Who is the “public”?

“Wait a minute!” I said. “I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said, “You are the public, and you are the public!”

 

In an interview earlier this year, David Mendoza recalled making this comment. He was referring to a moment in the late 1980s when he was in the midst of a debate about public funding for the arts. Three students – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design – conducted the interview as part of an internship with me, Alum in Residence. We were delving into the history and files of Arts Wire, an online network that started at about the same time as the incident in David’s story. The students decided to produce a podcast series including interviews with intriguing people they found in the files. David was definitely on their list. The hour-long interview, with David in Bali and we in an apartment near the university, covered many of David’s experiences.1 The following exchange took place at the end of the interview.

DAVID: I want to put in one last pitch for public funding for the arts.  Anne, do you remember my pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC”?

ANNE: Oh, I still have a couple, David. I should start wearing one.

DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “You are the public, and you are the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they got it immediately, because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the NEA did, what NYSCA and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. That theater would never have been supported by a Koch/Trump type of philanthropy, though I don’t actually want to include Trump because he’s really not a philanthropist. But people who were known for their philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” Everyone who wore it was part of the public.

JESSICA: I just want to chime in…Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.

DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some! Just make it!

VOICES ON TOP OF EACH OTHER: Just make some!  Yeah!  And… create some. Definitely!

DAVID: I’m telling you, it was amazing. Actually the message is quite, I don’t want to say deep, but profound in a way…patting myself on the back a little, I guess. But I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle], which used to be on Broadway in those days. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it.

JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Yeah… it’s just amazing. It doesn’t have to be in the art context, but just in general…what that actually means to people. Just making them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

KAREN: It’s a reaffirmation of your own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, my opinion is this. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? even on the scale of the country.

DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.

ANNE: When you come back in June or July, David, we’ll give you a new pin.

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID: Yes!  I have one in my little treasured storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

KAREN: If you had the opportunity to share some advice or to provide some guidance to people who are wanting to be involved now and wanting to be active now, in the current moment, what might you say?

DAVID: I was so devastated after the election that when I left the U.S. last December, people here would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I really had thought, with the election of Obama, that all the work we’d done had slowly progressed, one step forward, one step back, and onward. I thought we finally had arrived where we’d been trying to get all these years, though of course, there was still a long way to go. And then this sudden turn… I just felt like it had been a waste in a way.

But I’ll tell you what heartens me right now, where I find solace and hope is seeing all these people who are turning up at the town hall meetings of Congresspeople around, in Nebraska and Kansas, that I’ve been reading about, and in Texas. Republicans in Congress are having meetings with 800, 1000, 1500 people showing up who are well-informed, who are angry, who are speaking out. My god, we never had anything like that in those days. We would only have dreamed we could have orchestrated something like that. What’s truly important now is showing up first and secondly opening your mouth. That would be the advice I’d have. Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.

“That would be the advice I’d have.
Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.”

 


AFTERWORD
:  At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.

• • • • •

NOTE

1 Jessica Capó created a website for posting the series of podcasts produced by the interns from their work with Arts Wire files. There will be about 15 episodes in the final series. They’re posted weekly on Fridays. The site is here., and the interview with David is titled, “Golden Horseshoe.” You’ll find a list of all the podcasts with live links to the audio at the “podcast” tab, and a brief description and additional notes at “extras.”

The podcast production is definitely low-tech, just the make-it-up-ourselves style I love. We gather at Jess’s apartment a few blocks from campus (my office reverberates too much) around a dining table with a small microphone and a cell phone on the speakerphone setting. You might need to adjust your ears a bit.

Final note: You can also read a memoir David wrote about his life since graduating from the UW, here.


What’s my piece of the puzzle? Is resistance enough?

Like many of my friends, I’m still struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What do I have to offer in building a “countervailing force”?1

During the week-long pause after the 2016 election, I and many others in my very blue part of the country, simply wandered around stunned, caught our breath, and wondered how the results would change our lives and our priorities. But then the energy began to build. We needed to get out, talk with others, and figure out what to do. More people have been stepping up to become active than I’ve seen in decades. It didn’t take long before a deluge of news reports, alerts for critical causes, and entreaties to join this or that action started appearing in our email boxes and Facebook pages, on printed notices delivered by “snail mail” or stapled to telephone poles, and in conversations with friends over coffee or the telephone. There are marches to join, news reports to read, letters to send, meetings to attend or organize, and occasionally thoughtful talks and essays that help give perspective and context.

Back in fall 2015, when I created my website I added a subtitle to remind me of a basic fact that I keep forgetting, “You can’t do everything . . . at least not all at once.” That’s been hard to remember lately. And I thought by now I’d be clearer about how to narrow my focus, how to best use my skills and knowledge, short of trying to do it all.

Conversations often help me start figuring out something going on in my life. In this case, I need help finding the shape of my particular piece of the much bigger puzzle. One thing I’ve done is join with four or five other people who are interested in how we talk about the task facing us—about language and reframing the conversation (with a nod to George Lakoff)2 and John Boylan’s call for a new narrative.3 Our conversation has taken place in person and through lots of exchanged stories and articles. Just recently, I took time to write down and send some of my thoughts to them before an upcoming meeting. What started as a simple email message got to feeling more ponderous than an email message should be, it was more like an essay. So in addition to sending it to them, I fussed with it, made it a little more like an essay, and include it here.

February 22, 2017

Greetings all,

By now, I think I’ve read everything you’ve sent, along with other things that have come my way. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my arms around it all and what I want to do with it. What questions am I trying to answer? What do I have to offer? I definitely haven’t sorted it out yet, and I’m familiar with the tendency to think the latest thing I read or hear is the most important or the most urgent. I fully expect to keep learning and adjusting. Our conversation prompted me to write, to try to make a few ideas in a few pieces I’ve read hold still long enough to really see them. Here goes . . .

“Resistance” is crucial, but not enough. Unlike a couple of the writers I cite, I certainly believe resistance and protest are needed and make a difference. I’m so glad there are other people who are more active in the streets and on the phone than I am.

David Frum (“What effective protest could look like”4) had lots of good thoughts around why demonstrations won’t stop Trump, about the difference between self-expression and persuasion and our need for a large goal, like “protecting our democracy from authoritarianism.” And I especially liked his observation that “it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy.” (I so much identify with the, often invisible, behind-the-scenes work of organizing . . . organizing this or anything, for that matter). Frum wants us to “be motivated by hope, not outrage.” But beyond protest, he says little about what the hope and organizing should aim for.

David Brooks (“After the women’s march”5) also made a case that ”marches can never be effective opposition to Trump.” Their focus is wrong, he says, and grass roots movements only rarely lead to change, the civil rights movement being an exception; most change is made through the Democratic and Republican parties. He also says that the central challenge today “is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea”—a coherent vision. That resonates with the sense we have of the need for reframing and a new narrative, but his call for “a better nationalism” and one that balances “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality” doesn’t work for all of us.

Even finding new language isn’t enough by itself. New language also needs to help us get ahead of the moment and take a deeper look at how we understand and talk about what we hope to see happen. In a piece in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, “Negative Energy”,6 the author, Beverly Gage, gives a brief overview of the history of resistance, and says that, today, we certainly have plenty to resist against. But what is the resistance for? She asks it this way, “If ‘yes’ seems impossible and ‘no’ seems insufficient, what fills the space in between?” And toward the end, she suggests that we need to think about “where we want history to go.” I thought, right. Where do we want it to go? This actually lies behind much of my concern. And going back to our discussion . . . the language, the new narrative, the reframing needs to reflect it, the “where.”

Then, in a recent Guardian Weekly, I found this: “Welcome to the Age of Anger,7” by Pankaj Mishra, with the subtitle: “The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos—and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.” One thing I like about his perspective is that it goes way beyond Trump and this election. It reaches 200 years back in time and outside the boundaries of this country to other parts of the world. Reading it helped me know that, If I’m to have any idea of how to move forward, I needed a better understanding of how we got here and what we’re actually facing. Mishra’s piece gives me a helpful, new place to start. Although, as the Guardian says, it’s a “long read,” it’s definitely worth it.

Here are a few snapshots of Mishra’s thinking: he was quoted in a Washington Post review8 of his new book, The Age of Anger: A history of the present (published 2017), saying, “Now with the victory of Donald Trump, it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm. . .between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.” In the opening paragraph of his piece in the Guardian, he stresses that, “It is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world.”

Toward the end of the Guardian piece, after detailing the long history of this chasm and times it has widened in the past, he considers where we go from here. The reviews of his book that I’ve read hold him accountable for not offering any solutions. Not having read the book, I can’t counter this. But in the Guardian essay, while he doesn’t offer answers, but he does suggest some places to begin:

We need a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence.”

And later . . .

Even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality, and prosperity.”

Finally, to throw just one more (much shorter) piece your way, I was glad to find a fairly recent column, again in the Guardian Weekly, by George Monbiot, “The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in.”9 His piece starts to give me a more solid place to begin. He caught my attention when he referred to Mishra—for example, writing:

“Pankaj Mishra, in his book Age of Anger, explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide, were the norms of this period, not exceptions.”

I was encouraged, though, that Monbiot continued by saying that in the face of convincing evidence for despair, “This column will try to champion new approaches to politics, economics, and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.” And on top of that, given the keen interest I have in the commons (no surprise to many who know me), I was especially heartened by what came next:

There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breed extremism. One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

He spends most of the rest of the column expanding on what the commons are and why they have great potential now, a discussion that he ends by saying: “In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomizing, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”

Then to close the column, he gives himself what seemed to be an audacious goal: to explore a wide range of potential solutions and “start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story that might be matched to the demands of the 21st century.” I like that he plans to do this “with the help of your comments and suggestions,” though I’m not yet sure how we readers can contribute. I’ve gone to his website, <monbiot.com>, and found that interspersed among other writings, he pursues his large goal in a series of three pieces so far: this one, retitled, “The Fortifying Commons,” as well as “All Together Now” and “All about that Base.” I plan to follow along.

The commons are so much on my mind that you won’t be surprised to know that comments by two of you jump out at me. One of you ended an email saying:

It would be a good idea to look at every issue and every program through this lens—is this a program that benefits us as a community, regardless of who specifically benefits more or less under it? Is the common good substantial enough to tolerate the redistribution? Can the redistribution be managed in a reasonably fair way? How can we talk compellingly about the common good?”

And, a second might be a little more of a stretch: you made an appeal for a narrative that can be seen as everyday “common sense,” that isn’t oppositional, that includes “plural stories,” all of which reflect values that I associate with the commons. Both the “common good“ and “common sense” seem closely related to the commons.

Carry on!  I’m so grateful to be in this conversation with you.

Anne


Notes

  1. A bigger choir, a countervailing force,” posted on my website on 12/31/16.
  2. Don’t think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump,” Salon.com, 1/15/17.
  3. A new narrative,” John Boylan Essays and Comment, 12/14/16.
  4. What effective protest could look like,” David Frum, The Atlantic, 2/6/17.
  5. After the women’s march,” David Brooks, The New York Times, 1/2417/
  6. “Negative energy” (it seems to have a different title online), Beverly Gage, The New York Times, 1/31/17.
  7. Welcome to the age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian, 12/8/16.
  8. Inside the anger that gave us Donald Trump,” by Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 2/16/17.
  9. The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in,” George Monbiot, The Guardian, 12/13/16.

The New Colossus, 1883

The New Colossus

Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a Jewish American author, wrote this sonnet in 1883 to help raise funds to build a pedestal and install the Statue of Liberty. The poem was engraved on that pedestal in 1903, where it remains today. Esther Schor, who wrote a biography of Lazarus, told The New York Times in 2011, “Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue.”

Within a day or so of President Trump’s executive order on immigration  (1/25/17), the words of this poem began appearing across the Internet. This time around, the mighty Colossus must be all of us—we the people.


A bigger choir – a countervailing force


One thing Penny U1 made clear to me is that many of us want to be active in new ways, or, if we’re already active, we’re ready now to step up our game, to build toward something bigger. It’s also clear that there is not just one way, not just one cause to fight for. Many spheres of action emerged from our first post-election Penny U conversation and were discussed at the second. There is so much to do. It’s easy to feel numb or even helpless when the need for action comes from so many directions.

In his Penny U kick-off talk, Congressman Jim McDermott suggested that J.R.R. Tolkien’s words might be helpful:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

Even with this, though, finding a specific focus for our own energy can be difficult, and it can be further complicated when, at the same time, we long for a cohesive movement. In fact, building such a movement was one of the topics raised at Penny U. Don’t we need to begin developing a unified voice? How would we even do that?

For me, “unified” too often means singular, expressed as a desire for the kind of impact that can come from a powerful single voice. But I’m not convinced that a single voice is what we need. A better image is of many voices together, a choir or a chorus. Which reminds me that for years I’ve been bothered when I hear the disparaging critique of the phrase, “You’re just speaking to the choir!” In fact, that mindset should change. Instead, we should work to expand the choir, bring in new members, welcome different voices, combine choirs, allow for differences. Dissonance is part of powerful music.

Can’t we instead create a choir that incorporates the strength of our differences as well as what we share? I like a term I heard first from Robert Reich, who used it when he spoke at Town Hall in late 2015. We must create, he said, a “countervailing force.”

A countervailing force. Before I learned the history of its use, the term conjured up something bigger than a single voice and much more powerful. A “force” can have many attributes, with eddies and surges like a raging river or a giant surging wave. If I had the graphic skills of some of my friends, I’d create a fearsome wave, perhaps like the Great Wave of Hokusai2, and it would be made up of many choirs, both secular and sacred, of people young and old, urban and rural, and of many races. For now, you’ll just have to imagine it. This is the force to strive for.

«•»

To provide a bit of history, “countervailing force” appears primarily in discussions of the political economy. “The Concept of Countervailing Power” is, for instance, the subtitle of a 1952 book by economist John Kenneth Galbraith.3  Two quotes from Robert Reich, in a book he dedicated to Galbraith’s memory,4 show something of the way it’s used:

Between the 1930s and late 1970s, centers of countervailing power enabled America’s middle and lower-middle classes to exert their own influence – labor unions, small businesses, small investors, and political parties anchored at the local and state levels. This countervailing force has withered in more recent decades.”

And . . .

The only way to reverse course is for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago.”

I also like the way philosopher/activist Cornel West used it:

“The only countervailing force against organized money at the top is organized people at the bottom.”

«•»

I woke up after the second post-election Penny U wondering whether it could contribute to strengthening a countervailing force. This force will necessarily consist of many separate efforts. At the same time, as we all find specific places to direct our energy, it will be important to be aware of each other, to understand how big our choir really is, to learn from each other, and to be connected on occasion . . . agreeing and disagreeing, benefiting from what my friend Peter Pennekamp has called “the dynamics of difference” – that is, working constructively across differences to find new solutions and new power. Perhaps Penny U can be this kind of forum.

««««««•»»»»»»

Photo notes

The banner image of waves comes from How-to-Geek <howtogeek.com>, “Ocean Waves Wallpaper Collection.”

Choir images here are details from images found online. I’m grateful to all the photographers.

References

1  This use of “Penny U” refers to two post-election conversations at Town Hall Seattle. Reports on both are posted on this site here, here, and here. A description of Penny U and its basic assumptions can be found here.

2  “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, color woodblock, 1830–1833. Many impressions have been made of this print. This print is in the Library of Congress. The image of it here is from Wikipedia.

3  John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power, 1952.

4  Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


“So many ideas, so much to do! What next?”

So many ideas, so much to do

Building community in our new political reality

A post-election Penny U update

As it did for many people, the 2016 election sent me on a search to figure out how my life would change, or, more accurately, how I would adapt my life in response to new realities. What can I do?

Immediately after the election, I was grateful to have already planned a post-election Penny U conversation at Town Hall. Pulling the event together gave me a place to direct my energy and a way to feel that my action might be useful to others. It filled a void and gave me a sense of purpose. The large turnout that evening prompted my co-organizer, Edward Wolcher, and me to schedule a follow-up discussion two and a half weeks later.

We organized the second post-election Penny U around the main themes that emerged from the first one, and we also offered participants the chance to add topics not already on our list. Slightly over 100 people attended. We began, as Penny U’s do, with a short introduction giving some background, presenting the topics, and describing specifics of the process this time, which went like this: Topics were assigned to tables around the room. After the opening, everyone headed to the table topic of their choice. If groups got bigger than about 5-6, we encouraged breaking them up into smaller groups at one of the extra tables scattered around. We also asked someone at each table to take notes.

Topics focused on what we, individually and together, can do:

  • Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume (2 groups)
  • Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia (3 groups)
  • Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side” (2 groups)
  • Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process
  • Communicate with current legislative bodies (1 group + an advance email)
  • Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure
  • Educate ourselves / improve our education system
  • Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific actions
  • Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement
  • Resist cultural normalization of the way language has changed (added)

As after the November Penny U, we collected a substantial pile of notes. I continue to be impressed by how carefully and clearly most of the notes are prepared. In both Penny U sessions, my own were definitely the messiest notes and the hardest to decipher. This time, rather than try to summarize the wide range of topics and conversations, I’ve simply transcribed the notes “as is,” with a few minor adjustments for clarity.

You can find the complete set here. Because of its length you might want to just zero in on the topics that interest you the most.

So, what do we do next?

After I’d sent the notes to participants and now that I’ve posted them here, I’m thrown back to the question I faced immediately after the election, the one postponed by my focus on organizing the two Penny U’s. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Paul Krugman expressed a dilemma that feels real to my experience:

Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.”      —  Paul Krugman1  

Opportunities to engage, to protest, express our anger and dissent, resist policy changes, and change our own behavior pour in every day, through email, the news, personal conversations and observations. In fact, so many come that they often feel overwhelming. Given that none of us can do everything, even though that’s my initial instinct, I ask myself again, “What can I best offer given who I am? What’s my piece of the puzzle?”

The next steps for Penny U are still unclear. The focus that Edward and I gave the two post-election conversations responded to the circumstances of the moment. How could it now respond most effectively to current or future circumstances?

For guidance, I’ve paid close attention to responses we’ve received after the second Penny U. A friend, Warren Wilkins, wrote, thanking us for the platform “provided for those of us who were floundering around in our several states of incredulity/depression/etc. I suspect we’ll all head off on our own trajectories now.” But, he added, “I would guess your platform has shortened the launch window for many. It certainly did for me.” This reinforced my sense that Penny U isn’t itself a natural action-oriented organizing body, but might be a place where someone could find a specific way to engage their energy and their skills.

Mary Holscher, another participant, made this point even more clearly. She wrote:

I was in group 3, ‘Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia.’ I came away from the afternoon feeling disturbed and agitated – so many ideas, so much to do, what next???  I found the conversation quite fragmented and not that enjoyable. I came out of it, though, knowing I didn’t want to just stay in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood, which is mostly progressive but also mostly white and middle class.

“That night (evidently as I slept) something seemed to have resolved itself, and I woke up with a clear sense of priorities and direction, clearly inspired by the comments in our group on working with immigrants and Muslims, on being proactive, rather than simply reactive; on assessing one’s own strengths. I chose to sign up as a volunteer for Young Women Empowered (Y-We),2 which I’d been considering in the very back of my mind for a few months but hadn’t taken any action on. A big reservation I’d had was that it was at El Centro de la Raza, which seemed too far away. Knowing that I need to get out of my mostly white neighborhood spurred me to action.

“Even though I found the afternoon quite agitating and wasn’t sure if it was helpful, I do think it spurred me to both clarity and action about my own direction. So thank you! Even if I never come to another Penny University, I’m very glad I came to this one.”

Mary’s story was satisfying for an organizer who badly wanted the conversations to be useful. But her message also guides and inspires me as I wrestle with this part of my original what-can-I-do? question:  How can Penny U best serve as a forum in the future?

A initial thought follows in the next post, “A bigger choir, a countervailing force.” Your suggestions, comments, and stories are welcome!

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1 Paul Krugman, “The Tainted Election,” The New York Times, op-ed, December 12, 2016.

2 Mary Holscher also wrote:   “What draws me to Y-We is that it is multi-generational, multi-racial, focused on young women’s empowerment, and has a joyful spirit (a joyful spirit turns out to be imperative for me right now).” And she shared a few excerpts from the organization’s website: youngwomenempowered.org:

“Y-We empowers young women from diverse backgrounds to step up as leaders in their schools, communities and the world. We do this through intergenerational mentorship, intercultural collaboration, and creative programs that equip girls with the confidence, resiliency, and leadership skills needed to achieve their goals and improve their communities.”

“We serve young women ages 13-18. Our youth and mentors come from of a wide range of backgrounds representing diversity in family, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and education. Currently, 70% of our youth are first generation immigrants to the US and 80% of the youth and 50% of the adults are women of color.”


Moving Forward: Post-election Penny U, report

Penny U:  A report on the last one and prep for the next one

The next Penny U – December 4, 2016

When it was clear that interest was high in the Penny U a week after the election, we scheduled another to follow up on what happened there and to give people who couldn’t join us the first time an opportunity to join the conversation. Our focus will be to build on what we learned and to find practical steps our community can take to organize around the issues that surfaced. (A summary of the notes participants took follows below, but if you’re impatient, you can also download it here.)

Penny U:  Building Community in Our New Reality
2:00 p.m. Sunday, December 4
Town Hall Seattle, downstairs

The last Penny U – November 15, 2016

We need to connect. We need to talk together.
        —  a Penny U participant

Co-organizer Edward Wolcher and I have been hosting Penny U at Town Hall since fall 2014, and we’ve generally had 20-30 people show up for the conversations. They’ve been terrific, and people left energized. But, Town Hall sold over 250 tickets for the Penny U on November 15 when the topic was, “Post-election: What’s next?” And this was the first time we even charged. Our retiring U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott was definitely a powerful draw. He helped set the stage with a few remarks during the introductory part of the program and received a standing ovation for his long service.

Among other things, Jim told us that we all have to speak out, and we have to organize. “If we don’t speak up for other people and take on these issues, the hate will continue to seep into our society.”

He went on to say:

We all want a nice quiet life; we don’t want to get involved in all this. But, folks, there’s no way out of this, you don’t have a choice. The fact that you came out tonight means that you can be a choir that goes out and tells the rest of the city. We have to come together as a community around the issue of the common good. What’s good for Jim McDermott and his family has got to be good for everybody else in this whole city, and in this whole state, and this whole country. But it has to start somewhere and it can start with something like this Town Hall. We each have a responsibility to do our part. 250 people are a lot of people to be out there, churning and stirring people up. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t stick together, we will hang separately.”

He also quoted Frodo from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

While many came specifically to hear Jim speak, at least 200 people stayed for the conversations that followed. After Jim left to catch a red-eye back to the other Washington (something he hadn’t done for years, but did to be with us), we all moved downstairs from the Great Hall and began talking together around small tables or in small circles of chairs in all parts of the lobby.

From the Great Hall stage Edward and I had posed two questions to prompt conversation:

  • Was this election a symptom of something fundamentally broken in U.S. politics, in our economy, in our basic social structures?
  • Now that the election is over: what should concerned, engaged citizens do?

Most conversations were among four to six people, a few tables held more. As part of his opening remarks, Edward encouraged everyone to sit with people they didn’t know. From a quick glance around the lobby, I noticed that couples I knew had indeed split up and sat at different tables. Generations mixed. One person in each group volunteered to take notes.

The energy around the tables was palpable, and many people told me afterward how grateful they were to have had this chance to talk. One man said, “This isn’t what I expected, but sign me up.” Scattered through the notes, I found comments like, “It’s time to stand up and engage physically.” Or, “This is new to me, I want to be helping more.” “Complacency must end!” “We need to re-energize; it’s time to become an activist again.” “We can’t get used to this!” The chance to connect, face-to-face, mattered.

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Summary report

We collected over 30 sets of notes. In addition to being surprised at how legible and long most of them were, I was struck by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the focus was on the second question, not the first – on what we should do.

Following is a report on what happened. There is no way to adequately summarize all the observations, insights, and ideas that were captured in over 60 pages of hand-written notes. What’s below feels like a shorthand outline that only skims the surface. In most cases, comments are direct quotes from the notes.  If you’d rather read the summary as a Word file, you can download it here.

In part because the upcoming Penny U focuses on practical steps we can take, the summary sticks primarily to the question of what we should do. Our aim is that the summary will provide a useful beginning point for the small groups that will form on Sunday. Comments have been grouped in two ways: specific areas of focus for our action and the kinds of actions we can take regardless of the specific focus. None of them are insignificant, they all matter. It’s also important to understand that no single one of us can cover all the bases. Many comments in the notes echoed this one: “Pick one issue and do it really hard.” Or, as Barbara Kingsolver said,

Trump changed everything. Now everything counts.*


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Penny U summary: table conversations
What should a concerned citizen do?

AREAS OF FOCUS / SPHERES OF ACTION

Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume

  • Use difference sources of news, “choose your news”
  • Get outside own technological bubble; read The Big Sort, learn how much we’re “sorted”
  • Figure out how to fight inaccurate/false information, fight fake news
  • Identify biases in news sources
  • Learn how money and advertising control the news
  • Support nonprofit journalism, support free media, subscribe to a paper
  • Don’t let media “normalize” Trump, it’s unacceptable
  • Learn what’s going on internationally
  • Be aware of how social media filters the news
  • Get after media to broadcast positive messages & education
  • How can we change the national conversation?

Protect individual and civil rights/fight racism, sexism, LGBTQ bashing, and more

  • Help people feel safe
  • Stand up for/with people of color, LGBTQ
  • How do we address prejudice & hatred? How do we respond to bullies?
  • Protest against policies that promote hate & violate rights
  • Fight white supremacy
  • Address anti-choice movement
  • Daily acts of kindness to people who look different from you.
  • How do we have meaningful conversation about race with all sides heard & respected?
  • Can we use our privilege to give others a place at the table?
  • Share truths & articles on racism
  • Intentionally engage diverse people
  • Provide sponsorship & funding to immigrants
  • Fight misogyny, classism
  • Create a venue for people’s anger
  • Speak up whenever there’s a hate crime
  • Speak up if someone is being harassed

Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side”

  • Build relationships with people, not just around politics
  • Bridge gap between eastern and western Washington, reach out, ask their views
  • Speak about our values, find empathy
  • Read books written for “the other side.” Connect with family/fiscal conservatives. How?
  • How can we engage people who voted for Trump? Read The Art of the Deal
  • Don’t demonize Trump supporters, target his team/administration.
  • Make ourselves open to the “other side,” allow ourselves to be uncomfortable
  • Can we have non-emotional conversations, with people holding opposite opinions?
  • Listen deeply, not to advance own agenda but to understand
  • What are culturally relevant ways to approach them?
  • Hold as many of these conversations face-to-face as possible
  • Understand the role of economics, and the needs of the economically disenfranchised; since the 1980s there has been mass impoverishment
  • Listen to other viewpoints, have conversations with people you wouldn’t usually speak to
  • Onus is on us to start the conversation. Listen to labor
  • Learn source of the fear that defined this election, learn about their pain, anger, mistrust
  • Ask “why?” We need to have these discussions.
  • Understand the “enemy” – the fear, disenfranchisement, longing for the way things were.
  • Understand the root causes of fear. Share your fear for what may happen.
  • Volunteering time can often further understanding better than direct, abrupt conversation
  • Connect across all lines, identify common ground, get out of our bubble. How?
  • Work against class divisions
  • Get a pen pal in a red state, tell your story

Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process

  • Work to change the electoral college system. It is a big part of the problem.
  • Change the electoral college process at a state level
  • Why don’t more people vote? Work to get more people to vote next time. Recruit youth
  • Fight gerrymandering. The 2018 election is crucial for redistricting.
  • The National Popular Vote needs to pass
  • Increase understanding of our political & electoral process–example, ex-cons can vote
  • Hold forums for candidates to express views
  • Advocate for rank voting
  • Fight Citizens United
  • Ask, are we still a democracy? Audit our system.
  • Set term limits
  • Fight for voters’ rights

Bolster the Democratic Party and communicate with current legislative bodies

  • Support & communicate with our own officials, representatives
  • Become active in the local Democratic Party to refocus on labor rights, access to education, economic opportunity, tax fairness; attend district meetings
  • Reshape the Democratic Party, co-opt the party’s need to rebrand itself
  • Crowdsource the research that politicians need.
  • We need a dynamic “change” candidate
  • Advocate for legislation to reduce economic inequality & to improve access to education
  • Write your member of congress, personally
  • Talk to state legislators, call and write. Do we want them to stalemate on specific issues?
  • Run for office
  • Support Democrats’ efforts to raise minimum wage
  • Work on the NEXT election in two years.
  • We need to transform Congress

Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure

  • Traditional political action alone is not sufficient.
  • Two-party system is tribal. It doesn’t facilitate coalition-building
  • The two-party system silences anyone not part of the system
  • Why do we have essentially only two parties? Consider third parties.

Educate ourselves/improve our education system

  • Understand U.S. politics first
  • Engage young people in high school
  • “Democracy is only as good as an educated citizenry”
  • Broaden our historical narrative
  • Increase education on policy and politics
  • Learn how to politely debate around difficult conversations
  • Also educate elders and parents
  • Make presentations at schools, and provide resources to teachers
  • Teach children about tolerance, to be tolerant
  • Bring back civics as a required course

Be part of actions around specific issues. Many causes are interconnected.

  • Protect the environment, address climate change
  • Environmental degradation is an assault on human rights
  • Immigration
  • Abortion rights

Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific efforts

  • Talk with each other. “If we can’t talk to each other, nothing can get accomplished”
  • Stoke the fire with like-minded individuals. Host political meet-ups, Swedish “study circle.” Include young children. Bring dialogue back to America.
  • Help “move fear into political courage”
  • Get “offline” conversations going, create safe spaces for dissent
  • Engage in nuanced conversations
  • Have facilitated conversations with people on the other side of the aisle
  • Our fundamental values & institutions will decay if we can’t have discourse

Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement

  • Develop overall coordination of many different efforts
  • Expand the choir, bring more people to activism, we need action on multiple fronts
  • “Politicize” liberals rather than convert Trump supporters
  • Figure out how to have a more cohesive movement
  • How do we make this movement “smarter”? and more disciplined
  • How do we engage as many people as possible & still maintain cohesion?
  • What are the big ideas that could be shared?
  • We haven’t developed a message. We need to be consistent. Focus & sharpen?
  • Learn basic strategies of movement building
  • Name the commonalities; tension among us is not pathological
  • Could this be a time of optimism?
  • How can a progressive umbrella be inclusive going forward?
  • We need goals & vision, we need more critical thinking and respectful deliberation
  • Keep attending events like this, keep hosting them, bring young people to them
  • Create a digest or resource for “what to do”
  • We should learn how the 30-year-long, right-wing, conservative movement got strong; it was a long-term, disciplined, multi-pronged strategy.
  • Expect this to be a 15-year fight
  • Engage in Transformational Activism”
  • Rebuild the public sector / civil society / sense of the common good.

KINDS OF ACTION regardless of the specific focus or sphere of action

Protest – In one form or another, this was mentioned a lot

  • Demonstrations, boycotts, rallies, songs
  • Piggy-back on existing forms of congregation (churches, schools, etc.)
  • Peacefully make it known that hate is not acceptable
  • Turn a march into a message
  • Show up, just show up, bring friends
  • Speak up
  • Backup protestors in simple ways (I’ll bail you out, feed your cat)
  • Boycott companies that support Trump (list by Shawn King)
  • Movements, like Occupy, need to be more organized
  • Pete Seeger

DonateCame up over and over as a response

  • “When in doubt, donate”
  • Donate to organizations and causes we believe in
  • Host events to raise money for groups that are helping people
  • Host a “booth fair” for these organizations.

VolunteerVolunteering came up repeatedly as a way to respond

  • Find one cause/fight, and put yourself behind it. (said in various ways)
  • We each need to focus on our cause.

Organize – at neighborhood level, at national level, internationally

  • Such as, in neighborhoods meet neighbors, organize block watches, coordinate donations, politicize little libraries

Take personal actionMany items under specific causes are also personal actions

  • Question your previous assumptions
  • Protect your online identity
  • Put a family member on your bank account in case you’re arrested protesting
  • Look at our own “shadow self,” “what is my inner D Trump?”
  • Take little actions, something small and doable
  • Don’t slide back into complacency
  • Become activist again
  • Fuel yourself with positive, accurate information. Confrontation is not the answer.
  • Watch your conversations online; there’s no anonymity there
  • Vote, participate
  • We can’t feel it’s so bad that we can give up.
  • Stay focused, fight personal sense of hopelessness.
  • Figure out what will sustain you in your activism

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* Barbara Kingsolver, “Donald Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016.

 


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Figuring it out: post-election Penny U

On Tuesday, November 15, 2016, a week after the election, Penny U (short for Penny University) hosted a community conversation at Town Hall Seattle titled, “Post-election: What’s Next?” Congressman Jim McDermott joined Edward Wolcher and me, Penny U’s co-organizers, to set the stage for a conversation that followed. Our aim was to bring people together to discuss how we, the people in our country, can move forward from the deep divisions and extreme rancor of this election and the long campaign cycle that preceded it.

We announced that, in usual Penny U fashion, we would begin with introductory comments and then pose questions to prompt discussion in small groups. Our aim was to encourage everyone who came to participate, in the belief that if we are going to figure out a future we want, it’ll take all of us.

Conversations at small tables, we said, would revolve around these questions;

  • Was the election year a symptom of something fundamentally broken in U.S. politics, in our economy, in our basic social structures?
  • Now that the election is over, what should concerned, engaged citizens and residents do?

My invitation to friends and to an email list I usually save to announce new blog additions  included the following reflections. Subsequent posts will report on what happened at Penny U.

Figuring it out

November 12, 2016

The ground shifted on election night and still seemed to be moving when I went out to walk on Wednesday morning. I saw others, alone and walking slowly, looking dazed. I imagined they were doing what I was – testing my balance, trying to understand what happened, and wanting to figure out what to do next.

By the afternoon, I noticed conversations had begun, among neighbors, in the coffee shop, in ones and twos and small groups of friends, with strangers on the sidewalk. In fact, in the past three days I’ve had more kind and open exchanges with strangers than I usually have in a month. And I’m not the only one. For Aviva, my much-loved stepdaughter, it’s the “random hugs” that stand out. For Divina who cuts my hair, it’s the warmer than usual greeting from the burley man behind the auto repair desk. I’m reminded of the “paradises built in hell,” the communities that arise in disaster, that Rebecca Solnit writes about.

While much more is part of the mix – anger, fear, anxiety, disorientation, the shock of realizing how much we don’t know or understand – the need to connect is powerful. Beyond meeting this basic need, conversations I’ve had have almost always been threaded through with a desire to figure out what to do next. What can I do? What can we do? Where do we go next?

Penny U asks, what’s next? what do you think?

Many news stories and opinions, insightful and angry perspectives, background stories, proposals and demands, accusations, and aspirations can help but also overwhelm us. (I’ve included a list of a few references and short quotes from a fairly random few that have come my way here). It can be hard to sort out what we ourselves think. Not all of us spend time on a stage, and most of us aren’t the first to jump to the mic at a post-talk Q&A. But I’m convinced we all have a lived wisdom that would be valuable if we share it. Acknowledging and engaging with our differences is valuable.

Penny U gives us each a chance to try out our ideas in small groups. We’ll ask someone at each small table to collect a few notes so some of the thoughts and ideas in these discussions can be gathered up and shared back to us later. I look forward to the task of pulling those ideas together.

Our efforts are reinforced by this thought from Henry Mintzberg, management writer and theorist:

Radical renewal will have to begin here, in communities on the ground, with groups of people who exhibit the inclination, independence, and resourcefulness to tackle difficult problems head on.


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