Changing our culture of justice

On March 11, 2021, after twenty-five years of incarceration for a murder committed in a drug bust gone bad, Travis Ray ComesLast appeared before the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board to ask for early release. Just 20 years old when convicted in 1996, he’d been sentenced to fifty-one years. I learned of his hearing in advance from friend, filmmaker, and advocate Heather Dew Oaksen. In 2012 Heather and her production team completed Minor Differences, a film that follows Travis and four other juvenile offenders over a span of eighteen years and illustrates the unraveling of their lives. She has maintained contact with each of them since then.

Travis Ray ComesLast, clips from Minor Differences, 2012

On March 1 this year, Heather wrote friends and supporters of the film to tell us about Travis’s hearing and to invite us to attend. “I can confirm without reservation,” she wrote,

 …that Travis ComesLast, now 45 years old, has grown into a man of integrity, generosity, and compassion. He is worthy of our trust. This moment is the “second chance” we advocated for in our film. To show that the community is pulling for him, I am trying to get as many people as possible to attend the hearing via Zoom. Just showing up will strengthen Travis’s case. if you can participate, please let me know and I will send you the Zoom link.

In turn and with Heather’s blessing, I reached out to friends of my own, telling a little of Travis’s story and extending Heather’s invitation. I relayed Heather’s clips about Travis from Minor Differences, and I included a trailer for the film as a whole. The introduction to the trailer tells a lot about the film and the young men it profiles:

What do a thief, kidnapper, two murderers, and a heroin addict have in common with your child, brother, father? Take away the labels and you’ll find these imprisoned teenagers are an awful lot like people you know. Minor Differences introduces the five in maximum security lock-up. We meet them again 18 years later. Oaksen did not set out to establish long-term relationships with these jailed teens. But they won her heart and she won their trust.

A letter from Travis to the clemency board, delivered before the hearing, was attached to Heather’s invitation to attend the online proceedings. He wrote, “I am no longer the same person who committed the crimes I did 24 years ago.” He expressed sorrow for what he’d done and added, “Changing my life was a way of showing remorse, taking responsibility, and making amends. I have always believed ‘sorry’ means nothing if you don’t do anything to make sure it never happens again.” He described how he came to be the organizer of a Native American circle and Pow Wow in a private prison in Arizona. Though not mentioned in his letter though clear in the film, his leadership there gained strength from the spiritual and cultural roots of his Assinibois-Hunkpapa/Lakota-Sioux cultural roots. His letter described the way he continued to use the organizing skills developed in Arizona when he was moved to a correction center in Spokane. He wrote of his increasing commitment to search for ways to change the culture of rehabilitation. He also wrote, “Family is the focus of all I do!”  The center of family for Travis is his wife Debra (also known as Dolly), whom he met while in an Arizona prison, and his seven-year-old nephew Armando, who has been in his and Debra’s custody since 2015.

By the time of the hearing, I learned from Heather that Travis would be well represented by attendees at his hearing. On the morning of March 11, I signed in early to Washington State’s Zoom network. I was one of over ninety people who attended in support. The hearing was filled with inspiration and strong arguments on Travis’s behalf alongside stories of devastating sadness. My admiration for Travis and for the man he has become grew enormously. I also grieved for the victim’s wife and daughter after hearing their stories, and I feared they hadn’t had support to heal. I was troubled by some of the assumptions made and questions posed by clemency board members, and in the end I blamed much of this tragedy on the meaning of justice in our culture. At the end of the hearing, in a decision that felt perfunctory, Travis’s appeal was denied.

On March 12, the day after the hearing, Heather, who had testified well on Travis’s behalf the day before, wrote to all of us who had contacted her.

Many of you who viewed the hearing know by now that Travis was denied clemency. A huge disappointment but honestly not unexpected for a murder case. Very few petitioners in fact even get a clemency hearing so obviously there is merit to his petition. That said, news of a positive opinion from the Washington State Supreme Court has just broken making re-sentencing available to certain youth under the age of 21, raising it from age 18. Travis had been 20. We remain hopeful.

Team Travis😊is regrouping to assess the most effective path to freedom for Travis going forward. So, our work is not finished. We deeply appreciated your standing with us during the hearing, and sincerely hope you will stick with us!  We need you and your ideas in our advocacy efforts; the time is right to promote healing over retribution.

Several days later, Travis asked Heather to pass along his own appreciation to all who supported him by showing up virtually for his hearing. Here are some of his words:

PILAMAYA‼️from TRAVIS COMESLAST

First I would like to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart! Learning so many tuned in to support me was very overwhelming, I am truly honored for the love and support. Though yesterday’s decision was disappointing, I am thankful that I had the opportunity. I am a firm believer everything happens for a reason and I hope if anything that yesterday’s hearing allowed the daughter of the victim to begin to heal… Sadly, it was the first time she was able to express her loss in such a way. I have lived with the shame and guilt of the pain and suffering I caused everyone from both sides, for that I am truly sorry and I apologize!

I am in good spirits, not at all worried for I know God has a plan. I will continue to work to find ways to better myself regardless of what the future has in store! I am committed to not let prison define me, I will make the best of my time in prison to make a difference even when nobody sees it! In the coming weeks I will be facilitating a new White Bison 12 Step class and finding new ways to engage those around me to be more proactive in hopes they find change. I have amazing people fighting for me and we will not give up fighting for my freedom! I’m not worried and I have no doubts! The prayers, the love, the support… things are far from over!!

In a phone call with Heather a few days later I was invited to join “Team Travis” and felt honored to accept.

One spark of hope for Travis lies in the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling in what’s known as the Monschke Case, mentioned by Heather and decided on March 11, the day of Travis’s hearing. In it, the Court considered separate life-without-parole sentences given to two men for murders committed years ago when they were 19 and 20. The ruling stated, “Modern social science, our precedent, and a long history of arbitrary line drawing have all shown that no clear line exists between childhood and adulthood,” and that courts “must consider the mitigating qualities of youth.” The ruling barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for anyone under the age of 21, raising it from the previous ceiling of 18. The court also ordered that both defendants receive a new sentencing hearing. This ruling could put pressure on the state to confront the past and to review other existing sentences.

The day of these two Washington State decisions marked an opening up of my understanding of what real justice might be, an understanding that was already shifting and scrambled by events of the past several years. What I’ve learned since that day in March – from Heather and Team Travis, as well as from friends and research of my own – gives me hope, hope not only for Travis and the victim’s family but for the possibility of changing the culture of justice embedded in our country. I know already that changing it will be a long slow slog, but I’m starting to see what’s behind Heather’s conviction that “the time is right to promote healing over retribution.” I’ll continue to reach out for, absorb, and act on ideas and experiences that I’m sure will force me to rearrange assumptions about myself and the world that I didn’t know I had but that have come along with the life I’ve lived so far. This kind of rearranging feels familiar, and I know I’m only at the beginning.

NOTES


The assault on civil society and a “cri de coeur” from Lucy Bernholz

At first, whenever I had the chance to be with friends after the 2020 election results were clear, I could sense a difference in their bodies—settled shoulders, a shift in breathing, a new ease in their gait as they walk. By now, though, we know that one election, important though it is, is just a beginning.

The past four years have forced us to see below the surface of our society. What has too often been hidden away moved into the open, not just inside the halls of our Capitol, but into our streets and parks, onto our screens and social networks, and into our homes and hospitals

We face what philanthropy researcher Lucy Bernholz calls a “syndemic,” borrowing a term from medical anthropology. As she puts it, a syndemic is “what happens when an independent threat (such as a pandemic coronavirus) finds a host in a system defined by long-term, endemic afflictions and has an amplifying effect.” In a syndemic, she writes, “the dangers of individual afflictions don’t just stack on top of each other, they entwine, mutate, and grow in lethality.” And she names our other existing afflictions: “structural racism, income inequality, climate collapse, and a decades-long assault on civil society and democratic institutions.”

We have to tackle them all, finding ways we each, individually and together, can contribute to this work through our time, knowledge, expertise, and resources. Bernholz suggests ways to start, with a particular focus on confronting threats to civil society and democratic institutions.

Bernholz is a self-described “philanthropy wonk.” She is senior research scholar and director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, part of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. I’ve had the opportunity to work with her for the past twelve years on an annual forecast of big ideas that will matter in the coming year to the ways “we use private resources for public benefit in the digital age.” Her work aims most specifically to reach the philanthropic and nonprofit world, but it has relevance for all of us.

Below are the first two sections of this year’s Blueprint 2021: Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society. The entire publication, where she lays out actions for civil society and philanthropy, is available here.

— Anne Focke

 

MY CRI DE COEUR – Lucy Bernholz

The year 2020 may well be remembered as the year most universally referred to as a “dumpster fire.” I hope it comes to be seen not only for a widespread (but not yet wide enough) puncturing of White, wealthy disregard for structural injustices generally, but also, for philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, as a turning point toward more engaged, just, and equitable institutions and economics. The realization of this hope will require a sustained commitment, by individual organizations and the sector as a whole, to facing and addressing the following hard truths that 2020 laid bare.

First, despite episodic progress in the areas of basic human and civil rights throughout its history, the U.S. remains a deeply inequitable and structurally unjust country.

Second, foundations and nonprofits—many of which see themselves as part of the solution—are produced and privileged by the very same political and economic systems that perpetuate those inequities and therefore must engage in a deep analysis of their own complicity before they can hope to truly bring forward justice and equity for all.

Third, civil society is essential and not to be taken for granted. Personally, I have always distrusted American exceptionalism, since it has long been plain to me that the nation has failed to live up to its own rhetoric about equality and justice and the right of all to participate in an ongoing experiment in self-governance. Yet, I continue to believe in the promise of the rhetoric, and believe that the realization of our nation’s goals is deeply dependent on the space that lies adjacent to the formal levers of governing that we call civil society. In civil society, all those who are excluded from the “rooms where things happen” gather and organize and demand to be let in while also creating thriving alternatives. Thus did Blacks gain the franchise and fight still to keep it. Thus do people with disabilities fight for their lives and queer and transgender people demand basic dignity. Thus have Indigenous people strived for their lives, languages, and due respect of legal treaties, amid and against systems purposefully designed to take land and obliterate civilizations. What 2020 has simultaneously showed us is that civil society is responsible for laying bare these truths we all must face if we are going to build a truly equitable and just nation, and that, because of efforts to suppress people’s rights to protest and assemble, our civil society is precarious.

Fourth, digital civil society is real and vital and vulnerable, and, like it or not, all foundations and nonprofits must accept that they are part of it. After almost a year on Zoom, I am hopeful that this particular truth is obvious to many, as well as its implications. Civil society organizations are dependent on digital systems and tools to do their work: said digital systems shape their work in ways that require real tradeoffs, and the political economy of “the tech industry” influences their daily operations, their governance responsibilities, their programmatic obligations, and, indeed, the policy domains that matter to their success.

In moving forward from 2020, my cri de coeur to the philanthropy sector on behalf of civil society is that those of us who give time and money, who work for foundations or nonprofits, and who seek a more equitable and just world will abandon existing practices that are preventing many of the changes that philanthropic organizations and individuals purport to pursue. To quote Dr. Carmen Rojas, CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation speaking on a video conference on Philanthropy and Inequality: The Fierce Urgency of Now, “There is no scenario in which we don’t have to think hard, take risks, and change the way we work.” To move forward, philanthropists, nonprofits, and other civil society actors will have to move through deep grief, admit the failure of well-intentioned efforts, and seek different paths from those taken in the past. And across the board, people in positions of power will need to follow leaders who have been previously sidelined, while giving sustained support and control to people with the generational expertise of subjugated power.

To be specific, the philanthropic sector as a whole cannot achieve equity or justice as long as it:

  • Supports toxic tax structures that prioritize the growth of the tax-exempt sector while perpetuating wealth inequality and the defunding of public services.
  • Ignores the costs of dependencies that leave the sector digitally vulnerable and beholden to commercial priorities that run afoul of civil society values.
  • Continues to act as a stand-in for public services, knowing it cannot actually provide the far-reaching and long-term solutions that are government responsibilities.

My hope for the years ahead is that the entire sector will abandon those practices and positioning, and instead will:

  • Examine the role it plays in preserving the status quo rather than advancing change.
  • Support tax reform that serves equity and social justice goals.
  • Protect people’s ability to assemble, take action, and protest. This requires legal actions to protect the digital and physical means of assembly; to resource advocates and nonprofits in ways that center safety and recognize the long-term trauma of this work; and to support deeper, experience-informed research and policy about assembly in the digital age.
  • Help nonprofits not just get technology, but imagine, create, purchase, and maintain a digital infrastructure and tools aligned with democratic and pluralistic logics. These are necessary to allow the sector to safely exist and remain independent of corporate and government capture.
  • Develop policies, protections, platforms and new rules so that civil society and democracy can thrive in our digital reality.
  • Support, amplify, and move into leadership positions those people and communities that have been fighting for equity and justice for generations, for therein lies success.

THE SYNDEMIC WE FACE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR CIVIL SOCIETY AND PHILANTHROPY

While 2020 was a terrible year, much of what made it so has been in place for decades. Medical anthropology gives us a term—syndemic—to name what happens when an independent threat (such as a pandemic coronavirus) finds a host in a system defined by long-term, endemic afflictions and has an amplifying effect. In a syndemic, the dangers of individual afflictions don’t just stack on top of each other, they entwine, mutate, and grow in lethality. Such has been the case this year in the United States, where the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and amplified the existing afflictions of structural racism, income inequality, climate collapse, and a decades-long assault on civil society and democratic institutions.

The affliction that is the assault on civil society and democracy, and the way it intersects with the philanthropy sector, is of particular relevance to this Blueprint because it is from within civil society that many fights for equity and the protection of our democratic principles first take place, and it is the mission of many in the philanthropic sector to support these fights. This is to say that civil society is as critical to the functioning of democracy as are verified and trustworthy voting machines. And a healthy philanthropy sector has an important role to play in the preservation and promotion of civil society.

And the affliction is real: In the decade since I began writing the Blueprint series, there have been numerous efforts to change the rules for U.S. civil society, which have in turn impacted philanthropy. In 2010, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC. The case (along with others, such as McCutcheon v. FEC) changed campaign finance law in the United States and legitimized the idea of corporate personhood. These decisions created the opportunity for political donors to use charitable nonprofits as a means of laundering their names off of political contributions and as such have had a huge impact on the philanthropy sector.

Ten years on, the effects of this are seen not only during election cycles but in the everyday workings of U.S. civil society. There seems to have been growth in the number and size of organizations deliberately using charitable (c 3) and political (c 4) structures to pursue missions through legal struggles that seem almost anachronistic given the extensive and deliberate efforts to blur lines between the charitable, political, and corporate sectors. (The data on this are bad, which is a fixable problem.) By contrast, individual donors at all levels mix and match political behavior—both action and giving—with charitable behavior, and they are focused much more on issues and causes than on legal categories.(1) In parallel, the importance of tax benefits for certain activities and not others appears relevant to fewer and fewer donors, although much more research on this is necessary.(2)

At the same time, the oversight body for the charitable sector (the IRS) has been steadily gutted of funding over decades. And the last year brought on an adjacent effort to defang the oversight body for political organizations (the FEC) by encouraging the resignation of commissioners (and not replacing them) until there was no longer a quorum.

Meanwhile, attacks on the U.S. electoral system have been continual and unrelenting since the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court ruling to end vote tallying in Florida and declare George W. Bush president of the United States based on the standings in the electoral college. More recently, in 2011, the Republican Party undertook a successful effort to redistrict Congressional districts that was so nefarious that the book about it is titled Ratf*cked. Similarly, fundamental protections of the Voting Rights Act were stripped away (again by the Supreme Court) in 2013; between 2013 and 2020, the State of Georgia threw 198,351 voters (most of whom are Black people) off the rolls under false pretenses, while also installing election machines known to be faulty, and to ice the cake, installing far too few of those;(3) and in Florida, after voters passed a referendum re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated state residents, the state legislature simply overruled the will of the voters and put new roadblocks in place, again stripping more than one million people (most of whom are Black or Latinx) of the most basic right of citizenship in democracies, the ability to vote. Indeed, though it takes different forms, voter suppression, largely of people of color, remains a hallmark of the U.S. electoral process. As Professor Eddie Glaude has written about the U.S., “Our democratic principles do not exist in a space apart from our national commitment to white supremacy.”(4)

If all that isn’t sufficient, civil society has been threatened by efforts to limit protest and suppress assembly, two of its bedrock elements. Ironically, those who so often use the First Amendment right to free speech to champion rules that expand money in politics seem to hold little regard for the right to free assembly or petitioning the government. Since 2016 alone, forty states have considered more than 135 proposals for legislation or regulations to limit protest, including one in Florida that would grant immunity to drivers who hit people assembled on the streets.(5) In October, 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported more than 100 such incidents since the start of the year, leading to charges against 39 drivers.(6) For the last four years the president of the United States has made numerous overt call-outs to armed vigilantes, organized within civil society, to take to the streets in what he, without irony, refers to as “law and order.”

Digital tools also provide a slew of new opportunities to close the space for assembly and association. Unlike many parts of the world, where shutting off the internet is an oft-used blunt-force tool, authorities in the U.S. have seemed to prefer more invidious tactics. One example comes from decisions to maintain the porous ties between corporate data gathering and government surveillance that Edward Snowden revealed seven years ago. Another is the regulatory inaction that consistently allows a handful of corporations to set the rules that control speech—with politicians pursuing regulation only when their own speech is deemed in violation of corporate codes.

Further, digital surveillance is easily advanced by providing funding to police forces to invest in privacy-invading surveillance equipment. This funding comes from both the federal government and the private sector, both of which often help police departments conceal these purchases from public oversight by funneling them through nonprofit police foundations. Communities have also digitized their public spaces with ever-present cameras, license plate-readers, and “smart” sensors on everything from parking garages to streetlamps. These installations, marketed in the name of security or efficiency, extend corporate data collection practices and business models beyond our computers and into the public spaces where we assemble.

While advocates and scholars have been focusing on the dangers posed by online misinformation and corporate speech moderation, all-seeing digital data collection mechanisms have left the “screen” and been placed throughout our “public squares.”

As for the philanthropic sector, what 2020 has done, to paraphrase Warren Buffet, has shown us the real ground we’re standing on when the tide pulls out. On that ground, what has been revealed is that truths long visceral to those exploited by the system have been made unignorably visible to those who benefit from it. For example, most philanthropic organizations are led by White people, resulting in stark disparities in funding provided to nonprofits run by Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Indeed, Black-led nonprofits face a philanthropic world that is as biased as that confronting Black-owned businesses seeking credit or Black families seeking mortgages. And let us be clear about politics: while philanthropy is comprised of many organizations committed to redressing syndemic harms, it is also home to donors and activists who embrace market fundamentalism, White supremacy, climate change denial, and the inequitable treatment of women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants. While many nonprofit and philanthropic organizations care about equity, many do not.

Many philanthropists insist that they provide support in an apolitical way. But since the institutional philanthropic world exists as an artifact of political choices—the tax and corporate code, first among them—this is simply not possible.(7) The more compelling evidence against this pretense of apolitical existence exists in the decades of successful efforts by right wing foundations and nonprofits to change the rules of the game. There’s good scholarship on the Republican Party’s efforts to change the rules of governing over the last twenty years. Most of this literature centers on strategies that focus directly on elections and governing—voter suppression, gerrymandering, social media manipulation, and court packing. Much has also been written about the economic policies that accompany this political behavior, including deregulation, the elevation of techno-libertarianism, and the privatization of public services. Not enough has been written or considered about how the same aspirations to change the rules manifest in civil society. But they do.

The fact is, while giving and caring for others are human values that pre-date any form of government and extend across cultures, languages, time, and place, foundations and nonprofits—along with donor-advised funds, LLCs, political action committees, political parties, social enterprises, family offices, and trust companies—are institutions sanctioned, chartered, and regulated by governments and sold by lawyers, bankers, and wealth advisors. Unlike the basic human instinct to give and care for others, they are regulated products, bound by government rules and market incentives.

The fact is foundations and nonprofits are products of toxic tax policies that use the promise of philanthropy to justify inequality. In the United States today, our current tax laws starve our schools, hospitals, transit, and elder care systems. They allow individuals to become trillionaires and corporations to pay nothing. They encourage companies to hide marketing expenses as charitable donations, enabling corporate price gouging in the name of benevolence.(8) And they enable the amassing of philanthropic fortunes so large that people turn to them when government efforts fail, which is exactly what we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Philanthropic institutions stepped in to provide basic protective equipment for frontline workers when the federal government abdicated this responsibility. They shipped masks and gloves to places that needed them, upped donations to food banks, and provided money to and negotiated with hotels to enable homeless people to quarantine. They donated hardware and software to help students attend remote classes. And they provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to state governments to protect the November election, a public responsibility that cannot possibly be seen as an appropriate role for private actors.(9)

Yet philanthropic fortunes, created at the expense of shared investment in government programs, will not and cannot remedy the afflictions that are at work in the current syndemic, such as structural racism; inequitable health care, education and housing; or insufficient efforts to halt climate change. Those failures are ours collectively, as citizens. Only together can we solve them. It isn’t simply that the funding doesn’t add up, it’s that relying on philanthropy and nonprofits to do the public’s work is a form of lower-cost outsourcing with less accountability. It’s not democratic. And it’s not working.

To put it another way: any reader will be familiar with the claim—made during previous economic crises—that some companies or industries are too big to fail. What the syndemic we face now shows us is that our current philanthropic sector is too big to succeed. Philanthropy has become so big partly because of government priorities that put a higher value on capital accumulation and private wealth than on public well-being, but it’s not big enough to replace government. In an ouroboric irony that must be called out: we’ve starved our public systems to encourage private action, knowing full well that private actors are neither able to nor appropriate for meeting public needs. Indeed, as generous as they have been during this crisis, foundations will slow their giving as soon as their endowments begin to shrink, or they get bored of paying for basic services. And they could never even hope to begin covering the cuts resulting from state budgets decimated by Covid-19. The broader process at work here is one of privatization—of public responsibilities, of government functions, of accountability—and it is a trajectory toward failure.(10)

What most distresses me is the degree to which many in the sector are acting as if everything is OK, we just need more philanthropy and we need it now. Decades of tax and corporate regulations to minimize tax bills for the wealthy and induce more philanthropy have brought us to this moment. Moreover, the sector’s own infatuation with size (as measured by assets, percentage of GDP, and jobs) is an accelerant to political frames that minimize public investment and decrease public services. In using its size and scale as political leverage, and in refusing to take on policy issues that might limit the growth of philanthropy, the sector contributes to the privatization of public obligations. We don’t need more philanthropy covering our basic public responsibilities. We need public resources, public governance, and public accountability.

More philanthropy will not get us to a just or equitable society. Philanthropy done better will help, but more fundamentally, what is needed is an honest evaluation of what we’ve let philanthropy become and where it should fit in relationship to public responsibilities. In order to overcome the syndemic that is upon us, we need to reclaim public control over the corporations and technologies that shape our right to speech, assembly, association, and privacy, and to overturn public policies that protect those rights for some people (White, wealthy) and not others. We need to repair the long-term damage of racism—in society writ large of course, but also in the sector—before we can even arrive at a starting line for pursuing equity.

We need an economic overhaul that prioritizes human dignity over wealth hoarding. And we need to listen to the wisdom and follow the lead of people whom our systems have always oppressed, for they are the ones most experienced in imagining and working toward liberation.

Read more:  All of Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2021 is available here.

Endnotes

  1. Laurie E Paarlberg, Rebecca Nesbit, Richard M. Clerkin, (2019) “The Politics of Donations: Are Red Counties More Donative than Blue Counties,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, (48:2) and Maria Petrova, Ricardo Perez-Truglia, Andrei Simonv, and Pinar Yildirim, “Are Political and Charitable Giving Substitutes? Evidence from the United States,” Petrova, Maria and Perez-Truglia, Ricardo and Simonov, Andrei and Yildirim, Pinar, “Are Political and Charitable Giving Substitutes? Evidence from the United States.” (December 22, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3508534 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3508534
  2. According to tax experts, about 8% of U.S. tax filings took advantage of charitable tax exemptions following changes in the law that went into effect in 2018. Prior to these changes, between 25-30% of tax filers claimed charitable tax deductions. In addition, conversations with more than 300 people over the course of 2019 and observations of behavior on crowdfunding platforms and the creation of LLCs instead of foundations imply that tax benefits are of decreasing importance to both every day and high net worth donors. My book, How We Give Now, exploring this in more detail, published by The MIT Press will be available in the fall of 2021.
  3. Greg Palast and the Palast Investigative Fund, “Georgia Voter Roll Purge Errors,” September 1, 2020, Report for the ACLU, accessed online: https://www.acluga.org/sites/default/files/georgia_voter_roll_purge_errors_report.pdf
  4. Eddie S. Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves The American Soul, New York, NY: Crown Books, 2017, p. 6.
  5. Desiree Stennet, Monivette Cordeiro, Katie Rice and Grace Toohey, “Florida protest laws could be harshest in nation under DeSantis proposal,” Orlando Sentinel, September 23, 2020, accessed online https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/ orida/os-ne-desantis-protest-bill-opposition-20200923-ihsipkhwdncorouj4whycypss4-story.html
  6. Donald Morrison, “Cars Have Hit Protestors More than 100 Times this Year,” The Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/cars-have-hit-protesters-more-than-100-times-this-year-11603645201
  7. Rob Reich introduced me to this idea.
  8. Nicholas Florko, “’You just got better at making money’: Democrats blast Celgene, Teva for price hikes detailed in internal documents,” Stat, September 30, 2020, accessed online https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/30/democrats-drug-pricing-celgene-teva/
  9. Kenneth P. Vogel, “Short of Money to Run Elections, Local Authorities Turn to Private Funds,” The New York Times, September 25, 2020, accessed online: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/us/politics/elections-private-grants-zuckerberg.html
  10. Chiara Cordelli, The Privatized State, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

References

  • Ben Crothers has been the illustrator for the Blueprint series since  2018. http://brightpilots.com
  • The the full version of Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2021 is available  for free download at: https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/publication/philanthropy-and-digital-civil-society-blueprint-2021/
  • The entire Blueprint series is available herehttps://pacscenter.stanford.edu/resources/blueprints 
  • The website for the Digital Civil Society Lab is: https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/research/digital-civil-society-lab/
  • Many of the same topics are covered in a new book, Digital Technology and Democratic Theory, edited by Lucy Bernholz, Hélène Landemore, and Rob Reich, University of Chicago Press, February 2021. https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/digital-technology-and-democratic-theory/
  • Recording of the livestreamed conversation and book launch for Digital Technology and Democratic Theoryhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLO3YjTcFxc

A “dispersed-unity” Thanksgiving Mask-arade

Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa, “The Last of the Few

Oh so thankful

We walked alone together on Thanksgiving Day around Seattle’s Lake Union in an annual community walk dedicated to the last two of the Duwamish people to live on their traditional tribal lands near Lake Union—Cheshiahud and his wife Tleebuleetsa. For our pandemic times I adapted this tradition by encouraging friends to walk solo or in small groups and by inviting friends from around the country to join in. At least seventy-eight people helped make this a grand, dispersed-unity, Thanksgiving Mask-arade. It felt like a huge cross-lake, cross-city, cross-country hug.

Annual Thanksgiving walk route, approximately 7 miles.

Email notes and photos indicate that at least twenty-eight of us walked along or around Lake Union, and at least sixty-nine others walked somewhere else: in the city (Queen Anne Hill, First Hill, Capitol Hill, Green Lake), in Washington State (Tacoma, Chuckanut, Port Townsend), or in places across the country (New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, California, and more). Altogether and nearly one hundred strong, we walked with eight dogs and two babes in strollers. We used walking sticks and a scooter. We walked through trees, over bridges, up stairs, along lakes and rivers, over hills, through an historic fort, along a sunny beach, and in the snow. We passed goats, people in funny hats, amazing fungi, a slug, one Christmas yard display, and a rainbow over Lake Washington. We walked in the daytime, at night, and at dusk with a full moon.  A few of us even ran into each other, spotted by our bright yellow or orange attire.

My long-time friend, Norie Sato, made the circuit around Lake Union with me. Norie was the first person to accompany me on my annual Thanksgiving walk around the lake after I’d been doing it solo for a few years. During that walk she also gave me the news that the City of Seattle had recently designated a path around the lake as the Cheshiahud Loop Trail. Directional signs began to show up shortly after that.  The walk with her that day inspired my invitation to other friends to join in what, since 2010, has been an annual tradition. Below is Norie at the entrance to Good Turn Park on the northeast side of the lake. It’s one of many street-end parks created by the City all around the lake. It’s a regular stopping point on our annual walk. And below that you’ll see Norie standing with the Dunn Lumber mural at the north end of the lake near Gasworks Park where we started.

Next I offer proof that we were, indeed, on the Cheshiahud Loop Trail. I’m wearing a yellow rain slicker that had been folded up with my winter things, not worn for years, proof of my pack-rat leanings. As I unfolded it this year I discovered it came from a much-loved site-based artwork by artist Susan MacLeod sponsored by and/or in the late 1970s on the sports field at Seattle University. The memories added to my gratitude for the day.

Following are photographs and notes I received from walkers after they finished walking. First are the Lake Union walkers. Their photos are evidence of Lake Union’s history as a working waterfront, long established as such in the city’s zoning code. After that are the friends who walked in their own neighborhoods or other favorite places around the city, state, and country. Altogether, we covered a lot of territory!

LAKE UNION MASK-ARADE WALKERS

“A tale of 4 bridges…The only orange thing I have is a cotton scarf that I got during Bear Training Level I for Seasonal Employees, while I was artist in residence in Glacier National Park… and indeed, we saw no grizzly bears walking around Lake Union : – ) – nor anyone else in orange : – ( ”
— Suze Woolf & Steve Price, champs who not only walked the entire route, but created an excellent visual story of it all.

“Missed you but we did it (well, part of it…) Here we are at our starting and finishing place, MOHAI parking lot.”
— Paul Taub & Susan Peterson

“Here’s a couple of photos. We really enjoyed the walk!  We stopped at Good Turn Park so we could get home to make a Thanksgiving dinner. I designed Good Turn Park in the 90’s.  But it has fallen into disrepair and weeds.  The Parks Dept. refuses to maintain it because it’s on SDOT property.Neighbors tried maintaining it for years but they lost their leader about ten years ago. The crazy bench seat I was on is down by the beach at Good Turn at the foot of the big redwood that someone planted when the park was new. The ceramic tiled bench was near Pete’s store.

“We met Paul de Barros and Sue Dickson along the way. Very nice little chat. Paul and Sue forgot about wearing yellow or orange. Piper and I made up for them!”
— Tom Zachary & Piper Greenwood, Seattle

A number of people ran into each other and sent me criss-crossing photos. Their comments and photos follow.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Anne. Well, I thought I could catch you and Norie before finishing my lap but then I ran into Piper and Tom, and we talked for a bit. I sure noticed every orange and yellow accessory along the way, this year!”
— Catharina Manchanda

Catharina Manchanda

“Happily saw Chiyo, Mark, and Catharina toward the end of my walk! Thank you for the inspiration, Anne. It’s a walk I’m going to take more often than Thanksgiving. I hope your walk was a fine one.”
— Barbara Johns, who sent more photos in a second message which appear as the last entry from Lake Union Walkers.

Mark Calderon, Catharina Manchanda, and Barbara Johns
Chiyo Ishikawa & Mark Calderon

“We enjoyed our first Thanksgiving walk with you. Here are some favorite moments.”
— Chiyo Ishikawa & Mark Calderon

“I was so grateful to find this unlocked port-a-potty at just the right time!”
— Mark Calderon

The first Mask-arade person Norie and I saw on our circumambulation of the lake was Debra Ross, seen here at Good Turn Park. It was great to see her.

Six close friends walked the lake together: Liz Brown, Suzy Schneider, Ellen Sollod, and Gene & Bill McMahon and their daughter Becky. Comments and photos follow.

“Here [the first photo below] is where we had to turn around…new construction and repairs predominant in this.”
— Ellen Sollod

“More beautiful trees at Green Lake but all in all a visually stimulating walk. I’m always on the lookout for trees but still have not identified that unusual one [final photo in the group]. Thank you Anne for your grand plan…we did eventually encounter more of your fellow walkers! Sorry we missed you and Norie! Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinners tonight!”
— Gene McMahon


“Rowan and I are going to Spokane for Thxgiving this year, so I did my Lake Union walk over the weekend [11/21/20]. Photo with yellow backpack strap attached. 🙂 ”
— Bonnie Swift

“On my way I remembered about the yellow. So first I found a scrap of old construction tape and tied that in my jacket. Later I added a yellow leaf. But I didn’t see any yellow in people except one guy in a bike who was wearing a yellow vest.  I walked a little more than half the distance. This was a lot of fun thank you. I hope you’ll buy my novel The Aftermath from Amazon or Adelaide if you want an ebook!”
— Lyn Coffin

“This is just a short little note of thanks. This walk was the perfect holiday activity for my family; my mom, stepfather, two dogs and I walked the lake last Thursday in place of gathering for dinner. We so loved being outside encountering many familiar and friendly faces along the route. Thank you for organizing this and finding a creative and spirited way to make it happen, even during a pandemic. Yours fondly.”
— Sarah Traver, Seattle

“Thanks for the ‘MASK-querade’ walk. Sorry we didn’t run into you. We did the whole durn thing, clockwise from the MOHAI lot. We did hear from Tom and Piper along the way that you were up ahead but I guess you finished before we did. Man, my feet hurt when i got home!”
— Paul de Barros & Sue Dickson (photo by Tom Zachary & Piper Greenwood)

“Thank you so much for encouraging the walk. We did a semi loop this year. We saw Chiyo and Mark along the trail. Recognized more by their yellow and orange. Great idea because masks obscure everyone. So many joggers in black out.
“Love to you on this day and remembering the Duwamish peoples past and present.”
— Saya Moriyasu & Jeff McGrath, Seattle

“I made a short visual journal, shortened further here, to send my Midwest siblings in advance of Thanksgiving day calls and remembering the Seattle get-together we missed last summer. Familiar sites to all who’ve made the walk, this one ending with my meeting friends. For your viewing pleasure! ”
— Barbara Johns, from her second message. Her photo journey around the lake is a nice complement to the one Suze and Steve offered at the start.

MASK-ARADE WALKERS FROM NEAR & FAR

“Picture from my remote walking – Elliott Bay and Goats walking!”
— Edie Adams, Queen Anne Hill, Seattle

“Happy Ongoing Thanksgiving, Anne. I did not walk on Thanksgiving because it poured drenching rain here all day long. Instead Arty, pictured below in his puppy-cave, and I spent the day in our cozy house with great company on zoom. My dinner wore the day’s colors. And nature provided her own the next day for a walk in Dartmouth, the town next door to New Bedford, on a new property owned by the land conservation and walking trail provider, Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust.

“I trust you are receiving many of these delayed transmittals of Thanksgiving 2020. It was wonderful to read yours and remember the circumnavigations I’ve joined you for in past years. It is sweet to think of your emissaries all over taking the Cheshiahud Loop to other parts of the world, as well as to imagine joining you again to trek the original around Lake Union some year soon.”
— Rebecca Barnes with friends, New Bedford, Massachusetts

“Three photos from my Thanksgiving walk today, Anne. Not at Lake Union unfortunately, but still sweet. I hope you had an excellent walk with Norie.”
— John Boylan, Seattle

“Seattle U, between dinner and pumpkin pie. The Ent.”
— Jan and Doug Bradley, First Hill, Seattle

“I probably missed the deadline but I wanted you to know that I joined you in spirit on Thanksgiving as I walked to a park in Shoreline honoring the Duwamish peoples.”
— Brian Branagan, Shoreline

“Long Island City with Manhattan in view over East River w Andru, Howard, James, Ray & Wendy 11/26/20. It gets dark early lately! ”

Sent a day or so later, but still in response to the Mask-arade posts:
“oops meant to send! thanks for letting us be unity too — we were in the park where Bernie & AOC spoke in 2019 -– it was so fab, 25K people & love fest.
“just went to our little park, 3 bands playing at once with the ping pong table, hearing it all, golden gingkoes and cheerful people – very sweet. first time to play pingpong & go to a zoom meeting at the same time…only one dog stole our ball briefly”
— Wendy Brawer, Ray Sage, and friends, Brooklyn, New York

“Here’s our photo from our walk! We kept it socially-distanced and it was just me and my pup, P! We walked around Highland Park in LA today, about 4 miles 🙂 ”
— Jess Capó, Los Angeles

“Love the notion of a collective meander of grace and gratefulness. Here is the view of my late late walk along the shore of Crown Harbor off of Alameda Island, CA.”
— Bill Cleveland

“This is woody, michael, jeanne, Louca and me at green lake starting at 11am today. Thanks for the inspiration! The folks in funny hats were along the route – a friendly flock!Happy thanksgiving 🐿 ”
— Rebecca Cummins with Woody Sullivan and Michael Swain & Jeanne Foss with their son Louca, Green Lake, Seattle

“Lake Union” walk…Well I’m afraid to say we cheated a bit. We were just about to leave the house and go out to Lake Union, when it started to pour, so we waited – and then realized that there was no way we could do the full loop and get the food in the oven in time. So we instead did a walk on Capitol Hill. But we did think of you and we did wear yellow jackets. Happy Thanksgiving!”
— Richard Farr and Kerry Fitz-Gerald, Capitol Hill, Seattle

Here are a couple of photos from Ross Focke & Beth Benjamin: Beth at Beth Johnson’s pastures and Ross & Luke on the beach.
— Ross Focke, Beth Benjamin, and their dog Luke, Claremont, California

“We have had a fun weekend and with cherishing the time with Heather and Eric, have not had a chance to sit down and send this off. Confession, we took our walk on Friday. Mark and I were pretty busy on Thursday getting everything ready.
I am thankful for being able to share Thanksgiving weekend with my favorites, Mark, Heather and Eric. I am also thankful that the magical Fort Worden, where this photo was taken, is practically in our backyard. And thankful that I can share and be a part of this community, looking forward to seeing the photos on the website. Hope you had a wonderful walk on Thanksgiving!”
— Kathy Fridstein, Mark Manley, Heather Manley, Eric Manley, Port Townsend, Washington

“We will walk a bit outside of La Conner with your walk in mind.”
— Cathy Hillenbrand & Joseph Hudson, Seattle  (La Conner is a small town in Skagit County, Washington)

“Weisbecker/Law/Louie/Matumona Family masked walk
Our walk to Sunset View Park today.
Strange crew.”
— Carolyn Law & Andy Weisbecker, Beth Louie & Jake Weisbecker with their daughter Bellamy Gabriella Weisbecker, Hélène Matumona & Lucas Weisbecker with their son Loreto Jabulani Weisbecker, Greenwood/Sunset View Park, Seattle. This family definitely gets the prize for the largest family to participate in the 2020 Mask-arade!

“Hope you’re having a great day. Here we are scooting on Lake Washington.”
— Margie and Brian Livingston, Lake Washington, Seattle

“Here we are on our Thanksgiving walk in St Paul about to head up the steps in the background!”
— Sarah Lutman & Rob Rudolph, Saint Paul, Minnesota

“1  Out our front window a few days before Thanksgiving…….now all melted.
2  Me back home wearing my “Anne Focke Walk” yellow.
Nice to talk with you.
Stay healthy.”
— Peter Mahler, Madison, Wisconsin, who, in a first for a Thanksgiving Lake Union walk, engaged me in a Facetime call  while I walked over the University Bridge.

“Anne, Happy Thanksgiving to you! Tom and I always take a walk on Thanksgiving and today turned out to be a very pretty day… we see the Linville Gorge on the front end of our walk and the Black Mountains in the distance midway through the walk. Your lake walk with friends is a great idea…we are celebrating all we have to be thankful for with you today.”

And a little later:

“I didn’t tell you where we are or what we are thankful for…and we aren’t wearing masks because we are the only ones on this property…We started our walk at home with the Linville Gorge behind us along with farms beside the Blue Ridge Parkway and midway through a neighboring farm we have the Black Mountains behind us. We have so much to be thankful for…valuable friendships, good health, creative lives, precious freedoms, and an incoming commitment to addressing social justice inequities.”
— Jean McLaughlin & Tom Spleth, Little Switzerland, North Carolina

“Good Morning Anne!
“I trust your Mask-a-raid went off like clockwork. We took an early morning hike in Moran State Park! Looking forward to seeing your photo compilation. ”
— Heather & Greg Oaksen with their son, Eric Oaksen, Orcas Island, Washington

“This is so beautiful, Anne. I’d meant to send pictures earlier. I didn’t find anything yellow to wear (though I chose an orange hat and carried the gingko leaf from our yard to the coast, in tribute to you)  but Nathan, Zoe and I did go for a walk on the Santa Monica beach.”
— Claire Peeps with Nathan Birnbaum and their daughter, Zoe, Santa Monica, California

“Happy Thanksgiving +1, Anne. Glad the physically distanced Maskarade went well and you and Norie had fun. Thanks for the invite. Carrie and I and the girls did get out to walk in the hills above Chuckanut Drive. Cheers to you through all pandemic challenges.
P.S. Took the masks off for the pic…”
— Simon & Carrie Pritikin with their daughters Jasmin and Olivia, whose home is in Seattle

“I wish we took pictures to share – we did the Ruston Parkway in Tacoma. Hope you are doing well and having a nice quiet holiday season.”
— Dechie Rapaport with Willie and Gabby, long-time Thanksgiving Lake Union walkers, Tacoma, Washington

“Walked with son, who is now back on The Big Island, on Thanksgiving Day.  Walk is along La Jolla waterfront where sea lions love to loll on the beach. I 🤗”
— Yvonne Sanchez, who lives in Seattle but was visiting family in San Diego

“Hope you had a great walk today. Thinking of you from afar as we walked at Kobayashi Park in University Place (next to Tacoma and my new home….Seattle got too expensive). It’s a short walk through the woods and beautiful stream. My guy in the picture is Richard Reynolds.
“Now, on to the last of cooking and finally eating.
“Till we meet in real life again!🧡🍁🧡 ”
— June Sekiguchi and Richard Reynolds, Tacoma, Washington

“Thanksgiving Walk 2020: Aaron, Connor & I walked around the reservoir at Horizon View Park in our town: Lake Forest Park. Didn’t take pics and forgot to post a note, but your walk inspired us, so that’s what we did as part of the Dispersed Unity Mask-arade!!!!”
— Anne Stadler with Aaron Stadler and Connor Fosse Stadler, Lake Forest Park, Washington

“Happy Thanksgiving from Philadelphia! I spent most of the day tucked in at home with my husband and our 10-month-old daughter, but was able to sneak out shortly before sunset for a walk around the neighborhood while the turkey was cooking. Never underestimate the power of a walk, no matter how short! We live in Fishtown, a neighborhood just northeast of Center City and close to the Delaware River – and also close to a historic cemetery with beautiful old Sycamores. This is where I went on this little stroll. Here are a couple of images of the moon rising over its trees, as well as the view leaving our building (the globe light fixtures also reminded me of the moon). I would love to do the route around Lake Union someday… I’ve done a yearly Good Friday walk since 2014, one year circumnavigating Manhattan Island, which feels like the opposite in terms of looking out to the water as a constant versus the Lake Union route looking in. Either way, there’s a pull in that space where water meets land, and discovering all of the inlets and hidden gems.”
— Erin Sweeny, Philadelphia

“Greetings from Rainier Beach, Anne, I joined my family and we walked by Lake Washington, around Genesee. The highlight was seeing this Rainbow!
“On to Hanukkah, the Solstice, Christmas, New Years, and more.”
— Diane Tepfer and family, Rainier Beach, Washington

“Thankful for the wild fungi on parade in a forest near Tacoma on Thanksgiving!
Richard, the Wild Fungi (Fun Guy) in the South Sound”
— Richard Woo, Tacoma

A thousand and one thank-you’s to everyone who walked with us this year! It means so much to hear from all of you. You fill me with hope and thankfulness.

A final image from the east side of the Cheshiahud Loop Trail near the Eastlake Community Garden, a miniature Thanksgiving gathering, hosted by the two turkeys on the porch of the little cottage. They all seemed to be having a good time, and I doubt they dined on  a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal.


Building a Parallel Polis

For victims of state repression, the invitation into politics can be a death sentence. How can marginalized or oppressed groups bring change to systems that are predicated on their destruction? At every scale—from the neighborhood to the city to the nation—the targets of systemic attack must choose how and with whom to make politics in the midst of systems that threaten them.

This is the beginning of the editor’s introduction to a new essay of mine, “Building a Parallel Polis,” recently published by The Polity of Literature, a project of ArtsEverywhere based in Guelph, Canada. The Polity of Literature was developed, as the project description says, “in response to the widespread failure of nation-states to provide citizenship for those who need it most.”

My essay considers two widely-divergent examples of people who succeeded in their efforts to change the systems that held them down. Both are characterized by two broad concepts, one drawn from each: the “parallel polis,” proposed by Czech dissident Václav Benda in 1977 as a tool for resisting—and ultimately overthrowing—the repressive post-War Communist government in Czechoslovakia; and the “dynamics of difference,” one of an integrated set of community democracy principles seen clearly in the practices of Native American tribes in the Humboldt Bay area of California and in their successful efforts to build a tribal health center and to regain stolen land.

I became interested in the parallel polis when a friend mentioned that Benda’s ideas seemed to describe patterns in my own work and suggested I explore the relationship by writing about it. I accepted the challenge and was intrigued by what I discovered about the parallel polis. Writing teaches me a lot. I decided to further understand the parallel polis by writing about it alongside what I already knew of the dynamics of difference through work I’d done in the Humboldt Bay area. This essay is the result. It’s important to stress that, after all I learned from the two stories and the overall concepts they reveal, I believe the reach and importance of both examples are equal.

You can find my essay, “Building the Parallel Polis,” on The Polity of Literature here.

I also encourage you to read other essays on The Polity of Literature.  You’ll find many terrific authors and good, provocative ideas in the sixteen (so far) other essays. The homepage of The Polity of Literature is here. You can follow The Polity of Literature on Instagram @thepolityofliterature

Click here if you’d like to know more about ArtsEverywhere, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society.”


One Wish for the World

Back in late May this year, Wier Harman, director of Town Hall Seattle, invited me to participate in a benefit event to support independent artists. Given the physical distancing required by the coronavirus, the event would take place online.

Wier proposed a program format where about a dozen people would each record a short video message in response to a shared question. He kept the overall framework simple: “Tomorrow will be better if…” Given the late May timing, the impact of the pandemic shutdown was on his mind. “What happens next?” he asked, “What should we DO now?” His final question was, “If you had one wish for the world, what would it be?”

I quickly said, “I’m in.” Town Hall wanted 350-600 word responses, addressed directly to the camera, pre-recorded from our respective homes. They’d edit them together with a live host and live musical numbers. The deadline was only about a week away. During that week, the killing of George Floyd turned the world upside down again, giving me a few days to reflect and adjust my response.

About a month after his first invitation, Wier wrote to prospective participants again. “In my 15 years here,” he said, “I can’t recall a month as head-snapping and as emotional, AND as steeped in the possibility of transformational change.” He wrote of his struggle to adapt the program in some way to incorporate the scale and impact of the global activism for justice for Black Americans. He noted that the program goals were still to raise money for economically stressed artists and “to inspire our community to imagine a future transformed by collective will.” I just love Wier for the hope I heard in his words. He also acknowledged that some of us might not feel comfortable proceeding.

Then a few days later, after hearing from invitees, Wier wrote again with apologies. They were canceling the event. In the end, he said, “The community of available participants no longer speaks to the breadth of perspectives we hoped could share in responding to this moment.”

All the same, I continue to hold onto the wish I have for the world, inspired in part by Pablo Neruda. So in early August I asked for and received Wier’s blessing to recycle my video by posting it on this site.

One wish for the world

Click image for video

Even though the benefit event didn’t happened, you can still support one of the funds that Town Hall originally identified: the Seattle Artists Relief Fund Amid COVID-19, managed by Langston. You can also learn more about the essential role Town Hall plays in building community in this region here and you can click here to support its work.


Jostling about in a big public space: Multitudes of divergent communities

It started with an essay about artistic freedom.

During the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of my artist friends and I were embroiled in the fight for artistic freedom. Faced with battles over censorship, federal funding, and what was deemed obscene, immoral, or offensive, we fought for an individual artist’s right to free expression. We held these as fundamental rights of an individual in the public arena. We understood artistic expression as a form of speech, speech that was protected by the First Amendment. Reflecting back on the fights of thirty years ago also calls to mind today’s debates around what has been dubbed “cancel culture.”

One day in early 1991 in the midst of the Culture Wars, I hunkered down to edit an essay titled “Artistic Freedom” by Bruce Sievers, scholar of civil society and, at the time, director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. I’d just been contracted by an association of arts funders, Grantmakers in the Arts, to be co-editor of its publication. I continued in this role for nearly twenty years, but this was the first article in the first issue I worked on.

Especially coming when it did, the essay engaged me in complicated ideas closely related to my activism. It also presented me with a tangle of ideas that were hard to unravel then and, one notion in particular is a puzzle that, thirty years later, challenges me still. Even though it remains unresolved, I suspect that this intransigent puzzle may among other things offer a response to the cancel culture debates.

In his essay, Sievers reported on a GIA-sponsored symposium held in December 1990 based on controversies surrounding freedom of expression in the arts. A central goal of the gathering was to understand the legal and conceptual foundations of the argument defending artistic freedom. The search for a coherent argument, Sievers said, is filled with ambiguity. “Ambiguities about freedom of expression in the arts mirror deeper ambiguities about the nature of free speech and its historical role in the legal and political life of the United States.”

I’ve come to recognize one of these ambiguities in the often-difficult balance between the right of one person to speak and the right of another not to be targeted by harmful speech. One can damage the rights of the other. Legal scholar (later to become dean of the Yale Law School) and symposium speaker Robert C. Post explained that the modern theory of First Amendment protection for threatening or outrageous speech “only began to be developed in the 1930s and 40s as the Supreme Court grappled with the contradictions between protecting the public arena of free speech and protecting individuals from slander and verbal assault.”

A second complicated idea in all this might be described this way: The existence of a neutral public space for discourse is necessary for the exercise of free speech and also gives the speech meaning by giving it an audience. But the value of holding that space open also has to be defended. And that very defense might suspend someone else’s freedom of speech, someone, for instance, intent on closing down the neutral public space through coercive or irrational means.

Both of these ideas required me to hold two competing values in mind without insisting that only one is true. That’s fine. Life is full of ambiguities. I can handle that.

But then he brought up communities.

Buried in Sievers’ arguments is the thirty-year-old conundrum I’ve wrestled since 1991. It came up for me when he introduced “community” into the picture. My experience in the Culture Wars had established a mental framework for the debate around artistic freedom that consisted essentially of two parts, or two “sides” – the individual artist and the public arena, that is, the rights of individuals within the larger society. References to community complicated my framework. “Community” seemed both larger than an individual and smaller than the whole society.

Community was first mentioned in the essay when Sievers drew from Robert Post’s brief history of Anglo-American law and its control of harmful speech – that is, defamation, blasphemy, sedition, and obscenity. This control, Post said, served specific purposes. For one, “it acknowledged and protected community norms of responsible speech (norms that made a particular community possible), thus supporting a vision of community life.”

“Wait just a minute!” I thought. Particular community? What does that mean? The next passage reinforced my confusion and also triggered my curiosity. (Italicized emphasis is mine.) Post argued that modern First Amendment theory…

“…developed a delicate balance between the principle of preserving public space in which public opinion essential to a democratic society can be freely molded and the opposing principle of defending independent communities in which values also essential to a democratic society (such as respect for the individual) can be cultivated. First Amendment protection of a neutral public space acknowledges the peculiarly U.S. experience of many coexisting communities and allows for the proliferation of ‘multitudes of divergent communities.’ It safeguards a sort of marketplace of ideas among these communities.”

“Multitudes of divergent communities” jostling about in a big neutral public space struck me as a powerful image. I immediately liked the idea of defined clusters of people – that is, communities defined by choice, chance, or coercion – each molding their own particular set of values and practices. And I liked the idea of the public space as one where each community tries to influence or change the opinions and ways of others.

Over the years, I’ve attempted to incorporate “the multitudes of divergent communities” into a mental framework that previously included only individuals and the public. I’ve asked many questions of these notions, most of which I haven’t answered with much satisfaction.

In a neutral public space full of coexisting and divergent communities, what happens to the public space when minds and actions are changed? How is the public space changed? Can, or how can it remain open to all communities? What is “neutrality” anyway, is it even real? What happens when change is coerced or destructive? Do we even have a multitude of divergent communities at this point? And what do we mean today by “community” when we live in a physical world that is dependent on a digital world with a fundamentally changed understanding of public space, in “public” arenas that are owned by large corporations?

Thinking back to the beginning of this train of thought, where is an individual and an individual artist’s expression in this picture? What dynamic goes on among individuals inside a particular community? Does a community allow for a parallel proliferation of the divergent ideas of many different individuals? Does the existence of many different communities offer an individual the chance to move from one community to another? Or to belong to more than one at the same time? What happens to an individual alone in the public arena outside any particular community? Where does that individual belong?

Somewhere in the argument for the value of multitudes of co-existing communities might lie a response to the cancel culture debates, though not a resolution of them (homogeneity is not the goal). Could understanding the value of this multiplicity help us learn to accept the ambiguity and challenge of living among communities with different experiences, different values and practices? Do we need the debates and discomfort to allow minds and hearts to change and to give us the will to create a better-functioning democratic society?

Satisfying answers to these questions still elude me. Simply posing them is about as far as I can go right now. Clearly the conundrum continues, getting both a little more complicated and a little more potent all the time.

References

  • The essay, “Artistic Freedom,” is in the GIA Newsletter, Volume 2,1 and can be downloaded here.
  • A brief bio for Bruce Sievers is here.

Franko – “One of the good guys”

My brother Francis George Focke died at home in Rancho Cucamonga, California on April 22 in the early months of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

When he died, I was out walking in the rain in Seattle. Toward the end of my walk I passed a large camellia tree that seemed to have dropped most of its flowers all at once just before I got there—red camellias all over the ground and sidewalk under my feet. Our family’s house in Claremont, the last place that Frank and our whole immediate family—parents, brothers, and grandmother—lived together, was surrounded by camellias.

Frank died of an aggressive lung cancer that seemed to come up quickly. He’d been a smoker most of his life. I first learned of his cancer when he called to tell me of the diagnosis about a week and a half before he died. It wasn’t until four or five days later that I realized just how much pain he was in. He didn’t talk about his feelings easily (health or otherwise) and avoided focusing on himself. He had planned to have an initial chemo treatment on April 22 and even had a port put in. But on April 20, he just couldn’t bear the pain and discomfort any longer. With his wife Barb, he decided to cancel treatment and let the cancer take its course. His last few days were difficult, but Barb, who was with him, told me he died peacefully, for which I’m grateful.

It was hard not to be there. The miles and the virus kept me away. I was so glad to learn that our brother Ross was able to visit on the evening before Frank died. Seeing Ross again had been one of Frank’s last wishes.

Frank didn’t want any kind of memorial to celebrate his life or mark his passing except a plaque with his name at the cemetery. All the same, memories of him have appeared here and there. Making up for the lack of a formal obituary, I’ve cobbled together a few memories.

A bit of a cut-up and clown, “Frank-o” was my “middle-est” brother in a string of brothers, whose names will always roll easily off my tongue in chronological order – Fred, Ted, Frank, Karl, Ross. I came along between Fred and Ted for a total of six. The family moved to San Diego in 1945, and Frank was born there in Mercy Hospital in 1948. A collage of photos from about 1957 that I spotted on Frank’s wall shows Mom and Dad with all us minus Fred, who, ten years older, must have been away. Frank is at the lower right.

All of us, along with our grandmother, lived for about fifteen years in a two-story house on Mount Soledad in San Diego, surrounded on the back by hillsides of sagebrush and a valley with a chicken ranch and a dairy farm at the bottom. In front we were connected by dirt roads to nearby friends, a cactus ranch, and flower farmers. It was a great place to be young, perfect for building hide-outs, bringing baby chicks home, learning how to get lost and found again. The family moved north to Claremont in 1959, and except for Fred we all attended and graduated from Claremont High School.

An “In Memory” entry on Claremont High School’s Alumni Society website includes year-book photos of Frank (class of 1966) and comments from fellow classmates who described him as “such a great guy and so quiet and gentle,” “nice and friendly,” and “one of the good guys.” To inform their mutual friends, Ross posted a notice of Frank’s death on his Facebook page. It included a photo with this caption: “My brother Frank at boot camp in the Marines 1967. He was a helicopter mechanic in the Vietnam War close to the DMZ. He was proud, he was a Marine.” He was nineteen.

A clipping included on the Alumni site and probably published in the Claremont Courier, reported “Marine Lance Cpl. Francis G. Focke, 20, is serving with Heavy Helicopter Unit 462 in the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Vietnam. His unit operates several hundred aircraft including fighters, attack and reconnaissance craft, and helicopters. The Wing last year was awarded a Presidential Citation for combat achievements.”

Lance Corporal in the Marines is equivalent to a Private First Class in the Army. I remember Frank telling me, a few years after he returned, that he was rather proud of not rising to a higher rank during the years he served. He did his job, did it well, and kept his head down.

Before he died, Frank sent a box containing a few items from his Marine days to Heather, his favorite granddaughter, more accurately, a step-granddaughter who came into his life through his second wife, Priscilla. One of the items in the box was a large coin. Research identified it as a Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Challenge Coin.

Ross’s Facebook post attracted comments from family and mutual friends. Some of them knew him from the days, after the Marines, that he spent as a bartender at the Midway Tavern, between Claremont and Upland on Route 66. Michael wrote:

That Marine Mentality would come FLASHING to the surface from time to time. One night a fight broke out at the Midway and I was sitting at the middle table between the front wall and the pool table. One of the fighters spotted me and came RUNNING towards me. I was thinking ‘Oh man, the shit’s ON,’ when I heard this metallic clank right above my head. There was Frank standing right behind me. He had grabbed one of those metal folding chairs and snapped it into the folded position and he was IN THE STANCE, holding inches from the guy’s face.

Frank was always there for me.

Other Facebook posts with brief memories and condolences came from cousins, his first wife Lupe, and other old friends from Claremont, including Ruth, who added this picture of Frank pouring beer at the Midway.

Frank lived with alcoholism and went on the wagon at least 30 years ago. A few years after he quit, he told me the craving never stopped, but whenever the desire got hard to handle, he’d tell himself, “You can have a beer tomorrow.” And, as far as I know, that tomorrow never came..

In 1998 Frank and Priscilla moved to Casa Volante, a 55+ mobile home park in Rancho Cucamonga right off Route 66. At 50, he wasn’t old enough to live there on his own, but Priscilla qualified. Casa Volante is a quiet park with winding streets, about 200 homes (which they call coaches), a clubhouse with a small swimming pool, and many trees and plantings that soften the park’s landscape. Frank had been able to buy a coach with proceeds from our mother’s estate, which helped sustain their quiet, carefully frugal lifestyle.

Priscilla died in 2003, and it wasn’t long before Frank and Priscilla’s good friend Barb found each other. They married in October 2005 at poolside behind the clubhouse, surrounded by friends from the park and beyond.

When they were much younger, Frank and our brother Ross worked together on small construction and maintenance projects for home and garden. Frank carried his skill along with an inborn concern and care for others to Casa Volante, and he was known in the neighborhood for fixing toilets, hanging blinds, patching roofs, and running monthly pancake breakfasts and weekly bingo games. He was hired as the park’s assistant manager in 2012.

On one of my visits, I participated in a bingo game. Frank pulled out the large, rolling mechanical bingo board, set up the long tables and all the folding chairs in the main clubhouse room, and brought out the individual bingo cards and pencils. Without much fuss, he ran the show. The room was jammed, every seat taken. I was embarrassingly lucky that day, winning about 27 dollars. Some of my loot I shared with Frank and Barb, and the rest I contributed back to the bingo pot to start the next week’s game.

Frank & me in the clubhouse after bingo, 2016

In their June 2020 message to park residents, Dan and Lou, resident managers, said, “Frank was a fixture in the Park and I still keep expecting him to walk into the office to fill us in on things he observed while on one of his many daily walks.” A remembrance of him filled the other side of the newsletter: Assistant Manager – All Around Handy Man – Our Friend. “Frank was always there for residents: locked out, call Frank; leaky faucet, call Frank; need groceries, call Frank need your dog walked, call Frank. If he could do it, he would. Rest in Paradise, Frank.”

He clearly played a big role in creating community there. He leaves a huge hole in many lives. In a phone call a few weeks after he died, Barb told me that flowers were filling their home. She described one bouquet that had been carefully crafted to incorporate a dismantled piece of the big bingo board. Maybe there were even camellias.

Three brothers in 2019, Karl, Frank, Ross

The world we know is not our only option

February 1, 2020

This morning I woke with a disorienting sense of despair that’s unusual for me. The world seemed wracked with unsolvable problems and going to hell in so many ways at once that it felt impossible to imagine we’d ever be able work our way forward to a better place. I was at a loss to know what part I could play with the time and tools I have.

After stumbling around for a while, I picked up a short essay I’d written in the spring of 2016. I’d been inspired by an opinion piece published in the New York Times a few days earlier. The column’s author, Jon Grinspan, is an historian at the National Museum of American History who describes the focus of his research as, “politics and youth and comedy and food and booze in 19th and early 20th century America.” He likes any subject, he says, “that makes the past feel human and immediate.” And “immediately” is how fast his piece jerked me out of the little stupor I’d fallen into this morning. Reading his column today reminded me why it caught my attention in the first place. I was buoyed again by what he called “history’s most beautiful lesson: The world we know is not our only option.”

His op ed told the forgotten story of the days in the 1800s when young people voted in droves and were the most engaged demographic in U.S. politics. They “speechified” and rioted in wild elections from the 1830s to 1900. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.”

He tells the story in his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “Millions of children, youths, and young adults forced their way into the life of their democracy,” he said, “while their democracy forced its way into their personal lives.”  What in the 20th century often felt like a weak link in our political system was once the strongest. “Young people did vote,” Grinspan wrote. “They could do so again.”

In our 2018 mid-term elections, young people began to prove Grinspan right. In April 2019, the Washington Post, carried a story with this headline: “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports.” The news piece began, “Voter turnout spiked to a 100-year high in last year’s midterm congressional elections.…turnout rates jumped across nearly all groups, but the shift was particularly notable among young adults.” The number of voters aged 18-29 jumped 16 percentage points since 2014. “Last year’s election marked a clear break from the past two decades of anemic turnout among the youngest citizens.”

Knowing that things have changed in the past assures me that they they can change again. Young voters proved that in 2018. What we see today doesn’t have to be what will be tomorrow.

Grinspan’s insight mirrors Rebecca Solnit’s words about hope. “Hope for me,” she has said, “is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.”

The forgotten past and a future that’s unknown both open up possibilities. We just have to be convinced as we face today’s realities that new options are possible and that it’s up to us to imagine them and act on our commitment to make them happen.

 

Notes

Jon Grinspan’s column in New York Times, “Virgins, Booze, and Politics,” ran on April 10, 2016.

Scott Clement and Ted Mellnik, “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports,” Washington Post, April 23, 2019.

The photo, “Butterfly Plant,” is by Anton Trötscher, Houston.


Aging & economics: simple arithmetic

“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time,” claimed Robert J. Samuelson in the opening line of his 2016 news story in the Washington Post. The story referred to an academic study of economic slowdown as we’ve seen it in recent years. Samuelson and the study traced this decline to our aging population. In fact, after presenting many details from the study, he concluded that, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what causes economic slowdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…” It’s an interesting theory, but I argue with some of the conclusions he draws and offer another conclusion of my own.

By itself, the opening line immediately reminded me of a homegrown theory I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.

As a mathematical equation, my idea might look like this:

There may be a better way to express it mathematically, but here’s how I tell the story:

Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually a little older than that, but it’s close enough, and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-accepted “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.

The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.

Someone living according to this equation would have an earning life of 45 years, that is, 65 minus 20. And that’s just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. All the same, applied to real life, the equation sets a crazy expectation.

“Oh, but wait!” you may say. “You haven’t accounted for the fact that your 45 earning years really only have to pay for your extra 25 years after retirement. That’s not quite so bad.” Ah, but I’d counter, consider that my first 20 years were hardly free. Somebodyhad to pay for them. In my case, it was my parents, and anyone who’s a parent knows they’re paying for at least two lives during the first 20 years of their child’s lives. But whether I’m a parent or not, I think my equation has to account for the cost of those years. So, I argue, the equation holds.

Obviously, a certain segment of the population with high earnings (especially if boosted by inherited wealth) can, indeed, pay for 90 years of life with just 45 years of work. For most of us, though, the economic life my equation points to is probably difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work at all.

My equation, though based on an individual life, has broad implications for an aging society overall. For me, it clarifies why an aging population that depends for its livelihood in our current economic system could be seen as a cause of economic slowdown. Clearly, a steep earnings decline follows retirement for many of us.

In his discussion of aging and economics, Samuelson discusses the study’s explanations for why an increasingly older population might have a dampening effect on economic productivity. For one, the decline is partly based on the proportionally smaller number of workers left to support production. But the study also reports that this accounts for only about a third of the decrease.

One theory for the rest, Samuelson proposes, is that older people may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, of being less experimental and optimistic in their views and actions. To this one I say, for myself at least, “Bah, humbug!” My desire to respond to the urgencies of today – climate crisis, justice and inequality, the precarious state of our civil society – has only increased at age 74, especially since I know my time is limited. I may act in different ways than I did in my 20s, but I’m no more cautious or restrained.

Besides, my homemade equation suggests that the “cautious spending” of older populations is not necessarily about our reduced sense of experimentation and adventure but rather about the reduced size of our bank accounts. My simple arithmetic speaks to larger questions about how our economy works, or more accurately, doesn’t work. For one thing, the only work that our current economy values is work exchanged for money.

What do you think older people are doing in their “retirements,” that is, if they’re lucky enough not to be scrabbling for money to pay the rent? Countless numbers of us are contributing in valuable ways to our communities, and more could. Look at the hair color of volunteers at food banks, in legal clinics, in libraries, and at other nonprofit and voluntary organizations. Who’s taking food to shut-ins? Who’s regularly writing their elected officials and participating in other ways in our democracy? And then there are the grandmothers and grandfathers! Yes, we love the time we spend with our grandchildren, but in many cases grandparents play an essential role in helping cover the cost of their grandkids’ first 20 years. It may be loving, but it’s still work.

Are we only able to put our effort to these things if we’ve been lucky enough to have held jobs for 45 years that pay double-time? We need to change the economic arithmetic. We need a different formula.

Note: The Washington Post article, published on August 21, 2016, can be found here.


Time away at home

Every now and then since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules for a while to focus on the difficult work of writing. These “time aways” also allow for walking, reading, thinking, staring into space, maybe visiting an old friend or meeting someone new or maybe not seeing anyone at all, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with another writer friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. With mixed success, I’ve begun trying to recreate that experience without leaving home. I remember one time the strategy worked.

It was late summer 2015 – a perfect time-away day at home.

After spending the first hour of the day with necessary correspondence, I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.

I walked just a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a favorite neighborhood coffee shop.  Along with my breakfast, I read through past notes for what had become a gnarly piece I was working on. I’d been invited to write a short essay for publication in Pacific Standardas one of a series of columns on the future of work. My first draft had been returned by the editor with comments that made me know I should just start over. After studying my notes and finishing my coffee, I headed out.

Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles down steep, winding streets and views of the Cascade mountains, I stopped for coffee at a tiny place where I struggled to find a new path through the ideas in my notes. I didn’t actually pull out my computer to begin a new draft, but with my notes and a pen and paper, I found at least a preliminary place to begin and went outside again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t tried before and then turned straight east toward the Washington Park Aboretum.

A map of my walk

Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffee shop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to sit there until I had begun a revised version. By the time I walked out, clouds had covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with tall straight pines at the start and large holly trees toward the end. My wet walk through the woods ended at yet another bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made good progress in the writing, at least getting some good thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.

A little later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. My earlier straight-line walk to the Arboretum had been level; this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on just one of many blocks – and a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy the walk had given me continued, and I worked for another hour or so.

As the day ended, my writing was far from finished, but this new draft gave me the bones of a version that the editor ultimately accepted with only a few suggestions and small revisions. The piece, titled “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” considered the work of artists and other often unpaid workers. It began with a quote from economist Marilyn Waring: “I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.”

It was during one meandering leg of my long walk after a stretch of determined struggle with the essay that Waring’s words occurred to me and helped shape the piece. The day also convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are valuable to the way I think and that I can sometimes find the discipline to create a satisfying time away at home.

Notes

“Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value” can be found here at Pacific Standard (originally posted 11/3/15) and a slightly revised version on my website here.

The quote from Marilyn Waring comes from the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics.