Sunday, November 30, 2014

Working on a Building and Thinking about Shame

There's a lot of shaming that takes place on the Internet. Some of it is deserved, but I don't think most of it is. I don't think putting potential allies down does much good. I want us to find more ways to be open about our flaws so that we can learn from each other. I'm afraid too much of this shame that gets thrown around is the by-product of a system that's been built to keep us feeling weak and self conscious. Specifically talking about the way some Black activists talk to other Blacks,  #blkgrrrrl writer Teka-Lark Fleming said on the 27th, "...stop judging people in the same manner corporate America and white supremacy does." I want to generalize that to how all social justice fighters talk to one another. Somehow, we need to balance vigilance and patience. As Fleming writes, "This is a process."

I've got reasons to think most people we're talking to are fundamentally decent. It's a conservative estimate that I've worked with 5400 students at two different community colleges since I moved here in 1987. I'm a writing teacher, so I've learned a great deal about what most of them think about a wide array of subjects. Two impressions up front: while there's a great deal of ignorance in every segment of our society, people aren't dumb, and most are far more open and sensitive to social issues than anyone gives them credit for being. The second is that most are strong potential allies around any human rights issue.

But, of course, like almost everyone you or I know personally, my students tend to be very busy and very stressed. For reasons that seem well established (if in doubt, please check out Brigid Schulte's bestselling 2014 primer Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time), we are living in the busiest era of our lifetimes. If you've ever been underemployed or unemployed like (again, conservatively) about 22 million Americans today, then you know that state of being is no less busy and all the more paralytic.

And this paralysis is at least part of why, when Ferguson brings people out in the streets calling for an end to systemic brutality, many who are sympathetic are not there. This is why most of America is not out in the streets protesting the fact that 30,000 Detroiters have no water this holiday season. This is why people in Kansas City react little to my posts about the Reverend Edward Pinkney, even though he is being threatened with life imprisonment for obviously trumped up charges because he's fighting corporate control of his community in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This is why most never hit the streets over what happened to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. This is why whatever energy put thousands in the streets of KC protesting the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, we don't see that same kind of energy around war 13 years down the road. Meanwhile, the "War on Terror" only fuels new brutal forms of resistance, and most Americans are afraid to say anything that might be mistaken for not supporting the troops. Busy-ness is at least part of why people might be excused for thinking Occupy just went away despite the fact that core organizers are still very active around many different fronts, most prominently in KC around the minimum wage struggle.

My heart is with those folks who are meeting on the Plaza every night at 7:00 and in other parts of the city to protest the Michael Brown Grand Jury decision. I will join these folks at several of these protests as well as a community debriefing next weekend. But I know I will probably go to such events alone and leave such events alone. I will struggle as I've struggled for over a decade to find some meaningful way to plug into the work on the ground. Like many Americans, I struggle to balance the demands right in front of me with the call of street activism, and, locally, my friends in activist circles are increasingly distant relations, not unlike most of my work relationships.

It's ironic because my first core of close friends in Kansas City were all met through activism, specifically a 1987 In Defense of Music event that I helped organize at the Charlie Parker Foundation. That first year, I became close to another recent arrival, Anne Winter who ran Dirt Cheap records. We would meet every Friday at the Corner restaurant and discuss what possibilities might exist for music-related activism in Kansas City. The two of us, along with almost everyone else I knew, helped launch Culture Under Fire by 1989. By the simple fact of world events, that event became, in part, a protest against the first Gulf War. We'd later join forces with the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless, and, by 1992, we held a Break the Blackout Summit, signing an agreement to share media between a variety of national organizations. This was the era of the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. rebellion. We were manic and ever-ready because the world was on the cusp of massive change.

We weren't wrong about that, but we couldn't predict the form it would take or the speed with which it would happen. The world has changed dramatically. Today, virtually everyone carries around computer power that wouldn't have fit in my home when I was a child, and we've seen social upheavals in over 20 Middle Eastern and North African countries and at least another 12 major ongoing protests around the world since the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement of 2011. There's liberating potential in those little electronic devices, but that power also stands as a real economic and social threat to the current system, and the resulting violence shows many signs of developing into yet another World War sparked by a technological revolution that more than rivals the Industrial Revolution that reshaped the world at the start of the last century. There's an obvious, admitted class war against the world's poor already raging, and it's becoming a form of corporate-sponsored fascism in America. Most terrifying today is the fact that we're going into this next period of nationalistic struggles with nuclear weapons we couldn't have even imagined back when we used to watch A-Bomb readiness films in school.

I don't know how it could be more obvious that the status quo is going to rob our children of a future.

So I came to this computer this morning wanting to ask you to use your imagination and help me answer a question. How do we build community in new ways that work with today's new realities? How do we built connections that will be able to forcefully (not just virtually) fight for justice and stand up against these dangers?

I believe we are living in a new era, and we have to find a way to come together in something resembling the 99%, exponentially larger numbers than we saw with Occupy. In the past, America's most successful social movements have been rooted in the church, and I have to admit, that's the best community model I've seen. For about four decades, I've observed the way my father's church comes together for celebration, and they help one another in times of need (they've certainly been there for me); they do elder care and community food programs, and they even discuss contemporary literature on Sunday mornings.

For better or worse, I'm not religious, and I suspect there will only be more problems with the church model in our future. I was always able to explore my spirituality and my social vision more honestly with others in a secular setting, particularly around popular music. The idea of a hip hop collective like the currently reuniting KC group Flavorpak is closer to my sense of community, but it's a cultural event community. And even the potential of a hip hop collective as a force for change makes me wonder about organizing with my other friends who may be rooted in folk music or country music or heavy metal. The first thing I start thinking about with any group is who might be excluded.

To be honest, most often when I'm at an activist event, I feel that I've simply found my way to another group that unconsciously excludes more than it invites. There's a group culture that takes over, and it creates its own top down assumptions. It's usually dry--too culturally cautious, too emotionally narrowed, and too romantically tied to old myths of revolutionary struggle. (I am very loyal to a few groups that are not trapped in these boxes but only because they constantly fight their way out of them.)

And there are many more reasons why my core of friends involved in political work are, for the most part, no longer the people I know out in the streets. My activist life played a big role in killing my first marriage, the part that wasn't killed by the hours of neglect that tend to come with writing itself. I won't blame my first heart attack on this activity, but I will say it makes me more personally cautious today. It's part of the reason I want to underscore that shaming people for any sort of perceived inactivity holds no interest to me. People do what they know they can, like water rising to its level.

Still, I believe we need to come together. There is unique value in ongoing physical fellowship, friendship and camaraderie. I believe people have to go eye-to-eye to talk things through. I believe no individual is smarter than a group sorting through our problems together, and I believe a healthy group best strategizes visible, public political action. Though, as a writer, I probably need to be alone to do my best work, I also know that my best work is only what it is because of the work I do with others. Living in Kansas City, I often feel starved for all of these aspects of community, yet I know it's all around me.

So, I repeat my question as a list of starters. I would appreciate it if you wrote me back with your thoughts. I'll include my email address so that you don't have to blog it. I can compile the results and share them in some way in a future blog. I'd certainly like to talk about what ever responses you have with each of you personally.

How can more Americans become part of a community that can address the challenges ahead of us?

What new forms of community organization would you like to see?

What such activities that don't currently exist would you attend?

What forms of community could enhance and ease the burden of your day to day life rather than make it harder?

What would you want to avoid?

Are new forms even possible? Has it all been done? Is there no need for this kind of thinking when so many organizations already exist?

Any thoughts are not only welcome but needed.

I've been writing on the theme of coming together for a very long time. I need some fresh thoughts about how to move forward. Oh, and you if you think of yourself as outside of this audience but you've read this far, I probably want to hear from you the most. Our biggest problem is that we spend too much time talking to ourselves.

 My email is

Thanks ahead for anything,