Monthly Archives: June 2015

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

There’s a certain way one ought to live one’s life. Or at least that’s what many of us are taught to believe.

Finish high school, go to college. Get a job, find a career. Perhaps also get married, buy a house, and have children. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Social expectations are, perhaps, the biggest driver for following this standard path. But there are other incentives, too.

After all, the journey of life doesn’t end there and the other side of the spectrum demands attention as well: save for retirement, pay off the mortgage, care for your parents, put your kids through school –

Even if you’re not looking for a mansion in the Hollywood hills, the stability of a middle class lifestyle requires a commitment to middle class norms. Deviating from the path – intentionally taking a step backwards or even laterally can be scary.

That’s not the way the story is supposed to go, and it opens a risk for future financial instability.

The great irony here is that by and large, folks in the middle class enjoy great privilege – they have flexibility and a power over their lives that working class and poor folks can only dream of.

And yet the structures of middle class life can feel confining, as though once you’ve started on a path you must remain committed to it.

The days of a lifetime at one company are long gone, with job-hopping the new norm.

But there’s an even newer trend, I think, slowly emerging among my age cohort: career-hopping.

Because the truth is, you’re not locked into a job or even into a career: pick up and move to Europe if you want to.

There’s no path you have to follow; you make the rules.

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Race, Gender, and Social Constructs

This story about Rachel Dolezal – the NAACP leader who represented herself as black even though she is white – has been blowing my mind since I first heard about it.

Seriously, I have so many questions.

But with Dolezal announcing her resignation today, it seems unlikely that I’m going to get any of the answers I’m looking for.

But the whole affair has raised some interesting questions.

Isn’t race a social construct? How is being ‘transracial’ different from being transgender? Why should we celebrate Caitlyn Jenner but shun Rachel Dolezal?

Those are good questions, and they are important questions.

In my circles, these questions have mostly come from well-intentioned liberals – myself included – trying to articulate what our instinct tells us so plainly: ‘transracial’ – if that even is a thing – is not the same as transgender.

There may be some parallels, sure. For example, I can imagine Dolezal claiming that she is a “black woman on the inside,” or that she was born into the wrong body. I’ll never know Dolezal’s true motivations, but I have personally heard at least one white person make such a claim.

My instinct is to scoff and to find such a statement deeply offensive. I mean, what kind of white privilege do you need to feel comfortable declaring such a thing?

But perhaps that’s how transphobic people react to the struggle of the transgender. I couldn’t say, but it seems tenuous to simply trust my instinct with such a response.

There have been some great take downs of so-called “transracialness”: in pretending to be black, Dolezal indulged “in blackness as a commodity.”

Transgendered people face a real struggle – as Jenner told Vanity Fair, “I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live,” while “Dolezal is not trying to survive. She’s merely indulging in the fantasy of being ‘other.'”

Or as another article puts it: “Rachel didn’t want to be Black because she *felt* Black, because Black is not a feeling.  Black is an existence that was created for us by racists as a tool to justify ill-treatment and codify oppression into law.”

These are helpful arguments, but they still don’t quite satisfy me.

After all, it was just last week that I was hearing that long-time feminist leaders felt uncomfortable with Jenner’s decision to come out as femme. After all, what does it mean to “feel” like a woman? Certainly it is more than being a pin-up girl.

While it is easy to dismiss such concerns as transphobic, I think it’s more productive to engage assuming good intentions.

Elinor Burkett writes that “Women like me are not lost in false paradoxes; we were smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word ‘transgender’ or used the word ‘binary’ as an adjective.”

Whether appropriate or not, I can see why she might be disappointed to see a person who has benefited much of her life from male privilege choosing to showcase her womanhood in such a gender-stereotypical way.

So all of this has gotten us nowhere.

Power and privilege are make it more inappropriate for a white woman to claim blackness, but its not solely an issue of power and privilege.

After all, there is a power dynamic at play when it comes to trans women – but I believe it is our moral responsibility to welcome trans women as sisters and invite them to (re)define womanhood with us – whatever that means to them.

The situation with Dolezal is different. I wouldn’t presume to tell the black community what they should or should not do, but neither would I fault them for refusing to embrace Dolezal and for finding her blackface routine offensive. It is offensive.

The reality is that race is a social construct, and that gender is a social construct, but that does not mean that we should treat them the same.

That fact that this is all so confusing is good – it emphasizes the constructed nature of these institutions and forces us to re-evaluate what it means to have a gender or a race, and it makes us confront the important question of who has the right to define those terms.

As a white person, am I comfortable leaving it to the black community to define blackness, but as a woman I would be dissatisfied with any definition of “female” which excluded trans women – even if that’s what was wanted by the majority of people who were identified as women at birth.

So power is a critical piece of this, but there is some more.

Michel Foucault brilliantly documented how mental illness is a social construct. And how, like many other constructs, it can be dangerous – giving those in power permission to detain and torture those who are found to be outside the norm.

But just because it is a social construct, doesn’t imply that anyone can declare themselves mad.

In fact, mental health can be a positive social construct – allowing people who need help to get the help that they need. And hopefully, someday, removing the stigma around mental health.

All of that is to say that “social construct” is not one thing. They are not universally bad and we should not deconstruct them all to be universally permeable.

Social constructs are how we make sense of the world around us. They are how people in power maintain their power, but they are also how those who are oppressed reclaim their power.

It’s messy and it’s complicated and its complex – because by its very definition a social construct is “constructed” by society. It’s a thin facade that quickly looses coherence when questioned.

These are our rules, our collective rules, and we have the right to change them – or not – as we see fit.

The social construct of race has a very different history from the construct of gender for one simple reason – they are not the same and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

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Focused Giving vs. a Portfolio Approach

Conventional wisdom indicates that it’s best to be focused when it comes to charitable giving and even volunteer activity.

Charity Navigator, for example, includes “Concentrate Your Giving,” among its list of Top 10 Best Practices for Savvy Donors.

“When it comes to financial investments, diversification is the key to reducing risk,” they argue. “The opposite is true for philanthropic investments…Spreading your money among multiple organizations not only results in your mail box filling up with more appeals, it also diminishes the possibility of any of those groups bringing about substantive change as each charity is wasting part of your gift on processing expenses for that gift.”

I’ve heard similar arguments made about other forms of giving – particularly, in-kind donations of time, skill, and energy.

You can have more impact if you focus on one cause, on one organization.

I don’t think I agree with that.

Not that there’s anything wrong with focusing on just one organization, but there’s nothing wrong with diversifying, either.

The fact of the matter is that there a lot of issues, and there are a lot of complex problems which need to be solved. And there are a lot of great organizations doing important work.

A good organization has a focused mission and vision, but I think a savvy donor is capable of supporting many issues and causes.

The right balance is different for everyone, of course, but I personally like to have a healthy handful of organizations to engage with personally and financially.

With this approach, it’s important to know your limits – don’t make commitments beyond what you can sustain, for example – but it allows you to delve into a range of issues, while providing space to reflect upon why those issues are important for you, and how you see them as connected.

We’re not trying to solve just one problem here, folks. There is so much work to do.

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The Revolution Comes in Pieces

I’ve written before about my skepticism of “scaling up” as the solution to all our social challenges.

That’s not to say there aren’t some solutions which can provide more value by being brought “to scale,” but when it comes to issues of democracy and engagement, I prefer to think of “scaling sideways.” Lots of little, individual programs running parallel within parallel communities.

So I was quite taken with this little snipped from Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine’s recent paper on Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison:

“We do not know how to spark a revolution that will overthrow mass incarceration all at once and transfigure our society, but we believe that it can be made to fade away through a proliferation of non-carceral practices.”

The paper builds on Miller and Levine’s work with the Jessup Correctional Institution Prison Scholars Program – which you can support here.

Essentially, Miller and Levine argue that in order to build a truly just and effective prison system, we have to radically shift our society, doing away with our current systems of dominance and subordinance.

It’s not just a moral problem that “for the past 30 years, between 40 and 60 percent of prison inmates were below the federal poverty line,” or that “at midyear 1998, approximately 16 percent of inmates in US state prisons and 7 percent of inmates in federal prisons had a mental illness.” And it is not just a moral problem that the US “incarcerates Blacks and Latinos at disproportionate rates.”

Those are serious, moral problems within our society, but…those deep inequities also render our criminal justice system ineffective.

That is, “it is morally unreasonable to expect an offender to be moved by condemnations coming from agents of a system that routinely subjects him to injustice it is unwilling to recognize as such.”

Miller and Levine offer the Liberal Arts as a tool to break this dominant/subordinate cycle, a resource for engaging incarcerated people – not as subordinates in the ultimate system of domination – but as agents in reflecting on the “the nature of value, and the proper way to relate to other human beings in society.”

“Prison classrooms,” they write, “become political spaces at the heart of an institution where politics is disallowed.”

They acknowledge that their own work is small compared to the vastness of the challenge, but argue that “the utopian vision of a society in which the whole encounter between currently-dominant and currently-subordinated social groups is transformed is likely to be made up of a multitude of small, piecemeal encounters like this.”

Scaling sideways.

And that’s the thing: democracy requires individual engagement. It requires engagement from the individuals within a society, but more deeply, it requires that those individuals are engaged…individually. As autonomous beings, as agents of their own destiny and desires.

The challenges of democracy are challenges of collective action, to be sure – how to work together across differences and interests, how to divide and distribute limited resources.

But at its heart, democratic values are about the individual. The belief that every person’s voice has value, that all people are created equal and that all people demand your respect.

It’s not a simple case of rugged individualism, but rather a subtle interplay of individual and collectivist thought: all voices have value, and therefore we each have a responsibility to ensure that all voices are heard.

But a focus on individual agents requires programs that are small and flexible, developed for a local context and shaped by local knowledge.

You can’t scale up something like that without losing what gives it value.

But we can tackle the problem piece by piece, through networks of small efforts and regional connections.

We can scale these solutions sideways and little by little we can radically transform our society, making our deep inequities and injustices fade away through a proliferation of better practice.

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Support Your Local Business

Tonight marks my last meeting on the board of Somerville Local First.

After three and half years, I’m stepping back in order to focus on my studies as I begin a Ph.D. program this fall.

But the work goes on.

Somerville Local First builds a sustainable local economy and vibrant community. We work with business owners and entrepreneurs, providing technical assistance and networking opportunities. We educate community members on the value of shopping locally, and we bring the community together in celebration of our local charm.

(Pro Tip: Somerville Local First is hosting a Back to the Future, 50’s-themed prom on June 26._

There are lots of reasons while local is important.

Local businesses create more and better jobs. Locally sourced products tend to be more environmentally friendly. Locally owned businesses are better for the local economy – bolstering the tax base and benefiting from owners invested in the community.

But more even than that, local businesses are important because –

Local businesses are who we are.

Local businesses determine the character of a community.

Whether quirky or traditional, upscale or casual, it’s the local businesses that stand out when thinking about what makes a community unique.

Anyone can have an iHop, but only Somerville has the Neighborhood Restaurant.

A community with local businesses is one where people know each other. Where neighbors say hello and the guy behind the bar is an old friend. Indeed, they are communities where everybody knows your name.

In our increasingly anonymous, standardized world, you can’t undervalue the importance of that.

Nobody wants to be a cog in the machine or a brick in the wall, and local businesses help fight that tendency.

There’s something profoundly radical, something subversively democratizing, in the local movement.

In response to the trend of big box stores putting mom & pop shops out of business, the local movement seeks not only to counteract the negative environmental and economic impact, but more fundamentally, the local movement seeks to reclaim our communities as our communities.

There may be red states and blue state, liberal brands and conservative brands, but local businesses remind us – we are all just people.

People with different interests, experiences, and affiliations, of course, but people who share a community, and who can find – literally – common ground, even if they can’t seem to agree.

If we are ever to solve the great problems of our country, if we are ever to unite and find ways of working together and improving together, we will need local businesses to get us there.

So, yes, even as I step back from leadership with Somerville Local First, the work goes on.

The work always goes on.

Please consider supporting this work by making a donation or attending Prom.

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The Value of “Just Talk”

As I was reeling yesterday from the seemingly unending stream of assaults on people of color in this country, I was struck by a concern which I’ve often heard echoed:

Yes, there is something wrong in this country, but the real question is what should we do about it?

In many ways, one more blog post decrying the national tragedy of police brutality and our unjust criminal justice system seems vain. It is almost certainly issued in vain, unlikely to affect any real change, and it would most certainly be vain of me to think it might have an impact.

But I keep writing.

I don’t know what else to do.

To be clear, I don’t think my commitment to social justice is fulfilled by a few strong words and inciting posts. But I also don’t think writing is completely superfluous.

It does have value.

And I don’t mean my writing – I mean everyone’s writing, or more specifically, everyone’s self-expression on this topic. In whatever media fits them best.

That has value.

We’ve grown so accustomed to relying on professionals and experts, we’ve become so focused on the institutions and the systems, that we’ve nearly lost track of the individual. We’ve forgotten about our own agency.

Our systems and institutions are broken, and we must surely find ways to tackle those challenges, but even with a terrible police response, we ought to remember –

The police aggression at a Texas pool party was started by a white woman yelling racial slurs.

Our problems aren’t about a racist cop, and they’re not about a racist police department. They are problems endemic within our society.

We each play a role in perpetuating, experiencing, or interacting with racism, and the solution must come from all of us.

We shouldn’t let the cop off the hook, and we shouldn’t let the police officer off the hook, but we should also look at ourselves and look at our communities.

We should ask how we can do better, individually and collectively.

We should share our stories, we should share our views, we should learn from each other and we should work together.

We should talk together as much as we should decide how to act together.

Indeed, the question may be “what should we do?” but to find real solutions, we must ask that question together.

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The World Goes On

This morning I woke up to news from McKinney, Texas, where over the weekend a police officer broke up a pool party, throwing a 14-year-old girl to the ground and pointing his gun at nearby teens.

There was news out of New Jersey, where state troopers shot tear gas into a crowd outside a concert, arresting 61 people and turning ticket-bearing customers away.

From my home town of Oakland, CA, there was news that police shot and killed a man who was sleeping in a car with a handgun on the seat next to him.

And then there’s news of Kalief Browder, a young man arrested at 16 for stealing a backpack. The charges were eventually dismissed, but not before he spent three years in prison without a trial.

At the age of 22, Kalief committed suicide this weekend.

This is the world we live in.

I listened to these stories on the news this morning, interspersed with tidbits on race horses and football players. I listened to these stories of death and destruction, stories of our own criminal justice system turning against us.

And for a moment I wondered how I was supposed to get up and go to work today as if nothing had happened.

Now we all experience moments of tragedy. Through personal tragedies and national tragedies we persevere.

And there can be great power and strength in that. In soldiering on despite the torrent of tragedy, in pushing through a world which has ceased to make sense.

For many of us, that’s part of the healing process. When nothing will ever be okay again, step one is desperately pretending that everything is okay.

But this morning felt different.

These were black men and women being attacked, these were black bodies who were suffering.

The message wasn’t that we were facing a deep national tragedy, that we somehow had to get through it together and soldier on despite the gnawing despair within each one of us.

The message was that it was someone else’s problem, that it was other communities being affected. Their world might be crumbling down, but my world went on.

I was supposed to get up and go to work because my world hadn’t changed.

The police aren’t coming for me.

My world goes on.

But my world has changed. It changes every time an innocent person is shot in our streets and every time our criminal system is about less than justice.

My world has changed.

These are our neighbors, our streets, our laws. This is fundamentally about our society, and everyone’s right to exist equally within it.

And until we each realize that, until we see it as our collective world shattering, until we accept that it is our responsibility to make our society better, until then –

The world will just go on.

As if nothing has changed.

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Compassion is the Best Defense in the Great Computer War

There is a whole genre dedicated to the fear of computers turning against us and taking over the world. And as our capacity to build Artificial Intelligence improves, this concern seems to become more and more palpable.

A computer can win at Jeopardy. That puts us at 15 minutes til midnight on the computer war doomsday clock. Or thereabouts.

And there is, at least in theory, good reason to be concerned about domination by computers.

Computers have so much control over our lives it would be fairly simple for them to take us. Even if they don’t build huge robot armies of Terminators, they could wreak plenty of havoc through control of cars, airplanes, and missile launch systems.

But perhaps more concerning is the fundamental ways computers operate. Many computer doomsday scenarios envision computers who take their instructions too literally – destroying humanity to fulfill their command of making the world better.

Others stress the ruthless efficiency with which computers can operate – given a goal and the ability to learn, a futuristic computer could try unlimited permutations before determining how to reach its goal. A person can be defeated, but under this scenario a computer can not – it will always try again and always try better.

But what makes us think the computers – even if they were to gain sentience – would want to destroy us in the first place?

Perhaps because we know that’s what we would do.

Humanity’s history is one of dominance and destruction. It’s a history of enslavement and appropriation, of bending every one and everything to our will.

And to be fair, it’s probably that ruthlessness that has gotten us so far in this world. They say, for example, that neanderthals died out because they were too kind.

It’s a harsh world, and only the harshest survive.

But times have changed. We have dominated. We have reshaped the world in our image.

And we fear our creations will have that same drive that got us here, those same Darwinian instincts.

So perhaps it is time to let go of that harshness. To live in a world of love and respect, where all living things are valued.

If we could truly embrace such values, if we could pass such values on to those who follow –

Well, then, surely the computers would show us that same humanity.

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The Dangling Conversation

It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the ills of the world.

For years, I worked on efforts to end genocide in Darfur. Or, perhaps more accurately, I worked to raise awareness of genocide as a real problem. A problem that, perhaps, someone ought to do something about. People were dying.

We raised money for on-the-ground and advocacy organizations. We held events with survivors of genocides from the Armenian genocide to the present. We pointed to the dark history of humanity and the shameful inaction of our forefathers.

We questioned why there was always a reason for the U.S. not to get involved, for the world not to get involved.

There’s always a reason not to act.

But the people keep dying.

I’m reminded of that song by Simon and Garfunkel:

And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference
Like shells upon the shore

You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.
Yes, we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said…

I long ago stopped engaging in anti-genocide work. I, like so many others, simply shake my head and heave the windy sigh.

I’ve moved on to other issues, other causes, other problems which also demand to be solved.

There are too many ills to take on them all.

And the dangling conversation remains the borders of our lives.

We each do our own work, focus on the accomplishable, perhaps, or simply tack into the wind for other causes. We each have our strategies for staying sane while we desperately try to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.

It is not easy work.

And there is always more work to do.

And there is always a reason not to act.

The best we can do, I think, is to constant question ourselves. To push to understand our own true goals an motivations.

When you throw up your hands and say, “well, what can be done?” are you genuinely too busy with other work or are you more or less comfortable with the status quo?

Do you genuinely think that nothing can change, or are you simply willing to accept things as they are?

You don’t have to announce your answer to the world, but you deserve to be honest with yourself.

There is too much work in this world, far too much, for any of us to do it alone.

No one person can do it all.

So forgive yourself for embracing some issues while being lukewarm on others, forgive yourself for preferring advocacy to direct service, or favoring one type of work for another.

Follow your strengths and your passions, but know there is always more work to be done.

And be skeptical of yourself when you find your dangling conversations, when you walk away from an issue rather than engage. There is only some much we can take on, sure, but we should push those borders back as far as possible.

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So Much Depends Upon

In 1938 William Carlos Williams published the now-famous poem The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In high school classrooms across the country, students are analyzing the poem, wondering just what depends on that wheelbarrow, thinking about man’s reliance on nature or, perhaps, man’s dominance of nature. Thinking about a circle of life, a circle of dependence or, perhaps, a cycle of interdependence.

so much depends
upon

I love that line.

I imagine The Red Wheelbarrow as one man’s poem. A farmer, perhaps, thinking about the tools and nature that sustain his life. One man’s poem for one moment in time.

But we each might have our own poems.

so much depends
upon

a young
girl

stomping in the
puddles

Or perhaps…

so much depends
upon

a long red
worm

stretching through rain
water

Any moment can be miraculous. Perhaps every moment is miraculous.

Without any one moment, without one simple moment, the world is a different place. Shifted slightly. Not quite the same. Every moment matters.

so much depends
upon

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