Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Zen of Racism: Microaggressions and Beginner’s Mind

I was a white person sitting in a circle of People of Color and other white people I have known for years. We gathered as potential facilitators for a Talking Circle On Race and Racism, Round 2 (a project of the Multicultural Resource Center). Part of the evening was a trial run of one of the questions formulated for round two participants to be discussed in small, race-alike groups and then shared with the whole group. After decades of anti-racism work in many formats, I did not expect this evening to have the huge impact it had. Though the emotional discomfort has been intense, I am grateful for the opportunity to approach race and racism with a beginner’s mind.

My meditation practice and study of the Dharma help me approach pain in a way that I find useful. Humans have aversion to pain and so we scramble to avoid it using every trick in the book! These include self-delusion, justification, projection, blame and evasion. Sadly, these strategies for avoiding our pain often just add layers of pain and obscure reality.

This dynamic is especially evident when white people are confronted with the depth and breadth of the impact of racism on People of Color and when we begin to understand that we are complicit in the system that perpetuates it. I think somewhere we know that if we let that understanding motivate us, we will have to stand up and fight against it – and risk our own safety.

Meditation practice teaches a way to sit with pain (including fear) without the narrative or “story line” attached. That helps to override the urge to escape the pain and helps me to learn from it instead. Over time this helps me uncover the “truth beneath the pain.”

In response to the group work mentioned above, I am still sitting with the feelings that got stirred up – but some things are starting to emerge:

The People of Color in that room are all people that I have long admired and really care about. Not only did I see how deeply racism hurts them on a daily basis (something that is different as an intellectual understanding than it is when you are looking at the pain in the eyes of a friend), I also realized on a new level that I am an unwilling, unwitting delivery system for some of that pain, even though I have been working hard to be an ally for almost 30 years! I don’t want to hurt my friends, yet I do and I will. This is a heart-breaking realization.

During the Circle one Black man said he would like to ask white people, “When did you learn that if you try to interfere with the racist system, you will be killed?” This question really resonated with me, too.  I think that I grew up knowing that on some level.

I am also seeing some unaware assumptions that I had start to crumble. For one thing, I realize that I had assumed that my advocacy and commitment to learning about and fighting racism could somehow provide a sense of hope for my friends and colleagues of Color. After the recent Circle, this seems self-aggrandizing and not relevant to a struggle for human rights. Yet I still wish that somehow I could lessen the pain I saw in their eyes.

I've heard it said that the language of race is broken. It sure feels like that whenever I try to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about anyway – which means there will be pain. Or rather, it means that the pain that exists will be uncovered and, I hope, used to discover wise action.

I know what I get out of being involved in Talking Circles. It’s not comfortable, but it is extremely useful. I wonder what People of Color get out of them? Why should POC have to hear white people deconstruct their own racism – isn’t this adding to the hurt that POC already carry?

There is so much more work for me to do to unpack and process all that has been uncovered. I am aware of wanting to go into my intellect and design solutions or evaluate and figure things out. Lately, the most authentic discoveries I have made have been out of a very vulnerable, open place where I just sit with and breathe into the pain until I discover the truth that lives there. Then more authentic action can follow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Presidential Election: Saying the "R" Word

 I'm voting for President Obama because he's Black. There, I said it. Of course, that's not the only reason I support the president, but it is a reason that bears some explanation since race has become such a submerged yet volatile topic in this election. Just to mention the "r" word is to evoke howls of protest from (mostly) white people who don't want to see what's right before their eyes.

 I see the White House (the WHITE House!) as the ultimate lunch counter and the presidency as the highest position that People of Color could not attain no matter their qualifications. Till now. This is, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD!

Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement of the '60s remembers the dignified Black protesters dressed in their Sunday suits sitting calmly at lunch counters in restaurants that brazenly refused to serve "coloreds." They sat in silence as enraged white citizens poured hot coffee on them, called them names, and spit on them. They sat in quiet witness as police came and dragged them to jail for daring to assert their right to be treated as human beings.

From the very beginning I've watched the Obamas assume their role as First Family with a combination of pride, admiration, anxiety and stark terror. Just as those dignified protesters did decades ago, Barack Obama, Michelle, Sasha and Malia have put on their best clothes and most dignified demeanor to access the position that is theirs by right as a result of a free and fair election.

They entered the White House knowing that by doing so they were calling down the viciousness and violent intent of a still very active racist minority. From day-one the First Family has been exemplary, and from day-one they have all been targets - both rhetorically and very literally. There have been more death-threats against this president than against any other in history.

Not only is the president and his family the target of overt racist hatred on the part of the ignorant, this hatred is being used by the opposition party to undermine Barack Obama's presidency. "Dog whistles" (words and phrases that are not overtly racist, but call up racist assumptions and beliefs in those who are predisposed to "hear" them) are scattered throughout discussions of President Obama by prominent members of the Republican Party. The skin color of the president of the United States of America is being used to gather opposition to his reelection.

Because our system of government has become so dysfunctional, it is very difficult for anyone who occupies the office of president to move forward with a progressive agenda. President Obama had just finished being sworn in as president when congressional Republicans were meeting to plan how to ensure his failure. They used every trick in the book to undermine him and yet he still ends his term with a list of accomplishments including two Supreme Court appointments, an end to DODT, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Healthcare Reform, Wall Street Reform, end to the War in Iraq, revival of the U.S. auto industry, the Lilly Ledbetter Act and more. He also is the gatekeeper, wielding his veto pen as a saber daring anyone to go too far right. All this and the specter of more Supreme Court appointments is reason for me to support President Obama - enthusiastically! -  despite serious questions about drone strikes and the National Defense Authorization Act.
Rockwell painting that President Obama displayed in the White House - causing much attention and controversy.

At the end of the day, after the consideration of accomplishments and areas of concern, this is what I come home to: I intend to vote for President Obama in support of our nation's first Black president.

He and his family have endured ugly, racist attacks with dignity while working hard to do the business of the government and the world on my behalf. I intend to stand with them.
Sasha Obama looking out the window of a secret service car.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pete Meyers: Vision, Path, Action!

Over a year ago now I sat with Pete Meyers just outside the Tompkins County Worker's Center upstairs in the Autumn Leaves bookstore. Pete is one of the founders of the Center. This post includes Part One of our conversation that covered a range of topics from his background to racism to his philosophy of activism. First, here's Pete describing the T.C. Worker's Center:

Sitting in the room with Pete is like sitting at the center of a hurricane. He had a calm demeanor and at the same time was swirling with ideas and could hardly finish one thought before launching into the next! It was a fun, inspiring conversation!

LJ - What influenced you - what experiences, people, places led you to the path you are on now?

PM - Well, the family that I was raised in, for one. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. My parents were actively involved in trying to stop the Vietnam War. They were also involved in anti-racism work. They were housing testers. When there was a suspicion that a Black family was being discriminated against in housing a white family would be sent in to see if they could get the housing.

I grew up in the late 60s when riots were happening. South Bend was a city of 100,000 so riots were happening there as well.

I remember an incident from 5th grade with a Black girl named Tammy. She was writing "Pete and Andrea" on the board and I was writing "Tammy and Donald." Then we started slapping each other a bit - she was bigger than I was. The white male teacher came in and she got in trouble and I didn't. At that point, though I was happy that I wasn't getting in trouble, I also knew that there was something wrong about that. In terms of my own consciousness that stands out. I didn't know about the work that my parents were doing until much later.

LJ - They didn't talk with you about their activism?

Not then. They did in later years. There was a real contradiction - though my family was really engaged with activism, there was some emotional dysfunction.

I got a Masters degree in psychology and then I moved to Brooklyn and worked as a drug counselor in a HS for four years. That was when I started getting the big picture. It was a vocational school that was 95% Black and Latino students. I was really seeing discrimination there on a class basis and a race basis.

I also went to Nicaragua in the middle of the revolution and started to make the connection between racism and classism in this country and how it played out in U.S. foreign policy over hundreds of years. I went to Haiti twice in the mid 90s right after the U.S. invaded Haiti.

I was trying to figure out what to do for a long time and it really wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in 2000 that I started to put it all together. I saw that most people don't really care what's going on elsewhere. They only can be conscious of what's going on in their own lives - they have so much pain and suffering in their own lives that that's all they can pay attention to.

I started to work for Catholic Charities in a welfare-to-work program as a mentor visiting people in their homes. They were being forced to take minimum wage jobs.. I was also working with an activist group called the Ithaca Sharks - the Coalition For Global Justice - and it began to seem important to not just be protesting the IMF and the World Bank because most people don't care about that. It became important for me to bring it home and focus on the living wage.

LJ - You've done a lot on the living wage issue...

Right. So we became a formal organization in 2003 and not long after that started Workers Rights Hotline. Even though a lot of poor, working class people agree with the idea of a living wage, it seems like a pipe dream to them that that's going to change - even though we had some early success with it. Workers Rights Hotline was a way to get people most directly affected in the door. The rest is very dynamic and still going on now.

LJ - Did your organization work with AFCU on the living wage study that identifies the local living wage?

PM - No, they started that in 1993 and The Living Wage Coalition started, Carl would say, in 1997 (before I moved here) when they lobbied the County Legislature to make sure that all Human Service Agencies that they funded paid a living wage. You would have been part of that.

LJ - Yes, I remember. The County did approve funding to bring people up to the living wage, but not to maintain the salary structures so it was hard to implement for some of us - but so important.

LJ - You've been sidling up on my next question about your current primary focus and why you chose it. I hear you saying that the rights of workers here where you live is connected to all the activities you were involved in before. Your main area of focus now is workers rights, correct?

PM - Yeah, it is. We're in the middle of strategic planning right now. We have four core strategies, which I feel really good about. The first is Support and Recruitment. The idea is that we need to get people in the door with something that concerns them - maybe they feel like they've been screwed over at work - it could be a whole range of things. If we get one out of a hundred people to want to get more involved, we're doing well. We're such an individualistic society that to get people involved and see themselves as organizers is really tough.

The next core strategy is Advocacy, which means that we advocate for people in the workplace. This can be on an individual basis - if they don't feel safe doing it on their own. Or on a larger scale like with the Sodexo victory. I would consider that advocacy because, though there were a few workers involved, it was not worker-driven. Which is not our ideal. We would prefer that more workers be directly involved, but we are in a milieu where most workers are afraid of that.

LJ - The power dynamic is so skewed that most workers feel frightened for their lives, or at least their livelihoods.

PM - Right. It feels like their lives, even though it's not technically, but it feels like it.

Advocacy can also mean giving support with workplace bullying. The second-most reason that people come to the Workers Rights Hotline is because they feel bullied. Linda Holzbaur (Community Organizer at the Tompkins County Worker's Center) did a series of workshops on the topic and we are considering getting involved in state legislation.

LJ - Bullied by supervisors or by other workers?

By other workers. It's not against the law to bully coworkers unless it's on the basis of race or gender. Many people are bullied without that. So advocating for change in a larger, systemic way would be part of advocacy.

Then the next core strategy is Empowerment. That's building on the idea that we are attempting to empower workers to work together in the workplace to create change. When two or more people do that, that's actually protected by law, whether they want to form a union or not. It's called Concerted Action - acting in concert - and that's protected by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers would still feel a great risk of doing it even though it's protected because, so what? It's going to take a long time - but with the Workers Rights Center behind them that's where we see progress. And I think we've had some good successes with that.

Movement Building is the last core strategy so it all connects to the larger picture. This is the reason I got involved in this work in the first place. This is why I see the work we do as being connected to what's happening in developing countries.

It's so clear to me that we don't have a critical mass right now to really change the way power works in this world. What we have to do is really build it at the grassroots level.

LJ - Do you have hope for that?

PM - Yeah...I mean, I live in the hope, but it's not something that I'm going to see in my own lifetime. You have to see it as part of a larger...I think of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the pure vision in that. It's like, how do you see yourself? It's a spiritual question, right? How do you see yourself in the cosmic scheme of things? 20 years ago I was intending to be Martin Luther King, I was intending to be Gandhi The male ego can be a powerful thing!

LJ - Oh I don't know...I was there too...

PM - If you have the right spiritual orientation, I think it can enable your work. I'm really kind of fascinated...not that I've fully figured it out...with what it means to have a vision that deeply informs ones life.

What I'm learning about strategic planning is that you have a vision and then you have to acknowledge what's happening right now in order to be able to get to that vision. I've been very informed by a book called The Path of Least Resistance which is about creating what you want to create in life. As a simple example, my vision is: I need more coffee in my cup. The current reality is: I don't have enough coffee in my cup. There's a structural tension that I need to make happen. It's easy with a cup of coffee. Now what do you do with our vision, which is a four paragraph statement including a living wage for all workers in Tompkins County, rights in the workplace, an end to racism and quality housing, healthcare, etc. On one level it could be seen as pie in the sky.

But I'm a real believer in creating dramatic actions. A great example is the campaign to change the name of State Street to Martin Luther King Street. That action caused so much controversy, it really involved lots of people in discussions of race and class. I think there were over 200 people at the initial meeting at the DSS building. Yet if we had instead had a workshop on race and class and sent out flyers maybe we would have gotten 10 or 15 people. It is very powerful to use an action - a real change - that will provoke a conversation that needs to happen.

Pete's emphasis on action is inspiring. Shortly after our conversation I saw Pete with a microphone at an Occupy Wall Street protest on the Commons at Bank Alley - 
from vision to action!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More Than A Month - Where the Film Took Me As a White Person

I happened across an amazing film on PBS the other night called More Than A Month by filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman. A description of the film can be found here including a link to information about screenings and even a smartphone app that points users to sites of significance in African American history! Here is a taste:

Should Black History Month be ended? That’s the question explored by African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman as he embarks on a cross-country campaign to do just that. Both amusing and thought provoking, More Than a Month examines what the treatment of history tells us about race and power in contemporary America.
I hadn't heard of the film before I started watching it and I started out feeling defensive - attached to the idea of Black History Month and thinking of things to say to refute the idea of ending such a significant national focus on African American History. As the film unfolded and I saw the questioning, open nature of the film, I relaxed into the journey that the filmmaker had undertaken. I'm so glad I did because it took me to surprising places.

As a young person I grew up in a home that was strongly supportive of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. My parents had a very diverse group of friends and taught me that it was important to pay attention to injustice in the world and try to right the wrongs we saw. As a result I was committed to being an ally in the struggle to end racism. As I participated in anti-racism activities I took to heart the idea that, as a white person, it was my responsibility to learn about Black culture and history. I have enjoyed reading literature by People of Color and learning about the histories of People of Color for almost four decades since then. And then: Bang! The film More Than A Month helped me make a qualitative leap in my understanding of what Black History - and all history - is.

Black History, African American History, the history of People of Color is OUR history. MY history. Instead of seeing the fight to include African American History in the teaching of history as a fight to include a group that has been excluded - I now see it as a fight to correct a distorted representation of the history of my country and my world. Though I have always felt committed to "the cause," it no longer feels like being an ally. It feels like a fight for the truth which is a fight that includes us all.

I am still working on an interview with Pete Meyers. I have been detoured from my projects by personal circumstances but hope to get back to more regular writing some time this year.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Farmer’s Market is Like “Church”

 At least once a week my heart fills with a sense of hope and wonder, opening to gratitude, humility and a sense of connectedness. I am not a member of any religion and I don’t go to church, but I do go to my local Farmer’s Market – religiously!

I live right downtown in my small city. It takes me 20 minutes by bicycle to get to the Market. My bike is fitted out with a big crate on the back and bags on the front to carry home my groceries.

We gather by the inlet, a body of water that leads to a beautiful lake. Across the water is a park with a waterfront trail, often peopled by bicyclists, skaters, runners, walkers and strollers. Sometimes there are rowers or sailors on the water and, usually, ducks.

Back when it was still cold in my northeastern community and the trees were still bare, my family purchased a share of the harvest that we hoped and expected would unfold in the coming months – an act of faith, when contemplating the frozen ground of March.

But unfold it does, providing more and more bounty as the summer grows and ripens into autumn. The colors, flavors and textures of the Market quiet my busy mind and bring me into the present.

Sometimes my eyes fill with tears, just for a moment, when I pick up my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share - if I let myself feel how amazing it is that this earth is so alive with food. “My” farmer is quiet, a bit gruff but friendly. Sometimes we talk about the weather (as it relates to the plants), bugs (as they relate to the plants) or disease (same). The catechism of agriculture! I know his name and think of him when I sit down to eat. Whenever I buy fruit or produce at another stand, I learn the names of the farmers and think of them, too. And I think of my friends and neighbors together on Saturday morning in that beautiful place. My stomach and my heart are filled at the same time.

There is something so deeply grounding about the Market for me, that it transcends the words “food shopping.” It feels more like…devotion. 

I wrote this a few years ago - before I started working at a farm in exchange for my CSA share. I followed the food to its origins and found the fields on a hill overlooking our beautiful city. Every Tuesday I take the bus out to the farm and  harvest, pull weeds, wash produce and set up the barn for the "pick-up." The farmers are dedicated and inspiring and the crew is fun and interesting. Other member/workers join us - the conversations feed us as much as the food does. Somehow this work makes us intimate and things are shared - deep thoughts, difficult feelings, visionary ideas and grand plans. With hands in the soil, the sun on my back and muscles aching with the toil I learn a deep respect for the people who work the land so that we can eat - a respect that is more than intellectual, it lives in my sore lower back and sunburned neck. And I learn that devotion is in all the places that feed us, body, mind and spirit.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Human Rights Belong to Everybody" A Conversation With Laura Branca

Sitting with Laura Branca in Gimme Coffee, we look out the big front window at Martin Luther King, Jr. Street as the drizzle turns into sleet and back into drizzle. Laura's calm demeanor and warm eyes contrast with her energy and spark as she takes up the questions I had sent her by e-mail. She has some notes but laughs about how much there is to say and how hard it is to know where to start.

Her long, careful, descriptions and stories are magically woven and I hope to capture some of that quality in this retelling. Our conversations range over many subjects, but Human Rights connects them all. Right at the beginning Laura makes this clear:

"Human Rights covers just about everything that people need and can be relevant to work in any field. It is the large, encompassing umbrella through which I’m beginning to look at all my work and interests - it is a framework that is about everybody."

Though our conversation starts in the present, I want to begin the article by putting our discussion of projects and interests into a broader context. So I ask, "What people and experiences influenced you?" 

Laura's history and influences go back a long way and cover a lot of ground. She acknowledges some of her more recent mentors but her parents, she says, were her strongest influence. Her father was a Black American and her mother was an Armenian- American.

Her paternal grandfather (father's father) was born into slavery. The generational closeness of this relationship to the present brings home how recently the institution of slavery existed in this country. We pause for a moment and acknowledge that there are worlds of things that could be said about this fact. Then she goes on:

LB:  "My grandmother's father was murdered in Louisiana because he was organizing agricultural workers who continued to work on the plantations after emancipation. They got pennies, but they didn't know they had the right to find out how much they would be paid so they could try to work for those planters who paid the most or ask for higher wages. He was trying to help the workers understand their rights. So the white planters responded by organizing themselves into a posse and went around the community and killed everybody who was part of that movement. They shot my great-grandfather on the front porch of his house This was the violent suppression of the sharing of information. It was that powerful and that dangerous to do. These are some of the roots of The Labor Movement. People needed to understand each others’ conditions so they could move as a group toward something better. You can't do that if you don't talk to each other. If you don't share what's going on in your lives, you don't know that you have common cause."

"My dad became a playwright during the 1930s at a time in this country when the words 'black' and 'playwright' - would have been an oxymoron - you didn't hear those words together in the same sentence. He chose to write about the lives, conditions and struggles of black people and poor people -  through both historical and contemporary dramas.. The political climate in the 30s and 40s was somewhat different from the McCarthy period of the post WW II 50s. Eventually my father was blacklisted.  Many progressive, revolutionary voices were silenced and many (though not my father) were jailed. The suppression of art in this country was related to the suppression of progressive education - and many people lost their jobs."

"My mother was the first child in her family born in this country. Her parents escaped the Turkish massacres of Armenians. They were among the lucky ones who were able to get out, but most of the people in their families were killed. As a young adult during the Depression, my mom gravitated toward the progressive movement. Those were the only people who were speaking out about injustice; people were getting together across race, across class, across educational and economic differences, across ethnicity and supporting each other, speaking up for each other and taking a stand against racism, against Fascism, fighting for jobs and for each other. These were the people who were saying, 'Look, there's something really wrong going on here.' "

“My mom was a person who really lived her beliefs and really helped people in whatever ways she could."

At this point Laura goes on to tell a story about her mother's generosity and compassion, even under very difficult circumstances:

"'My mother worked on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys for a long time. She was living in up in Harlem when Ruby Bates, one of the two women who accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, recanted her testimony and found refuge in the progressive community  in Harlem . One of the attorneys asked my mother to help her. ‘Can you put her up for a while? She needs someone to take her to the dentist, and so forth' and my mom said, 'How can I help this woman who lied and got these guys arrested?’ But they said, 'You have to meet her. She's this poor, skinny woman; her teeth are all messed up -  If you meet her then you'll understand.' And she did meet her and helped her out."

With such a personal connection to the struggle for human rights across generations, it makes sense that Laura makes this work the focus of her own life.

"What I'm trying to work my way into is making justice and human dignity central to what I do."

In this context I circle back to the beginning of our discussion about this primary focus in Laura's life and work. She is involved in many organizations and initiatives in the community and beyond. She is  a partner at TFC (Training For Change) Associates with Kirby Edmonds, a company that provides anti-oppression workshops ,  consulting and training on organizational and leadership development, communication, conflict resolution, cultural competency,  and other skills for public, private and grassroots organizations. . Lately her most visible work has been with the MRC project, Talking Circles on Race and Racism as a circle facilitator and trainer of facilitators.

Her most recent project - and the one that lights her face with enthusiasm - is as a Senior Fellow helping to develop the newly created Dorothy Cotton Institute a project of the Center for Transformative Action.

The project carries forward the legacy of work that Dorothy Cotton did during the Civil Rights Movement as Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council when she ran the Citizenship Education Program to help people to understand their rights in the face of racist oppression and support each other to take action.

From the Vision Statement on the website: "The Dorothy Cotton Institute envisions the full realization of a just and peaceful beloved community in which all people understand, respect, protect and exercise full human rights."

Laura explained that the work of human rights can be done through any field of endeavor and is really for everyone's benefit. The Dorothy Cotton Institute will work to connect disparate human rights efforts to help support and bring visibility to the popular human rights movement on a global scale.  It will work to develop an understanding here in the U.S. of the political, civil, economic, cultural, social and environmental rights to which all people are entitled under the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights. There will be an education component that will help connect lessons learned from past struggles to present efforts for justice. And there will be a focus on young people, helping them to understand the power and importance of the human rights framework.

We discussed the way different pieces of the struggle for human rights become compartmentalized and can be dismissed as not relevant to the majority.

 LB:  "A lot of what happens in this country is that work on equity, dismantling racism or other anti-oppression work gets categorized as something to do when you've got extra resources and time on your hands. Or it's viewed as just for marginalized people who don't have anything to contribute. It gets devalued as not essential to the health of our society and labeled as ‘identity politics’ or ‘special interests.' There are so many pejorative ways of demeaning the work for social justice - there's so much mythology around what this work is about and who it will benefit, rather than being understood as something that everybody ought to have an interest in. Human Rights is a different frame to put around that work because justice and human dignity belong to everybody."

This is a very hopeful frame that joins people together regardless of what identities they claim or what particular part of the struggle is their primary focus.

LB:  "Once people begin to learn what their rights are and compare that to what their life circumstances are - a light bulb goes off.' I thought human rights were for someone else, people in another country.' But, no. We can see the erosion of people's human rights going on daily in the news. When you look through that lens you see that, 'Oh, it's a human right to form a trade union? It's a human right to assemble and to express your grievances to the government? It's a human right to run for office or to have your vote counted? It's a human right to have health care and access to affordable, healthy food?' These are things that many people in this country don't think of as human rights. When you look through that lens, people are shocked. Our country has told us we're the most blessed nation on the planet, that we have freedoms that everybody else envies, , when, in fact in other places in the world people know a whole lot more about human rights than people here in the United States do."

"There is an international conversation going on about what a human being is entitled to, that we are responsible to each other to protect our rights and our countries are accountable to each other to help fulfill those rights. When people hear about that - when they understand it, they get excited about it."

"One of the things I'm noticing as people go through the human rights trainings that we're offering is that the language of human rights is showing up more often in the community. I'm not saying that we started that, but I'm seeing it as an idea whose time has come. It's rippling out because it has meaning to people. For example, going to the Food Security meeting recently and hearing people say 'food is a human right.' Hearing people in New England talking about health care as a human right. Imagine how different the dialog would have been during the national health care debate if President Obama had described what he was originally proposing to do  by saying  'Health care is a human right and we are not protecting that or fulfilling that adequately for our citizens. Other countries are doing a better job of it than we are. You are entitled to this and our administration is going to fulfill this responsibility.' It would have been a completely different conversation."

"Human Rights are inalienable; they belong to you whether or not they are being protected in your life circumstance and environment. They are a part of what it is to be human. There are important conversations going on all over the world detailing 'what does this mean I'm entitled to, what does that mean we need to do for each other; how are we supposed to treat each other?'"

“Even though much of the language of human rights is in the language describing individual rights, there are also rights of groups of people, rights of indigenous peoples are being drafted, and there's work being done on the rights of the Earth,  - It means we are each responsible for helping to create the kind of community, the kind of society, where those rights can be expressed and realized. That means we can't ignore each others conditions or suffering.”

“Another thing I like about this concept is that nations are accountable for respecting human rights, whether they sign these treaties or not. If they're violating human rights, international response or intervention has to happen, even if that country doesn’t  agree that they are responsible or in violation. For those countries that do sign the international covenants, every level of their governments and every public body is obligated to be aware of its responsibility to make human rights realized in people's lives. It's a very thorough and accessible way of understanding how to build community. It really resonates and I think that people are deeply affected by it when they start having human rights conversations.”

I asked Laura who in the community she would like to see me interview - who she would like to learn more about. We generated quite a list which prompted Laura to mention a couple of initiatives that have happened in the community recently that have to do with human rights and are indicative of the momentum being generated as more and more people  become familiar with this way of viewing the world.

"Community people teamed up with some Ithaca College (IC) professors to provide community-based cultural competency training for IC students before they were connected to organizations and programs to  what is usually known as service learning. That way they could learn something about the cultures of the organizations and communities where they were going to work..”

“At Ithaca High School, for the MLK Community Build kick-off, 17 facilitators (either Human Rights training alumni or Talking Circle alumni) were invited to the high school. Each facilitator took a class and had students share personal human rights stories about their experience of injustice. People who were in those sessions are saying that students have been coming up to them and saying, ‘That was really great! We never get to talk about that stuff.’"

Our list of people and projects became so long that it would take years to explore them all. It feels hopeful that so many people are working toward an equitable and sustainable world from so many different angles. I asked Laura what we could do to better support each other without sapping vital energy for each project.

LB:  "One of the things that I find most frustrating about being a part of the Ithaca community for so many years is the tendency among people who are working for social change, for justice, and trying to make life better - to easily turn on each other. It's demoralizing and such a waste to indulge in  these dramas with each other. We are not enemies. What would it mean to behave as though we truly care for and support one another?"

As she speaks, I nod my head. I have noticed this tendency and it has been a topic of discussion again and again in many circles. She goes on:

LB:  "In every family, in every friendship, in every community we're going to have people that we don't get along with, but that doesn't mean that that's where we focus our energy - on devaluing, criticizing, judging and calling people out and hanging them out to dry. It's so unskillful if we ever hope to make change in the world to indulge in gossip or to imply that our neighbors are not worthy of doing this work - it's ridiculous. When we’re not producing good results fast enough we turn on each other. I've seen a lot of really great campaigns, committees, councils, action groups implode because of this dynamic.  The drama starts to suck all the energy, and people feel pressured to take sides and wonder where the finger of accusation is going to point next,  and people get scared off from taking a stand about things."

Part of my motivation for doing these interviews is to help us all feel connected regardless of which piece of this work we are involved in, and to help us see the humanity in each other so there is maybe less inclination to attack and blame.

As Laura says, "People are not perfect, but  we could be a lot worse!"

I know that Laura, like so many other people who do social change work, feels the weight of this work in her heart and in her body. Activists put attention on the suffering that still exists and there is a pull to use every breath and every waking moment to try to make it better. But that path leads to burnout. So I asked Laura how she maintains her energy and balance in the face of a seemingly endless task - "What do you do to recharge?"

"Hang out with friends, talk to my family, my ancestors- surround myself with beauty, light a lot of candles, listen to music, meditate, read books, I love movies."

Though she says her favorite books are “too many to list” they include Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Teachings on Love by Thicht Nhat Hanh and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. Some favorites in the music category are Hamza El Din's  A Wish, Djivan Gasparian's I Will Not Be Sad In This World, Bob Marley's Concrete Jungle, Celia Cruz's  Raices and Sweet Honey in the Rock's Joanne Little.

As we have been talking, the room has been filling with coffee-drinkers seeking refuge from a chilly, wet spring day. As we prepare to say goodbye, we see Michelle at the next table and go over to exchange hugs and hellos. It occurs to me that if we filled this cafe with all the people in our community working for an equitable, sustainable world they might not all fit!

On the printout of the questions that I e-mailed to Laura when we made this appointment I see that she has made some notes about ways that activists can support each other in the community:

Work across race, class, place and age. Turn out for each others events. Notice interconnections.

This looks like a good prescription for strengthening and celebrating the vibrancy and commitment of activism in our community.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Planning Interviews - Do You Have a Suggestion?

The struggle for a sustainable, equitable world produces a mosaic of projects shepherded by visionary, energetic groups and individuals. Much happens behind the scenes and doesn't necessarily get seen by the broader community. And sometimes we get so focused on a particular tile in the mosaic that we don't always see the whole beautiful pattern.

I'm planning to use this space for a series of interviews of visionaries, activists and social/political change leaders in our community. I'm looking forward to getting to know people a little better. I'm hoping to learn more about all the projects unfolding here in Ithaca (and surrounding areas) and make connections between them. What are the shared ideas and ideals that make seemingly disparate people/projects part of the same mosaic?

Finally, what can we do to support/sustain each other without sapping the energy needed for each endeavor?

I have some ideas for a start - and I'm hoping that you will send me YOUR ideas for people and projects that you would like to learn more about.