In the Age of 45, Resources for Becoming the Engaged and Powerful Citizens We Need to Be

So you’ve decided to get more engaged in your community and in politics in general. You’re not alone, of course. That’s happening all over the country.

Maybe you hit the streets in a march, or you’ve gone to a rally. Maybe you follow up the march with a letter writing campaign. All these are great tactics, but where do you go from there?

Fortunately, the web is full of resources, mostly free, for learning what to do next, how to become much more effective as an activist, an organizer, or even just an engaged citizen.

First, some history

Maybe you’d like to start by getting some background, some fundamental and historical reading about activist engagement. You can find a lot of those resources available online: Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story, or Mohandas K. Gandhi’s writings on non-cooperation.

And to get more good historical background, read Congressman John Lewis’s memoir, March, an excellent series of graphic novels that take one inside the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Citizen engagement: Indivisible

Then we can move on to specific how-to resources. Let’s start with the most essential activity in a democracy: For engaging with government and especially with legislators, Indivisible is quickly becoming a classic. Put together by former Congressional staffers in January 2017, it is very specifically about working with Members of Congress at a grassroots level. It is by its own admission a defensive document, all about stalling and fighting in the age of a Republican administration, rather than pushing for new campaigns and movements. But it is an exceptionally valuable look at how Congress can be made to work and what the pressure points are. There are useful outlines of such tactics as going to town halls, meeting with staffers, contacting the media, and flooding a congressional office with phone calls. For updates, their website is https://www.indivisibleguide.com

For more inspiring, detailed, and long-term insights into how people have successfully pushed for progressive policies, Seattle writer Paul Loeb’s books are indispensable. Loeb’s Soul of A Citizen is a detailed look at campaigns that have worked, with lessons on civic engagement and profiles of successful activists. His The Impossible Will Take a Little While is full of essays and stories by and about successful activists and writers from around the world, from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela through Audre Lorde, Desmond Tutu, John Lewis, and Marian Wright Edelman, to Sherman Alexie and Dan Savage.

Nonviolent direct action

King, Lewis, and many others have of course been committed to nonviolence throughout their lives. Many of the best resources for political and civic engagement are couched in terms of nonviolence. The term “nonviolence” can be a little difficult, as a negative: “All right, we know it’s not violent, but what is it instead?”

For me, nonviolent action brings to any political and civil conflict the traits of strategic thinking, imagination, creativity, compassion, and self-discipline. Much of nonviolent action is built around a simple idea: any government, even the most brutal, requires the cooperation and acquiescence of the governed. And any business that engages in bad practices still requires the participation of customers and workers. Remove that cooperation, acquiescence, and participation, and the opponent becomes powerless.

One of the most successful nonviolent campaigns of the 20th century was the toppling of the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević. A key player in that resistance was a student group, Otpor (“resistance” in Serbian.) Out of Otpor came CANVAS, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, which has published CANVAS Core Curriculum, effectively a step-by-step guide to building a social/political movement, available online and in book form. It is clearly organized, graphically effective, and well written. It is full of insights about power, strategy, and effective action. Near the end of the book is an excellent list of actions and tactics. The book is clear: you don’t need to be toppling a dictator to use these ideas; if you are looking to build any campaign, I would start here.

The classic manual for nonviolent action is the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns: second edition (updated 2014, available online and in book form), from the War Resisters International (founded 1921). The WRI, and its American affiliate, the War Resisters League (founded by a group of women in 1923) have been at the center of antiwar (and later, antinuclear) campaigns for almost a century, as well as anti-racism campaigns. A number of WRL organizers, including Bayard Rustin, participated in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which is said to have been one inspiration for the later Freedom Rides; others were at the center of the struggles for women’s and LGBTQ rights in the 1960s, 70s, and after. During the 2016 presidential campaign, some video made the rounds on Facebook of freedom riders being severely beaten by Klansmen in 1961. One of the people beaten in that video was Jim Peck, a longtime WRL staffer.

The WRI handbook goes deeply into a number of organizing fundamentals, from group dynamics to working with media. It also has some great essays about the way the world works, as in these discussions of the nature of power and fear. And there are links to other content, as in, say, Guardian columnist George Montbiot’s An Activist’s Guide to Exploiting the Media.

A huge international effort around nonviolent direct action is Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Beautiful Trouble is a book, but is also something of a wiki, a toolbox, with continually updated online modules from activists around the world. The modules go into subjects that range from techniques for preventing unjust evictions to legislative theater to the importance of framing and language in social movements. It also has good contact lists from around the world and provides training. The Backbone Campaign from Vashon Island is a partner.

Get training: How to be an effective organizer

Veteran labor and community organizer Marshall Ganz has a great online course on organizing: Organizing: people, power & change. It’s very much worth a look. And here is a book chapter on Leading Change. It’s good.

It’s funny; a lot of the best training in nonviolence and organizing skills is similar to some of the personnel-effectiveness workshops that one can find in any major corporation: learning to think strategically, develop SMART goals, and do active listening. And that’s not a bad thing. You can get create training based on the CANVAS lessons or get training from groups like Beautiful Trouble. Or if you are so engulfed in what is happening today that you feel compelled to reinvent yourself, there are a number of social justice training resource centers and schools. For example, one of the oldest is the Highlander Research and Education Center (85 years) in Newmarket Tennessee. Rosa Parks attended a Highlander workshop several months before her famous resistance and arrest.

Gene Sharp: theory and technique

Several of the books listed above draw some of their material and much of their inspiration from the work of Gene Sharp. Sharp is the pre-eminent historian, theorist, and tactician of nonviolent action. A retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, he has written extensively on the subject. His Albert Einstein Institution website includes a great library of free resources. For those who want to geek out on the subject, his three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action is a classic. It and similar works have also generated a lot of discussion as to the value and exact nature of nonviolence. This essay by sociologist Kurt Schock goes into what nonviolence is, and perhaps as important, what it is not.

It’s worth noting that both Sharp and CANVAS have been accused of being tools/spies of the US government, most prominently by Wikileaks. Whatever one thinks of the motives and reliability of Wikileaks, it is interesting to see an open letter regarding Sharp and CANVAS, in which 138 international activists and intellectuals, including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Daniel Ellsberg, came strongly to Sharp’s defense. In any case, the value of the content speaks for itself.

We’re seeing new resources appearing regularly. At this writing, the website for the Women’s March continues to be a great source for co-ordinated national actions. And one of my favorite new resources is one with perhaps unintentional value. After the Women’s March, researchers from the University of Connecticut and the University of Denver created a spreadsheet listing every march from across the United States and the world, to get a working total of all participants. But since it includes links to news reports about many of the marches, with interviews with the organizers, it can be a valuable networking tool for getting a sense as to who is doing what around the country, even in the smallest towns.

The classic American organizer: Saul Alinsky

Finally, one can’t discuss resources for political organizing without mentioning Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was a long-time community organizer in Chicago who influenced numerous organizers and politicians across decades, including Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama in their youth. He and others created the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. Some accounts suggest that TeaParty organizers learned their loud, confrontational tactics from reading Alinsky.

There has been a lot of controversy about Alinsky’s positions and tactics, and he got an “evil genius” rep in the right-wing, with some notice in the mainstream press. One critique has been that his tactics are often too confrontational. But I think that we have seen in the resources above that confrontation has a place, when it fits within a strategy, the outcome of a well-researched plan.

Alinsky’s two major books are Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. Both books are available online, Reveille and Rules.

For all of Alinsky’s reputation of being loud and devious, and he could be, I can still remember reading Reveille for Radicals years ago and encountering the decent straightforwardness in his ideas about finding “native, indigenous leadership” in any community. Or approaching an opponent on the basis of “common understanding.” And his insistence on “respect for the dignity of the people.” I’m guessing that if the Tea Party organizers did read him, they skipped over these parts.

Much of Alinsky can seem dated, from another world. But there are rich veins of experience and analysis here that are, indeed, timeless.

I’ll leave you with Rebecca Solnit’s stirring essay, Acts of Hope, and her admonition for any activist, “It’s always too soon to go home.”

Feel free to copy and share this essay. Please credit it and please do not modify it.

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A New Narrative

We need a new narrative.

By “narrative” I mean simply a new story, an account of what is important, what is right, good, just. And by “we” I mean progressives, social justice workers, activists, artists, poets, organizers. But “we” also needs to be all of us, everyone, for without broad acceptance of such a narrative, the world we want to see, the world we are working to build, will never be.

The narrative must be simple, easy to understand, but also be able to contain complexities, ambiguities, like a good line of poetry. It must be true, and it must be as honest as we can make it, but it must also be as believable, as embraceable, as a well-crafted lie. It must be able to engage the dispossessed, enchant the disenchanted.

The narrative can come from progressives, but it can’t be seen as belonging to us; it must be seen to just be. It must be oppositional to the status quo, oppositional to neoliberal oligarchy, oppositional to oppression, to racism and misogyny. But it shouldn’t be broadly seen as oppositional, any more than “the grass is green” or “Tuesday comes after Monday” are oppositional. To be effective, the narrative must be sufficiently interwoven into the everyday as to be seen as common sense. Only when it is taken granted, when it becomes common sense in churches, cubicles, factory floors, city parks, can the narrative function as a base for justice.

The narrative must be based on love and inclusion. Always. And to become common sense, it must be repeated, over and over and over, and always with quiet confidence, with a deep assurance that it is right. That deep assurance and ubiquitous repetition are key to the success of any narrative. It must be stated everywhere, in conversation, in the press, on the web, in business, in art, on the streets.

The narrative should of course be shouted on the streets. But the streets are not where it will gain its most traction, since chants on the streets are almost always aspirational, “this is what we are fighting for, what we want to see.” Otherwise, people wouldn’t be out in the streets.

To become common sense, the narrative needs to be different. It needs to be stated matter-of-factly, as if it is already true. Everywhere. The moment when such a narrative is stated and accepted as a simple given on, say, Fox News or a tavern full of cynics and bar stool experts, will it be on its way to where it needs to be.

How to create such a narrative? There, of course, is the rub. We—progressives, activists, artists—have the skills to create such a thing and to support it, to get it into the general discourse. We have the speakers and video makers and poets and web voices and search engine optimizers to do what needs to be done. But we’re also a fractious lot. We come at things with a “yes, but…” purism. It’s a sense that if we don’t get everything we call for, we’re corrupt. And we do tend to delight in despising our allies as much as, or even more than, our opponents. Coming together around any common story, and especially one that can rewrite common sense, may prove to be exceptionally difficult.

Perhaps the first step will be a general recognition as to the need for such an effort, not to control the narrative, but to just make it so compelling that it can’t help becoming something that is eventually taken for granted.

The narrative might be a vision or a set of principles and values, or both. It might be as simple as a good way of stating what is true about the world. We already have a number of these, from “Black lives matter” to “Climate change is real.” But most progressive narratives have some flaw that make them so readily negated—on that factory floor or by that bar stool expert—that they face deep difficulties in being taken for granted, in becoming common sense across a broad population.

And that acceptance must be intentional, it must be baked into the narrative; it can’t be a “that would be nice to have” option. If we don’t create that narrative—or narratives; plural stories may be needed— and turn it into common sense, I fear that we may be consigned to playing defense, to doing cleanup as best we can, with narrowing options for setting agendas and building real frameworks of action and belief.

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The problem I have with Bernie Sanders….

The problem I have with Bernie Sanders has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders, and everything to do with you and me. The key point: we can’t elect visionary and progressive leaders without having a powerful, well-organized progressive movement behind them. If we do so, we are dooming them to twist in the wind. And I don’t see that movement happening any time in the near future.

I like Bernie Sanders, his passionate sense of social justice, his ideas for creating a just, equitable, and sustainable society. And the popularly driven campaign that he has created is wonderful. Is he electable? Maybe, at this point, it’s looking bleak. But whether or not he is electable may not matter.

This is not about Bernie versus Hillary. It’s more about what happens when we elect an uncompromising leader without creating a huge and well-organized support structure as well.

If he were to make it to the White House, Bernie Sanders would instantly face a wall. If you think that Obama got pushback when he got to the presidency, just wait for Sanders the socialist. Even if the Democrats take back the Senate, they probably won’t make 60 seats, and they probably won’t tend to unite behind Sanders.

His cabinet nominees will be delayed, filibustered, derailed by Republicans, possibly with the support of a few Democrats. His initiatives, whether they’re single payer or his plan for universal free college, will be stopped dead. Right off the bat, he’ll be pushed into executive action territory, and I can’t help but wonder if Obama might have tapped that well dry, at least for now.

Sanders has been in Congress for a long time. Looking at the past couple of years, I’m not sure that he has been the sort of senator to cajole or arm-twist his fellows, in the old LBJ mold (if that’s even doable in 21st century America). And if he can’t do that while in Congress, I’m not clear how well he will be able to do it from the Oval Office. I believe that as wonderful a fellow as he is, he will be left twisting in the wind.

Unless.

Unless he were to have at his back a solid, progressive movement across this country. I’m thinking of the sort of movement that would extend even to the most conservative states. I’m thinking of a movement that would be quickly responsive, generous and inclusive, effective and smart. It’s the sort of movement that would get people away from their televisions and into community meetings, a movement that would accept differences, where a pro-choice woman and anti-abortion woman might find themselves united in a fight for clean drinking water.

It’s the sort of movement whose members would be masters of getting their message across, especially in places like the local six pm news broadcast. It’s a movement where local organizations would tie in with each other across the country, and volunteers would keep an eye out for pending legislation, so that congressional offices might be flooded with phone calls and letters at a moment’s notice.

It’s not a third party. In our winner-takes-all system, a third party usually ends up as little more than a spoiler of the chances of a potential ally. This movement would need to ally with the Democrats where appropriate and push them where that makes sense.

And that’s where you and I come in. We’re not creating this movement. Oh sure, we’re doing our best with our favorite causes, and occasionally we’ll see glimpses of what such a movement might be. But on the whole, we’re far from where we need to be.

I can hear Sanders volunteers responding: “Wait just one minute! We’re building that movement! We’re building it around Bernie.” To that, I say “Nope.” It just doesn’t work that way. A presidential campaign is the worst way to build a long-term, effective, political campaign. Ask all the kids who turned out for Clean Gene McCarthy, the Bernie Sanders of the 1960s. Or those who rallied behind Howard Dean decades later. Or even those who worked so hard for Obama in 2008, despite the creation of Organizing for America after the campaign.

After Obama was elected, I often wondered what things might have been like if he’d had that progressive movement at his back, pushing him left where needed, backing him up where appropriate. But it never quite happened. When the Tea Party began to seize the national spotlight, there wasn’t a strong counterforce.

A presidential campaign will never be a good foundation for a strong, long-term movement, because it isn’t set up that way. An effective presidential campaign is designed to be temporary. When the campaign is over, win or lose, those field offices, the headquarters of the “ground game” that the pundits love to discuss, they go away. There’s no long-term funding to keep them in place. And the people running them have either moved on to work in the White House, or if the candidate loses, to the next campaign. Campaign pros are by nature short-term campaigners, not long-term organizers.

Sure, there are some great local organizers in any campaign; I’ve known a lot of them. But they work within a candidate-centered, short-term goal. But “We’ve been getting huge numbers of people out to work on the campaign, staffing the phone banks, doing get-out-the-vote work! And these are people who’ve never been involved in politics before.” Sure, and that’s very valuable. But where do these newly energized people go once the campaign is over? That’s not clear.

I don’t have an easy answer here. This essay is not a defense of Hillary Clinton. A lot of this applies to her as well. But it is essential to the Sanders campaign, especially because he is advocating positions that, while not at all radical, will require a definite shift in a progressive direction, a shift that requires a progressive movement at its back. And that’s not happening, not yet.

 

 

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Self-Righteous Anger on the Left

Many pixels have been spilled in punditry about the coming apocalypse in Cleveland at the Republican convention, with good odds that the Republican Party will tear itself apart. But looking at the Democrats, I see scary overtones of the debacle that was the 1968 presidential election.

The vitriol and self-righteous anger coming from the Sanders and Clinton camps—and most important, from their legions of partisans, directed at each other—seems too reminiscent of what happened to the Democrats in 1968. That year, on the antiwar left, the Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy camps hated each other, with the McCarthy people seeing Kennedy as an opportunist. McCarthy was the Senator/poet insurrectionist; Kennedy was earnest liberal who would bring back Camelot. Both pledged to end the Vietnam War.

When Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, that internecine battle shifted to an even deeper hatred between McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, eventual Democratic nominee.

The self-righteous anger on the left was deepened by the riots engendered by Mayor Daley’s police goons at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in August 1968. Eventually, with the Democrats in chaos, Richard Nixon won the presidency, and the whole mess ushered in 24 years of right-wing Republican rule (with a four-year interregnum in the middle, the hapless Jimmy Carter presidency). Those 24 years brought forth deep corruption, including seven more years of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the War on Drugs, Al Qaeda, Clarence Thomas, and so much more. And maybe most important, that seeming Republican lock on the presidency saw the Democrats turning to the right and embracing neoliberalism as a way to end the Republican reign, which brought us Bill Clinton.

Drawing direct historical parallels is of course fraught with dangerous pitfalls, but it is easy to see Bernie Sanders filling in for McCarthy, who drew legions of young supporters in 1968. Hillary Clinton pulls from both Kennedy and Humphrey. Kennedy, in some ways a solid liberal, had skeletons in his liberal closet. He was tainted by his years as Attorney General under his brother, President John Kennedy, years in which J. Edgar Hoover was allowed to run a repressive police operation in the FBI. Humphrey, on the other hand, embraced solidly liberal domestic policies with a hawkish foreign policy. Sound familiar?

In 1968, with Eugene McCarthy’s defeat, the antiwar left was cast adrift, in terms of electoral politics. McCarthy couldn’t bring himself to support Humphrey.

The synopsis above is a simplified version of a complex campaign; there were a lot of other factors, including the late entry of George McGovern into the 1968 race. But what’s key is that vitriolic anger, and an inability to forge alliances with prospective allies who just are not pure enough to be part of the club. And I wonder if that anger in 2016 might not allow the Democrats to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.

 

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Unschooling, Big History, and Adventure in an American Classroom

In a classroom at the Orca Middle School in Seattle, eighth grade social studies students are engaged in an ambitious, multi-year project; they’re creating their own history textbook. The project has a revolutionary potential and goes to a core question in education: If formal education is less about amassing facts and grades and more about learning to think, to learn, to explore—as my high school teachers repeatedly assured me it was—how does that happen?

The project also goes to a question as to how we learn to see subtlety, the fine-grained details and complexities behind everyday life, in a world where broad brushstrokes, proclaimed loudly, seem to be everywhere, from advertising jingles that create earworms to a screaming announcer on a reality television show. The brushstrokes are simpler and in one’s face; the subtleties require investigation, those much-promised skills of learning and exploring. It’s the sort of problem that Bill McKibben wrote about in The Age of Missing Information in 1992, where he spent weeks watching all of the cable television available in Fairfax, Virginia over one 24-hour period, then spent 24 hours in the woods, and contrasted the two.

That dichotomy, big media versus the woods, came out recently in two prominent articles on education that appeared over the past summer. Each looks at a mode of education that is effectively opposed to the other.

Ben Hewitt’s essay on unschooling in Outside magazine looks at kids having “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests,” effectively education as self-directed, creative, but unstructured play, mostly in the woods. Hewitt’s sons are unschooled; going beyond homeschooling, they spend their days exploring the forests around Hewitt’s farm, learning woodcraft, doing chores, volunteering, reading voraciously. They spend very little time in “sitting and studying,” and that mostly for such standard subjects as science and arithmetic. What’s important for Hewitt is that the boys have agency, self-direction, making their own decisions, creating their own education. It’s a far reach from the “prison cell” that Hewitt felt that he experienced in his own childhood schooling.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine featured Andrew Ross Sorkin’s enthusiastic profile of Bill Gates’s growing fascination with Big History. Big History is historian David Christian’s multi-media and multi-disciplinary approach to teaching world history, effectively a many-chaptered combination of animations and short videos that looks at history in terms of cosmology, physics, chemistry, technology, and broad social movements. It’s “sit-still and watch” education, with lots of fast-paced rock-video-style lectures and beautiful graphics. The Big History program encourages teachers to adapt the course and create their own additions. In the end, it’s the ultimate in received education. Gates is funding it privately, outside of the Gates Foundation’s Common Core Initiative—though the website suggests that the two are aligned—with hopes that it sweeps the country.

Both ideas represent two widely different takes on the way we learn, two extremes in what has become a plethora of views as to what works in education. A multiplicity of takes on education can be a good thing, but only if we substitute the idea of “learning” for “education.” MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito explains the difference simply in his 2014 TED talk, Want to innovate? Become a ‘now-ist, where he looks at the nature of innovation in a networked world. What’s relevant here is his suggestion that “education is what people do to you, and learning is what you do to yourself.” In this sense, the State or Church or our parents may want to educate us, but each of us eventually creates the models for how we ourselves learn. So we may not want millions of theories of education, but we would want millions of models for learning, what we end up doing to ourselves. It may be that education is at its best when it facilitates that process of doing learning to ourselves.

For myself—and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard—learning has been at its best and most memorable when it has contained some element of experiment and self-direction. Even if the experiment is unsuccessful, if it is intelligent and well played, it can provide new and effective models. I remember junior high school, and being put in an experimental class where we were to learn what was then called New Math. We weren’t advance placement students in math. As far as math skills went, we were just another set of students, and I believe that this was part of the experiment.

We spent the first school term of that year learning set theory and base numbers. Years later, I realized that the course was preparing us for computers, for being comfortable with algorithms, binary code, and hexadecimal numbers. For some of us at least, it was a blast. Our teacher was young, smart, energetic, and funny, and we all had to commit to learning this stuff, which was as foreign to us as a whole new culture. As the term ended and the holidays approached, he told us that our heavy lifting was over, that the next term we would move on to geometry as taught through New Math, and it would be a lot of fun.

It was not to be. After the holiday break, we were told that our teacher had become gravely ill and would not be returning to school. I suppose that this is true. But given the huge amount of criticism that New Math was facing at the time—ranging from the charge that it was hokum to the idea that it was crowding out basic arithmetic—I wonder if he was simply sent packing. See, for example, Morris Kline’s 1973 book Why Johnny Can’t Add: The Failure of the New Math, and of course Tom Lehrer’s caustic satire, New Math.

The New Math teacher was replaced with one of our familiar math teachers, who brought us back to more conventional studies, learning the essentials of algebra. I’m sure that she was a nice woman, but she was not a great teacher, and the course became dull. It was so disappointing; the rest of that year was a letdown. I do think the New Math course was exceptionally valuable in getting at the fundamentals of thinking about computers and whole systems. But whatever else I learned, I also got a lesson in what happens when you have good, stimulating pedagogy, and what happens when you don’t.

That sense of stimulating pedagogy is vital. My most memorable college history course looked at post-World War II America. The professor was quite conservative; it was the time of Watergate, and he was a staunch defender of Nixon. But he was also brilliant and a bit of a radical. The quarter consisted of roughly ten weeks of classes. For the coursework, he gave us a list of maybe 150 books. These were histories, memoirs, collections of news accounts and essays, polemics, and the postwar novels of such writers as John Cheever and John Updike. The political slant ranged across the American spectrum of the time, from John Stormer’s right-wing tract None Dare Call It Treason to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s prison autobiography, Soul on Ice.

The assignment was simple: choose any ten books. Read them over the ten weeks, and write essays about each of them. In other words, be self directed, create your own course. The classroom sessions were given over to often stimulating conversations about postwar politics. For an undergraduate course, the schedule was grueling, and it remains one of the most memorable and valuable courses I’ve ever taken.

For me, college was all about self-directed experiment. I wanted an interdisciplinary program that didn’t exist at the time. “Create your own major” programs are fairly common now, but nothing like that existed then, so I created one on my own. I chose courses each term that would reference and amplify each other, unbeknownst to the professors teaching them. Eventually I piled on so many courses that I ended up with two degrees in four years, in history and English literature.

Which brings me back to Bill Gates and Big History. At one level, the idea of teaching history across disciplines is something I should like, given my own predilections. Christian, Gates’s hero, has put together a model where the sweep of world history is taught through big multimedia presentations. Looking at history means going back to the Big Bang and astronomy and back through human cosmology. History is taught as a confluence of science, the arts, and technology alongside more traditional studies. That’s all well and good, as far as it goes.

If the Hewitt model seems like a dream: not just an escape from the regimentation of a classroom, but an escape from any regimentation at all, there’s an opposite scenario for Big History, “a framework for all knowledge.”

Hewitt’s sons are living a life from the 19th century: foraging in the woods, doing chores, reading constantly. Hewitt has come under a lot of flack for his dismissal of regular, classroom education as prison, and he has spoken frequently since the Outside piece came out to say that he is not against public education. He describes his model—or more appropriately, the model that he, his wife, and his two sons have put together collaboratively, as something that works for his family; it may not be for everyone. It’s pretty obvious that most of what he’s doing may be unique to his family. The combination of a small farm run by exceptionally well-educated, culturally aware, and motivated parents, generous and helpful neighbors, and adjacent, accessible woodland isn’t easily replicated. The closest that I’ve seen is the outdoors training at the Wilderness Awareness School, where students learn about the nature through close observation and a large amount of adventure. Here, students—both children and adults—are immersed in the woods and are encouraged to investigate and find their own conclusions. I’m wondering, however, if there are some elements of Hewitt’s model that can be captured for the rest of us.

With a lot of beautiful graphics and the fast-paced YouTube videos, Big History goes the other way, telling the history of the world both as a planet—through the story of forces and elements, and then stars and planets—and as a culture, through the rise of various technologies and cultures across the globe. It mixes basic chemistry with the Popul Vuh, the Mayan creation narrative, and throws in such bits and pieces as the famous Charles and Rae Eames film, Powers of Ten.

Big History is a lovely project; it’s beautiful to look at, and has the feel of great infotainment. Whether or not it should become a core way of teaching history, as Bill Gates and Christian want it to be, is an open question. Sorkin reports that the creators of Big History are collecting large amounts of data about its effectiveness, but I figure that the jury is still out.

Criticisms are legion, encapsulated in this commentary in the Guardian. Much of the Big History content is superficial and fast paced, probably too fast paced for many students. In the classroom, teachers are expected to be available to explain the concepts more clearly. But if that’s the case, what’s the point of this content? Is it nothing more than an amped-up filmstrip from the 1950s? Another critique is that interdisciplinary teaching is not new; teachers have been experimenting with it for decades, and one observation that comes out of that is how hard it is to do well, often requiring team teaching and a lot of extra work. Does this project make that any easier? And then there’s the standard critique: just because Bill Gates thinks it is cool and has the money to reproduce it and give it away to schools, is that the best way to decide how students should be learning?

For me, Big History fits well into the coarse, broad-strokes, content-in-your-face end of the spectrum. As I went through the course, I wondered whether there ways to combine both the subtle, fine-grained approach to learning that Hewitt’s boys are discovering with the huge potential that interdisciplinary multimedia can have in presenting large amounts of information. It’s an important question, and it applies to both children and adults as learners.

One such project is happening at Orca Middle School. It’s the brainchild of social studies teacher Donte Felder, working with teaching artist Nate Herth. Herth has worked as a teaching artist for more than ten years, with a multi-disciplinary scope and a background in painting, drawing, and printmaking. Felder is the sort of teacher who believes strongly in getting students engaged, out of their desks, and doesn’t hesitate to use a TED talk as teaching material, or bringing up a clip from Star Wars to illustrate a historical principle. Danny Westneat, writing in the Seattle Times some years ago, describes a Felder fourth and fifth grade class: “they deconstructed a Paul Simon song. Debated the Second Amendment. Analyzed data from a paper-wad-throwing experiment. Bantered parts of speech in a fast-paced word game. And began creating an original play based on Brown v. Board of Education. That was just one day.”

Felder and Herth have been working together over the past three years in an experimental program to have teaching artists in the schools nearly full time. In the program, the Creative Schools Initiative (which will be expanded to the Highline School District), teaching artists work with teachers across disciplines, incorporating elements of deep creativity into everyday classroom work. Whether the subject is social studies or science, the students might be engaged in creating their own zines, comic books, poems, plays, or videos about that subject. Some of the work may be individual and solitary, but a lot of it involves collaboration, working in teams. Both Felder and I are on the Board of Directors of Arts Corps, the organization that partners with Orca to make this happen.

This year, Felder and Herth are embarking on intensifying the model, having the students create their own history textbook. The plan is for the project to span several years, with a different unit covered each year. This first year, the unit is “the American Dream.” Each student team chooses a different way to look at what the American Dream is and is not. One group is examining the Washington State tax code; another has chosen to look at Ebola and public health. The teams research and write; each team, led by an executive producer, works on creating the stories, podcasts, videos, comics, and plays that will go into the textbook. Eventually the book will be published in both a hard copy and online version.

Felder reports that parents are getting involved, editing what their children have produced, and even some former students who’ve moved on to high school like to come back and help out.

I can’t help but think that both Hewitt and Gates would approve of such an effort. The project allows for, even seeks out, the action, self-determination, and adventure that Hewitt cries out for, with a dynamic balance of freedom and responsibility, commitment and fun. But at the same time, there’s no shying away from today’s technology of the sort that Hewitt seems to favor. There’s no making one’s own basket backpacks, as Hewitt’s sons have done. Rather, these kids are firmly entrenched in the world of today’s technology, learning how to work together to produce videos and podcasts, how to employ stagecraft and drawing skills, how to assemble and present information. These are the sorts of things that Bill Gates’s Big History is built on. But here, the students are behind the wheel. And that, I think, makes all the difference.

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Everyday Magic in a Twilight World

As I write this, I’ve just come from a wonderful music venue. It’s a beautiful space, carefully and lovingly put together. It’s well hooked into the local music scene, but I would guess that, even if you go to a lot of music in Seattle, you’ve never heard of it. It’s an unofficial, hidden space. Whether or not it’s in the same place tomorrow or in two weeks is anybody’s guess.

But as I left, the crowd was thick, the music was flowing, both the dance floor and the drink glasses were full, and a toddler bounced on his mother’s hip wearing noise-canceling earphones. All was well, for now.

I’m convinced that this place is not alone in Seattle, that a good number of events and places happen across the city, in house concerts, pop-up joints, backyard theaters, open studios, with lively discussions, that I, and most people, never hear about. And despite the constant push for larger audiences, I’m also convinced that this is a good thing.

I can think of two good measures of the cultural vitality of a city. One is simply the sustained presence of surfeit: too much to do, too much to go to, too much to engage in. The other is the existence of a deep cultural under-layer, a demi-monde, a floating world that at any given moment is invisible, even to most of its participants. These days, Seattle has both.

Any city worth its salt has a twilight world where strange magic happens, for better or worse. It’s an outsider world, a place of lives lived in the margins. The French term is demi-monde, a half-world, though that term tends to focus more on self-indulgence, drugs and sex, than on the art and creative elements. But the assumption of connection to earthy pleasures is correct: creative elements usually rub up against wildness and escape from convention. The Japanese called it the floating world, ukiyo, a place of kabuki players, geisha, sumo wrestlers, gangsters, and the artists who made ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints that chronicled the vividness of the whole thing. Historically, these spheres have arisen around a market for art among a rising middle class hungry for culture and entertainment. But for everything the twilight world produces for the middle class, in theaters and clubs and galleries, it is also producing work and culture for itself, and this is where real magic can happen.

A twilight world may be like the samizdat networks of the Soviet Union, where culture flourished as an underground, publishing, producing, and performing in private homes and small spaces, away from the eyes of the censors and the KGB. And it certainly owes something to the juke joints of the old south, where African American music could thrive below the notice of the white world.

In literary and theatrical depictions of any twilight world, sex and drugs usually loom large, usually showing up both as hedonism and desperation. Opera loves the demi-monde, especially if it involves courtesans and libertines more than working artists, and death, usually from tuberculosis, looms large. A good example is Verdi’s La Traviata, a retelling of Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camelias. Puccini’s La Boheme is the ultimate twilight opera, full of struggling artists living in a garret. Hemingway’s Moveable Feast Paris is a twilight world, as was Henry Miller’s Paris a decade later. The Haight in the 1960s was one, as was Berlin in the 1920s, or Shanghai in the 1930s. The wild world of filmmaker Jack Smith in the early 1960s in Manhattan was definitely a twilight world. As influential as he was, his scene and work remain mostly invisible.

The trek to Burning Man each year is about going into a floating world. The denizens of Burning Man’s Black Rock City can be divided into two groups: the first are those who yearn to live, if only for a week, in a place where people wear strange costumes, make huge climbable sculptures, and do wonderful things. The recent press about the plug-and-play camps at Burning Man, catering to wealthy customers who want to visit the floating world without any dust, sweat, and tears, is a classic example. The second are those who already live in a twilight world, for whom going to the desert is about going home, making contact with their kind, pulling bits of flamboyance out of their costume closets, assembling pieces of creativity for the trek to the desert. It may be that Burning Man is at its most effective when people in the first group come back from the desert with the resolve to live their everyday lives more in the style of the second, in a twilight world.

What is the demi-monde of today, in Seattle? And what does this have to do with the core vitality of the city? The first thing to observe is that our twilight world is indeed, for the most part, invisible. To the extent that it is invisible, I can’t really say if it exists. I think it does.

The other week, I went one afternoon to a beautiful and fanciful play about sidewalks, complete with a Greek chorus. It was done on several driveways and porches on a back street in Wallingford. The audience was intentionally small, trooping from one house to another to follow the narrative. Later than night, I saw a production a one-woman show about a queer woman of color in gay and lesbian bars and clubs of Seattle in the decades before Stonewall. Again the audience was small, and intentionally so, I think.

Both performances were wonderful, neither was heavily publicized, and the small scale allowed for an imaginative flexibility that might be difficult elsewhere. There was almost no overlap between the audiences and artists in both events, and similarly no overlap with the mystery venue I describe above. The vitality of each of these, and fact that they cater to widely different audiences, suggest that there are more of them, perhaps many more, that I know nothing about.

One might argue that I’m pressing for an atomization of culture, everybody off in their own bubbles. But it’s easy to see that for every tiny, nearly invisible event or venue, there are ten or twenty or a hundred that exist and even grow and above the surface, more in the main, away from the twilight world. It’s also clear that the players in the twilight corners that I’ve seen are not atomized; they’re often some of the most active and connected people in the city. These little hidden corners provide places for experiment, for magic, opportunities for collaboration and, perhaps unexpectedly, interconnection.

One of the most beautiful things about the corners, these bubbles, is that they provide a growth medium for relationships to grow, often deep friendships and mentorships that grow into intentional families and sometimes much more visible organizations. As such, they are the foundation for the cultural vitality that is essential to the future we must create.

If there’s a glue that holds these bubbles together and gives glimpses into their existence, it’s a broad network of bars, cafes, and small restaurants—and this true in the country as well as the city. I’ve seen these bubbles thrive in the country as well as the city, held together by a key bar or café. A good bar can become the essential core for the twilight world that swirls around it. A good bartender or barista can become the sticky tar of a twilight world. But it’s not just any bar or restaurant or café. It has to be a place where the owner, and often the staff, use the place as a launching pad for small, perhaps invisible projects, as a home for ideas and foment.

I’ve been reluctant to name any of these hidden venues, groups, events; as part of a twilight world, they have the right to surface themselves. But we can name some of the Seattle bars, cafes, and restaurants that are portals into this world: the most obvious are Vermillion and Joe Bar on Capitol Hill, the Hideout on First Hill, Hazelwood in Ballard, and the once and future Hidmo in the Central District. There are other places, including a number that I know nothing about, in keeping with any good twilight world.

If you get what I’m talking about, if you grasp this floating, twilight world and know it as your own, that’s fine. If not, if all of this seems foreign, that’s okay. Living in a twilight world is not belonging to a club; it’s a state of mind, a way of imagining. The best way to go there is to make your own little place, your own corner, maybe in your home, maybe on a street, maybe in a theater lobby during the off hours. Create something there, or if it moves you, help someone else create something. With that, you’re living in the floating world.

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Art, Nudity, and Radicals: three takes on the Oregon Country Fair

A few weeks ago, I spent a week working at the Oregon Country Fair. For those who are unfamiliar: The fair is a huge crafts and music festival, sort of a combination of Seattle’s Folklife and Bumbershoot, but held in a gorgeous riverfront woodland just west of Eugene, and with much better food and hordes of variety performers, marching bands, and amateur theatricals.

The fair still holds some of the Prankster vibe of its founding; it has roots in a 1969 Eugene school fundraiser by Ken Kesey and friends. (One of my favorite recurring lines from Seattle’s Fremont Players, who first produce their annual Christmas Panto show at the fair, is a regular reference to “all the feral hippie children.”) And most famously, the fair is actually two fairs. The first is the day fair, for the paying public, running through the day until the last public guests are swept out in the early evening. Then the second fair starts for the staff, vendors, and entertainers. It’s one part night-market and one part twinkle-lit fairyland, with musicians playing around fire pits in parties that extend until dawn.

The day fair is a great, sprawling affair, crowds of families from across Oregon and the Northwest, faces painted and fairy wings resplendent, dashing off to the next musical performance or dawdling in front of a pottery booth.

And the night fair is magical: walking the paths at night, the food booths open late and lit by gas lanterns and battery-powered LED fairy lights, crowds wandering through the dark as in a fantastic night market. Or walking to one’s fair job in the morning before the doors open, after a breakfast of oatmeal and crisp cut cherries and peaches, all of the booths slowly setting up in their weathered niches beneath the trees, the proprietors looking for all the world like denizens of the Shire.

The night fair is a busker’s paradise: coming upon Seattle’s angry troubadour Jim Page at his annual Sunday night storefront concert, or waking up in one’s tent at three in the morning to the unmistakable strains of Jason Webley’s accordion from a bonfire somewhere through the trees.

The fair is a surprisingly important phenomenon, if only for the complexity of the culture that surrounds the event and the history it has developed; in some cases adults end up working at booths founded by their grandparents. Three comments came to mind from this year’s fair, insights for me about art education, nudity, and bad public discourse.

I

For the past few years, I’ve worked at the fair’s Public Art Booth. It’s a little station of creativity amid the swirling day crowds, run by a stalwart crew come down from Seattle and set in a tree-shaded island just inside the fair’s main entrance. Passers-by, both children and adults, stop at the booth to make something. It’s a great location in the center of the fair, a perfect vantage point for watching the passing parade—sometimes it’s an actual parade; a marching band comes though a couple of times each day, led by the great Fyodor Karamazov from Seattle, a founding member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. And there’s a good music stage and a 24-hour cheesecake stand just across the way.

The art booth usually has three or four work areas: this year there was one for working with scraps of leather, stamping and sewing and cutting and fastening; one for working with pieces of rubber cut from dead bicycle tires; one for working with felt and feathers; and one for making mechanical puppets and shadow puppets cut from paper, with a dark little shadow puppet theater in the back. People make earrings, headbands, crowns, pins, belts, wallets and purses, plaques, wristbands, anklets, puppets of course, and more.

At first glance, it seems more of a craft booth than an art booth; isn’t leather work all about craft? I look at it this way: craft is mostly about skill. Sure, a lot of creativity is involved, but craft done well is about developing skills to the max. Art, on the other hand, has many components, but one of the most key is self-discovery, and that’s what is going on here.

A child drags her parents into the booth. She gets deeply into making a little bracelet, and when she comes up for air finds her parents also entranced, immersed in their own projects. A woman rediscovers her art roots, spending most of the fair hours at the booth, making leather plaques honoring her late grandparents, themselves lifelong craftspeople. A small girl discovers that she can indeed make a little mermaid puppet. A group of women create memorials as a way of thinking about breast cancer. A boy works with his father to make the simplest of adornments: a piece of rubber tubing cut to a half-inch length with gold gem affixed to it: voila! A ring. The boy walks around the booth, proudly showing his treasure to anyone who will look. A man hugs me and shakes my hand and shows me his shirt, into which he has sewn in a simple abstract design. I did not get a chance to ask him what the design meant to him, but it was obviously important.

Watching these people, one can sense a deep hunger for creative outlet, not necessarily classes (though those are critical, especially for children), but just the opportunity to stop in, sit down, and make something, for free. There’s a ready satisfaction in people figuring things out (“oh, I can fasten it that way!”) and growing for it.

It goes to today’s STEM/STEAM debate. Educational reformers are in love with the idea of focusing on STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, as the proper preparation for 21st century life. Others say “not so fast.” The arts (STEAM) need to be in there somewhere as well; otherwise, we will have technicians, engineers, and programmers with little preparation for developing their own creativity, their own self-discovery, even if it’s simply learning to validate that intuitive problem solving, “I can fasten it that way!”

II

There’s nothing like taking a hot shower outdoors, before the heat of a summer day, the early morning sunlight poking through a lush tree canopy overhead. And there’s nothing quite like doing so with a couple hundred of one’s neighbors.

I’ve only been to a few public baths here and there, but I’m guessing that the Ritz at the Oregon Country Fair may be one of the most beautiful public baths in the world. It’s one huge room, open to the sky and the trees, with cedar walls covered with Salish images, rows of showers, two saunas, and a fire pit situated just below a stage where music is performed late into the night and sometimes early in the morning.

Open nearly 24 hours each day for roughly six days each year—and odd hours in the days before and after the fair, for the work crews—the production of the bathhouse experience each summer is a remarkable feat, with water delivered in tank trucks and heated in a huge wood-fed boiler, and with an intense attention to keeping the place clean and the water hot. As you climb the ramp to the entrance, burly men are heaving cordwood into a huge furnace like the firemen in an old steam locomotive.

The experience of the hot water and the morning chill and the fresh air is exhilarating, as is just the experience of a hundred naked bodies wandering around, stepping into a shower, leaving the sauna in a heat-induced daze, or even simply brushing one’s teeth. All of those bodies have me thinking:

It’s pretty easy to see in a public bath, even more so than on a beach, that we are as snowflakes; not one of us has the same body as anyone else. We have tall bodies and short bodies, fat and slender, square and round, bodies shaped like tubes and bodies shaped like spindles. Some have skin as taut as a greyhound’s or a dolphin’s, while others are wrinkled like the surface of an elephant’s ear. And what’s remarkable, contrary to what television and the swimsuit spreads would have us believe, Venuses and Adonises are pretty rare. That’s not to say that healthy people are rare, but that a man of solid physique turns out to have an oddly long torso or a burgeoning belly or unusually angular shoulders, and can’t quite match Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Or a woman may show a simple blemish, a flaw that would be airbrushed out of a fashion photo.

But it is those flaws that also make us human. It is that variety, the unexpected curves or unexpectedly short legs, our sags and scars and spreads that ultimately make us beautiful.

The first time I went into the Ritz a few years ago, it occurred to me that I have seen a remarkable number of the people I know naked. Seeing Seattle friends at the Ritz, having the odd encounter on the streets of Black Rock City, experiences in sweat lodges over years, attending various figure drawing classes, watching the hordes of painted naked cyclists at each summer’s Solstice Parade in Seattle, and the seemingly requisite undressing sequence at so many On the Boards performances, I would guess that I have seen hundreds of people I know without clothes. Which I think is pretty wonderful. When I was growing up, such encounters would have been unimaginable, except perhaps among the strange and shadowy world of nudists that one would hear about in popular culture. But this is not about living a philosophy of the value of nudism. Rather, it’s about people living well and free in their bodies, taking pride in just being alive, and perhaps coming to know their own beauty, no matter what their shape.

III

This last one is less about the fair itself and more about the simple experience of going to an event and watching it become a catalog of errors, a case of how not to put on an event. It becomes an exercise in absurdity, and if one has any passion for the focus of the event, an exercise in frustration.

The event in this case: for the past few years, Bernadine Dohrn and Robert Ayers have been featured at the fair as part of a series of discussions and presentations on politics and social issues. I’d never heard them speak and was curious to do so; both were members of the Weather Underground, a group of radical activists in the 1960s beset with the fantasy that they would be able to stop the Vietnam war and bring about social justice through violent revolution.

Years later, they had become respected academics and progressive American voices, with Ayers as a noted authority on education reform. And of course they became famous as right wing attack points in the 2008 election; they’d been sometime acquaintances of Barack Obama in Chicago.

Unfortunately, at the fair event they didn’t say a whole lot, at least not in the 40 minutes I was able to stay before I had to get back to my fair job. Ayers had a few brief comments about the power of framing in mass media, as in describing “the sixties” as an artificial media construct rather than a real thing. But the event conspired against them, including an introductory speaker who rambled on and on and on and could perhaps have used a nudge in the ribs as the rest of us sat in the heat, waiting for the main attraction. There was a poorly designed venue, where the urge for shade forced the audience to the bleachers in the back, far way from the stage—along with putting the guests on a stage at all, further separating them from the audience, with which they were supposed to have a colloquy. And then there was the tried and true—and generally foolish—device of having one microphone on a stand for audience participation, so that the audience must line up to have their say.

That microphone configuration is all too common at public discussions. It tends to have three effects: It sets up a dynamic of supplication, like the common folk lining up to make their case before the prince. Because it requires standing in line—in the heat in this case—that configuration also tends to select for the frustrated and the zealots, the usual suspects. Anyone with a little more reticence tends to not get up and speak. And finally, because the act of speaking does require standing in line, those who do get to the microphone tend to spew out their comments like speeches, “and another thing….” They become reluctant to give up the hard-fought microphone. Mildly desperate speeches are, after all, speech, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re not conducive to good conversation.

The whole session felt gray and tired. That was especially driven home to me when I went back out into the crowds, and not 50 yards from the entrance to the discussion venue saw a group of young people clustered around a charismatic young man with a broad, compelling smile. He was maybe six foot four inches tall, brown-skinned, and very handsome. He wore black basketball shorts and a black leather harness around his shoulders that revealed a strong physique. He carried a clipboard and was doing voter registration with the surrounding youths. His shoulder bag identified him as a member of Oregon Bus. In Seattle, the sister group Washington Bus is exemplary in terms of youth organizing, democracy building, and social justice work. The Bus network has extended across the West to Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Montana.

Talking with the man for five minutes gave me more hope for the future than anything that was said in the Ayres/Dohrn session. I’m not one of those who suggests that the next generations will save us. I’ve heard that before with other generations, and it hasn’t quite worked out. But the fellow did have a beautiful energy, one that’s worth developing.

Ayers apparently had a small epiphany at this year’s fair. But for me, any insights from his session were in short supply.

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