. I know that reach, that moment you need to connect with your partner to say, “Maybe we’re doing something right.”
I wonder how things would be different for the Glasscos if they’d been embraced instead of excommunicated from their families. Would they still have Jay? If not, where would he be?
Here’s the thing: Chelsey and Bailey didn’t choose Jay. They signed up to be foster parents to any child in need. When things get too difficult, as foster parents, the Glasscos have the option to ask for respite or terminate their time with him. It happens. Families don’t click. A child presents too great of challenges, or as with Jay, a foster child changes the family’s option to have other children.
But next week, the Glasscos will have their first meeting to begin the arduous legal process determining what is best for Jay’s future, either reunification with a family member or adoption into the Glassco home.
The cicadas start their nightly hum as the Glasscos tell the social worker about their renovation plans, where the vegetable garden will go next spring, how they’d met most of the neighbors already. I wonder how people could see this—the Glassco home—as dangerous.
It’s not like people are fighting over foster children. We have more children seeking homes in Alabama than families seeking children. The latest report from Alabama Department of Human Resources showed 6,028 children were in custody of the department at the end of June 2017. One lawyer I interviewed said 1,000 of those children are in need of new homes.
So, what’s our hope, or responsibility, for kids like Jay?
There’s a narrative we’re asked to believe in the discussion surrounding same-sex adoption: A great battle exists between Christians and queers. If you are of the opinion that exposure to an LGBT lifestyle might turn children queer and therefore land them in eternal damnation then I’m not sure harm on earth has much argumentative power. But everyone I spoke to for this story, most of whom identify as queer, made a point to tell me they identify as Christian, too. Beyond a battle over the role of religion as it pertains to government, in Alabama, a law like HB24 is a battle over interpretations of Christianity.
As Reverend Jennifer Sanders put it, “The role of the government is to prevent harm. Now, it’s all about how you define harm. I think that’s what we’re arguing over.”
Sanders is one of 70 faith leaders who opposed HB24. The week before I came to Childersburg, I met Sanders at a café next door to Beloved Community Church in Birmingham, where she said she leads a congregation as active in social justice efforts as they are in Sunday worship. Sanders is a Christian liberation theologian, a lesbian, and a mom. She says she’s less interested in the outcome of this particular law than she is the liberation of the world from mankind’s harm. To her, the LGBT adoption battle matters only if lost. If won, it’s just a step toward equality in an inherently unjust system.
When I asked her how she entered conversations with conservative Christian ministers and policymakers, she said conversation doesn’t go far. “There tends to be a fair amount of smug disregard because people will treat you politely but that’s because they know they have the power, and your own power is curtailed by the structure.”
I tell Sanders about a moment in Alabama Bound, a film that follows lesbians in the state as they advocate for marriage equality prior to Obergefell v. Hodges, when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country. I’d seen the film’s premiere a few weekends before at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham. There’s a scene where openly gay Representative Patricia Todd is preparing for a pro-LGBT vote on the Montgomery Capitol floor, and GOP Representative Barry Moore walks up to her, gives her an awkward back-patting, side-hug and says something like: “You know I love you, girl, got all the respect in the world for you, but this ain’t gonna happen.”
The scene sums up the dynamic when it comes to marginalized groups gaining rights: Love ya. Ain’t happening.
In Alabama, White, evangelical, Republican men hold the power.
Alabama lawmakers pushed hard for HB24, placing duplicates in the House and Senate, sponsored by Representative Rich Wingo and State Senator Bill Hightower, respectively. Neither agreed to an interview for this story. Even though both have told the press the law isn’t about denying LGBT couples the right to adopt, Wingo told NPRthat other states have seen religious organizations close their doors instead of working with same-sex couples. The burden on the state, he said, would be overwhelming if Alabama’s private, religious agencies shuttered. But no Alabama agency has publicly announced it would shutter. I attempted to contact Wingo multiple times over several months for this story, and didn’t hear back from his office.
Even though Wingo is credited for the law’s success, the reality is this law is one of many in a recent batch of so-called “religious freedom” bills strategically popping up all over the country, backed by well-funded right wing groups. By passing HB24, Alabama joined Michigan, Virginia, and the Dakotas, where Republicans have approved related religious freedom bills. Even the name of the law—the Alabama Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act—is strategic. (Still, Conservative news outlets celebrated the law as a victory in efforts to discriminate against LGBT couples.)
The law is particularly problematic, according to Eva Kendrick, the Human Rights Campaign Alabama State Director, when you consider LGBT minors are more likely to be in the foster system than their hetero or cisgendered peers, and LGBT couples are four times more likely to raise adopted kids and six times more likely to raise foster children than hetero couples, according to nonpartisan studies, like the 2014 report released by the Williams Institute.
Kendrick, who fosters a baby with her wife, says only two adoption agencies supported the bill while nearly 70 faith leaders signed a letter in opposition. Because you have to be legally married for one year before you can adopt in Alabama, and adoption only recently became legal for gay and lesbian couples in the state, she says the law is mostly just causing confusion over who will or won’t work with them.
I tried to contact religious adoption agencies all over the state to ask about their policies on same-sex adoption. No one has returned my calls or emails. But Kendrick works with agencies statewide, and she said the attention the law is receiving has actually been a boon for same-sex adoption training. HRC has seen a spike in collaborative requests, and Kendrick said she’s trained more than 250 social workers in LGBT adoption courses. So the law may be having the opposite effect of Wingo’s intentions.
But even though same-sex couples have agencies to choose from when adopting, problems with the law still arise during family reunification for foster kids, according to Kendrick. Here’s an example: I spoke to Tony Christon-Walker, the Director of Prevention and Community Partnerships at AIDS Alabama, who worried he’d be denied parental rights when his half-sister lost custody of her son, Maurice. His sister asked Christon-Walker to adopt the boy. Christon-Walker, 50, is gay and HIV positive. A judge in Birmingham granted him parental rights, but if Maurice had been under the care of a private religious organization in Alabama instead, then under this new law, Christon-Walker could have been denied and would have no legal action to keep Maurice in the family.
The reality is, right now, no one really knows how this law will or won’t play out in court. I read the bill and its amendments a dozen times until I began to feel the way you do when you repeat a word aloud until it loses meaning.
As written, HB24 protects privately-funded adoption agencies in Alabama when they turn away parents based on “closely held religious beliefs.” That vernacular vagueness is confusing even to practitioners in the legal system; several lawyers told me they weren’t comfortable offering a definitive explication of the law’s application for this story. One lawyer, Shane T. Smith, cut to the core of what’s so confusing: “While I respect everyone’s closely held religious beliefs,” he said, “I know a lot of Christians who are fine with people who are divorced. I know some Christians who won’t associate with people who are divorced. It’s not just a lesbian or gay thing; it’s whatever they deem to be sinful or wrong in their doctrine.”
Hypotheticals run rampant: Could Catholics deny an adoptive parent who was previously divorced? Could Baptists deny the unbaptized? Could Wiccans deny worshippers of Sun Ra? If these religious groups meet the criteria for protection—owning and operating a privately-funded, state-licensed adoption agency in Alabama—then, in theory, they sure could.
But in all the confusion over what HB24 means for gay families, who can and cannot adopt and from which agencies, it can feel like the kids themselves get lost in the mix. And what are the consequences if kids like Jay spend more time, possibly their entire childhoods, in group homes or transitional housing?
For a lot of kids, that life leads to higher instances of traumatic childhood events, which psychological studies show can affect everything from earning power to emotional well-being. Christon-Walker and his son serve as an example here, too. He said Maurice was believed to have an IQ of 69 while in foster care. He’s thankful the judge in Birmingham “believes in family,” because today, Maurice is a well-adjusted kid thriving at a Birmingham private school. He likes to joke with other kids by asking them where their second daddies are.
When I asked Christon-Walker where Maurice would be if he hadn’t been able to adopt him, he started to cry. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
At the Glasscos, we’re all out back with Jay now, the sun setting over the hills.
The social worker has wrapped up her visit, and I finally ask them about the law.
“This law is a protection for the majority, for a group who doesn’t need protection,” Bailey says. I tell her about what I’d heard from people in Birmingham, about progressive change, open-minded judges, and welcoming adoption agencies. I tell them what Eva Kendrick of HRC (who introduced me to the Glasscos) said about the increase in training for LGBT adoption.
“It’s easy to say the law is not going to change anything for the worse. But how can you predict that?” Bailey wonders. “This month, they’re feeling gay friendly. Let’s say Mr. So and So, who usually puts foster care in the homes of gay couples, goes home and his wife just read an article about some pedophile and how he had boyfriends or whatever, and he says we’re not dealing with gay people anymore. Things won’t change immediately, but it just takes one person.”
They’re worried groups that have been quietly working with LGBT couples will suddenly have board members wondering what their same-sex policies are. Chelsey does an imitation of an evangelical adoption director: “Hey, y’all! Welcome! Thanks for coming to the back door!”
“Now they might close the back door,” Bailey says.
Chelsey says right now, they’re more interested in making inroads with their families than lawmakers. A few years back, they reconciled with Bailey’s brother’s family. Since Jay came into their lives, Chelsey says her parents are more receptive to a relationship with Chelsey and Bailey (before they were only comfortable seeing their daughter without her wife).
Jay is on the deck below, out of earshot, playing with the dog who licks him chin to forehead.
“Ugh. He’s so stinking cute,” Chelsey says. “It makes me want to shake his parents. We see all the potential.”
“Sometimes we think he’s a baby, then he’ll sweep the floor,” Bailey says. “I mean, where the heck did that come from? You can’t button your daggum britches, son.”
The Glasscos are hopeful they will be able to adopt Jay. “The guardian ad litem, social workers, psychiatrist are working tirelessly to assure he ends up in a safe and healthy home,” Chelsey says.
“There’s always a chance the parents wake up, have an epiphany, go out and get a job and start making good choices.” If that does happen, and his parents are able to offer Jay a healthy environment, the Glasscos say they’ll be heartbroken but also unburdened. Chelsey says they have to trust the doctors who tell them long-term care will bring Jay healing. “We keep thinking… about when he’s 18, and he’s an amazing young man going to be a teacher or a doctor or joining the military,” Chelsey says.
“Or going to be a plumber! Or an electrician or anything that contributes to society,” Bailey says. “Or a football player, a third string kicker who rides the bench and sets us up for life!” They laugh. Jay offers a not-so-subtle hint it’s time we wrap up our conversation and his moms get dinner going: “I smell pizza!”
As I’m leaving, Jay pulls a drawing from his pocket and offers it to me as a gift. I ask him to describe the scene, and he tells me it’s him and his moms cleaning up the yard while the dogs play.
One side of the house in bathed in light. The other in darkness. Jay says he’s afraid to go in the dark, but his moms are brave.
They aren’t afraid, he says, and someday, he won’t be either.
6 March 2018. Horizontalising international NGOs: can it be done? –
Alternative structures are available—if we have the courage to adopt them.
For over 20 years I was employed in the London office of one of Britain’s larger, Charity Commission-registered aid organisations that funded ‘development’ across Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was always more geared toward long-term assistance but developed a short-term emergency section.
Each country programme had a mandate to respond to emergencies within their own country, but the agency as a whole never had the huge warehousing capacity of Oxfam or Save the Children. Rather, it found niches that others missed, such as nurse training for patients’ mental trauma, which were as valued by their recipients as the tents, food, medicine and water systems that were delivered by the big guys.
This meant that we didn’t take part in the piranha-like feeding frenzies that were seen in Haiti, Rwanda and other emergencies when aid organisations flooded in. Some of them were opportunists who had the financial backing and arrogance to go with it. Others had dubious ulterior motives such as those with an evangelical religious zeal. How any country could govern or control them all was beyond me, especially when its population had recently suffered huge trauma on the back of a longer history of imposed boundaries, colonialism and the destruction of indigenous institutions.
For many years my employer, like most similar organisations, lacked trust in any but their own. They appointed only Europeans to senior positions like country directors, accountants and specialists in education and agriculture. The appointment of the first non-European as a country director in The Gambia caused much in-house consternation and comment from peers, including over his remuneration.
The job had been advertised with full expatriate salary along with free housing and other perks. As the person selected as most-qualified he should have received all these things, but because he was a national of the country it was decided that he should be on local wages. A negotiated settlement was reached. A European continued as his senior accountant for several more years.
By the time I left the agency much had changed, but an orthodox understanding of how such organisations should operate continued. That orthodox model required an organisational and corporate in-country presence, which meant having a large office in the capital city complete with communications and office equipment far superior to anything in government.
This infrastructure included stand-by generators, a fleet of vehicles (each with the organisation’s logo and/or that of the funding agency for projects), and a large staff to service and support the whole behemoth. Housing markets were affected by the inflated prices foreigners were able to pay. Despite the rhetoric of ‘participation’ and ‘bottom up’ development, this model was based on a hierarchical management structure wedded to ‘Logframe Analysis,’ which came out of military strategising.
When I (as the London based liaison person) joined the team in Somaliland, a country recovering from the trauma of civil war, there were three foreign staff and about 15 locals. Some sensible adjustments to the orthodox model had already been made including a taxi rental system using local owners instead of importing new vehicles, and stronger links with long-established local and national institutions for managing common resources and conflict resolution. We broadened our terms of reference to focus on assisting partner organizations in social survey techniques, improved soil and water resource infrastructure, governance, accounting and reporting skills.
Within our partner organisations were former civil servants, teachers and accountants from institutions that had collapsed in the civil war, and I’d like to think we helped them to strengthen their ability to set objectives, develop practical strategies approved by their members, and convert plans into project proposals to submit for financial assistance.
Our head office defined a spending ratio that required at least 80 per cent of each budget to be spent in the beneficiary community, and the remaining 20 per cent on administration, research and other in-country activities, but there was always scope for some ‘creative accounting’ to disguise how much was really spent at the center. When our finance manager questioned this it started a year-long discussion about the costs and benefits of orthodox approaches and we decided to replace the existing system with a minimal, horizontal structure.
All the support staff like drivers, guards and office personnel agreed to take alternative livelihoods (like 100 sheep and goats) instead of cash-based redundancy. The notion of ‘being made redundant’ had no linguistic translation in the society we were living in because no one is ever truly ‘redundant.’ One dispute was taken to arbitration and settled by community elders. Foreign staff contracts were not renewed. The director reduced his contract to half-time and mine fell to one-third.
After this reorganisation our team was comprised of three national staff who lived in their own houses, were paid mileage when they used their own vehicles for work (as is common in the UK and US), and were supplied with high-quality laptops for work. It was cheaper for the director to live at home in Bangalore, India, with his family and make quarterly visits to the Horn of Africa to review and approve budgets than to draw on expatriate housing and other benefits.
He conducted discussions and seminars with staff and partners as a ‘director of ideas’ instead of the ‘director of people and things,’ and built a network of academic contacts known for their expertise on managing the commons (such as Elinor Ostrom, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics), systems thinking, participation, and Soft Systems Methodology.
Partners and staff became increasingly skilled at researching the needs and wants of their communities and translating them into funding proposals. In the process, the orthodox, hierarchical model of a large external presence with all of its many implications in terms of power and money was replaced by a smaller horizontal model that, I believe, got far closer to translating the rhetoric of ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ into practical action. By developing new relationships and strengthening the independent capacities of other organisations, the core team of three was able to expand its geographic reach and impact.
On their visits to our head office in London, country directors would ask me about the unorthodox model we were crafting in Somaliland. I described it as best I could, but usually to glazed expressions of incomprehension on their faces. ‘How can you operate without offices, vehicles, drivers and so forth,’ they asked?
Each of them had the authority to travel to join our ‘director of ideas’ during one of his quarterly visits, but none did so, though some were only a one-hour flight away. Nor did the International Director of Organisational Development show any interest. Multiply this obtuse, unquestioning attitude across other organisations and it’s clear where some of the weaknesses come from that are being shown up in the current furor around NGOs like Oxfam and Save the Children, glued as they are to outdated approaches to their work.
The model our team had initiated was eventually wrecked by our in-house superiors. All but one of us was replaced, and a big house was chosen for a new office complete with a big new notice board to indicate our presence. Shiny white, new vehicles appeared in the driveway. It was ‘back to square one.’ However, the model we’d crafted made its way to Rwanda, where our director of ideas was asked to assist in translating the rhetoric of the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers into practice.
The result became known as “Ubudehe,” a term that describes the long-standing Rwandan practice of collective action and mutual support to solve problems within a community. Its core team was deliberately small, and was designed to be held accountable to several actors at once who all needed to collaborate if there was to be success. The experiment was recognized with the United Nations Public Service Award in 2008.
Unfortunately, ten years on this approach remains little known and little practiced in the development industry, which continues to eschew the kind of horizontal, participatory, ‘bottom-up’ philosophy that we developed. This is not because such approaches are impossible or ineffective—that has been proven to be false by our experience and the experiences of others. It’s because international NGOs don’t want to reduce their size and status as deliverers of foreign aid.
Radical change requires public participation; it isn’t something a vanguard can sort out for the rest of us.
So far this year, our social media feeds have been peppered with calls to be vegan for the month of Veganuary, use less plastic, produce less waste, and make countless other lifestyle changes to create a better world. A plastic bag takes 1,000 years to degrade in landfill declares one video on my facebook feed, so we should use a fabric bag instead.
However, many activists and woke folks are suspicious of calls to action that focus on individual choices. They warn that consumerist activism, personal environmentalism and lifestyle politics are distractions from genuine social justice work. Instead, they tell us to focus on structural change. ‘Lifestylist’ solutions are a waste of time because they fail to address the structural causes of social problems; what’s also problematic is that they’re not accessible to everyone since they require investments of our own time and money.
In some ways these critics are right, but in others they’re wrong. The criticism that our own personal behaviours or consumption patterns are irrelevant to broader social structures is mistaken.
There are many reasons to be wary of lifestylism. The problem of capitalist co-optation of social justice movements is wide-spread. For example, what was originally a radical critique of global neocolonial trading systems in the early 1990s has now become commodified as a fairtrade certification logo that large corporations can put on their products even if they are subject to allegations of abusing human rights—though it’s worth noting that there are other fair trade certifications that are a lot more radical than the Fairtrade Foundation’s famous swirly waving person symbol, like the World Fair Trade Organisation which doesn’t allow corporations to use its logo.
Similarly, more radical takes on veganism and related movements—which started out as an ecological critique of capitalist profit-seeking and white supremacy—have been overtaken by the sale of vegan salad boxes in high street fast food chains. Lefties are right to reject these co-optations of what were originally radical movements. Simply buying a product that’s branded as ‘organic,’ ‘fairtrade’ or vegan because it makes you feel more ‘ethical’ is not only superficial; in many cases it also helps to fund the same high street corporations that are responsible for the environmental damage and human exploitation that we’re trying to stop.
Having said all that, it’s important to recognise that not all forms of lifestylist responses to social problems lack a structural critique. In fact there are radical forms of lifestylism that are firmly based on a critical analysis of social structures and how they can change.
A basic textbook definition is that social structure refers to “any recurring pattern of social behaviour or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society” (that’s from the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology). Many radical people jump to the conclusion that structures live in centralised and formal institutions, so acting for structural change is usually seen as working towards changing laws, regulations or corporate policies.
For example, rather than asking every individual member of the public to stop using plastic bags, I’ve heard people argue that a structural approach would have to demand that the government legislates against their use, or ask corporations to stop using and selling them. Another area where this kind of criticism is common is antiracist and feminist work, especially the kind that focuses on unlearning internalised racism and sexism and intercepting the ways in which they affect our personal behaviour.
Focusing on the individual, these critics argue, is a distraction from the real, structural problems that are located in the law or in discriminatory corporate practices. But what these critics fail to realise is that structures are also informal, cultural and interpersonal, and they are constructed everywhere.
While it’s absolutely true that we need radical legal and policy changes, state institutions and the law are not the only places that are structural. As cultural marxists and anarchists have been pointing out for a very long time, understanding social structures as exclusively centralised and formal only serves to reinforce the power of the state and of political elites. If we denounce lifestyle activism and instead focus all of our attention on getting corporations and the state to change formal laws and procedures over our heads, then we reduce the majority of the population to passive service users, mere recipients of government and corporate guidance.
To continue the example of plastic bags, of course governments write laws that regulate what kind of plastic products we can and cannot consume, but our relationship to plastic and waste goes way beyond the law. We grow up with certain understandings of what freshness or cleanliness mean, with ideas of how much stuff we have the right to consume, and with theories around choice and individualism.
These attitudes—like racist and sexist attitudes—are things that governments couldn’t legislate away even if they wanted to, and since the state in its current form was built with the primary aim of protecting capitalist and colonial interests, it will never actually want to. Therefore we are going to need formal and informal structural changes which include, but aren’t limited to, educating the general public about how long it takes plastic bags to degrade, and what alternatives exist. Structural change requires public participation; it isn’t something that some breakaway vanguard elite activist group can sort out for the rest of us.
As for asking corporations to implement policies that make the world a better place, I cannot think of a more watered down political project. The existence of for-profit corporations is premised on the systemic exploitation of workers and the environment. Any change they can offer will by definition be tokenistic.
If we want systemic change we should abandon corporations, withdraw our support for the mainstream capitalist economy, and build alternatives by setting up, working for and buying from structurally different institutions: non-profit and democratically run workers’ co-operatives, for example, community interest companies and collectives. Only then can we move from reformism to radical change.
Besides, unlike waving placards at government buildings from behind a row of police officers in Whitehall, putting your own resources into alternative economies has the direct and tangible effect of taking Pounds, Dollars and hours of labour away from capitalists and putting them somewhere better.
Not everyone has the means to buy, work or live differently, a criticism that is often made about lifestylist approaches. Many people are too poor, busy or unwell, and that’s something everyone who puts out calls to action needs to remember. It is suspicious, though, that this criticism is only ever made of social movements that call for lifestylist actions like going vegan or avoiding plastic bags or joining a co-op.
Actions that target the government such as protests or direct actions aren’t accessible to everyone either: they also take time, money, specific physical and mental dispositions, patience and know-how. Yet most of us manage not to moralise over them or to condemn those who aren’t able to join in. It’s certainly problematic that it takes resources to change systems, but this is not something that’s particular to lifestylism. If we don’t have love and care for those comrades who are less able to contribute right now, or ever, then our movements are bullshit. This goes for all activist approaches, whatever their target.
Let us do what we can to improve the state and the mainstream economy for the short term, and build better, democratic, and more sustainable structures for the future. Targeting states and corporations is more reformist than radical lifestylism, but it isn’t more structural. Structures are everywhere, including in our own lives and personal relationships. It’s time we came to terms with that reality.
1 March 2018. Things that make for peace –
What is required of Christians today in the light of the increasing number of wars, insurgencies, holocausts and genocide, is a deeper understanding of what true peacemaking costs.
Shortly after Christmas in 2013, I parked my car in one of the back streets of Protestant Sandy Row in Belfast. The area had changed in the nearly fifty years since I first walked there in the early days of the Troubles. Then, back-to-back houses had occupied row upon row. Now, traffic on a four-lane motorway speeds around the city.
Yet there was a familiarity. For a few moments I wondered why. Then it dawned. This was the street, now rebuilt with modern houses, where I had visited the boarded-up buildings during the riot torn 1970s. Here, unbeknownst to me nearly half a century ago, was both the ‘beginning’, continuing and ‘end’ of a striving to understand and engage in the ‘things that make for peace’.
Throughout those years I have witnessed in many strife-ridden places and communities, a search for peace and reconciliation. Those processes like the Peace Bridge that spans the river Foyle in Derry/Londonderry were complex. Tensions were frequent, often critical, and the tiniest miscalculation capable of bringing down the whole edifice, and destroying years of work. Tensions were frequent, often critical, and the tiniest miscalculation capable of bringing down the whole edifice, and destroying years of work.
I recalled too the numerous small groups I have participated in, each struggling to meet Pope Paul VI’s challenge, ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’ I thought about how we sought to move from pasts where suspicion, fear and violence had divided, towards new relationships that made possible a shared future.
I remembered how we learned to engage ‘in practices overtly labelled as reconciliation activities: meetings, dialogues and joint projects to focus on our differences and divisions, our hurts, our misdeeds, our history, our needs, our identities, our cultures’, as David Bloomfield reminds us. ‘These activities help us to get to know and begin to understand our former enemies who are now new partners, as they begin to understand us.’
I remembered just how slow and demanding such activities are: what patience and ongoing commitment they require. I was encouraged too. During Advent 2016, we were privileged to help fund a Youth Initiatives project in Belfast. This was inspired by a sixteen-year-old woman, with the aim of bringing together young people across sectarian and ethnic divides. It is the dream of a ‘shared future’ born out of historic division, with a commitment to dialogue and the creation of joint projects that begin the process of reconciling those formerly divided.
A new way of being church
My epiphany moment in Belfast’s Sandy Row in 2013 was both an end and a beginning. I had been here before and I would be here again. Uncertainty still threatens the very peace processes begun so long ago. Here is the potential for further beginnings for all who ‘seek the things that make for peace.’
For many who read my new book, Things That Make for Peace there will be a sense of: ‘That’s fine for him, but I don’t have his breaks, or influence.’ Possibly, but it was not always so. I have lived longer in the anonymity of working with small groups of people than in the corridors of power and influence. The words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead remain a much more reliable dictum: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Today I live in a small English country town on a busy road with neighbours who have become friends.
Today I live in a small English country town on a busy road with neighbours who have become friends. Together we share each other’s joys and sorrows. I have been struck by how much innate goodness there is hidden among us: the couple who have fostered seventy or so children through nearly forty years; those who take into their care children with special needs. Others quietly raise money for rescue services, or unobtrusively look after elderly but very independent neighbours. Others carry the burdens of loved ones suffering from disability and memory loss, serve in the Food Bank, or visit those in prison. Of course there are prejudices, sometimes tensions, but somehow there is an unspoken feeling of belonging, of community.
My contemporary experience of neighbourliness reminds me of working on a south London housing estate with Catholics and Methodists in the 1980s, with people whose lives were blighted by poverty and violence. We had been inspired by work that some of us had engaged with in Latin America, in ‘base’ Christian communities. Together we sought to enculturate what we had learned into our own circumstances.
For some thirty years, groups of lay people and clergy have explored what had become known as A New Way of Being Church in the life of the wider Christian community. On his appointment, Pope Francis was to speak of the need for such a way of being Church: ‘Structural change to the government of the church is vital but it must follow from a new way of being church, in which we get out of the sacristy, engage with people, know their suffering and their puzzlement from within.’
Peace is justice
Such activity has met with varying degrees of success. I believe that if we are to become ‘truly human’ and have a ‘shared future’ in which ‘peaceful kindness will be the law’, then we cannot do it alone. ‘If you want peace, work for justice,’ said Pope Paul VI, I want to modify that by saying, ‘The work of peace is justice.’
To achieve and sustain a society in which people are to live together in shalom – peace, harmony – we must bring together insights and experience from both religious and secular sources, on what it means to love, forgive, and be reconciled. We need, as the poet Rumi invites us, to discover:
Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
One of the images of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of entering into a wide open space. In such a ‘space’ there is room ‘to think about compassion for loss, anger at injustice, and the limiting of disgust in favour of inclusive sympathy,’ as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has put it. But such ‘space’ is not only to reflect on ‘ain’t it awful’ – but to generate ‘Love (which) is what gives respect for humanity its life and aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good’.
All the great faiths teach us that we are each other’s keepers. Behind every face, there are hopes and aspirations but above all, potential for humanness. For the Christian, Jesus is that person who is hungry; that woman who is confused and naked; the child that is the victim of war. It is such with whom Jesus identifies, because they are truly his fellow human brothers and sisters.
Salvation is the entering of a wide open space; a space where the seeking of ‘absolute good’, the work of the kingdom can flourish, and where justice which is the work of peace (shalom) can be found. Jesus’ invitation to his followers, to ‘Set your hearts on his (God’s) kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice’ is an invitation to find in God the origin of ‘absolute good’. In the Hebrew the term for this is sedekah – a concept often translated as ‘righteousness’.
God’s justice is to be found in the kindness God shows towards humans. By seeking humanity’s ‘absolute good’ God exemplifies how we, made in God’s image, should act kindly and fairly towards each other. Because God is good to us, we have an obligation to be good to others. But it is more than that. Just as God is our keeper, so are we each other’s keepers. When we seek well-being and fairness, we have to be sure that in pursuing our rights, we do not deny those of our neighbour. As one writer, Pinchas Lapide,(7) has put it: ‘God is the Righteous – who practices sedekah and sets it as an existential task for us as bearers of the divine image.’
When we practise ‘saving justice’ whether by almsgiving, visiting the sick, sacrificing self for others, building peace, we are doing so because we have an obligation under God. It is not something we do on our own, and in Jewish thought, it is not something that is ever complete. We practise ‘saving justice’ as a ‘germ cell of holy discontent, an active leaven in human society’,(8) and indicator of the longed for reign of God on earth.
Fear, a dominating reality in our world
Biblical justice is about right relationships: being right with God, self, neighbour and the environment. What prevents us from being ‘germ cells of holy discontent’ or ‘active leaven’ is fear. Fear is a dominating reality in our world. In the affluent West we fear poverty. In a world of changing values, we fear losing our moral compass. In a multicultural community we fear losing our identity; in a multifaith society, our certainties.
We are anxious that if we get too close to others whose faith or values differ from our own we will be compromised. We fear loss of control of our affairs, the respect of others, and being dependent on those we perceive as different from us.
In the political arena we look for leadership that is ever more uncertain and fragmentary. We sense a loss of control, insecurity and economic uncertainty. Instead of striving to build a society with others, we crave protection from those not like us. We fear the future.
Such fear counters the Gospel command, ‘Fear not.’ Certainly there are things to be afraid of, and truth can be frightening. But ultimately, as St. John tells us, only ‘the truth will make you free’. The desire to be ‘safe’ is both natural and essential for human flourishing. But, says Erik Borgman, ‘One cannot reach safety by excluding everything that is potentially threatening. We can only reach others by approaching others as people who need protection just as we do and will want to give protection to those who protect them.’ ‘One cannot reach safety by excluding everything that is potentially threatening. We can only reach others by approaching others as people who need protection just as we do and will want to give protection to those who protect them.’
Peacemaking in common life
Our vocation as humans, and in particular people of faith, is the creation of a genuinely caring society that demonstrates compassion as one humanity under God. Shortly before I wrote these lines, I heard an account of members of a Jewish synagogue in south London who were converting part of their building into a flat to house Muslim Syrian refugees. They were working on this, as Jews, with Christians and Muslims. By caring for others, and taking responsibility for them, they were also taking care of themselves.
‘Each aspect of peacemaking moves towards the inclusion of the outsider, the overcoming of enmity, and the extension of the kingdom of God to all people,’ observes Willard Swartley. Peacemaking is the primary goal of the kingdom of God, and if we wish to be called ‘children of God’ and be blessed by God, we must dedicate ourselves to this task. In all I have witnessed amongst people seeking ‘the things that make for peace’, it is the dedicated small community of ordinary people doing extraordinary things that remains the most effective.
Peacemaking is not simply about ending wars and conflicts on the macro scale. It is recognising those places in our common life where fear becomes the dominant emotion; moments and places where we risk excluding, dominating or otherwise violating the ‘other’, and reducing our common humanity.
It is to recognise that peacemaking is a moral commitment. When we seek the establishment of peace, we do so because as Kant wrote, ‘it is the ultimate duty of political action, the highest expression of reason against irrationality.’ We seek peace because the most fundamental human right is to life and it is our moral duty, as Gandhi insisted ‘to struggle against injustice … through the weapon of non violence’.
Today few can doubt that our world is a perilous place. Wars, mass migration, uncertainty in international affairs, growing protectionism, the building of dividing walls, whether virtual or real, military threats and political fragmentation, leave us vulnerable to divisions that threaten the very future of humanity.
Against such a background to seek the renewal of humanity through the building of small communities seems almost futile. It reminds me of the story of the little bird lying on its back with its feet in the air. Asked by a passing stranger why it was doing that, the bird replied: ‘I heard today that the sky was falling in.’ ‘Well,’ scoffed the stranger, ‘how do you think you can change that?’ ‘One does what one can,’ replied the bird.
I talked recently with an old friend, Jim O’Halloran who some forty years ago went to Africa, where together with others he set up the first of what we came to call ‘Small Christian communities’. In the course of our conversation, he told me that today there are some fifteen thousand communities. These groups are based around meeting together, sharing, reading the Bible, dialogue and activities, and, to use Jim’s words, they do ‘anything constructive to build a better world’.
Key to such groups were their relationships. I too experienced this in groups meeting on housing estates in south London, Dublin and Belfast, as well as being a privileged guest in other such groups in Brazil, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guyana. Like Jim, I too discovered that such group formations were not limited to Christians. In our small group on the Gloucester Grove Estate in Peckham, London back in the 1980s and nineties, word got around of our meeting. All sorts of folks came, individuals who in their own right tried to make a difference, but were ground down by isolation and resistance. With us they found support and encouragement, despite our prayers and biblical reflection. Together we made changes in the community.
At different times Jim and I visited India, and here we came across ‘Small Human Communities’ open to people of all religions and no professed faith. Jim reminded me that these were formed largely of women who sought to do practical peace in their communities. One such group living on the street in Bangalore touched me deeply. They had come to identify themselves as a community through partnership with local Christian students who had helped them fund a water supply, by provision of a standpipe. This simple gesture, apparently inconsequential, had opened the door to health care for families, education for children, and recognition that, in their own words, ‘we are now a people’.
One example of a ‘small human community’ I experienced in Britain was during the 1980s in the Yorkshire Dales, where a vibrant group of former military personnel, Quakers, and others committed to the pursuit of peace met regularly to ‘Think Peace, Pray Peace, Speak Peace, Act Peace’.
Small groups of thoughtful committed citizens
For many years I have sought, with others, to encourage the formation of ‘Small Christian communities’ as a starting point for building a better world. Like Jim O’Halloran, who has taught and written widely on this theme, I believe if one is to reach out successfully, one must be sure of one’s own identity. ‘Beyond it’, says Jim, ‘I would encourage groups of all kinds, whether religious or civic that are doing anything to build a better world, or the kingdom. And I would have them ALL support one another in any way they can without neglecting their own work in so doing. This,’ he concludes, ‘is a template for building up creation, motivated by a small community and group together with the spirituality that inspires them.’
I believe that the task of building small groups of thoughtful committed citizens of the kingdom of God is a priority for changing the world, and pursuing the things that make for peace. Many people in our churches, and many who have left them but still hold on tenuously to their faith, are looking for a vision to build a better world. Most know that it will be costly.
Ours is a faith that has always held together two apparent opposites: resistance and healing. It is hard to stand against the prevailing mood and culture; to refuse to be fearful when fear is all around us. It is hard to be self-giving, when all around us are self-seeking. It is hard to see others as ‘our concern’, when all around us ‘others’ are a threat and a problem. It is hard to ‘seek peace and pursue it’, when all around defences and weaponry are being built up and stockpiled. But that is the call of the Christ, the Prince of Peace.
We are called to resist all the things that do not make for peace and justice. Our vocation is to stand with all those who are poor, vulnerable and under attack. This means being prepared to defend those from different faiths, backgrounds and cultures from our own. It will mean reminding governments of their duty to ‘establish peace’ by building up community, and refusing to play on fear, and seeking to justify the use of state-sponsored violence. This means being prepared to defend those from different faiths, backgrounds and cultures from our own.
The communities in which I have found the greatest strength to ‘keep on, keeping on’ have been those most aware of their own need of healing, as much as they have been aware of the need for the healing of the nations. As they have studied Scripture and sought discernment, they have prayed for faith, courage and hope to stand up, speak and act in solidarity for those most in need.
Waiting in hope
On Advent Sunday in 2016, I listened to the moving testimony of a Syrian priest who had been taken from his monastery by ISIS and tortured. Subsequently, in another prison he was confronted by his 100-strong congregation who had been taken hostage. All expected the worst. To their surprise their captors released them, ‘Because,’ they said, ‘you Christians did not take up arms to fight us.’ Of course such a story does not answer nor solve the deep and complex issues that face us, but it does exemplify.
My journey of possibilities from bystander to peacemaker grew out of a commitment ‘guided by ethical principles, chastened by the lessons of history, and embodied in the experience of practical peacemaking’. It has been enriched because of those whom I have met on the ‘common ground in the multiplicity of our spiritual and guiding lights’. I have been humbled and encouraged by people of many faiths and none who have ‘fought the long defeat’.
When I have asked myself why I keep on keeping on, I find A.J. Muste’s answer to a similar question is mine too: ‘I don’t do this to change the world. I do it to keep the world from changing me.’ When I am asked what kind of Church can meet the challenges of the future, I want to reply in the words of the second century Church Father, Justin Martyr: ‘We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything to a treasury and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another … now live together and share the same table. Now we pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.’ ‘I don’t do this to change the world. I do it to keep the world from changing me.’
Because somewhere in the recesses of my memory stirs the story of the coming of the Prince of Peace, whose Presentation in the Temple I celebrated on the completion of this book. Like the old man Simeon who waited for ‘a light for revelation' – I too wait in hope.
This is an extract from Things That Make For Peace: A Christian peacemaker in a world of war by Peter B. Price.
To have an honest, nonpartisan discussion about gun violence, we must look at what happened in New York, California, and Texas.
On February 15 2018, 17 teachers, students, and visitors died in a Florida high school, in a country where mass shootings have been devastatingly routine. This was followed by another day of despairing, angry furor over guns, schools, and shootings that replayed the same reactions from dozens of past shootings.
Once the warring factions settle into their talking points and scapegoats, the debate rages on for decades with little sign of progress. America’s gun debate is like a Greek tragedy, with predetermined lines plodding to inevitable doom.
The Right, represented by the National Rifle Association and Republicans, shows no interest in reducing the gun killing epidemic beyond prayers that the “good guy with a gun” (who never seems to be around) will save the day when a “bad guy” opens fire.
Liberals’ dishonesty is more nuanced. Background checks and gun control have proven effective at reducing gun suicides and domestic shootings(both very worthwhile goals), but not the gun homicides or mass shootings such remedies are invoked to redress.
On both sides, destructive scapegoating of young people, whether they are suburban school shooters or immigrant gangsters, present blatant falsehoods. FBI tabulations show half of active mass shooters are 35 and older, a large majority are white, and nearly all are men. One middle-aged white shooter murdered more people in Las Vegas in 10 minutes than the best available count of documented murders over the last 15 years that have been attributed to the Latino MS-13 gang, a favorite target of President Donald Trump.
We can keep on quarreling over myths and prejudices, or we can start looking for new approaches, as many communities are doing in the face of national default. The hopeful thing is there is plenty new to say—if anyone is willing to say it.
Let’s begin with one of the most hopeful and obvious: the massive decline in gun homicides in the nation’s three biggest states, concentrated among young people and urban residents all sides claim to be concerned about—so long as the discussion doesn’t challenge pet positions.
Over the last 25 years—though other time periods show similar results—New York, California, and Texas show massive declines in gun homicides, ones that far exceed those of any other state. These three states also show the country’s largest decreases in gun suicide and gun accident death rates.
These major states containing seven in 10 of the country’s largest cities once had gun homicide rates far above the national average; now, their rates are well below those elsewhere in the country.
The declines are most pronounced in urban young people. Among ages 15-24, gun homicide rates are down nearly 80 percent in cities of 500,000 or more in the three largest states, led by declines—approaching 90 percent in New York City’s central boroughs, more than 80 percent in Los Angeles, and 74 percent in Dallas.
Isn’t this what all sides have claimed to want: big reductions in gun killings, especially among young people? Why, then, aren’t researchers flocking to our three biggest states and their major cities to analyze what happened there—or, at least, talking about their stunningly hopeful trends?
Anyone familiar with the gun debate will see the political problem right away. California and New York have the nation’s strictest and fifth-strictest gun control laws, respectively, in the country, earning “A-“ ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and low rates of gun ownership. So, gun-rights conservatives don’t like to talk about successes in those states—nor about the fact that those declines in violence correspond with an increasingly racially diverse young urban population, driven by Latino, Asian, and African immigration.
On the other side, Texas has among the weakest gun laws in the country (“open carry” is its most recent gun-rights salvo, earning an “F” grade) and some of the highest rates of gun ownership. Gun-control lobbies are loath to acknowledge any success in Texas. So, we have to look beyond current gun politics and commentary to community-based initiatives.
Most major cities have gun violence prevention programs, but if these deserve some credit, we would need to study why they worked so much better in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Diego, and El Paso than in Chicago, Miami, or Philadelphia. If young Texans can show large declines in killings without tough gun controls, we need to understand what forces are at work in its cities.
Rather than jockeying for political advantage, we need to acknowledge young people of all races, who as a generation have sharply lower levels of gun ownership and numbers of gun killings despite continued high rates of poverty. White, Black, Latino, and Asian youth (Native American numbers are too small to determine accurate trends) each show much faster declines in gun homicide rates in the three largest states than do their national counterparts.
The pattern suggests a generational trend in the three major states’ cities—and to a lesser extent, nationwide—that urgently needs scrutiny. When youth homicide arrests in the city of Los Angeles fall from 680 in 1990-92 to 104 in 2000-02 to 17 in 2014-16, and the number of teenage girls murdered falls from dozens in the early 1990s to zero in the last 12 months ending February 15, 2018, it’s time to shake up everyone’s frozen thinking. Gun violence indeed remains an unspeakably tragic, American epidemic, but there is no excuse for recycling old futilities when dramatic and hopeful new information is at hand.
27 February 2018. Priceless moments: how capitalism eats our time –
Economic rationality leaves no room for free time unless it produces or consumes commercial wealth.
One of the most famous advertising campaigns of my generation is MasterCard’s Priceless. Launched in 1997, this twenty-year-long award-winning international campaign has been watched in 112 countries and 53 languages. The adverts show characters undertaking activities and using products that are ‘price-tagged’ by voiceovers and captions.
One advert shows a father and son attending a baseball game (“tickets: $46”) and another depicts a baby receiving toys (“most popular toy for toddler: $500”). This ‘price-tagging’ leads to the final ‘un-priced’ activity which is declared “priceless.” A father is rewarded with “real conversation with 11 year old son,” and parents watch their baby “play with a cardboard box instead.”The famous (and widely parodied) tagline follows: “There are some things that money can't buy, but for everything else, there's MasterCard.”
These adverts appeal to our deep, instinctive desire for meaningful interaction, as when a young child plays with a cardboard box, blissfully unaware of the superior ‘value’ of her toys. In this way MasterCard achieves the very opposite of what it claims: by taking these supposedly “priceless” moments that exist outside of the world of economic rationality and using them to advertise itself, the US multinational credit card giant gives them a price—simply sign up for a MasterCard, spend more money, and you too can experience these “priceless” moments.
In order to watch a baby innocently playing with an empty cardboard box, the $500 toy that came inside it first had to be purchased, so we can easily be forgiven for believing that spending (plus the debt that usually goes with it) equals more time for true happiness. These adverts sell the ‘necessity’ of credit cards to create the most meaningful moments in time, thereby marketing the world as one of total consumerism.
The irony of MasterCard quantifying the unquantifiable is reinforced by the company’s questionable track record. The European Union has repeatedly criticised them for their monopolistic trade practices, and, following a two-year investigation, filed formal charges against MasterCard in 2015 for charging its customers “an artificially high minimum price” for card payments in violation of European antitrust laws.
The company has also faced plagiarism lawsuits in Paraguay and Chile as a result of allegedly appropriating Argentinian-born Edgardo Apestguia’s advertising campaign for Bancard's credit card, which was launched in Paraguay in 1994 with the almost identical slogan: “Hay cosas que el dinero no puede comprar. Pero, todo lo demás, se compra con Bancard.”
MasterCard’s Priceless campaign reveals the ways in which time is being colonised by capitalism, as Nichole Marie Shippen demonstrates in her book “Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure, and Freedom.” Shippen argues that the erosion of free time is due to the ever-expanding economic rationalisation of all aspects of time. Capitalism necessarily demands the gradual deployment of economic rationality to all aspects of daily life, so catchphrases like ‘time is money’ become entrenched into our collective psyche.
Shippen differentiates between ‘meaningful leisure’ and the ‘free time’ of today, which really implies ‘unfree time’—just as MasterCard’s ‘priceless’ reward is presented in relation to moments that are ‘priced.’ In order to live a good life as opposed to simply live, one must first reduce the time spent on necessities. However, in the current system where arduous, repetitive, un-stimulating and/or excessive work is created and placed at the centre of society, the idea of ‘free time’ has been rendered virtually meaningless.
Today, much more time is spent in relation to work: traveling to work, recovering from work, attempting to disconnect from work, searching for work or engaging in unpaid domestic work. This increase in work-related time pressures is connected to the rise of zero-hours contracts and the erosion of employment rights, developments that have especially damaging repercussions for people on lower-wages. Research by the Social Mobility Commission reveals that the UK’s low pay culture traps people in poorly-paid jobs.
Inequalities in these restrictions on time are themselves racialised and gendered. Graduates from black and ethnic minority backgrounds face significant employment and pay penalties in the workforce, and unemployment is ten percent higher among ethnic minorities than the national average. The base of all industrial work is the unpaid time women frequently spend on housework and childcare, and low pay is endemic for women in their early 20s who juggle work with childcare responsibilities.
Although there is a clear need to generate more discretionary time for people under so much pressure, this challenge has been individualised and depoliticised under neoliberalism, which attempts to ‘solve’ it through the purchase of time management and time saving devices such as business apps which in turn reinforce the capitalist agenda by ‘winning back’ time for their users in order to increase productivity and maximise their working potential.
That’s why collective problems need collective solutions, found in the likes of Universal Basic Income, The Living Wage, and extensions to holiday pay and parental leave. All of these solutions provide much needed financial support so that people are not forced to give up all of their time to generate income, rather than engaging in activities such as social activism or spending time with their family and friends, reading fiction or enjoying art and music.
A 2014 study commissioned by MasterCard found that only half of all Americans have been on, or are planning to take, a vacation. In response to this seeming irrationality, the company launched its #OneMoreDay 2014 campaign with an advert that featured children advocating for Americans to take their vacation days. The campaign implored viewers to “pledge to take one more day of vacation, and make the most of it with MasterCard.” The company’s motivation to come out in support of taking holidays seems clear: more free time equals more time for consumption—a perfect illustration of the fact that taking ‘free time’ is not enough to free ourselves from capitalist culture.
The current system rests on workers using their limited free time for consumption in order to sustain the economy, to the extent that it can seem impossible to achieve quality time away from work without excessive or unsustainable spending, let alone envision meaningful alternatives. Economic rationality leaves no room for authentic free time that neither produces nor consumes commercial wealth.
Consumer culture has led to shopping malls replacing town squares, and a watered down, formulaic movie industry which dominates over more innovative or challenging forms of entertainment. However, in a world permeated by economic rationality we can still find cracks. Shippen gives examples of meaningful leisure found in community gardens, mindfulness and the slow food movement, advocating solutions based on improving the qualitative aspects of life, not only for individuals but for all of society. While these activities are limited in their ability to reclaim time from capitalism, community-centred actions strengthen our ability to self-organise and conceptualise non-capitalistic ways of doing things.
Ultimately, to improve the quality of our leisure time we must become conscious of the structures that depoliticise and rationalise our time in economic terms, and the related inequalities that come with this process. Only when we see these structures clearly can we begin to actively resist them and build alternatives. Increased awareness empowers us to protect and strengthen the intrinsic riches of our communities; embrace authentic, meaningful moments as they arise; and take action to reclaim time from capitalism by radically transforming the world in which we live.
26 February 2018. It’s time to take our charities to the cleaners –
Everyone needs a deep clean from time to time. Best to do it before your teeth get infected.
There was always going to be reckoning. Over the last 30 years charities have become bigger and bolder, richer and more competitive, outside of any honest and open conversation about their role in society, the values they represent, and the standards to which they should be held accountable. The current reckoning just happened to arrive in a certain place and time, focused on Oxfam and Save the Children around issues of sexual harassment and abuse—bad news for them of course but a welcome opportunity to re-examine what the whole sector is about.
A consistent theme in the crisis that’s unfolding is that there’s something not quite right about charities today, though exactly what’s wrong is expressed in many different ways. For some the crisis questions the whole culture of modern charity and the legitimacy of foreign aid: the sector has become bloated, they say, too big for its boots, and incapable of regulating itself. What happened at Oxfam and SCF was just the tip of the iceberg, so we should stop giving to these charities until they can earn our trust.
Others believe that the crisis has been dramatically exaggerated for political effect as part of a right-wing plot to undermine certain groups and causes that conservatives oppose. The revelations of sexual harassment and abuse are confined to a small number of cases, they say, though they still need to be urgently addressed. However, these cases raise no broader matters of concern about the charities involved or the sector as a whole. To protect their work and give them the resources they need to strengthen their management and accountability going forward we should actually increase our giving.
To me the most interesting reactions lie somewhere between these two positions, avoiding both under- and over-reaction and drawing out the wider implications of what we’re learning. It’s those lessons that are crucial if we want to use this crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the sector in the future. Take this piece in the Washington Post by Jovenel Moïse, for example, the President of Haiti. Moïse says this:
“Let’s take this ‘Oxfam moment,’ this ugly moment of reckoning, to reflect on the bigger picture. The general paradigm of aid and power…is not a balanced one…Something clearly needs to change...as our country becomes meaningfully developed and our economy becomes strengthened, more of our communities will be lifted from poverty—which means fewer individuals at risk, such as the women who were preyed upon by the Oxfam staff. While we pursue accountability for what occurred in 2011 we must simultaneously pursue long-term, clear-eyed solutions to the root causes. It’s not enough to punish one or two individuals, or to shame an organization. We have an entire cycle to break in order for the vulnerable to become the empowered.”
Alongside other writers in this middle ground, Moïse is saying that harassment, abuse and exploitation don’t happen in a vacuum; they arise in situations of power inequality and weak accountability—conditions which characterize relationships between rich and poor countries in the foreign aid system, or those between powerful agencies like Oxfam and the communities they serve (wherever they’re located), or between senior male and junior female staff in the case of Save the Children. A failure to confront these inequalities will leave the door open to abuse and exploitation somewhere else or in some other form.
So tighter monitoring of charity personnel won’t be enough; a cultural and structural transformation is essential. Since the scandals broke, it’s this recognition that has flowed through calls to combat the “white savior complex,” recover charity’s “moral core,” make the actions of charities consistent with their words, and uphold the highest ethical standards as the signature of the sector.
But even in this middle ground there’s no agreement on what it would really mean to do these things. Should charities abandon politics and advocacy in order to concentrate on providing services to those in need, or should they become more explicitly political actors because poverty and injustice are always political issues? Should they be larger or smaller, follow business practices or avoid them, pay higher salaries to ‘attract the best’ or lower ones to attract the most committed? There’s no agreement among the public on the answers to these questions. There never has been, because they reflect much deeper differences in politics and culture around the meaning and proper role of charity.
That means it’s impossible to develop a code of conduct or a system of accountability around the goals and core activities of charities—they’re just too diverse, but that actually returns the question of ethics to center stage. If we can’t legislate that all charities should do this and not that in terms of their programmatic focus and styles of working, can’t we all agree that whatever they do should be carried out according to a universal set of ethics?
I’m not thinking rocket science here: honesty, transparency, accountability, humility, service, equality, independence, respect for people and their dignity, consistency between words and actions, and the empowerment of others so that they are always ‘in the driving seat’ as the Haitian President demands (instead of prioritizing your own organizational self-interest). These are things that cross the political and cultural spectrum. They’re also the things that are supposed to mark out charities from other institutions, but they seem to have been compromised in the rush for growth and influence.
Though not easy, it’s possible to monitor adherence to these standards across the board, regardless of where a charity operates or the issues on which it works. Filling out the definitions of these things with measurable criteria and case studies would be a useful task for the Charity Commission in the UK and similar bodies elsewhere—things like a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff members, or a ban on ‘charity porn’ advertising, or fines for non-disclosure of information in the kinds of sexual abuse and harassment cases that are front and center now. No doubt the wisdom and practicality of these ideas will be disputed, but they could provide a concrete framework for a public conversation about charities that’s much-needed, and which would help to restore public trust.
In other sectors like business, government and entertainment you could say that ethics are always going to be negotiated in pursuit of money, sex and power, but there’s no reason why that modus operandi should be replicated in a charity. In fact if charities are not leaders in ethical behavior then what are they for? If I want to bully people and twist the truth I can go into politics; if I want to chase the money and act like a multinational corporation I can go into business. But there’s no point importing these cultures into charities so that they become another vehicle for disguised self-interest or cover-ups and power plays or male violence.
It seems to me that as a condition of their existence, and as something for which they should be held legally accountable, charities must live their ethics in everything they do—from the way they treat employees to the images they use in fundraising to the programmatic choices they make. However big they are, that’s the only way that charities will become a force for change at any scale, a force for moral revolution that percolates throughout society from left to right and back.
Reading the outpouring of letters and statements that have been published from charity workers since the scandals broke gives me cause for optimism in this sense, even if Oxfam and Save the Children have been hesitant and unconvincing in their responses: in the most elemental of ways, many people in the charity sector are doing precisely what charities should do, despite the attendant risks of intimidation and retaliation: speak up, protect the equal dignity of every person, hold yourself and your organization fully accountable, stand up to bullies, and tell the truth.
After all, where does the charitable impulse come from, or civic energy or community-mindedness if you don’t like the other ‘C’ word? Not from wholesale agreement or the hegemony of one set of voices or ideas or approaches. It comes from a much deeper commitment to do the right things in the right ways and see where that leads us.
I live in horror of the dentist, but I volunteer to go twice a year for a deep cleaning of my teeth. Of course it hurts for a while, but afterwards I feel refreshed, and free of the accretions of all the things I shouldn’t have been eating, born out of my own lack of discipline in attending to my health and welfare.
Perhaps the same could be said of charities: they would also benefit from a thorough moral and ethical cleansing to get them back on track. Everyone needs a deep clean from time to time. Best to do it before your teeth get infected.
25 February 2018. Why positive thinking isn’t neoliberal –
By discouraging the use of powerful self-healing and self-development tools we may weaken those who are already disempowered.
There is nothing inherently neoliberal about ‘positive thinking’. But neoliberal capitalism is very good at co-opting everything that goes against it, repackaging it and re-selling it for a profit. This is how positive thinking became a recipe for attaining personal success and riches instead of a tool for social transformation. We now need to reclaim it.
Some advocates of positive thinking tell us that an optimistic attitude can take us far. With the right mind-set and enough self-love, anything is possible, so the story goes. Even the least privileged person can accumulate sufficient emotional and psychological strength to confront the cruelties of capitalism, ‘lean in’ and succeed despite the odds. Your thoughts are your destiny. You need only buy enough self-help books to show you the way to self-realisation.
Critics of this approach are furious. They argue that the positive thinking movement is a western, white, middle-class phenomenon which serves to justify rampant inequality, racism, sexism, and all the other obstacles that people face in modern capitalist societies. They also believe that it feeds neoliberal capitalism and helps it to thrive, because it distracts people from their socio-economic reality by making them believe that their biggest problem in life is their own mental attitude. The underlying message is clear: if you are failing, then it must be your fault. Next time, try harder.
To me, this debate is rooted in an illogical and artificial choice between working on our emotional and spiritual strength and well-being—following which we will somehow become happier and more accepting of the system which is organised to exploit and oppress us; or not working on our emotional wellbeing, and thus feeling even more miserable, disempowered and unable to change things for the better.
In the first scenario, we are blamed for enabling further oppression, both of ourselves and others. In the second we are so exhausted from our daily frustrations and negative emotions that we don’t have the time or energy to work for social transformation. This kind of false binary thinking is unnecessary and unhelpful. But is there a better way forward?
Many western interpretations of eastern thought—which seems to be where many ideas about positive thinking come from—tell us that our minds project the worlds we live in. This implies that people get what they deserve, whether this is due to the content of their conscious or subconscious thoughts. These same interpretations also tell us that we need to accept the world as it is in order to become truly happy and lead a fulfilling life.
As a social scientist and an activist devoted to social transformation, I found such an interpretation of eastern thought unacceptable, but had no clue how to think about it differently. Friends also confessed to me that they were afraid to take up meditation as a wellbeing practice because they thought it would make them accept the status quo, while they really believed in social change.
So as a meditation practitioner I was faced with a moral dilemma. Was I really encouraging the status quo by continuing my practice? Then I discovered initiatives such as Decolonising Yoga which discuss how spiritual thought and practice can reinforce oppression and racism. They made me realise that I was not alone in my discomfort towards the idea of acceptance that is so often associated with spirituality and positive thinking. This was encouraging, so I continued my exploration.
Then I suddenly put all the pieces of the puzzle together while watching a documentary series on Vietnam in which a number of Buddhist monks, and most notably Thích Quảng Đức, were shown burning themselves alive during the 1960s in acts of political protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the American-backed South Vietnamese government of the time. Why would Buddhist monks self-immolate for political reasons in Vietnam, or elsewhere, if eastern thought was telling us that our minds were solely responsible for our circumstances?
Wasn’t eastern thought supposed to be about accepting the world as it was? If these monks were willing to die for social change after devoting their entire lives to the spiritual practice of acceptance, there must be something terribly wrong with the western, capitalism-infused interpretation of that word.
As spiritually developed as these monks were, they were still living in the war-torn Vietnam of the 1960s. War was a fact, just as I will always be an Eastern European woman and my passport and accent will sometimes speak louder than my words, however much I build my own emotional strength and capacity to generate positive thoughts. Oppressive power structures are tangible indeed. But there is also a plethora of scientific evidence to show that our thoughts influence both our internal and external realities. How can we reconcile these different perspectives?
The idea that we are able to influence some but not all aspects of our existence can even be explained within the framework of eastern spiritual thought, with a little help from the ‘depth psychology’ of Carl Jung. Jung’s work tells us that, in addition to the personal conscious and unconscious elements of the psyche, there is also a collective component, a supra-structure of our collective (or transpersonal) unconscious. This is the key difference between Jung and Sigmund Freud, and the reason for the professional rupture between the two psychiatrists.
Freud did not believe in the collective component of the psyche but Jung did, and consequently saw the whole of humanity as psychologically interconnected, similar to much of eastern and indigenous thought. If we inject Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious into the idea that the world is a projection of our minds, then we can begin to accommodate the possibility that the oppressive structures of inequality that we experience in daily life reflect our collective unconscious, which we can’t affect simply by changing our own individual thoughts.
However, even if those thoughts are just a drop in the ocean of the collective unconscious, positive thinking at the personal level remains a powerful input for social transformation. And the more of us do it, the more difference we can make. Through my personal practice, I have learned that negative thoughts and emotions tend to paralyse me, and make me less likely to do anything about my situation. But once I manage to clear my head through meditation or other methods like playing the guitar, I feel re-energised, and more willing to engage with the problems of my community and the wider world.
Consequently, I’ve concluded that for me, acceptance is about learning how to liberate myself from the emotional burden of paralysing stress, sadness or anger so that I can be more, not less socially pro-active. This is what I think of as ‘positive thinking.’ It may not make me rich and famous, but it does give me more energy to fight for the causes I believe in, which in turn gives more meaning to my existence. It also makes me more accepting of my own limitations when I fail to perform according to my expectations, which reduces my overall anxiety and makes me more optimistic and pro-active in the longer run.
Therefore, acceptance has nothing to do with becoming indifferent to suffering. On the contrary, it allows us to act on suffering more effectively. Even though neoliberal capitalism has co-opted resilience and positive thinking as consumer goods which it can sell as quick recipes for success, we don’t need to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater.’
By rejecting the idea of positive thinking and discouraging the use of powerful self-healing tools such as meditation we are actually reinforcing further disempowerment of those who are already socially and economically marginalised. We should be able to see through this hoax and together reclaim positive thinking in the name of social transformation.
23 February 2018. #MeToo, dialogue and healing –
To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection and collective healing.
Washington University, St Louis, 2002. We sit on the floor, friends and others, each of us holding vigil.
I wonder if I will even be able to find the words if I choose to speak. There are fewer facts than I wish for—more self-judgments and denials than cohesive narrative.
It is the story of a date gone bad—broken but intrusive memories, tainted, tamed, and tortured by reoccurrence and repetition.
Heavy, loaded, and strange, the words that come out feel foreign on my tongue as if the story were not mine.
There was the taxi cab, the woman giving herself a pedicure in the living room, my hurrying down the stairs and out the door only to realize I was locked in. There was having to go back inside to ask him to let me out of the gates.
There was, if I let myself feel it, the sensation of watching my body on the bed from far up above where the wall met the ceiling by the doorway to the room. There was voicelessness and fear—the shame of knowing that I did not yell or fight.
There was my wandering of the streets not knowing if I would find my way home or if I even wanted to. There was the feeling of a disorienting sense of safety or freedom in those dark, foreign streets—he was not there.
For the first time, that night I give voice to the words: “I was raped.”
I wonder if the sentence will ever feel real. I do not cry. I just sit in the room, on the floor, where we have all come to share our stories. I stay still and listen to others after I speak. The candles around us seem to offer some comfort of illumination and the darkness in which they flutter holds the safety of an emerging connection to myself and to something else unfolding and unseen.
Daring to break our silences, even those that have kept us safe, is vulnerable work, no matter when or where or how we make the choice. Giving voice to stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault carries with it uncertainty, fear, and the possibility of re-traumatization. Those of us who have experienced the trauma of sexualized violence run the pros and cons of whether to tell people in our lives or offices or communities a million times over.
Times may be changing. Our societies may be ready to receive these stories without questioning them or us. #MeToo has given us a sense of solidarity and togetherness. But even in this watershed moment we are left with the question of collective healing; of how to be in relationship with one another, grieve together, and rebuild a society without such ubiquitous violence.
The only way I’ve found even a glimmer of hope for answers to these questions lies in the practice of dialogue, through which we come to understand ourselves and others, and from that understanding create the relational trust that’s needed to re-imagine and rename how we want to live together.
To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection. I have come to believe that sharing personal stories invites us to enter into transformative dialogue with oneself, with others, and also with the sacred. I have come to see much of my ministry as opening up spaces for people to be with one another in solidarity and dialogue, much like the one I experienced in St Louis that night.
It is hard for those of us committed to working for peace, justice and healing to find safe places to honestly explore our stories. As the demands for outcomes, impact, and measurable change drive us toward easily quantifiable, transactional engagements, we are devaluing the power of sitting together with the simple task of naming the world as we have experienced it.
As we practice giving voice to our experiences and listening to those of others in non-transactional environments, it is impossible to ignore the presence, understanding, and insight that emerges personally and collectively. Such spaces, I have found, are schools of healing, reconciliation, awareness, and spiritual growth.
Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses this power: “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Some may think that to affirm dialogue—the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world—is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans.”
To engage in dialogue requires that we surrender the desire to control ourselves, others, and outcomes. Such a practice requires that we remain firmly and faithfully committed to the cultivation of an abiding and unconditional love, humility, faith, and hope—essential qualities of both our spiritual and practical co-existence. Speaking the story of my rape aloud for the first time back in 2002 did not heal me or free me from my pain and fear. But as I look back, I realize that in the moment I opened up and people listened. I unlocked the possibility for change within me, and maybe outside of me too.
Whether sitting with an individual in spiritual direction, leading a leadership development effort or designing a community healing program, I’m consistently struck by the fragmentation of relationship that comes with suffering. With the wounds of trauma, we all crave a concrete path to healing—if only there were the equivalent of surgery and sutures. But trauma is different. The suffering following trauma can be as multifaceted as the wound. Often one’s connections to self, others, and the sacred cease or change so dramatically that they feel chaotic and meaningless.
If relationship is to be a path to liberation, we must understand the nature of what it means to enter dialogue from a place of pain, loss or trauma. All of the people and places that have offered me something of healing—whether therapists or spiritual teachers, community healing events, 12-step programs, meditation halls or activist groups—have honored the power of dialogue through pain, discomfort, and uncertainty. They have allowed me to name my experience freely and openly, listen to myself and others, rename my experience, and embrace the interconnected nature of all life.
This dance of dialogue has taught me what safety in relationship means. It has helped me to honor the depths of myself and others, and has enabled me to trust again. Slowly, I have realized that I am not alone, that the highs and lows can co-exist. I have realized that I can show up fully to life as it is.
As I pay these gifts forward I am reminded of how much people yearn for spirit-filled opportunities to begin healing with others as a complement to their mental health care and other supports. At my organization Still Harbor, we remain committed to accompanying communities as they discover the power of dialogue-based approaches for healing together. We have offered such experiences in many ways over the years.
In Boston, for example, we’ve trained trauma-informed ‘companions’ in the art of spiritual listening to offer peer support to their neighbors in a community that experiences chronic violence in its streets. We’ve hosted monthly events and small group dialogues that invite people into an open, creative, and expressive space to share their stories of loss, fear, hardship, suffering and hope. This program has unlocked a powerful, transformative energy and a felt sense of connection for all involved.
The profound simplicity of these principles is challenged only by people’s collective fear of the unknown, the fear of what might unfold when we invite people to show up and share their past, pains, and prayers. It can be hard to see others struggle. It can be hard to struggle ourselves. It can be hard to cultivate enough faith in our own spirituality to allow for the kind of authentic dialogue that leads us together toward healing. But I have discovered that in this, as in so much of life, it is well worth the effort.
I used to say that suffering was my teacher. But in truth, I learned very little from mine until I started to name it for myself and in relationship with others. It was the naming and renaming of my suffering that set me on a path towards healing, growth, and happiness.
My hope for all of us is it that we find the courage to create more spaces for this kind of dialogue. As we recognize and enter such places I am confident that we will begin to free ourselves from the oppressive silence of realities unnamed, unheard, and un-integrated. This, I believe, is the power of wholeness, relationship, and community.
A longer version of this article appears in Anchor Magazine.
21 February 2018. The courage of difficult women –
What happened at Save the Children is a symptom of a wider problem in our society which urgently needs to be addressed. The women who have spoken up are the real heroes, not the men who have had the ‘courage’ to admit their mistakes.
It is now an acknowledged fact that women staff at Save the Children UK’s Headquarters in London suffered harassment and that their leadership failed them. In its public statements SCF-UK is now all about the implementation of policy reviews and a new dawn and a readiness for root and branch reform. Justin Forsyth, the former CEO, and Brendan Cox, his former number two, have both admitted that they mistreated women. But this stems from a crisis that culminated in 2015. Why is it only being acknowledged now? Why didn’t anyone speak up?
Well, that’s the thing. Some did speak up but their voices didn’t reach far enough. What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a just a ‘mistake:’ achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff.
When staff started complaining about the bullying culture that was brought in by former Number 10 special advisors Forsyth and Cox, they were derided as moaners. Everyone learned that it was ‘their way or the highway.’ So when several women suffered repeated mistreatment, this was dealt with by leadership as part of the price of being an ‘effective organization’—and staff felt that it was dangerous to complain as a number of them later told the BBC.
Many kept their mouths shut, or at least complained to their peers through informal channels because they had no faith in the formal ones. The bullying and mistreatment was the worst kept secret in the development community. A great many NGO people knew about the behavior of Cox, and Save the Children’s leadership, as is now becoming known, did not do enough to stop it or to hold those responsible to account. People were reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, some did. Complaints were made about both Cox and Forsyth, but neither was fully investigated as Save the Children has itself admitted.
Some of the women affected felt that the Chair of SCF-UK’s Trustees at the time, Sir Alan Parker, discouraged them from speaking out (Parker contests this), and that this had contributed to their trauma. Both Cox and Forsyth left SCF-UK quietly—Forsyth to become number two at UNICEF in New York until his resignation on February 22.
The victims of Cox and Forsyth and their allies didn’t stop at telling peers, senior management and trustees about what was happening. They also went to the media. You might be wondering why all these stories of harassment and abuse are being broken by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph—it was the Mail that originally covered Cox’s departure from the charity back in 2015. Why didn’t the complainants go to somewhere like the Guardian? They did.
These victims are not typical Mail and Telegraph readers and they understood that a story about a lack of accountability in an aid organization will likely be followed in those newspapers by calls for less foreign aid. None of the victims support that goal. What they want is aid plus accountability.
Almost all of the complainants went to the Guardian first. Different Guardian journalists were contacted, but all went quiet. One told me: “I just wanted to say I haven't forgotten about this. Unfortunately the decision to work on the story or not is above my station, so I'm just waiting for a decision either way…” Later, when I asked if they had heard back the same journalist said: “I haven’t unfortunately. It was passed onto powers that be. At the moment it’s looking like it’s not going to run... I presume after some weighing of pros and cons.”
Not only did the Guardian not run a piece about Cox and Forsyth, they actually ran a piece by Cox. This was three months ago. Still I and others kept pressing them. To those affected it looks like some senior media people protect those who are also their personal friends—both the BBC’s Andrew Marr and Sky’s Adam Boulton have publically spoken up for the two men. Perhaps they also think that they are protecting Save the Children, but you don’t protect charities by covering up the behavior of predatory men, only by helping them free themselves from them, and if you leave it to outlets like the Daily Mail then the story gets turned into another reason to cut support for charities.
So this has been a massive disservice, and also a shocking approach to the news, as though women being harassed by powerful men should not be reported on if those men are ‘one of us.’ When the Guardian sat on the story a subsection of the whistleblowers went to the Mail and the Telegraph, who ran it with many fewer sources. The Mail ran a new story about Cox’s behavior on February 17 2018 and the Telegraph followed suit the next day. Neither mentioned Forsyth. But on February 20 the fuller story of the SCF scandal was broken by Radio 4’s PM programme by a dedicated journalist who cited three complaints by female SCF-UK staff members about threatening text messages and other behaviour. SCF-UK has admitted that these complaints were not dealt with in a satisfactory way.
Just a few hours before the PM programme, Kevin Watkins, the current CEO of Save the Children-UK and a former trustee who was one of the people supposed to be ‘governing’ Forsyth, appeared before MPs on the International Development Committee as a leader on transparency and accountability. He wasn’t asked a single question about Cox or Forsyth, or the role of Parker, or his own previous role on SCF-UK’s Board.
What made Cox so dangerous was his power, but politicians, journalists, staff who kept quiet either out of fear of their careers or fear of hurting Save the Children, and ‘feminist leaders’ including Labour MPs like Lucy Powell and Jess Phillips who publically praised Cox after his confession could have spoken out.
But now it looks like all these silencers will be defeated by the persistence and courage of a few difficult women. One of them is Brie O’Keefe, who served under Cox and whose experience at Save the Children left her feeling broken. She spoke yesterday on the record and said this: “If you look at where I am right now I am in a town called Yellowknife in Northern Canada and I am so far away from it, and I am still afraid to speak out. But I am going to do it anyways.”
When Save the Children does reform and return to its values and becomes a safe place for women, let’s not rewrite it as a story of how Cox and Forsyth ‘took responsibility’ and how Save the Children’s new leadership brought in a new approach. They were failing to disclose key aspects of that story even yesterday—and still haven’t released the key documents prepared for the hearing that never happened because Cox resigned, nor those that look back and examine the whole crisis (SCF-UK has promised to release these documents later in 2018).
Remember instead the real heroes, the whistleblowers. Justin Forsyth remained the deputy director of UNICEF until February 22 2018. Alan Parker remains the chair of Save the Children International. Kevin Watkins, a trustee at the time of the scandal, succeeded Forsyth as CEO of SCF-UK and now insists that he has zero-tolerance of sexual harassment. Brie, meanwhile, lives in fear in a small town in Northern Canada. She and others like her are the real leaders of Save the Children.
This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Justin Forsyth from his position at UNICEF on February 22 2018, and amended on 28th February 2018 after openDemocracy received letters via Save the Children’s lawyers.
Save the Children-UK responds, 2pm February 22: "Save the Children has always sought to protect all employees from inappropriate comments and behaviour. If concerns about behaviour occur, there are very clear policies and processes in place to deal with them.
In 2011 and 2015, concerns were raised about inappropriate behaviour and comments by the then CEO, Justin Forsyth. In each case, the chairman instructed HR to manage the process in conjunction with an independent trustee. Two trustees carried out two separate investigations into a total of three complaints made by three female employees.
Both reviews resulted in unreserved apologies from the CEO. All the parties agreed to this and the former CEO apologised to the women in question. At that time the matters were closed.
Concerns were raised with trustees that matters should not have been left as they were and that a further review was required. The review found that HR processes had not been followed in every aspect
In a statement on Sunday, 18 February 2018, Kevin Watkins—who was appointed CEO of Save the Children in late 2016—confirmed that he was commissioning a root and branch review of the organisational culture, examining the systems and processes that protect and preserve the safety and wellbeing of all staff, and addressing any behavioural challenges among senior leadership.
A spokesperson for Save the Children said: ‘The review will commence by the end of this week and report in June 2018. The final report will be published, shared with the Charity Commission and made available to Government and every single member of staff."