Monthly Archives: December 2013

Making Enemies

Sixty-five years ago, on December 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Polish American lawyer Raphael Lemkin is generally recognized as the driving force behind this convention. He coined the word “genocide” in 1944 and made ending genocide his life’s work. He is praised among anti-genocide advocates as the the man who gave name to these atrocities. Who worked tirelessly to raise awareness of these atrocities. Who did everything within his power to ensure these atrocities would never happen ever again.

Seven people attended his funeral.

Raphael Lemkin was not very popular.

As it turns out, the difficult work of lobbying for a cause, of being the person who won’t shut up when everyone else wants you to, of being a relentless reminder of what is right…doesn’t earn you too many friends.

Just think of the people you know who are like this. You’re in a community meeting, which you went to after work. It’s 7:30 pm and you haven’t had dinner yet. Maybe you have a bit of a headache. You’re glad you went, but you also can’t wait to get home. And then, Old So-And-So gets up to speak. And before they open their mouth you’ve already rolled your eyes and tuned out – you already know what they’re gonna say, cause you’ve heard them raise the issue a thousand times before. Yes, it’s important, but can’t they see it’s just not practical?

It’s possible your thoughts are less than charitable.

Nobody wants to be that person. Everybody dislikes that person.

But if we ever hope to to change things for the better, then somebody must be that person.

And as difficult as it is, each of us should try to be that person. We must speak out against injustice and refuse to remain silent in the face of oppression.

Otherwise you’re just a bystander.

Honestly, I don’t know that I have the fortitude for such a life. But, I believe, it’s a noble calling if you can do it.And perhaps, I would say, it is a life worth striving for. As poet Charles Mackay puts it:

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

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Fiction Friday: The Classroom

Fiction Friday is back!

***

The classroom was noisy, chaotic. Students roamed freely or leaned lazily against walls. Some were shouting and yelling.

Everything was under control.

Nadia sat in the corner watching her class. Hardly saying a word.

“When you look at the historical use of government surveillance, there’s no clear correlation showing their use leading to a drop in crime,” one student said, adding citations of several studies in his favor.

“But this isn’t really an issue of trying to prevent future crimes,” another student chimed in, “It’s about trying to catch someone who has already committed a crime. When something like this happens, there should be documentation, a lead, something to go on.”

“But nothing like this has happened in years,” another student added. “Is it really worth recording us all the time, just for us the rare instance that we need it? What about our privacy?”

“I’d give that up for safety,” another student injected.

“No one’s really watching the video most of the time, so I think maybe it’s okay?” Added another.

“I don’t know…it seems like a drastic reaction,” another student spoke up. “I mean, this is important and all, finding this person, but…privacy is important, too. I don’t know that I want the government to have the power to watch me all the time. I mean, I don’t really do anything interesting, but…I dunno, it just feels wrong.”

The students paused for a moment, pondering all these options. The pros and cons. The tradeoffs and considerations. The bustling energy of the room died to a light hum as students screwed up their faces and shook their heads, trying to work out their own thoughts on the matter.

Nadia had her eye on the one student who hadn’t spoken up yet.

Most of the kids had been actively engaged in the conversation. Speaking out with their ideas, their research, their questions. But some people are just naturally quieter. Some people take more time to formulate their thoughts, or have a harder time jumping in two rowdy, engaged conversations.

It was no problem, but she wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to engage. She wondered if she should say something.

“This is a lot to think about,” one of the active students spoke up. “But I’m not sure what’s best. What do you think?” She asked, turning to the student who’d been silent.

Nadia smiled.

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Job Equity

Of the roughly 3 million jobs in Massachusetts, around 1 million are considered “bad jobs.”

Jobs with low wages. Jobs with no benefits. Jobs with real safety issues. Jobs with no path for growth.

People in these types of jobs are often stuck in these types of jobs. If they’re lucky, they’re stuck in three of these jobs – ’cause that what it takes to make ends meet.

They have no time for family. They have no time for community. They have no time to support their child’s education, to speak out against a policy change that will hurt them, or to make connections with neighbors.

Bad jobs aren’t just a problem for workers, they’re a problem for the community.

I got these numbers from the Good Jobs Coalition, which visited a group I work with, Somerville Community Corporation‘s Jobs for Somerville, earlier this week.

In Somerville, in particular, we’re faced with an interesting opportunity and challenge. New development will bring new jobs.

The city’s strategic plan envisions 30,000 new jobs to be created within the next 20 years.

But what types of jobs will these be? And who will get them?

These are important questions that affect us all. I’m pretty happy with my job, so in one sense these 30,000 jobs mean nothing to me.

But as I see my friends and neighbors leave the city because they can’t afford it, as I see my community colleagues unable to attend meetings and actions about improving jobs because they’re too busy working their third shift, as I observe the voices that are continually missing from community dialogue, I know this issue impacts me deeply.

So I was excited when earlier this week, the city sent out an RFP for creating a system to connect and train local workers for these new jobs.

Not only would this ‘first source’ system provide a path for local workers to connect to local jobs, but importantly, it would connect these workers to job training – ESOL, computer literacy, worker’s rights. It would help bridge the gap, and, hopefully, empower workers to get, and demand, good jobs.

But of course, this issue isn’t just a Somerville problem.

My whole world is about four square miles, so I tend to look at things through a Somerville lens. But the issue is much broader and deeper than that.

The Good Jobs Coalition works regionally across Greater Boston, connecting groups like Jobs for Somerville so we can learn from each other and work together.

Fighting for local jobs in Somerville is not a matter of trying to exclude workers from Medford. It’s about trying to break the cycle of poverty or near poverty. About empowering people to have voice and agency within their communities. About making the community stronger and better for all of us.

Some of us will work very locally, some of us will work regionally, some of us will work nationally, and some of us will work globably.

But all of us can work together and fight together and build better communities together.

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Authentic Selves

All of us are living in closets.

Our society – our human society – is built around norms. Around the mainstream. Around social conventions and unspoken rules.

And some of that, I would say, is good. It leads to social cohesion and common ground. We are, after all, social animals.

But as we try to navigate that world, we are in danger of losing ourselves, our authentic selves, in a quest to be what we perceive society expects.

Some of us feel this danger more sharply than others. Racial minorities are pressured to “act white,” gays and other sexual minorities are pressured to “act straight,” women are pressured to “act ‘feminine.'” The list goes on.

But all of us feel this danger to some degree. The dark past we don’t want to share. The unpopular opinions we don’t feel we can voice. The personal or family dysfunction, struggles, or suffering we hide from those around us. All of this diminishes our authentic selves.

I, for one, couldn’t begin to list the identities I hide from the world.

Kenji Yoshino, professor at Yale Law School, covers this topic extensively in his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. Covering is essentially a matter of conforming to the mainstream, or, perhaps, the perceived mainstream. As he writes:

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white male” reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help, like skin color or chromosomes or innate sexual drives. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine,” or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my schizophrenia, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. …Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.
Yoshino, while deeply respectful of the fights and progress made by the civic rights movement, considers covering to be the next front of the civil rights movement.

Current civil rights law, he points out, protects people within certain protected categories for things they cannot change. But it does not protect people from things they should not have to change.

You can’t fire someone for being black, but you can fire someone for not “acting white.”

You can’t fire someone for being a woman, but you can fire a woman for being too “masculine.” You can fire a woman for refusing to wear make up.

People are stuck between “covering” and “reverse covering” demands. Women are expected to act “masculine” in order to progress in the workplace, but can be simultaneously penalized for not being “feminine.”

White society may pressure African Americans to “act white” while their black peers pressure them to “act black.”

The list goes on.

Yoshino argues that to move forward, we need to step away from group-centered civil rights and focus on supporting authentic selves to flourish.

This isn’t just a matter of law, but a matter of every day interactions. Of sharing your authentic self with others and being open to others sharing their authentic self with you.

We shouldn’t be discussing whether a woman or a man is too “masculine” or too “feminine.” We should allow them to have whatever personality they have, and embrace them for owning it and sharing it.

It’s a tall order.

But, perhaps, with time we can get there.

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Consumers and the Free Market

I hate the word “consumer.”

Perhaps not so much the word as the concept.

It makes me think of bacteria. Consuming everything around them. Excreting something in response.

When I talk about the world as a marketer, I use the word “consumer” a lot. Grad school was all about understanding consumer behavior. About conditioning consumer responses. About motivating consumer actions.

I imagine a school of fish swimming synchronously in one direction, then suddenly, just like that, simultaneously changing direction.

In a marketer’s ideal world, the marketer is the cause of this inexplicable direction change. Silently orchestrating actions. The master of cause and effect.

Not even the fish know why they move.

But they think it is their choice.

To be clear, I don’t think of this as my own professional ideal, and there are many, many marketers who don’t think this way. But that’s what the word “consumer” makes me think of.

It dehumanizes people. Treats them as objects to be manipulated. As only consumers of product. Of value only insofar as their purchasing power.

That’s what I think of in this Black Friday Cyber Monday holiday shopping season excitement.

On the one hand, I think it’s disappointing that stores now open on Thanksgiving day. On the one hand, I think you’d have to be crazy to go out in the Black Friday rush. On the one hand, I agree that Thanksgiving could facetiously be renamed Thanksgetting.

But on the other, I need to give a tip o’ the hat to the marketers who thought it up. Who convinced people that they wanted to spend Thanksgiving shopping ’til they dropped. Who engineered a system that appears to give bargains while only benefiting the businesses’ bottom line.

It’s easy to say that people choose to go shopping on Black Friday. But I’m not completely convinced that they do. Like the school of fish, what appears to be a choice may in fact be a carefully orchestrated phenomenon.

Free choice isn’t always as free as you might think.

And this causes me pause when I think of the free market.

People are free. Consumers are not.

So if you have a market built entirely on consumers whose actions are deeply, perhaps intrinsically, motivated by marketers; whose reality is manipulated in the form of fake bargains, purchasing environment and countless other strategies; if your market is built on these manipulated consumers

Is that market really free at all?

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Contrarian’s Thanks

I rather like Thanksgiving, but as a jaded, irascible, contrarian, I struggle with it as well.

While others can say a genuine, heartfelt thanks for all they have and more, when I say these words they feel shallow. Don’t get me wrong – I am deeply thankful for all that I have. But stating such thanks on a day of thank giving feels pithy and forced.

So here is my attempt at a genuine reflection on the things for which I truly am thankful.

***

I am thankful for the hardships I’ve faced
Because they’ve made me stronger
While making me realize how much easier
I’ve had it than others.

I am thankful for my anger
In the face of injustice.

I am thankful for my passion
To keep fighting injustice.
However long it takes.

And longer.

I am thankful to all those who
Share in this fight.
To those who started before me,
And to those who will continue after I’m gone.

I am thankful to all those who have shared their
Voice, views and experience.
Who have trusted me to listen to them with an open mind.

I am thankful to all those who have
Listened to me with an open mind.

I am thankful to all those who have challenged me
Who have opened my mind and clarified my thinking.

I am thankful to all those who have supported me,
So I know I’m not always alone.

I am thankful for moments of silence.

I am thankful for moments of joy.

I am thankful for pain, sorrow, death and grief.

I am thankful that life is not static.

I am thankful for the good and the bad.
For the people I’ve hated and the people I’ve loved.

I am thankful
To be alive.

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