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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Education for Revolution

I had a Jesuit education--a long, long Jesuit education. The Jesuits championed a "liberal" education which, prior to George H.W. Bush condemnation of the "l-word," was a good word. It meant open, tolerant, broad, and inclusive. We read John Henry Cardinal Newman's "Idea of a University" which brought together many disciplines and a community of learners connecting with the great mentors of the past, with new scholarship, and with each other in a search for truth. We read Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" of antiquity and modernity--the classics of philosophy, literature, and science.  We were steeped in the "humanities." We learned ancient and modern tongues so we could appreciate them more. Liberal education meant seeing truth from many viewpoints and learning how to think critically, that is, raise questions concerning all positions, trying on new forms, seeking evidence for our conclusions, and understanding that expression related to the time and space in which it was uttered and could only be understood within its historical context.

We were taught that any specialties we attempted could only be mastered on the base of a broad, liberal education. We fully embraced the "Enlightenment" and the new science. And even when certain church authorities condemned certain propositions of science, we were taught that there could be no contradiction between faith and reason. We were taught to follow our faith in reason and to use reason to interpret our faith. Yes, at times we had to give in to an uneducated, authoritarian bishop and avoid certain formulations and practices that they deemed heretical and forbade; but we never give up our conscience, our search for truth, our attempt to make the ancient faith compatible with contemporary thinking. If that were impossible for us or somehow violated what we considered our duty, we could leave the religion because thankfully society had adopted a liberal approach to religious practice and expression unlike the old days of the Inquisition.

Because we learned the art of critical thinking, because we were exposed to contemporary science and philosophy, we began to realize that the "liberal" education we were learning was often resting on unchallenged assumptions that preserved the present political economy that was working well for some of us and hold backing many others. The Civil Rights struggle, urban decay and riots, and the War in Vietnam forced us to re-examine what we were learning and doing. While liberal education was much better than government or corporation produced mass education, it was reenforcing a liberal economics and social order that was driving terrible social inequities and injustices.

I taught at a Jesuit High School. It was a wonderful experience, working with wonderful colleagues and students. But I began to see how that high school functioned in the social order of Detroit. It was a way to bring upwardly mobile middle class descendants of immigrants into the dominant economic system in which success would be measured by the accumulation of riches--the American Dream. It was this experience that led me to a new type of education. The challenge for the next revolution is to move from liberal to "liberating" education.

This education still uses books and articles, lectures and seminars, teachers and colleagues but only in relation to real action in the world, experiments that can be tested, and, in my case action for social change. I learned before I read about it that it is only in the act of making things and changing the world that liberating education occurs.

The principle of liberating education is that we are most human (and divine) when we are creating our world together. Education is the process of developing the desire and the skills to do that. Liberating education is education where the student (which literally means "eager one") is not a passive receiver of knowledge, but an eager pursuer of truth, a subject not an object of the learning process.

The liberating education process treats students as agents, not recipients in the learning community. Even in literacy education, the way of learning to speak, read, and write, students start with facing and questioning their day to day realities. They are exposed to the traditional narratives of the culture, the creation stories, the founding myths, the tribal and national histories, but in a way that they can participate in their on-going evolution. They learn alternative stories, myths, and histories. And they learn how to question them all and tell them in their unique ways.

As students learn the skills of getting along in the world as they confront it through language, literature, mathematics, art, sports, and science, they also learn to experiment and create based on the questions that are raised by them about their world. The teacher of liberating education sets the framework for exploration around the questions that students raise in their inchoate worlds. All education involves a practicum or type of internship in real life situations whereby the students are following their own interests. While vocational or job education involves apprenticeships to masters, the expectation is that students will come up with their own masterpieces rather than simply being trained for a particular job that will soon be extinct.

Liberating education does not have core curricula and does not teach to tests that some outside agencies fashion. The teacher in liberating education is learning with the students, exploring interests and questions along with the students and considers herself a perpetual student as well. She does not teach the same content or syllabus every year. Her lesson plan begins with the setting of questions for exploration based on the interests of the students and allows for individual students setting their own goals in pursuit of the discipline. A liberating education sets forth the expectation and situation for innovation at all levels and for all students no matter their IQ or social situation.

Information is no longer an issue. The new technology puts all information at our finger tips. Students are learning the techniques of accessing this information worldwide. But what all of us students need to learn is the right questions to ask and how to use the information we are given. The task is not so much accessing the information but assessing it. This is a wonderful new challenge for liberating education: 1) making sure that information is readily available to all and 2) using information to confront and compete with the information we are constantly provided especially by those who have the most control of that information.  The liberation of the human spirit from the technology it has created is by using that same technology judiciously and boldly, again as agents beyond recipients of information.

I question whether any of the school reform programs, designed to help students make it in today's world, are liberating student's to create tomorrow's world.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Easter Reflection

I had a dream last night. Again. Four of us were speaking at a retreat; or was it a conference? My topic was Resurrection and the Way of Jesus. I had a five part outline but can only remember that the first had to do with "the specific and the general" and the third or middle was entitled "facticity" and dealt with the fact of resurrection. Dreams are muddled workings of the brain combining memories of things and the figuring out of those things. I woke with a brain still firing and sat down to jot what was going on.

My reflection on Reserrection and the Way of Jesus has five parts: 1) general: big thoughts and mighty teachings, 2) specific: a personal experience, 3) facticity, 4) immediacy: the fact and personal experience, 5) mediacy:  the fact and its lessons in big thoughts and mighty teachings. Need I point out the circular nature of my reflection? No, I thought not.

1. We were born into a world constituted, yet changing. Big ideas dominate around which everything else is organized. The world into which I was born was Christian-Catholic, modern-postenlightenment, scientific, democratic, capitalist, Eurocentric, English-languaged, and white male privileged. As I met others, read, and studied, I realized that there were variations on my world but generally accepted the big ideas around which my world was organized and used them to interpret all my experiences.

2. But then I had experiences of events that did not fit my interpretations and of people who questioned those big ideas and so challenged the organization of my world. I met women, persons of color, science writers, philosophers, film makers, foreigners, and others who rejected the big ideas by which my world was organized. And there were novelists and theologians in particular who undermined my beliefs. In particular, I was introduced to Jesus of Nazareth in a new way. Jesuit spirituality to which I was introduced uses the imagination to enter into the life, times, and ways of Jesus.

A "person" I learned, is not a fixed core or unchanging entity. A person is a process of discovery, a particular attitude, a practiced role, a specific style that emerges from a past and is intending a future. And so I experienced through my imagination the person of Jesus. I admired him and became his disciple and companion. He was considered a revolutionary in the mind of the establishment because he challenged the big ideas and the social organization of the times and incited a liberation movement. He identified with the culturally disrespected, the economically left out, the politically powerless and took issue with the patronage system of Rome and Jerusalem. He was also an atheist in their minds because he denied their gods and their icons of divinity. So they killed him--not the Jews, not the Romans, but the plutocrats, the patrĂ³nes, the patriots, the believers because Jesus was a danger to their way of life.

3. One articulate, fervent, but flawed follower of Jesus was Paul, an organizer who built communities taking on the attitude and role of Jesus. He spoke and wrote, as did Jesus, as do we all, using the language and ideas of our times and places. He preached faith, hope, and love among all persons in the spirit or style of Jesus. He based this faith on the "resurrection" of Jesus from the dead, a resurrection which he experienced and lived. "If Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, vain is your faith" and hope and love. It is this fact--the fact of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection--on which Paul's whole enterprise and that of Jesus is based.

A "fact" of course is something made up. The very word (from the Latin facere) says this. Scientific facts are formulas or models (theories) made up by imaginative thinkers that explain diverse phenomena or experiences by showing a consistent relationship. These theories are facts when they are proven by evidence that is accessible to all.

4. What is the immediate experience that offers evidence for the fact of Jesus and his resurrection. For Paul it was a fall from a horse after interacting hostilely with Jesus disciples and then a vision, I suppose not unlike my dream that started all this. But it was also the change in his own life and the lives of those budding small groups of dissenters with whom he worked and sometimes fought with.

For me it is similar. It is sharing the lives of many who are living and acting in the style of Jesus, the revolutionary and atheist. Some are notables like Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, Oscar Romero, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela; and many are uncelebrated family members, friends, fellow travelers, colleagues, companions on the journey towards justice. There are also many who live and practice the Jesus way without using Jesus language and are hostile to any religion that sanctifies what Jesus was opposing. They too are direct evidence for the continuation of the person, the way of Jesus.

5. How mediate the Jesus style today? Our media of communication are not those of antiquity or even modernity. Our common sense shaped by a new developing cosmology and psychology employs images, ideas, and forms far different. I for one cannot accept a supernatural entity or a disembodied consciousness or a place without time. I know that a dead body that has not decayed can be resuscitated and return to consciousness through medical procedures; and perhaps scientists and engineers will learn how to resuscitate or ward off brain death and loss of consciousness for longer periods of time. But that is not what I mean by "resurrection."

Others may still find solace in the ancient cosmology and psychology of gods, ghosts, and souls that go in and out of bodies. But whether people do or not is beside the point. All our doctrines, beliefs, idolatries, and conventional wisdom are transitory. The one fact, however we express it, is the resurrection of the Jesus way to bring power to the powerless, respect to the disrespected, freedom to the captives. That fact does not belong to the ecclesial bureaucracy but to a congregation attempting to live the Jesus way. It does not belong to the Nation of patriots, but to publics organized for social justice. That fact does not support service to a divine king or patron, but does stimulate the breath of Love with others. Resurrection is not a doctrine of the Christ or the Prophet, or God, but living and acting the way of liberation, the way of Jesus.

Happy Easter. He is risen indeed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Are we heading towards war?

I am working on the issue I raised in my last blog on poverty and believe I have a proposal to make that should engage the next revolution. But before I do, Cousin Vinnie asked me if I think a war is coming. I think the question very much relates with what I have been thinking regarding poverty. Here is my response.

The conclusion of my own study (and here I agree with Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky who are strong critics of Democratic and Republican foreign policy) is that the American economy (and now the global economy under US hegemony), the way it is now constructed beginning with the industrial revolution into the information revolution, requires that there be an underclass and oligarchs.  And it requires a perpetual war on something (Fascism, Communism, Poverty, Drugs,Terrorism, Islam, God) to keep people in line. War is also a tremendous opportunity to make weapons, technology, jobs, and a lot of wealth for those who control those things. War is built into our history because it is built into our economy.

Since our political parties need mass appeal in a society that uses popular vote and polls to be elected, they need large amounts of money to use the mass media to influence the vote. When you need money you go to those who have it and that is largely the rich and their institutions (the corporations), whether liberal or conservative, which now, through very well-paid and legally trained lobbyists, make sure that legislation goes their ways. You also encourage fear of the other guy--e.g. the liberal or conservative--to mask what and who are really driving things. Therefore many politicians only see things from the point of view of their rich patrons (not unlike Italy under the Medici's and getting close to Italy under Nero). Because of this, I no longer believe we are living in a democratic republic with liberty and justice for all. We are more a plutocracy and fast becoming an oligarchy--not just in America but worldwide.

We have transitioned to a society, in an overpopulated world, that thanks to technology and robotics does not need as many workers. War, especially for the winners, can really solve lots of economic and popular problems. Throw in some machismo, some tribal religion, and an over-extended empire that thinks it is exceptional and of course right in all they do, and yes, we have the prescription for war. If not now--then when the seas rise and some disasters hit. 

So yes, I agree with you.  In all three dimensions of our personal and collective existence, economics, politics, and culture, we are on a course towards war. 

(In fact that war is now going on. We have just been distracted by our gadgets.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Poverty--The Big Question

Can programs end poverty?

Last week I participated in an all day Atlantic Magazine Forum on the War on Poverty-50 years later. Today, I just finished reading Nina Munk's The Idealist, the story of Jeffrey Sach's Millennial Village experiment to achieve The End of Poverty (the name of his book) in Africa.  A few weeks ago I attended an excellent conference in Denver in which hundreds of public-private programs in sustainable development promoting equity were showcased. Poverty and programs to end it are on my mind. 

At the Atlantic Forum, it was commonly agreed that "safety-net" programs certainly helped those who are suffering the consequences of poverty at a particular time (like now) and often give individuals and families some time and space to get education and a job and maybe even some equity. Just because the percentage of poor has not dropped that much, we have to remember that they aren't the same people. There were lots of stories even by presenters of their brush with poverty and their gratitude for food stamps, housing subsidies, headstart, welfare payments until they could get on their feet.

Most everyone urged that we try more "structural" solutions to poverty, e.g. job creation, education, desegregation through mixed income housing, minimum wage and earned income tax credit. A bit higher level of analysis was offered by Richard Rothstein who identified the "de jure" segregation of races and classes through government supported financing in housing development and by Cory Booker who identified the New Jim Crow (a book by Michelle Alexander which I am just starting) that creates a special class of mass incarcerated among people of color.

Do programs end poverty? No, not really.

And that leads me to the big question. I asked it of Paul Krugman at the Forum; but he did not, perhaps could not, answer it. I also asked it of Rothstein by letter and we may see what his response will be.

Is it the way that our economy is constructed and run that makes it desirable or even necessary for an underclass along with oligarchs? Is exploitation built into the national and now, thanks to US hegemony, global economy?

The Atlantic forum generally dealt with 1) focusing on the poor we have now, whatever the cause, by maintaining or expanding safety net services and 2) looking at some of the structural solutions like making jobs and educating people for jobs from early childhood on. 

Place based examples were cited. But I keep asking the question that Michael Harrington asked in my generation. Is there a need for a more basic transformation? And what are steps towards that?

I don’t mean to ask this as a way to undermine safety net, fair housing, CRA, and jobs programs—the way Tea Partiers do (focusing again the angry white low income workers on the wrong targets), but more to practice them in a way that chips away at more fundamental patterns of our present political economy.

In any case I want to pursue this question in the weeks ahead: 1) by considering the dimensions of our US/global political economy, 2) considering if exploitation and therefore a lower class is inevitable in this kind of economy, 3) identify non-exploitative economies or what a non-exploitative economy might look like, 4) (using all the buzzwords) explore possibilities for a sustainable and equitable economy of scale, and finally 5) decide what this means for my action. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

A great extinction is an event in which 70% or so of existing species are wiped out in a relatively short period of time as recorded in fossil remains in rock layers and analysis of DNA from bones and other biological material. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is a series of stories of the author who with other scientists (geologists, archeologists, and biologists) discover evidence for the five great extinctions and many more minor ones. They do this through archeological digs, analysis of rock layers, and review of evolutionary data, and hikes through tropical forests. The last well-know one was the Crustacean extinction when the great lizards were wiped out and mammals began their ascendency.

More, she with her colleagues are collecting evidence of a sixth great extinction in which we are already participating and that could well include our own species.

I'm not competent to review her work as a scientist. In any case she includes most of the diverse theories for the how and when of the past extinction events and also the diverse theories about the one we are now in which, following many of her colleagues, she calls the Anthropocene extinction. But as a participant of the current event, I have the following four reflections:

1. Time. In considering the geological clock, I am struck again by what a short time our species has existed. That gives me both a sense of wonder as well as great humility. The universe and the earth got along fine without us for eons and yet in such a short time we are having such a great affect--probably more than the great asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs.

2. Anthropocene Age. Some want to mark its beginning with the turn from hunting and gathering to agriculture when lands became possessions to be stripped for growing or mined for extracting. Some want to mark its beginning with the industrial revolution when we began dumping tons of CO2 in the air and acid in the ocean. But in any case, human kind has radically changed the earth. Earth warming and its effects seemed to have been part of earth cycles since its birth, but the rapidity of the current warming and its resulting climate change means that large numbers of species do not have time to adapt and therefore survive--perhaps including our own.  See the films on Welcome to the Anthropocene.

3. The Symbolic capacity. Now this is something I've studied and written about for fifty years. It's at the root of my own philosophy, ethics, and politics. What is unique about homo sapiens is that we both discover and create reality through symbols, including metaphors and other figures of speech, images, models, formulas, manufactured forms by which we organize our world and bring meaning within the chaos of experience. A dimension of this capacity is self-awareness or consciousness. While this capacity has given us tremendous advantage in our evolutionary advance, Kolbert indicates "With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens is also the capacity to destroy it." As a constructivist in epistemology, I would go further in saying that our very capacity to know the world is identical with our capacity to change it. For better or for worse.

4. Crisis. Crisis simply means choice. We choose between a constructive or destructive path. But what often appears constructive becomes destructive and vice versa.  Or perhaps all our choices have a constructive and destructive side.  All problem-solving creates further problems. In he Smithsonian article linked above, Andrew Rivkin was quoted: "Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on earth. But they didn't know it. We're the first species that's become a planet scale influence and is aware of that ability. That's what distinguishes us. We can reflect and weigh probabilities, predict possible future, and make choices that can be more constructive than destructive. Perhaps. But it does mean thinking, accepting evidence, and a willingness to change, getting over denial of reality to safeguard beliefs. And in a timely way.

When I consider other public health issues that had the capacity to wipe out our species, I realize that all insights into the causes of illness were met with denial, especially by those who had an interest in the status quo: e.g. the need to wash hands of bacteria before surgery, the need to purify water in which waste was being dumped, putting scrubbers on chimneys, smoking cigarettes, vaccinations, and now dumping CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This last one is far more dangerous. Yet there are substantial interests, rationalized by quasi-religious beliefs, to deny that climate change is being accelerated by human activity. These deniers will reject the total scientific consensus and grasp a singular experience, e.g. increased cold in the East (which is really an evidence in support of the consensus) in order to deny it.  They see it as a vast "liberal conspiracy" for what I am not sure. They are similar to, but much more dangerous than, the people who deny the moon shot, the round earth, or the existence of bacteria.

Since they seem to have the ability to block quick and resolute public policy (the kind that banned chlorofluorocarbons from widening the hole in the ozone layer), the time for adaptation, much less prevention, is shortening. Wisdom, Socrates said, is knowing that you do not know for sure. That's commendable and shows a willingness to keep asking questions of oneself. But willful ignorance for material interest or political correctness, especially if you think that you do know for sure, is downright evil. It is the cardinal or mortal sin.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review of a Review: Religion Without God

Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin, of happy memory, was reviewed in the WP by Harvard political philosopher Michael Rosen. I haven't yet read Dworkin's latest book (though I certainly liked his Justice for Hedgehogs); but my understanding of it through Rosen's review makes me wonder what the fuss is all about.

Dworkin and Rosen, like me, are "post-enlightenment" philosophers wanting to avoid basing our ethics and politics on some religious revelation or entity, but nevertheless avoid the relativism that does not allow for standards, values, and human rights that are consistent and universal and therefore useful for the development of local, national, and international law. So far so good. A worthy pursuit that in my simple mind is easily done and has been done.

But methinks that they overcomplicate the effort. Take God out of the picture as the entity that creates, causes, or reveals those values and rights and there is a problem, they say. Yes, indeed I agree, for pre-enlightenment thinkers. But not for us. Also remove the spirit or soul along with its immortality as separate and distinct as well as eternal rewards and punishments and you remove incentives for morality and law. Yes, I agree, for pre-enlightened actors, but not for us. And so they argue for a religion without God in a secular materialistic culture that produces those values. That's okay I suppose, but unnecessary.
  1. Firstly, because there are and have been many religions without God and all of these founded moralities and still do.
  2. Secondly, because religion is a dimension of or identity with all cultures (including materialism).
  3. Thirdly, because standards, values, rights can be based in human nature and existence which can be known and experienced.
Students of world religions have discovered many religions that do not worship or even talk about God. Religion is that part or dimension or description of culture through which humans personally and collectively find/make meaning. It involves a narrative that gives us a purpose, a place in the cosmos, a center or home, a way to deal with the messiness, chaos, and pain of day to day existence. It expresses a feeling of holiness or wholeness and a sense of transcendence that accompanies all human activity.

The God narrative is a powerful narrative, perhaps beginning in ancient Egypt, that led to the three great monotheisms which are sub- or alter- narratives of the original. That narrative rationalizes and emotionalizes authoritarian rule, empire through conquest, good guys and bad guys, and dominance of the blessed (the rich). Cultural historians can link the God narrative to extended tribalism, holy wars, the divine right of kings and popes, and the making of enemies.

But there are other cultures with other non-God narratives which rationalize and emotionalize personal and collective behavior including "transcendent" values that ground morality and a human way of life.  Many of these are often interpreted by those imbued with the powerful God narrative whereby Great Spirit, First Cause, Mother Earth or Gaia, Father Sky, Void, Nirvana, Brahmin, Reason, Nature, Universal Spirit of Life and Love, even the Singularity are substitute names for God rather than alternative narratives. But indeed they are.

More significant to human history (according to Henri Bergson and Karen Armstrong) than the developing story of God was the "great transformation" during the Axial Age when, throughout most cultures, a mighty flood uncovered the great human capacity for empathy or compassion, which was recognized and extended beyond tribal boundaries. Strangers were recognized as brothers and sisters. Neighbors, (as in who is my neighbor?), were seen beyond my normal boundaries and even extended to "enemies." And every great religion began to fashion its narratives and teach in accordance with the recognition of the identity with and dignity of all humans, even to all living beings.

The God narrative retold by prophets (as opposed to priests) who caught the insights of the great transformation now rationalizes and emotionalizes resistance, rebellion, and revolution against dominating rulers and rich patrons. Ironically the new insights and revised narratives by the prophets who are considered founders of the big three God religions were subtlety rejected by their successors who led their following to a reenactment of the original tribal narrative of authority, purity of race and doctrine, exclusion, and conquest. Revolution betrayed.

Quoting a journalist in today's paper, "just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, (Samual Johnson), so religion becomes the last refuge of bigots." He is referring to an Arizona law that allows lunch counters and businesses to refuse to serve gay persons for "religious" reasons--a law endorsed by the US Council of Catholic Bishops. Indeed, "what would Jesus do?" (Clearly the great transformation is yet to be complete when one considers the values that guide the "facts" and policies being argued in regards comprehensive immigration and other social justice issues with all the xenophobia, homophobia, ethnophobia, and pauperphobia that exists in today's US.)

Religion as a part, dimension, or product of culture is everywhere. Taking God or immortal souls out of religion doesn't eliminate culture/religion, it just changes it. So is changing the understanding of what is meant by "God." When Jefferson wrote "endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights," he wasn't talking about the prevalent Christian concept of God as a parental entity up there in heaven. He was more in tune with Spinoza's God which is Nature and all its laws. Pretty much as we speak today of Evolution as a quasi divinity unfolding life in the cosmos.

For Dworkin, religion is the "assent to a reality that cannot be achieved by positive science." Since Karl Popper's philosophy of science, that means a reality that cannot be falsified or verified by evidence. Dworkin wants to preserve religion (without God) because he wants to affirm the "full independent reality of value." He thus "rejects the view that nothing is real except what is revealed by natural science or psychology." Well, so do I. But that doesn't mean that we need to assent to religious truth to save value, as says Rosen. Nor I think do we need to fear that our values are just the "penumbra rays from revealed religion" (Nietzsche) which once extinguished will throw us into a valueless and lawless existence.

That to me is just a misunderstanding of culture and its three main products of religion, science, and art (which also have by-products too numerous to mention here). Culture is the formal symbolic expression of human existence in both the private and public realms. [I contrast culture with, and relate it to, economy which is the realm of private biological survival or life (family, household, tribe) and with politics which is the realm of the social, interdependent, or public (nation, state, country, international order.] Religion is the narrative with rites and symbols that stimulates and responds to reverence in and gratitude for human life and action. Art is the narrative with symbols, pictures, sounds, movement that provides and responds to wonder in personal and collective life and action. Science is the narrative that stimulates and responds to curiosity.  Religion, in responding to reverence, searches for meaning. Art, in responding to wonder, finds beauty. Science in responding to curiosity provides understanding. They can be seen as three different ways of knowing or three modes of encountering the world or contacting reality.

And I would argue that values and their foundation in human existence can be discerned in religion, art, and science. Is religion the source of morality and law as Dworkin apparently argues? Yes, but so is art and science. And ultimately the foundation of morality and law is the inherited and created structure of human nature and existence itself accessible through religion, art, and science. All three are human symbolic ways of dealing in the world and encountering reality including the reality of human existence in reality. One is more expressive of reverence and gratitude, another more expressive of wonder and astonishment, and the other more expressive of curiosity and understanding in our world wandering. Some narratives include gods, forms, and laws, some do not. Some narratives are more ritual and some more discursive. All use images or symbols, all have emotional and rational sides, all feed into the others, and all have a quality of transcendence--a drive to go beyond the here and now while situated in the here and now.

What the book, the review, and perhaps my reflection do point up is our ever present need and desire to create new, more inclusive, more constructive, and more humane narratives (with or without God) that will enhance the values that we can experience, intuit, and understand in our own personal and collective human being.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Revolutionary Scale

I just returned from the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Denver organized by the Local Government Commission. This is a very productive annual conference in which government, business, and community organizational partners tell each other their accomplishments, failures, and learnings through projects in green infrastructure, compact development, linking urban/rural food systems, preserving land and water, reducing carbon emissions, clean energy use, linking homes and jobs through transportation oriented developments, creating new economy jobs, and ensuring equity in everything. All this can be summarized as creating healthy communities with vibrant economies.

Some important considerations emerging from the movement and its actions are:
  • Everybody at the planning table: government, business, labor, health institutions, creative developers, youth, non-profit mission driven agencies, and local communities. Each having its own mission, but relating that to an overriding vision and collective mission.
  • Engage local communities (i.e., publics), organized through powerful community organizations, driving the process and pushing for results based on community interests, values, and affiliations. Community based power is essential to the process.
  • Align resources through partnerships, e.g. the federal agency partnership aligning innovating funding, local government partnerships aligning towards local and regional outcomes, national and community foundations aligning private and public investment and supporting the communities in building power in the partnership.
  • Create, explore, and use the tools: community organization, fiscal impact, environmental impact, health outcome, GIS mapping, comprehensive interests and values survey, data collection, and collective design tools. 
  • Cut across boundaries: see how rural and urban affect each other, watch language so as not to be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative, translate technical terms into common sense terms, let data speak for itself through pictures, pursue diversity in race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, income.
But I think what needs much further discussion are:
  1. Using the good community organizing that is already being done to position both rural communities and urban neighborhoods into powerful positions.
  2. Bringing the movement and its many successful experiments to scale by transforming the present political economy which is actually increasing poverty, undermining equity, blocking health, fouling our habitats, and destroying the planet. 
1.  We are missing a tremendous resource by not engaging the organizations that have been building power in communities and the networks which have been helping them get funding, training, and quality organizers. For example, the prevalent model for SC2 (Strong Cities, Strong Communities) of the White House Council and even the Sustainable Cities Initiative is getting high level technical consultants connected to local mayors and other government officials who bring in "the community" later to test their hypotheses or worse to sell them on their solutions.

Since they seem to want to fund "consultants," I suggest that besides "private professional consultants," we fund "professional community consultants" which are the organizations and their networks that are already in place or have the wherewithal to build powerful local vehicles for ordinary people to experience and assert their power. I will keep trying to work with the Federal Partnership with which I was a part in California and now in DC to do that.

However, part of the problem I discern is with the organizations and their networks themselves Because they do not see the bigger picture or avail themselves of the opportunities. They get caught in their single-issue campaigns, are too cautious about working with government agencies, and do not know how to or are too arrogant to collaborate with one another. I think there will have to be some one-on-ones with open-minded, non-threatened leadership where they can articulate their concerns and help design the process.  That might be a big order.

The feds need some quick, concrete results. The professional technical consultants don't recognize the need or know how to build community people into the process from the beginning and with power. And professional community organizers are often stuck in their old ways and don't see the opportunities for broader change.

2.  What also was missing for me was the radical analysis that identifies the political economic structures and processes that are both creating the poverty, inequity, and environmental devastation that we were trying to deal with, as well as preventing the bringing of successful experiments in community development and new economy to scale.  This analysis includes the clash of classes and the institutions that represented them. I am of course thinking of many large corporations and financial institutions which are speculating in land and gambling for short term winners. As Doug, one of the participants said, all those who invest in "fast money" that simply enriches the Wall Street casino owners, rather than the "slow money" that takes time to multiply in community benefits.

Because of the lack of such analysis, these wonderful experiments are not becoming power centers for transformation at the state and national level. As Doug said (and I loved his metaphor) we are working in the eddies and missing the roaring river that is washing all of us away. Instead we have a sort of "thousand points of light" strategy without the combination into the light that would enlighten and vivify the whole world.

Now I would not expect government agencies to raise this analysis nor the private consultants that rely on government and corporations for support. I mean the analysis of shareholder corporations, freely speculating financial institutions (now creating new bubbles), continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, rule of government by the rich through their lobbyists and payments to government officials, and support of fast over slow money activities.  But hopefully the "community consultants" could raise this analysis and the policy implications of this analysis: stakeholder corporations with worker councils, community over national banks, investment in clean energy infrastructure, prohibition of political payoffs, reduction of trade imbalance and global debt, and climate justice through economic democracy.

Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was learning community organizing in the 1960s and 70s, I worked with Jack MacNamera and Fr. Jack Egan with the Contract Buyers of Lawndale (CBL) that expanded to be the Contract Buyers League in Chicago. It was an incredible experience in which the central dynamic of racial housing segregation and its relation to inequities in jobs, education, services, and income was exposed. We learned that racism did not consist in the enmity that some white people and black people felt towards each other, but in the patterns of real estate development and the financial practices supported by government that used and reenforced that racial antagonism. The organizing stopped much of the redlining in Chicago and the HUD/FHA underwriting of that redlining. It was a great and successful experiment on the march to racial and social justice.

At the same time other community organizations were developing in communities that were being torn by blockbusting, racial fear mongering, and financial institution redlining. Austin was one right to the west of us being organized by Tom Gaudette and Shel Trapp who were advising us in Lawndale.

I received further training and went with the Industrial Areas Foundation, first in Chicago, then Toronto, and then San Jose, which was now being run by Ed Chambers after Saul Alinsky retired and died. Ed began to promulgate a practice called "Greenlining" with which some communities, by threatening to remove deposits, were using successfully to get banks to provide lending to lower income families. (Big parenthesis here: I left the IAF after Chambers was pushing for a Greenlining strategy in San Jose which might have been a good idea, but really didn't fit the local community nor come up through a community process.)

But it was Shel Trapp to whom I give most credit, along with Gale Cincotta, for taking the redlining practice and pushing it to national policy level after organizing many communities being threatened by the practice into National Peoples' Action. NPA took on HUD and got them to change regulations and Congress and got them to pass the Community Reinvestment Act to change a major structural practice that exploited poor people and caused racism. Both political parties ultimately adopted this policy and enshrined it in legislation. For awhile at least.

I tell this story to suggest a sort of revolutionary progression in community action. Of course the big banks and their practices with Wall Street remain. Taking advantage of deregulation and new financial investment tools, they were largely responsible for the recent housing bubble and the exploitation of much of the middle and lower class. So the revolution is hardly won though the Occupy Wall Street Movement has started shining a larger light on these institutions and our fast money economy again.

The progression in revolutionary movement goes from a) successful local organizing and experiments to b) deeper structural analysis and broader national organizing with local constituencies and power to c) state and national policy change to d) transformation of the political economy. This requires local community power organizing, radical class and institutional analysis, broad based organizing for policy change that will lead to the transformation of political and economic institutions.

So the challenge is local: community organizing for power. But the challenge is also intellectual/spiritual: engaging people at all levels in an analysis that goes to the roots of the practice and the very values that support that practice. And it is national and transnational: pushing to a new political economic order that emerges through the community power and understanding process that can capture or create a political party for transformative change.