Monthly Archives: June 2015

Voting is Not Enough

In the last presidential election, only 61.8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Unsurprisingly, the 2014 midterms were even worse, with just 36.4 percent of eligible citizens voting – the worst turnout in any election cycle since World War II.

Those are the kind of numbers which make civic advocates despair.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times reported that the low turnout “was bad for Democrats, but it was even worse for democracy.” The Times went on to bemoan the causes of the record-low turnout: “apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”

But we should be wary of correlating increased voter turnout with increased civic health – voting is an important act in a healthy democracy, but a turn out rate is not enough to diagnose a civic ailment.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa develops a power-powerlessness model of voting.

In a coal mining valley of Appalachia, Gaventa is struck by how local elections are always battles between elites which never address or engage the poor, working people of the community:

Though intensely fought, the conflict which emerges into the local political arena is rarely substantive compared with what could emerge. The candidates do not raise questions potentially challenging to either Company or courthouse – such as why the locally derived wealth is not redistributed through taxation.

Gaventa documents how both public and private (eg, voting) challenges to existing power structures are forcefully shut down by those in power. Over time, these power structures become stronger and the fear of reprisal becomes ingrained. Those without power exhibit repeated behavior which would be perplexing to an outsider.

In one Company town, turnout rates would get as high as 100%. Voting day was a special day, where folks would dress up to participate. Then they’d go to to the ballot box and vote unanimously for the company man – a man who was actively engaged in the oppression of the people voting for him.

While “a host of studies in political science argue that the poor may not participate or may not participate effectively, because of low income, poor education, lack of information, and other factors of a socio-economic state scale,” Gaventa draws a different conclusion:

Factors such as low income, low education and low status may, in fact, be reflections of a common index of ‘vulnerability’ or social and economic dependency of a non-elite upon an elite. Through processes of coercive power, those most likely to challenge inequalities may be prevented from challenge…Over time, there may develop a routine of non-conflict within and about local politics – a routine which may, to the observer, appear as a fatalism found in ‘backwardness.’ As regards to voting…the phenomenon would be better understood as a product of power relations, such that actions of challenge – and even, over time, conceptions of such actions – by the powerless against the powerful become organized out the political milieu.

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t talk about voting, but voting is far from enough. When we talk about voting, we should talk about power – and not just the desperate claim that one person’s vote has the power to make a difference. We should talk about how structures of power shape our very approach to voting.

In one talk at Frontiers of Democracy last week, Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Secretary of the State, said that the number one reason people give for not voting is that no one asked them.

While perhaps we shouldn’t feel the need to send an engraved invitation to every member of our democracy inviting them to participate in it, the reality is…we do.

When I see low voting rates, I don’t see a people who are too apathetic or too stupid to vote, I see a people who have been taught – explicitly and implicitly – that they have no agency in this world. That their voices and their thoughts have no value.

And when we talk about voting, too often we reinforce this sense – after all, if one vote out of 3 million is all the power you have…that’s just a reminder of just how powerless you are

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Fun and Civic Work

Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2015 Frontiers of Democracy conference. One theme that came up several times was fun.

In a session I facilitated, for example, I asked participants to share how they personally engage in civic work and then reflect on what they learned from each other’s approaches.

At the end of the session, one group reported that they’d had a quite engaging discussion about whether or not fun was required for sustainable civic impact.

Fun makes the work more enjoyable – making it easier to mobilize and engage others, and sustaining those who choose to take on the work. Fun brings people together, transforming a group of individual actors into a true community, capable of engaging in the work together.

But fun could also be superfluous, an add on that only works in some contexts, or even damaging – undermining the seriousness of an issue with frivolity.

We talked about gamification, using the tools of gaming to make civic experiences more fun.

We talked about the natural fun that comes about when people in a room simply like each other and enjoy each other’s company. One person described how much fun she has making signs or doing so-called boring work with a group she works with. The work may be dull, but being with the people is just fun.

There was also good discussion about whether fun was the right word – perhaps it was more of a public spiritedness we were looking for?

Later, in a conversation about engaging communities with city planning, someone else talked about the importance of engaging the arts – using music and dance to create a festive atmosphere. An event should be fun, so that community members would actually want to attend.

And finally, as the conference drew to a close, another person wondered if the concern about fun was actually a byproduct of the professionalization of civic work. If you feel like the host, you want to make sure your guests are having fun.

It strikes me – and perhaps I’ve been reading too much Wittgenstein – that we’re not talking about the same type of “fun” in all these scenarios.

There is certain type of forced fun, which does feel like a host trying to entertain guests. There can be a paternalistic danger in this approach, too – a tendency to say, “we’d better make civic work fun because that’s the only way we can get the people to do what is best for them.”

As if we aren’t people too. As if we do this work because we are somehow wiser or more self-aware.

The irony here, of course, is that at any good party the host is the only one worried about people having fun – everyone else is busy simply having it.

Perhaps that’s another type of fun – or a public spiritedness, if you will. When people come together, when people talk together and spend time together and simply get to know each other – that is fun. There’s no forced socializing or carefully constructed ice breakers, just people coming together.

And I think it’s only appropriate that I end with one of the panelists from my session. After this great discussion about different types of civic work, after this engaging debate about what is fun and whether or not it is required, he turned to me and smiled, saying simply:

That was fun.

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Internal vs External Infrastructure

After my post from earlier this week, I got into a fascinating conversation about whether social justice work should focus more externally – on shared projects and improving institutions – or internally – on checking your own biases and privilege.

I may have just left it there, but yesterday someone else raised the same point in a conversation about building civic infrastructure to confront racial bias.

There’s nothing in the police manual that says officers need to treat people of color more aggressively than white people, one person argued, so the real need is for police officers to work on removing their own internal biases.

Someone else countered with excellent examples of how the external system really does increase and perpetuate racial bias among officers – they are trained as paramilitary, trained to expect the worse case scenario, and, yes, even trained to treat low-income neighborhoods as more dangerous.

Of course, the external v. internal debate is not really a zero-sum game, though there is an important question as to where we should collectively focus our resources and attention.

Focusing too much on either has its dangers: too internally focused becomes little more than navel-gazing without any real action or systemic change; too externally focused provides policy bandaids which do little to mitigate the day to day biases and microaggressions which people of color experience constantly.

But if the best path lies somewhere in between, it still raises an interesting challenge as to how to navigate that journey.

I imagine creating more spaces for shared work, with more spaces for self-reflection and improvement. I imagine creating structures and institutions which encourage us to improve ourselves by working together for the express purpose of working better together.

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Frontiers of Democracy

Frontiers of Democracy, a three day conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, begins this evening. Frontiers convenes practitioners and scholars from a wide range of disciplines, engaging on topics of deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing, political engagement, and Civic Studies.

You can follow the conversation at #DemFront, and you can watch featured speakers live streamed on the Tisch College website.

The live stream schedule is:

Thursday, June 25 | 6:30-7:30pm

Tina Nabatchi, Caroline Lee, Harry Boyte

Tina Nabatchi (PhD, Indiana University-Bloomington, 2007) is an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, where she also co-directs the Collaborative Governance Initiative for the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). Her research focuses on citizen participation, collaborative governance, and conflict resolution. She is the lead editor of Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement (Oxford University Press, 2012), co-author of Collaborative Governance Regimes (with Kirk Emerson, Georgetown University Press), and co-author of Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (with Matt Leighninger, Wiley/Blackwell)

Caroline W. Lee teaches sociology at Lafayette College. Her most recent books include Do-it-Yourself Democracy, based on her ethnography of the public engagement industry, and Democratizing Inequalities, an edited volume with Ed Walker and Mike McQuarrie about the dramatic expansion of democratic practices in an era of stark economic inequalities.

Harry Boyte leads the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. Boyte has been an architect of a “public work” approach to civic engagement and democracy promotion, a conceptual framework on citizenship that has gained world-wide recognition for its theoretical innovations and its practical effectiveness.

Friday. June 26 |  9:30-10:30am 

Abhi Nemani, Brenda Wright, Hahrie Han

Abhi Nemani is currently the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles. Formerly, he helped build, launch, and run the national non-profit, Code for America.

Brenda Wright is Vice President of Legal Strategies at Demos.  She has led many progressive legal and policy initiatives on voting rights, campaign finance reform, redistricting, election administration and other democracy and electoral reform issues and is a nationally known expert in these areas.

Hahrie Han teaches political science at Wellesley College. Her two most recent books are How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century and Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.1 Million Activists Transformed Field Campaigns in America (co-authored with Elizabeth McKenna)

Friday. June 26 | 4:00-5:00pm

Diana Hess, Ajume Wingo, Denise Merrill

Diana E. Hess is Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation and Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book, with Paula McAvoy, is The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.

Ajume Wingo teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder. His last book is entitled Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States, and he is collaborating with Michael Kruse on The Citizen, a book about how Africans can move beyond where their history has put them and begin to make their own future and secure their own political freedom.

Denise Merrill is Connecticut’s 73rd Secretary of the State. In that capacity, she has focused on modernizing Connecticut’s election process and making voting easier. She also co-chairs the State’s Civic Health Advisory Group, which is responsible for implementing action strategies identified in Connecticut’s 2012 Civic Health Report. She has a longstanding commitment to civic education and expanding democratic participation.

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The Work

In the wake of the murders in Charleston, in the wake of the constant news of black and brown people dying at that hand of whites, I’ve been surrounded by calls for white people to get engaged in the work.

People of color have been engaged in the work forever. In a fight for their very survival, they have led the work for change and for justice. But its not their job to fix society on their own. White people need to step up and do the work with them.

I was reading one particular essay yesterday, colorfully addressed “To My Fellow Whiteys,” which strongly argued that its long past time for white Americans to get up and get to work. Well, that’s great, except –

I kept scrolling down to figure out what “the work” is. I feel like –

I am ready to get to work, but just what is it I’m supposed to do?

I read lots of lists with titles like “how to be a better ally” or “actions for social justice.” And they almost always leave me feeling flat. I want action, I want change. Advice which basically boils down to “try not to be an a-hole” doesn’t do it for me.

I mean, it’s good advice, but its not enough.

And that, I think, is one of the biggest challenges.

We’ve come to think of social change as something that happens through large movements and policy change.

We know how to get a racist flag taken down.

That is good work, but the work is much more than that. There is so much more work to be done.

Really confronting systemic racism in this country will take more than policy change. There is plenty of policy which could stand to be changed – but that is a symptom, not the disease.

So just what is “the work” that we ought to engage in? Just what is this work that we have to engage in?

It is smaller, it is ordinary. And that’s just what makes it so extraordinary.

The work is about each of us, as individuals. Each trying to be a little better tomorrow than we were today. Each trying to understand each other a little better tomorrow, to appreciate each other a little better tomorrow.

That’s not to say we can simply put large scale change or policy actions aside, but the real work, the hard, gritty, difficult work is improving yourself.

I read an article not long ago where a woman of color reflected on being cut in line by a white woman at an airport baggage check. The woman later apologized, saying “I’m sorry if I cut you earlier. I didn’t see you standing there.”

As author Brit Bennett described, “I spent a four hour flight trying not to wonder about the white woman’s intentions. But why would she think about mine? She didn’t even see me.”

I was struck by that story. That could have been me.

I could have done it thoughtlessly, with no racist intentions or motives. It would have been easy for me. And it would have caused another person anguish.
Regardless of our intentions, that’s not always how our actions are perceived. I imagine that some might argue that the woman who got cut off should simply get over it. That being cut off in an airport is no big deal and you should just forget about it and move on with your life.Well, that’s easy to say when you know the motives weren’t personal.I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, but I do know what it’s like to not know whether the guy smiling at you is trying to be neighborly or hoping to cop a feel. I know what it’s like to have men talk over you or reject your opinion and not know whether its because you actually weren’t saying anything of value or if its because you’re a woman.It’s exhausting. And for people of color, the microagressions they experience throughout the day can be traumatizing.Getting cut off in an airport once is no big deal. Being discriminated against and oppressed during every hour of every day is.As white people, we have a responsibility, not just to “get to work,” but to understand and appreciate everyone who cohabits this world with us.We have a responsibility to learn, to listen, to do our best to understand another’s experience, to accept their experience as valid even if it conflicts with our own way of experiencing the world. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to educate each other. And, above all, at the core of the work – we have a responsibility to be a little better tomorrow than we were today.

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On Confederate Flags and the Long Road Ahead

In a surprise move, once it became politically expedient, South Carolina’s governor and others added their voices to the call for the Confederate flag to come down from the state house.

With even Walmart and EBay deciding to ban the Confederate flag, it seems like the days of Confederate flag waving might soon be behind us.

And that’s not bad. The Confederate flag has long been a sign of hate. In 1962, at a time of school desegregation and powerful civil rights organizing, it was erected over the South Carolina state house.

A reminder of who was, and who would remain, in power.

Following the murder of nine people in a terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel church, many have wisely decried this symbol, and a growing campaign has organized around it’s removal.

I will be glad if the campaign is successful, and yet, the effort leaves me unsettled –

There is so much work to do, and it goes far, far beyond taking down a flag.

Like a campaign built upon online clicks, the effort to remove the flag feels like little more than slacktivisim – an opportunity for good people to prove they are good before getting back to their every day lives.

Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush here, so perhaps I should only say that that’s how I would feel.

I’ve been told that any good organizing campaign is sustained by little victories, and I can optimistically see how getting a flag taken down might provide such a foothold. Perhaps a victory there will galvanize people to act further – to demand further reforms and to question the deep, pervasive racism that so tragically defines our society.

But the realist in me, imagines a win a signal the caring eyes that have been drawn to issues of racism. Go home, it might say, we’ve won.

Surely, there is a value to accomplishing some simple, tangible victories – but not if those victories signal permission to no longer act, to put off the really difficult work.

And we do have difficult work ahead of us.

Calls for a “national dialogue on race” hardly do the work justice. We need to dismantle and rebuild our systems and institutions, and we need to talk with each other – not just a nation, but as a community of individuals – and we, white people in particular, need to recognize that we’ve got a lot of learning to do.

It’s easy not to engage in conversations about race and racism when you’re the one benefiting from the system, or when you imagine that what others will tell you won’t ring true to your own experience.

White privilege doesn’t mean your life is perfect: it just means that someone else’s is probably worse.

We have real, serious, deep-seated and systemic problems around race in this country. It will take more than a flag to sweep them away.

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Language Games

I’ve been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, a German philosopher fascinated by a seemingly simple question: What do words mean?

“One thinks that learning language consists in giving a name to objects,” Wittgenstein writes. “To repeat – naming is something like attaching a name tag to a thing.”

Yet, as he points out, language is far more complex than that.

“Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old an new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.”

A word’s meaning is dependent on context – when it’s used, how it’s said. Is it followed by a question mark or an exclamation mark. Does everybody have the same understanding of the word being used?

Through countless language-games (Sprachspiel), Wittgenstein argues that language is always in exact, and that understanding the inexactness is critical to communication.

“Only let’s understand what ‘inexact’ means!” he exclaims, “For it does not mean ‘unusable!'”

Indeed, an inexactness of language does not mean we are unable to communicate. It just means that we are likely to be misunderstood.

And of course language is inexact, he argues. “Thinking is surrounded by a nimbus.”

“What is essential now is to see that the same thing may be in our minds when we hear the word and yet the application still be different. Has it the same meaning both times? I think we would deny that.”

Wittgenstein even demurs from defining the word “game,” though it’s used heavily throughout his work.

“One can say that the concept of a game is a concept with blurred edges. – ‘But is a blurred concept a concept at all?’ – Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all? It is always an advantage to replace a picture that is not share by one that is? Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need?”

All this is important because – we need language to communicate. With out it, we are alone.

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Searching for Inspiration on Dark Days

I’ve been thinking a lot about actionable steps, recently. Amid the murders in Charleston. Following the deaths of Walter Scott, Kalief Browder, Michael Brown, and far, far too many others.

I’ve read articles on how to be an ally, read commentary and analysis on the perpetual racism pervading our society. I’ve added my voice to those calling for change. I’ve joined mailing lists calling for action, attended protests and demonstrations. I’ve given financially where I can.

And none of it feels like enough. Nothing feels like it’s changing.

I woke this morning with the words of Oscar Wilde ringing in my head:

We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

I rather wanted to spend the day hiding in my closet sobbing silently at all the ills in the world, but that didn’t seem like it would do anybody much of any good.

Besides, who am I to take the bench when people of color are dying? Not everyone has the privileged to just look away.

As I am wont to do at such times of despair, I re-read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

I generally suspect that I’m the only one who finds the words of Camus a comfort. Who, after all, likes to imagine that “the workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd” than the fate of Sisyphus. The man who defied the gods and was pushed to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.

Sisyphus, “powerless and rebellious.” (impuissant et révolté)

What an interesting juxtaposition of words!

Sisyphus knew he was powerless and yet he rebelled. The Gods couldn’t punish him, for still, he rebelled.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa examined the role of social power in maintaining the oppression of the poor in the Appalachian Valley.

Gaventa identified what he calls the three dimensions of power.

In the first dimension, A has power over B insofar as A is has more resources or can use more force to coerce B. The first dimension is a fair fight, where one side is stronger than the other.

In the second dimension, A constructs barriers to diminish B’s participation. Voter ID laws, monolingual meetings. In the second dimension, A rigs the game.

The third dimension is the most insidious. Not only does A control and shape the agenda, but A’s power is so absolute that A influences the way B sees the conflict. In the third dimension, B is not even sure she’s oppressed. It’s a woman who just naturally does all the house work.

I sometimes think that the pervasiveness of racism in America stems from Whites’ inability to reach this total level of dominance.

We brought people over as chattel and expected them to obey. We beat them and tortured them and did unspeakable things to break them, but they continued to resist.

We fancied ourselves as gods, and yet among those who were most powerless we found ourselves impotent. Unable to exert total power. Still they rebelled.

There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

Sisyphus is stronger than his rock.

But I imagine that it’s of little comfort to one who looks back on generations of oppression, who looks around to see their brothers and sisters dying. It’s of little comfort that some dead, French philosopher thinks you’ve won.

Yet there is something in this, I think –

For the battle goes on.

The battle goes on, and slowly bending the arc of the moral universe can feel very much like futile labor, it can feel like an effort in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.

But still the work goes on.

For we know that all is not, has not been, exhausted, and we know that fate is a human matter, which must be settled among men.

And there is so much work for us to do.

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With Thoughts of Charleston

I often wonder what moments will be remembered in history. Which moments, in retrospect, will seem to mark a turning point, a watershed change.

Will history remember a church founded by Reverend Morris Brown? A church burnt to the ground in 1822 for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. A church rebuilt, only to be forced underground for 30 years after Charleston outlawed all black churches in 1834.

Will history remember the day in 2015 when nine black men and women were murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church?

To be surprised is to be naive.

All this has happened before, and we’ve done far too little to keep it from happening again.

“I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Then he murdered people at church.

It may be the act of one deranged man, but its the rhetoric of too much of our nation. For too long we have allowed such hateful speech to flourish, giving a pass to hateful ideas – too afraid or unsure of how to intervene.

Where did the gunman learn to hate like that?

He learned it from us. From white America. From people who nurtured his hate or who simply left it there, unconfronted.

They say the gunman sat with parishioners for an hour before opening fire. He sat with them as they discussed biblical verse and prayed.

But in that garden of Gethsemane, it was Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s and Cynthia Hurd’s cup that would not pass. It was Myra Thompson, Sharonda Singleton and Tywanza Sanders who had to die to remind us that there is still hate and evil in this world.

That there is still hate and evil in our communities.

You wouldn’t think we’d need reminding, but clearly we do – since black churches are burned and black bodies are scattered in our streets. And yet we, white America, continue to sit by and sigh.

And nothing changes.

I want to make sense of this senseless horror. I want an action I can check to solve this problem once and for all.

But there are no easy answers, and it will take hard, long work for solutions.

All I know is that we can do better, and amidst this heartache, this pain, and sorrow we must do better.

How many more have to die?

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Happy Bunker Hill Day

Today, June 17, is Bunker Hill Day, a little known holiday celebrated, I believe, only in parts of Massachusetts’ Suffolk and Middlesex Counties.

While the Boston Globe reports that it used to be a day “on which city government offices would close,” the day is still celebrated within my city of Somerville, MA. Perhaps that’s just some of the civic-mindedness that got us recognized as an All America City.

And just what is Bunker Hill Day?

Why, it commemorates, of course, the June 17, 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place largely on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown.

It’s not all madness, though. In fact, Bunker Hill was intended site of the battle.

But let’s back up: The battle took place during the siege of Boston – April 19, 1775 to March 17, 1776 – when American militiamen effectively contained British troops within Boston.

After taking Boston, the British sought to fortify their position by seizing the nearby Charlestown peninsula.

Before the British could act on this plan, though, Colonels Putnam and Prescott set out with orders to establish American defenses on Charlestown’s Bunker Hill. However, “for reasons that are unclear, they constructed a redoubt on nearby Breed’s Hill.”

The British, “astonished to see the rebel fortifications upon the hill” led two costly and unsuccessful charges against the Americans.

After receiving reinforcements, the British led a third and ultimately successful attack against the fortification, taking 1054 casualties – nearly 40 percent of the British ranks – in the process.

At the time, Somerville was part of Charlestown – “Charlestown beyond the neck.” Though Somerville was established as its own town in 1842, we still proudly remember the game-changing battle.

“While for the Army of New England the battle was technically a tactical defeat, it was also a symbolic victory of strategic proportions. A small colonial force of men from all races, classes, and occupations made a defiant stand against some of the best trained and equipped soldiers in the world.”

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