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.

We must fight to protect democracy in a digital age. – Lucy Bernholz

Lucy Bernholz is a self-professed “philanthropy wonk.” Among other things she is currently director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. For the past eight years, I’ve worked with her as editor and “co-conspirator” of an annual monograph. Lucy’s “Blueprint” series is a forecast for philanthropy and the social economy about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. Each year, she identifies big ideas that matter for the coming year and offers a series of annual predictions and critical developments to watch in the future (“glimpses”) .

From the start Lucy has written primarily for readers engaged in the worlds of philanthropy, nonprofits, and social investing. Over the years, though, I’ve increasingly found that what I learn from her informs my thinking and my actions in many ways and is useful way beyond my direct involvement in these fields. So I’m eager to share some of her ideas through excerpts from the most recent Philanthropy and Social Economy: Blueprint 2017, originally published in December 2016. What follows is most of the introduction, a short passage from “Glimpses of the Future,” and a sobering excerpt from her conclusion. At the end of the excerpts, you’ll find more information as well as links that allow you to follow her thinking.

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From the Introduction…

“We must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves.”

Paradoxes abound. Some global indices show democracy on the rise around the globe, while other measures stress that spaces for civil society are closing. Since democracy depends on civil society, it’s hard to know how both can be true.1  In another head- scratcher, a year that was defined by the politics of lies also saw
an increase in the systemic faith in data and algorithmic analysis as guides to a better future. Resolution of these paradoxes comes down to human action—we must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves. We must interrogate and make understandable the digital tools and data we use to make decisions, as they are simply encoded versions of our values.

Some truths hold. I spent part of 2016 working with the incredible artists behind the award-winning documentary Big Sonia. The film tells the story of an immigrant in Kansas City. She survived the holocaust, living through and being liberated from three Nazi concentration camps. She raises a family, survives economic changes that redraw the map in her Midwestern suburb, and only in her last decade begins to share her life story publicly. I won’t tell you more—go see the film. But here’s how lasting truths work.

The filmmakers worked for years, and as every artist or author knows, timing a release is tricky business. As it happened, Big Sonia premiered on the big screen on Wednesday, November 9, the day after the U.S. presidential election. Sonia, aged 91, was there. Her story—of
 resisting fascism; of surviving state-sponsored deportation, incarceration, and cultural destruction; of running a business through economic good times and collapse; and of always standing against the forces of hatred—resonated with amplified power on that particular day. But the story—and its truths—are timeless.

“I believe in democracy, and when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.”

I did everything I could as an organizer, a voter, and a citizen to bring about a different outcome to the U.S. presidential election. I disagree completely with the candidate and winning coalition’s proposed economic, healthcare, security, and foreign policy proposals. I am scared by and motivated against their language, behavior, supporters, and proposals regarding immigrants, people of faith, people of color, LGBT people, and women. Economic inequality is the problem, but it cannot be fixed by social and political injustice. I believe in democracy, and, when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.

I am telling you this because I don’t just think about civil society in democracies; my life depends on it. This was true before the U.S. election and will be true long after I stop publishing. That I can publish these words without fear of recrimination from my government is precisely the strength of the system. If I am recriminated against, or if others turn away from these words because I’ve expressed these differences, then that is both the future I fear and the one I write to prevent.

During the U.S presidential campaign, candidates from both major parties faced intense public scrutiny for their charitable activities. This exemplifies an issue—the blurring boundary between politics and philanthropy—that I’ve written about for years in this series and which boiled over in 2016. Similarly, both campaigns were defined by their digital practices—one by a reliance on Twitter and the other by a reliance on private email servers. The summer of 2016 showed us that governments that promise unhackable security will come to regret it (I’m looking at you, Australian census bureau and U.S. Democratic National Committee).

The vulnerability of our election technologies to digital malfeasance makes us wonder if the core act of voting is safe and reliable. There are historical antecedents that can guide us in these times (see Big Sonia, above), but our dependence on digital systems and the ways in which they facilitate both freedom and control, expression and censorship, surveillance and new economic powers is what we face anew.

“We are all digitally dependent now.”

Some might yearn for the pre-digital days of politics, when we didn’t worry about email hacks, server security, or social media campaigns. Those days are gone forever. When we stop and catch our breath, we realize this is true also of civil society. We are all digitally dependent now. This offers opportunity and risk, risk that extends beyond cybersecurity. Our digital dependence shapes the nature of data our nonprofits and foundations collect and what they do with it. It explains why new policy environments—from intellectual property law to telecommunications regulations—now determine who can participate, where, when, and at what cost. And it makes 
it ever more important to question our core assumptions about what resources we use for social good, how we exchange them, how we will pay for this work, and who will benefit.

This is the eighth annual Blueprint. I’ve spent 
the year learning with colleagues in the U.S., Australia, Austria, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden. For several years I’ve been arguing that civil society and philanthropy must “assume digital.” The information we gather, store, and exchange electronically and the networks we use to do so are now an integrated part of the way civil society functions. Working internationally 
is a wonderful way to experience the breadth, depth, and diversity that this dependence takes.

Our digital networks are global, but the knotted mess of national and international regulations on everything from free speech to fundraising forced me to check my own assumptions and biases in each region. What is a nonprofit? What qualifies as philanthropic? Who regulates? What roles do co-ops, impact investing, online giving, text messaging, broadband, open source software, and philanthropy play in this setting? My effort to find answers to these questions informs the way I understand digital civil society, the social economy, and philanthropy in 2017.

From “Glimpses of the Future” . . .

“Digital space can be as closed as it can be open.”

Most discussion of social media, the internet, digital infrastructure, and data in the social sector—at least in wealthy democracies— emphasizes its “democratizing” nature and the ways in which it changes gatekeepers, amplifies voices, and enables mobilization. This is not the whole story, nor is it inevitable. Digital space can be as closed as it can be open. To keep civil society alive in digital spaces, we must change our assumptions about and our usage of the digital infrastructure. Small subgroups of civil society actors have long been trying to shape and protect digital rules and systems, whether that means fighting for broadband access or protecting people’s right to know when the companies they work with have their servers hacked. This now must become the fight for all of civil society, before the space closes and cannot be reopened.

From the Conclusion . . .

“Our dependence on digital data changes civil society.”

The very nature of civil society is changed by our dependence on digital data. The set of rights that civil society depends upon—free expression, free association, and the right to privacy—remain the same. But they manifest differently on Facebook than in the town commons of old.2 The relationships between national laws and norms matter more than ever before because of our global digital systems.

We cannot continue to act as if adapting our “analog” practices to digital resources will work. Digital data don’t work the way that time and money do. Digital infrastructure is not the same place as Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. We need to create—collectively and urgently—new software code, new organizational practices, and new legal requirements if civil society is to continue to thrive in the digital age.

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 Footnotes

1  Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “Civil Society, Party Institutionalization and Democratic Breakdown in the Interwar Period,” University of Gothenburg, Working Paper, Series 2016: 24, The Varieties of Democracy Institute. Available online here.

2  See Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.

Blueprint 2017 is published in partnership with GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center. The monograph can be downloaded for free here.

Blueprint 2017 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-noncommercial-noderivs 2.5 license.

Keeping up with Lucy

The best way to follow Lucy’s thinking is on her blog, Philanthropy2173. Subscriptions are free. Two good posts to check out are: “Civil Society Now,” November 11, 2016 and “Not in my name (or my email or mobile number),” January 14, 2017.

Previous years’ Blueprints can be downloaded at grantcraft.org or lucybernholz.com/books.

Information about Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab can be found here.
The Lab begins a description of itself this way: “The rapid adoption of digital tools for social and political action has resulted in a complicated new sphere we refer to as digital civil society. Digital civil society includes all the ways people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in a digital age.”


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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.


The “power supply” for change

Against today’s backdrop of one tragic news story after another, I constantly ask myself what we can learn from events around us and how we can find ways to move forward to something better. Several speakers at Town Hall Seattle recently offered both specific and distressing insights into the state of our economy and our democracy, but the same speakers also expressed hope for the future, hopes that lie in similar places.

Robert Reich believes that with knowledge, people could ally themselves to form a new “countervailing power” — “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.” He also places hope, he said, in young people who surround him in his teaching and who are interested in public service, to which the young African American woman standing next to me responded by smiling widely and nodding vigorously.

In their talk, Robert McChesney and John Nichols told us that what’s needed to make the necessary structural change in our political economy is “an army of aroused and informed citizens.” The “power supply” for change, they said, is “the great mass of Americans, many of them already active, many more ready to be engaged.” “There is only us,” they say in the introduction to their book, People Get Ready. “We the people are the only force that can make a future worthy of our hopes and our humanity.”

As a first step in sharing my own response, I offer the following piece, written a few years ago. Its connection to the challenges identified by Reich, Nichols, and McChesney may seem like a stretch, but in part it’s about breaking down an impression I hear again and again, the sense that everyone, especially young people, are just holed up, wearing head phones, staring at their screens, unconnected to other, live, breathing human beings. In the piece I ask whether an active culture of conversations with a purpose and a new sense of the commons can play a role in creating this “countervailing power” and “army of aroused and informed citizens.”

Written in 2013, the piece was part of “Get up!” – my contribution to “Chamber Music,” an exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. “Get up!” had several parts: a wall piece, historical documents for “the living library,” and a series of conversations and new writings. This was one of the writings and a theme of a conversation.


 

A gossip chair at the Frye
A gossip chair at the Frye

Conversation, gossip, and the commons

Positioned in the middle of the Chamber Music exhibition*  is a three-armed, specially designed and built piece of museum furniture. The inspiration for it is the pinwheel-shaped, antique “gossip chair” long found at the Frye that suggests the gallery was meant for talking, not just solitary contemplation. Similarly this contemporary, extra-large version of a “gossip chair” proposes conversation as an integral part of the show. With this inclusion, the show itself reflects a trait curator Scott Lawrimore sought in the artists included: it both celebrates “individual mark making” and offers an opportunity to strengthen community ties among all who show up – artists and others. Built into the big chair’s arms are benches for sitting and cubbies for artists’ materials designed to spark ideas, conversation, and maybe even gossip.

Chamber Music, exhibition at the Frye Art Museum

Lately I’ve been intrigued by how often I hear or read about yet another conversation, and more than that, about another series of conversations or gatherings with some intention or focus. I know that this observation could be affected by the phenomenon that causes us to start seeing red cars everywhere once a red car is called to our attention. But the sense of being surrounded by the desire for conversation feels bigger than that.

Names of specific gatherings come to mind, some more formal than others and all in Seattle: Art Klatch, What’s Up?, John Boylan’s Conversations (which recently took “conversation” itself as a topic), Thirsty Thursday, Poetry Potluck, Civic Cocktails, Think & Drink, Canoe Social Club, Penny U, Melting Seattle, Transpartisan Salon on Art & Creativity, Geeks Who Drink, Thought Shop, Cheap Wine & Poetry, Conversations on Creative Aging, Soup Salon, City Table, Table Talk, One Pot, Aging Your Way Gatherings, Conversations that Matter, and more. We’ve also recently seen the rise here of “co-working spaces” and the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance – seventeen co-working spaces including the Hub Seattle, Makers, and Office Nomads. All this is set against a backdrop of book and movie clubs, all kinds of meet-ups, “communities of practice,” and civic and business breakfast clubs. While not discounting the role of digital forums or the possibilities of interaction between digital and live exchange, my interest here is in-person, face-to-face exchange, gatherings with focus and intention. And, of course, it doesn’t even begin to include all the Seattle activist groups organized with specific causes in mind.

A few names given to conversations in other places or at other times include the Back Room (Portland), Creative Mornings (Vancouver), Philosophers’ Café (Vancouver), Zócalo Public Square (Los Angeles), and the Long Table of artist Lois Weaver, as well as more structured versions like National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, Fierce Conversation (a kind of career counseling), and a real favorite of mine, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.

This country’s history is full of gatherings with a purpose, from town hall meetings, quilting bees, camp meetings, and barn raisings to the voluntary associations and free expression that Alexis de Toqueville identified as being at the root of American democracy when he visited in the 1830s. Longer ago, Scottish coffeehouse culture in the 1600s is credited with establishing key foundations of civil society, and, farther back still, the Lyceum in ancient Greece was a place for philosophers such as Aristotle, who engaged students in cooperative research and walked as he taught.

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Over the years, I’ve wanted to understand the concept of “the commons” as part of searching for whether and where we can find common ground today. I’m interested both by what the concept of the commons has meant historically and where we find versions of it in our lives today. One of the best short descriptions I’ve found is from Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess. “Commons,” they write, “is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people.” They say:

Historically, in Europe, “commons” were shared agricultural fields, grazing lands, and forests that were, over a period of 500 years, enclosed with communal rights being withdrawn by landowners and the state.

Historically, in the United States, “commons” has most often referred to shared spaces that allow for free speech and the democratic process…The U.S.-type commons underscores the importance of shared spaces and shared knowledge in fostering viable democratic societies.

A friend and colleague, Peter Pennekamp, has been actively involved with communities in northern California for over twenty years learning how people in the region come together in what he has called “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy.” Among the underlying principles of this “community democracy” is an essential requirement for community commons. “Space is necessary for a rich public life,” he writes, “space where people come together to build and experience civil society in an environment that assertively values community knowledge and where the playing field is level.” And he says:

In an era focused on private ownership and rights, such space is declining as is recognition of its value. When people speak with passion about community it is often the value of the commons that they are referring to. Community “commons” is where innovation and community change happen. It is the place where the individuals, groups, and networks that make up a community come together to spark ideas, develop agreements, and build trust for common action.

These places are essential, he says, to “countering hierarchies, static power structures, nonproductive decision-making processes, and official sources of knowledge that suppress improvement.”

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So with thoughts of Scottish coffeehouses, de Toqueville’s observations about associations and free expression, community democracy, and the commons in mind, I wonder whether all the conversations going on around us now might in some way be laying groundwork for a new or revitalized sense of the commons in our lives, or of civil society and democracy. And I don’t mean “democracy” as it’s played out through all the layers of our representative democracy, as important as those are, but rather something closer to Peter’s “living, breathing, on-the-street” democracy.

All this leads to a few comments and questions:

  • A good conversation goes beyond where you thought it would, said someone at John Boylan’s Conversation about conversation. It is an improvisation or a collaboration in which one is changed by the exchange, by listening. There’s a moment when the questions stop and the real conversation begins.
  • At the same time, John’s conversation considered almost exclusively the exchange between two, with some in the room feeling that real conversation among three or more is very difficult. So how do we come together in creative or community commons, in a group larger than two? Do some of our conversations create the “shared spaces and shared knowledge” that Ostrom and Hess claim are needed to “foster viable democratic societies”?
  • To be a “community commons” that encourages the innovation and change Peter mentions, people with different experiences and perspectives from one another must be in the mix. And differences often cause tension, something I consciously or unconsciously avoided most of my life, perhaps as a learned response in childhood. We need conversations among people with whom we share values and experience, but how well or how often do we move beyond a fairly homogeneous group? Where are opportunities for conversations in groups that are heterogeneous and prone to tension?
  • While I’m interested in conversation that isn’t monotone, I’m not convinced that the only way to avoid simply talking to ourselves is to bring in the most extreme, opposing view, though that can be invigorating. Despite today’s polarized public dialogue, things are often – or even usually – more complex and multi-faceted than can be explored through black-or-white, either/or positions and point/counterpoint debates.
  • I also doubt that many of us, on whatever side of an issue, are converted in public by a single event. Rather, understanding and change more often come over time I think, through listening and gradually letting trust grow. I’d love to know of conversations where that happens, or to work with others to establish conditions where it could.
  • Another good point made at John’s conversation is that meaningful conversation takes many forms besides talk and that, for one, the physical side of an exchange is really important. One of the best ways to build common understanding is to work together, to cook or garden together, to move or sing together – those barn raisings and quilting bees. The World Dance Party that started a few years ago in the south end of town seems much to the point, with 100-250 people of many cultures and ages coming together for an evening of “just food, dancing, and community.”

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These thoughts have drifted a long way from the art show that prompted them. Considering the context – that is, an arts exhibition – makes me wonder whether my perspective on the commons and conversation and gossip is affected by a life spent at least partly immersed in the arts and also by some understanding of myself as an artist, an identity this show has encouraged me to consider again. Artists certainly know something of gossip, and conversations are all around us. But how are we, or could we be, part of establishing living, breathing community commons as vital, collaborative forms?

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And referring back to the 2016 introduction to this writing, what kind of role can we play in creating an “army of aroused and informed citizens”? How do we add to the power supply for change? 


*   More information about the exhibition Chamber Music is here. And elsewhere on this site I’ve posted another essay I wrote as part of the exhibition, “Am I an artist?” where I give a little more background on the show.


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Raucous Caucuses and Imaginary Needs

Montauk & Orcas w-stars

Two conferences about creative support for artists

We had some brunch, then we had some lunch,
Then we talked some more until we tired.

We cursed and we swore, then we talked some more,
Following the shoals of salmon.

A stanza excerpted from “The Orcas Anthem”
Based on music & lyrics from “Shoals of Herring” by Ewan MacColl
New lyrics by Terry Dimmick, written on Orcas Island, 1988

In the late 1980s, several hundred people met twice at remote locations on two islands, one on the U.S. east coast and one on the west, to consider “the creative support of the creative artist.” Sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the first conference was held in May 1986 at Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York and the second in November 1988 on Orcas Island near the Canadian border in Washington state. These two gatherings brought together artists, arts funders, and dedicated people from organizations that serve artists. For a day and a half (Montauk) or three full days (Orcas) they talked, performed, argued, ate together, played together, and tackled critical concerns within and beyond the arts. They also built life-long friendships and professional relationships and provoked questions that remain today.

I chose to be an artist. I had no choice. My parents thought I did. They said I should get a job.” – Trisha Brown, choreographer, letter to the conference 

In addition to the relationships and knowledge that remain long afterward, a physical record was also created. Participants in the Orcas conference were given custom-designed three-ring binders and received four installments of materials to fill them: commissioned papers from both conferences, background readings, conference proceedings, as well as letters and reports received from participants afterward. Complete notebooks contained almost 500 pages.

I have run a very successful small business for over 25 years. But I forgot to be paid. Well, I didn’t ‘forget’ – it would have been impossible.” Robert Ashley, composer, letter to the conference

With an interest in tracing the emergence of a national conversation about the place of artists in the system of arts support, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) commissioned me to write about these two conferences. My perspective was undoubtedly colored by the fact that not only did I attend both events, I was in the whirling center of the second as its coordinator. My essay was published in the winter 2015 issue of the GIA Reader, and it’s also posted on an archival website I created for materials generated by the two gatherings. (A link to the site is here.) My essay is one of the pieces in the archive. I’ve begun posting materials from the conference notebook – some are interesting historically, others remain pertinent today – but the going is slow because the documents don’t exist digitally. All of this happened before the widespread use of personal computers and the internet. The notebook’s table of contents is posted on the site, though, and gives a sense of what the book contains.

A valuable lesson for me from these two conferences is the importance of creating opportunities for us to connect with each other, to talk and argue together, and to feel equal as participants.

From one perspective, the experience proved to David Mendoza* how important artists are to a democracy. Living now in Indonesia, a nascent democracy, he sees how important gatherings like these could be. In retrospect, I recognize in them some traits essential to a democracy: a forum that allows all voices to be heard and one where differences can be expressed.

Long Island, New York
Long Island, New York
Orcas Island, Washington
Orcas Island, Washington

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*David Mendoza was a founder and, at the time, the first executive director of Artist Trust.


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What is the commons?

What is the commons? (1) copy

A friend wrote recently wondering if I’d written any articles or notes on my ideas about the “commons.” His question made me realize that, despite how central the concept has become to my thinking, I haven’t written much about it in a way that’s easy to share. To offer a timely reply, I put something together for him made up of excerpts from longer pieces that touched on the commons, along with a “short and sweet” description by an admired commons thinker, David Bollier.1

Despite the fact that, reflecting back on it now, I may actually have misunderstood my friend’s question, what follows here is the piece I put together quickly that day.

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Green Cuttings: Ideas to cultivate as waters rise2

This is the first part of an essay I wrote in April 2015 in anticipation of participating in a month-long residency with artists, scientists, an attorney or two, and others around the critical theme of climate change. I had the opportunity to be one of the organizers, with artists Buster Simpson and Laura Sindell, of the first Rising Waters Confab at the Rauschenberg Residency in May that year.3 (A second Rising Waters Confab is planned for May 2016.) Each of the three of us wrote an introduction to some of the questions we expected to pursue during the month. This began my contribution. – Anne

“The good appears not by proclamation but by conversation.” Lewis Hyde’s words from Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership capture something of my hope for the Rising Waters Confab.4  His book tells the story of the commons with a focus on the cultural commons. What I’m learning about the commons, both from him and others, gives me a framework that both guides how I imagine a healthy environmental future and, for me, provides a missing piece of the puzzle for how we’ll get there.

The commons is both an ancient and contemporary way of managing shared resources, such as water and air, creative and intellectual ideas, and scientific discoveries. I suspect that we won’t get far toward creating a more sustainable future unless we develop a stronger commitment to the commons and find ways to operate beyond just market and government spheres.

Hyde-Bollier descrip (2)

In reaching for that future, the commons “cannot be achieved by individual decision making alone; rather, it is created and sustained by common action,” says Bruce Sievers, another commons thinker I admire. Our Rising Waters Confab – and the meals, offsite adventures, play, and work we do together – may be a way to create our own commons and find “the good.” In addition to whatever else we do collectively, the conversation can itself be a valuable kind of common action.

The Commons

Lately I’ve been reading Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons by David Bollier.5  With Hyde’s Common as Air; Sievers’s Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the Fate of the Commons;and my work with Peter Pennekamp on the Community Democracy Workshop,7 Bollier’s writing has inspired me to find ways to bring the commons into my thinking, writing, conversations, and daily life. More recently I’ve discovered a relatively new book by Bollier and Burns Weston, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons.8  While I haven’t read the book yet, I like their series of essays based on it, published by CSRwire, the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire.9

Here’s an excerpt from one of the essays.

We believe that one of the most compelling, long-term strategies for dealing with the structural causes of our many ecological crises is to create and recognize legally, alternative systems of provisioning and governance. Fortunately, such an alternative general paradigm already exists.

 It’s called the commons.

 The commons in its broadest sense is a system of stewardship of shared resources. A commons is not run by government or businesses; the goal is not to maximize production or profit. A commons is a defined community of commoners who act as a conscientious trustee of given resources. They ensure that the land or water or fish is shared equitably among those who need it for their everyday needs.

I’m encouraged by my growing mental image of how a commons (and “green governance”) functions, where commons have existed in history, where they’re found now, and how they might interact with the economic and political systems of government and the market (in what Michael Bauwens refers to as a “triarchy”). But how in the world do we get from here to there?

to manage natural systems (19)

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The commons as an option

This is an excerpt from a different essay.10  It was prompted by my involvement with Common Field, a newly-formed network that connects and serves experimental artist-centered organizations and organizers across the country.11  The founding members have engaged in an active discussion of how to think about the organizational form the network itself could take. Much of my essay discusses Common Field fairly specifically. The excerpt here comes toward the beginning. – Anne

Besides the structure of a formal nonprofit institution, other structures are available. Lately, I’ve been learning about the commons as another way to manage and govern resources, and, here, “resources” should be understood broadly, as natural resources like water and air or intangible resources like ideas, knowledge, and imagination. Whether the commons works as a pattern or form for Common Field is unclear right now, but the opportunity to try it out is intriguing. And, of course there’s the shared name.

So I offer a short description of the commons, a few of its principles, and some brief examples. I certainly can’t cover the ideas in much detail here; it’s a huge field of study with thousands of functioning examples. Maybe there’ll be just enough here to see whether the idea fits and is worth taking further.

In a search for a succinct description of a commons, I turn to David Bollier – an author and activist who has spent many years exploring the commons as a model for economics, politics, and culture. He has this to say:

In essence, the commons is about reclaiming and sharing resources that belong to everyone, and it is about building new social and institutional systems for managing those resources in equitable, sustainable ways.

 Although the commons is also an ancient form, Bollier stresses that it’s “a living reality.” Around the world, “people are managing forests, fisheries, irrigation water, urban spaces, creative works, knowledge, and much else as commons.”

collectively owned wealth (5)

A one-sentence definition of the commons from Bollier is one that I keep going back to: “The commons is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.” It’s a definition that makes more sense the more I learn.

The commons has many manifestations and definitions. There is no standard model for what a commons looks like. Each one runs in its own particular way, and across the world the commons takes thousands of forms. Though it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, there are a few principles that allow a commons to be effective and reliable.

A key set of principles for the commons was described by Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work on the commons. Her life’s work showed that commons are viable, sustainable social systems for managing collective resources. A few of her principles are:

  • A commons must have clearly defined boundaries, for both the resource and the membership.
  • Collectively, the people of a commons must be able to develop their own rules and protocols for managing the resource.
  • They must also be able to devise systems to monitor how the resource is used and to identify and punish people who violate the rules.

Some of the places in today’s world where Bollier identifies active commons include: Traditional communities in Africa have developed their own “bio-cultural protocols” to help legally defend their lands and ways of life from neoliberal trade policies. Lobster fishers in Maine work together to ensure that no one over-harvests lobsters in a given bay. Community-Supported Agriculture farms and permaculture communities blend their agricultural practices and social ethics with the imperatives of the land. There are land trusts and community forests, and urban gardens and the Slow Food movement. The much newer digital world has spawned many commons. Examples range from Linux and thousands of free, open-source software programs to the burgeoning world of more than 10,000 open-access scholarly journals, whose articles are freely available in perpetuity and not restricted by paywalls or strict copyright control.

One of my favorite examples is Wikipedia, where information is the resource that’s managed and, as it states on the policy page of its website: “Wikipedia policies and guidelines are developed by the community to describe best practices, clarify principles, resolve conflicts, and otherwise further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia.” I especially appreciate the spirit of its guidelines in this sentence: “Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.”

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Finally, because I so often refer to his writings, here’s a short description of the commons by David Bollier, from his website. – Anne

The Commons, Short and Sweet12

David Bollier
Fri, 07/15/2011 – 01:26

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I have copied below.  I think it gets to the nub of things.

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.  Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

There is no master inventory of commons because a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.

The commons is not a resource.  It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.  Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.  Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied.  And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons.  The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun.  A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is the enclosure of the commons, the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain.  Enclosure can be seen in the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace, among many other enclosures

Enclosure is about dispossession.  It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian co-production and co-governance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies).  Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life; for any commons, however, these are indispensable.

The classic commons are small-scale and focused on natural resources; an estimated two billion people depend upon commons of forests, fisheries, water, wildlife and other natural resources for their everyday subsistence.  But the contemporary struggle of commoners is to find new structures of law, institutional form and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources fro m market enclosure.

New commons forms and practices are needed at all levels – local, regional, national and global – and there is a need for new types of federation among commoners and linkages between different tiers of commons.  Trans-national commons are especially needed to help align governance with ecological realities and serve as a force for reconciliation across political boundaries.  Thus to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture.  All of these will manifest a very different worldview than now prevails in established governance systems, particularly those of the State and Market.

Bollier, short descrip (4)

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Notes

  1. David Bollier’s blog, “News and perspectives on the commons” can be found here.
  1. Anne Focke, “Green Cuttings: Ideas to Cultivate as Waters Rise,” Rising Waters Confab I blog, April 14, 2015.
  1. Rising Waters Confab I, the report.
  1. Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010
  1. David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons, New Society Publishers, 2014
  1. Bruce Sievers, Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the Fate of the Commons, University Press of New England, 2010
  1. Community Democracy Workshop, works to improve the practices of democracy for problem-solving in and by the communities where people live. Its brand-new website is here.
  1. David Bollier and Burns Weston, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  1. A link to all of the essays by Bollier-Weston on CSRwire can be found here.
  1. Common Field – Finding a Form,” commissioned and published by Temporary Art Review, November 23, 201.
  1. Common Field website is here.
  1. David Bollier, “The Commons Short and Sweet,” News and Perspectives on the Commons, July 15, 2011.

Graphics note: The images included here are three in a series of 25 prints that I produced in the studio at the Rauschenberg Residency during the first Rising Waters Confab. Robert Rauschenberg worked in this studio for the last 40 years of his life. The originals are 13×40 inches.


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Zuckerberg’s billions – politics, investing, and charity

It’s time for us, as a polis, to revisit the mechanisms that distinguish politics, investing, and charity, the values we ascribe to each, and the boundaries that define them.1

Lucy Bernholz, self-described “philanthropy wonk,”2 wrote this in a short piece about the initial way the press covered the announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced the Initiative on December 1 last year in a letter to their newborn daughter, Max.3 In the letter, they pledged to give to this Initiative 99% of their Facebook shares over their lifetime, currently estimated to be worth $45 billion. The mission of the initiative, they said, is “to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation.” Their initial areas of focus, they said, “will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people, and building strong communities.”

Chan & Zuckerberg

The big news – in the philanthropic world, at least – is that the initiative will not be a charity despite its stated intention to do good in the world. It will be a limited liability corporation, or LLC. The Initiative’s Facebook page said, “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s configuration gives it the freedom and funding to take big swings at the causes of humanity’s troubles.”

On Facebook, Zuckerberg discussed the decision to use an LLC: “This enables us to pursue our mission by funding nonprofit organizations, making private investments, and participating in policy debates.” He also stressed that, since the new venture is an LLC, putting their money there does not give them any tax benefits.

At the same time, a piece by Suzanne Wooley on BloombergBusiness makes some of the benefits of an LLC clear and suggests ways that the LLC form determines what the Initiative can do.4  1) There won’t be limits on advocacy and lobbying. 2) The Initiative can turn a profit, though that’s not the aim, Zuckerberg says. 3) It will be easier to do joint ventures with for-profit companies. And 4) it avoids the requirement, placed on a nonprofit foundation, that at least 5% of its value be given away each year. In addition, Zuckerberg is CEO of the new Initiative, meaning, as Kurt Wagner put it on <RE/CODE>, “…Zuckerberg can spend his billions wherever he wants.”5

And, now, I come round again to the quote from Lucy Bernholz that I started with. Right after the quote I used, she goes on to say:

Using all three tools [charity, investing, and politics] may be strategically advantageous to donors. But democracies may have good reason to not allow these activities to become interchangeable even as they may be complementary. If we believe there are differences between political activity and charitable giving – for example, if we think one should be transparent and the other has room for anonymity – we need to protect those distinctions.

The blurring of lines between charity, politics, and investing can have some upsides, but the results brought about by those who’ve been doing it for a long time should give us pause. It’s the systems and rules about these activities that need fixing. And that’s up to us.

In addition to suggesting that we understand the distinctions between the mechanisms of and the boundaries defining these three worlds, Lucy asks us to consider the “values we ascribe to each.” Thinking especially about how the three realms differ from each other in terms of their values calls to mind a framework I’ve carried with me since the mid-1990s. It’s one I adopted from Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, published in 1992.6

In this book, Jacobs first identifies two different ways of getting a living, that is, of surviving – trading and guardianship. She calls them “syndromes.” Trading includes the whole commercial, profitmaking world of people who trade or produce for trade. Guardians, on the other hand, traditionally were hunter-gatherers, raiders, and warriors who survived by taking (also meaning, as I understand it, by taxing). Today, guardians are also involved in protecting territory and resources, not just taking them. Among others, the state in its various forms, governmental agencies, legislatures, the police, and many religious organizations are guardians.

Jacobs book crop

In her book, Jacobs contends that each of the syndromes has its own set of morals – manners, customs, mores, and social sanctions that provide systems of informal social regulation. The morals in the commercial syndrome include, among others: be honest, respect contracts, compete, come to voluntary agreements, shun force, use initiative and enterprise, be efficient, promote comfort, collaborate easily with strangers, be thrifty, be optimistic. The guardian syndrome, on the other hand, includes morals such as: shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, be loyal, respect hierarchy, show fortitude, take vengeance, make rich use of leisure, be fatalistic, treasure honor.

What really grabbed my attention was that, as Jacobs presented them, the two sets are not interchangeable. Qualities found in one syndrome are not appropriate in the other. Beyond simply their differences, she believed that the two syndromes, while interdependent, must function separately. In fact, she said, “Crazy things happen systematically when either moral syndrome…embraces functions inappropriate to it.” This can lead to “systemic corruption” and to what she called, “monstrous hybrids.”

In notes to myself at the time, I wrote, “The idea that different moral standards apply in different circumstances is powerful. We live, it seems, with an underlying assumption that a single moral standard should apply throughout. It would be so much cleaner and easier that way. But the argument for different moral syndromes rings true.” However, I immediately went on to say, “I’m convinced that two are not enough. Gifts and gift exchange are missing.” After making lists of morals for all three, I wrote, “My guess is that gifts and voluntary efforts may be an invisible but essential partner of trading, and maybe taking, too – both need gifts, just as trading needs guardians and vice versa.”

So many more thoughts race through my mind as I write, but for now, I’ll just go back to Lucy’s call that we revisit the mechanisms that distinguish politics (the guardian), investing (the trader), and charity (the gift giver) and that we consider the values we ascribe to each and the boundaries that define them.

_Venn adds 2 crop

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Notes

  1.  Lucy Bernholz, “What if the headline had read . . . ,” Medium, January 12, 2016.
  2. Digital Civil Society Lab: People, “Lucy Bernholz.” 
  3. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, “A Letter to Our Daughter,” December 1, 2015.
  4. Suzanne Wooley, “Four Reasons the Facebook Fortune Is Going Into an LLC” BloombergBusiness, December 2, 2016.
  5. Kurt Wagner, “Mark Zuckerberg Responds to Critics, Explains Where His Money Is Going,” <RE/CODE>, December 3, 2015.
  6. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, Random House, 1992.

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Common Field – Finding a Form


How do groups of people who come together around a shared purpose organize themselves? The purpose might be to hold an annual community feast and holiday celebration, or to exchange knowledge about how low-income communities can gain more control of their own futures, or to manage a common resource like a cooperatively-owned apartment building. It can seem that only a few organizational structures are available, and, indeed, it often makes sense to fit our activity into commonly-used legal or financial frameworks. But doing so can also seem to require the twists of a contortionist,  take huge amounts of energy, or risk losing the original purpose. Are there more choices?

I recently had a chance to consider this question when the Temporary Art Review invited me to write an essay in response to a gathering that brought together artist-centered spaces, organizations, and organizers from across the country. The meeting I attended was one of three that operated under the name “Hand-in-Glove.” The three together have generated momentum for a new national network called Common Field. 

As I reflected on my experience at the gathering and on the emergence of the network, I was impressed by the struggle and soul searching around what form Common Field should take. This questioning triggered my essay in which I consider whether the ancient form of the Commons might be a useful organizing framework. The essay, “Finding a Form,” was published on November 23, 2015 and can be found at the Temporary Art Review here and also below.


Finding a Form

On site HIG photo


Common Field
is a new network connecting the visual arts organizing field – experimental, noncommercial contemporary arts organizations and independent organizers in the US and beyond. It broadcast its official launch across the internet by email and social media, and invited broad membership on November 5, 2015. The network recognized itself and came to life through three national gatherings, all presented under the name, “Hand-in-Glove” – 2011 in Chicago, 2013 in New Orleans, and 2015 in Minneapolis. Common Field was officially launched at HIG in 2015, and this became both the third HIG and the first annual convening of Common Field.

In mid-2015 I was invited to serve on the Common Field Council, which gave me the chance to attend the event in Minneapolis. Although plans for the network were well underway by the time I got involved, I’ve had the opportunity to witness and participate modestly in its formation.

A caveat before proceeding: My focus here is the organizational form of Common Field because these forms are one of my own obsessions. Much more can be and is being said about Common Field, both the convening and the network – about the art and the people, about the purpose and content that makes the form even worth considering. Of course, purpose and content should resonate with form, each giving rise to and informing the other over time.

-Anne Focke

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Our desire was to support “a process and practice that is decentralized, non-hierarchical, rooted in trust, and committed to the support of new and vulnerable practices.”     

– Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson
Lead organizers, Hand-in-Glove 2015

Like other groups in my life right now, Common Field struggles to find or articulate its form. Is Common Field an organization? A network? A process? An organizing platform? An idea? What form would be most useful? What form does it have already, or even what form did it have before it was “Common Field”?

Before I dig more into its form, I borrow something about who Common Field is from Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, lead organizers for Hand-in-Glove 2015. With HIG, they said, they wanted to reach a field that encompasses “alternative, experimental, noncommercial, unidentified, under-recognized, radical, tenuous, precarious, resistant, vital, emergent, artist-centric, artist-run, artist-led spaces and organizations, projects and practices, ideas and commitments.”  It’s a field full of commonalities and differences, testing its boundaries, trying out its various relationships, and beginning to see itself in new ways.

However its form is defined – network, platform, organization – Common Field knows, collectively and intuitively, that it encompasses an energetic field of people and organizations that resonate with each other, even while bristling at some of each other’s unspoken assumptions. Everyone who attended HIG in Minneapolis saw, heard, and felt the presence of that field, powerfully. At times, attempts were made to articulate what it is we hold in common and how we want to hold it.

The nature of Common Field’s form is clearly on the minds of the people who have been its main stewards so far, but everyone in attendance at HIG was encouraged to consider what shape it should take, both in a session set aside for this purpose and throughout all three days. In a welcome to the whole group on the first evening, Common Field co-directors Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman told us that Common Field aspires to be “a network that suits our times – one that is experimental, includes both the emerging and the established, is held together with common threads, and is easily collaborative and inclusive.” Many discussions and questions about that aspiration were raised during the course of our time together.

What is this field? What do we share? What are our self-definitions? What I heard at HIG was usually full of ambiguity and questions. The “field” is hard to define, which is both a strength and a weakness. How can Common Field reach and include people outside formal nonprofits – collectives, informal groups, artist projects, social ventures, commercial entities? Can the structure we create be fluid rather than institutional? What’s the balance between sufficient management and letting the energy find its own shape? And, how can we balance the value of leadership with the desire for decentralized power?

The need to push back against or move beyond the institutional systems and structures available to us was palpable. I could also hear it in the desire for a light-weight structure that can shift and move easily, one that is more horizontal, inclusive, and collective. Common Field itself is not incorporated at this point, but operates as a fiscally-sponsored project, which for some makes it feel less pinned down, less constrained. “We want simple structures that engender trust.”

All the while, of course, in the world at large, a debate is being waged about whether power should rest with government or with the market. Many are beginning to express the belief that these two don’t offer enough choices and that we need new systems. This search for options is certainly not exclusive to the arts or to artists’ worlds.

The commons as an option

Other systems are available. Lately, I’ve been learning about the commons as another way to manage and govern resources, and, here, “resources” should be understood broadly, as natural resources like water and air or intangible resources like ideas, knowledge, and imagination. Whether the commons works as a pattern or form for Common Field is unclear right now, but the opportunity to try it out is intriguing. And, of course there’s the shared name.

So I offer a short description of the commons, a few of its principles, and some brief examples. I can’t cover the ideas in much detail here; it’s a huge field of study with thousands of functioning examples. Maybe there’ll be just enough here to see whether the idea fits and is worth taking further.

In a search for a succinct description of a commons, I turn to David Bollier – an author and activist who has spent many years exploring the commons as a model for economics, politics, and culture. He has this to say:

In essence, the commons is about reclaiming and sharing resources that belong to everyone, and it is about building new social and institutional systems for managing those resources in equitable, sustainable ways.

Although the commons is also an ancient form, Bollier stresses that it’s “a living reality.” Around the world, “people are managing forests, fisheries, irrigation water, urban spaces, creative works, knowledge, and much else as commons.”

A one-sentence definition of the commons from Bollier is one that I keep going back to: “The commons is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.” It’s a definition that makes more sense the more I learn.

The commons has many manifestations and definitions. There is no standard model for what a commons looks like. Each one runs in its own particular way, and across the world the commons takes thousands of forms. Though it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, there are a few principles that allow a commons to be effective and reliable.

A key set of principles for the commons was described by Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work on the commons. Her life’s work showed that commons are viable, sustainable social systems for managing collective resources. A few of her principles are:

A commons must have clearly defined boundaries, for both the resource and the membership.

Collectively, the people of a commons must be able to develop their own rules and protocols for managing the resource. 

They must also be able to devise systems to monitor how the resource is used and to identify and punish people who violate the rules.

A few of the places in today’s world where Bollier identifies active commons include: Traditional communities in Africa have developed their own “bio-cultural protocols” to help legally defend their lands and ways of life from neoliberal trade policies. Lobster fishers in Maine work together to ensure that no one over-harvests lobsters in a given bay. Community-Supported Agriculture farms and permaculture communities blend their agricultural practices and social ethics with the imperatives of the land. There are land trusts and community forests, and urban gardens and the Slow Food movement. The much newer digital world has spawned many commons. Examples range from Linux and thousands of free, open-source software programs to the burgeoning world of more than 10,000 open-access scholarly journals, whose articles are freely available in perpetuity and not restricted by paywalls or strict copyright control.

One of my favorite examples is Wikipedia, where information is the resource that’s managed and, as it states on the policy page of its website: “Wikipedia policies and guidelines are developed by the community to describe best practices, clarify principles, resolve conflicts, and otherwise further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia.” I especially appreciate the spirit of its guidelines in this sentence: “Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.”

Why might Common Field think of itself as a commons?

Common Field already has some of the characteristics of a commons. David Bollier’s one-sentence definition provides helpful starting points.

A commons manages a resource. Common Field has a valuable resource in the knowledge and experience of its members, in their desire to be engaged and to share what they know, and in the imagination they bring to their work. It has a community that feels ownership of it – its members, council, co-directors, and probably its funders and supporters as well, The space that connects us is also a resource. A HIG panelist, Sam Gould, proposed that “we need spaces between ourselves where we can recognize each other and then look outside ourselves.” And at the end of the conference, Satinsky said to Kloecker, “we need to do something with this energy that’s emerging.” So they quickly worked together “to create an open space for small, unpredictable, urgent conversations” on the final day. Continuation of this kind of open space is also a resource that deserves careful management.

A commons has defined boundaries. The most recently circulated (10/5/15) description of Common Field says it connects “the visual arts organizing field,” that is, “organizations and organizers who do this unusual, hybrid, often under-the-radar work.” The community could also be defined by the lively list of adjectives in Kloecker and Matteson’s description early in this essay.

So far, the boundary defining Common Field’s membership is loose. The question of who is included was raised regularly during Hand-in-Glove and in small conversations during, before, and afterward. I repeatedly heard an argument for being inclusive. Steve Dietz, on the opening night said, “Monocultures are death.” And Martha Wilson, a Council member noted, “We need a discourse around difference, we need to navigate with differences.” In a post-conference letter to Common Field’s Council, Kloecker and Matteson wrote, among other things, of an underlying weakness of the field: “the people in this room do not represent the whole” and in many ways are homogenous – majority white, urban, college-educated, and so on. Their strong belief is that the whole is larger than those represented so far. In putting together the HIG program, they wrote, “Our best aspiration was to hold open that emergent space – that non-hierarchical, transparent space, committed to its values, open to changing, vulnerable, and aware of its own power and privilege.” In this, they propose a major challenge, and it’s one that’s all about boundaries.

A commons has protocols and rules. The protocols, rules, and sanctions that the members of a commons develop are sometimes formalized in written documents; other times they’re maintained through trust. But regardless of the form the rules take and how they’re enforced, commons are governed by a system of community-created rules. The importance of rules was suggested when Dietz said, using slightly different language, “Powerful platforms are agnostic, but they are not free-for-alls.”

How are free-for-alls avoided? How do the protocols of any specific commons develop? As I understand it so far, people start by talking with each other. They build relationships and trust. Over time they negotiate rules to protect community interests. They build systems to identify and punish “free riders.” They cultivate cultural values and norms. It takes time.

My sense is that there are already common interests that Common Field holds and eventually might identify and protect through its own protocols, but these haven’t yet developed. As an intentional entity, Common Field is just beginning to recognize itself.

Protocols and rules might develop around answers to questions like these: How are the boundaries of membership drawn to be as diverse and dynamic as the field is, while still being finite? How are they enforced? What are the boundaries? How does the work get done? It takes real work to hold a network or platform together; the work is often invisible, but things fall apart without it. What are the terms of working together? What are rights and responsibilities of members, Council members, co-directors?

How might Common Field move forward as a commons?

An initial step might simply be for Common Field to reinforce and strengthen its commons-like traits, and to not too quickly adopt organizational assumptions from the market. All the questioning of institutions and structure that I heard in Minneapolis seems healthy in this regard. It’s good to remember, though, that there’s no “pure” model of a commons. Common Fields needs some of what the market offers, an income stream, for instance. Like most commons, it would probably evolve as a kind of hybrid. As Dylan Miner, HIG panelist, put it: “We have to push back on the oppressive systems we have now. We have to both address the practical need to live within the systems that exist and also re-imagine new ways to live.”

We can assume that the way forward won’t be clear. Like any other commons, this one would not be the same as others. “It’s OK not to have the answer, to show our vulnerabilities,” as Kloecker and Matteson said. “As a field we’re ready to embrace a lack of clarity.” Complex Movements of Detroit talked of both grounding their work in stories and in relationships and knowing that the narrative of revolutionary movements is complex. In the same discussion, Rosten Woo said that with his work he aims to “make it legible and visible” and “make it complicated.”

Developing as a commons won’t necessarily be any easier than adopting any other form of governance. It will require making new assumptions and will take time to nurture and work to maintain. Once we get the hang of it, though, it may be more familiar than we think.

• • • 

Whether or not the idea of the commons makes sense as a pattern for an emerging “common field,” I find it a useful lens when I look at the disarray of our current economic, social, and governing systems. Using what I know of the commons has been helpful at specific times when I’m trying to figure out which of several actions to take. Some of why the commons does this for me is captured by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč excerpted from a statement for the opening of an installation in The Hague, “The Commons”:

I see The Commons as a new platform for addressing and reinventing what was called ‘public’ in the modernist period, during the postwar efforts to construct the social state. The old ‘public’ paradigm clearly does not work in our current neoliberal times. Public space, for instance, is being extensively privatized. For me, the current interest in The Commons reflects people’s desire and demand for a new social contract, a new citizenship.

A coda and thanks

First, I’m grateful to the Temporary Art Review for giving me the chance to try out ideas of the commons in the context of Common Field, a very real entity in the process of forming itself. And I thank everyone involved in Common Field for giving me the opportunity to play a part in its formation.

As we edited this piece, I was happy to discover that the commons was already much in the minds of both James McAnally, executive editor of Temporary Art Review, and of Common Field’s co-directors, Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman. In an email exchange, Stephanie raised many pertinent questions that go beyond what I could cover in this essay, but which should provoke much thought in the future: Can we understand the commons on a deeper conceptual level? How do the values and systems hold everyone in check and ensure that the commons serves the best interests of the field? How is “trust” defined here and what is its role? How do we respond to questions about “the tragedy of the commons”? With Common Field in mind, what are the practicalities of managing a commons? What structures do commons use to survive in our world today?

This isn’t the end of the conversation, and forums to discuss questions like these about the commons and Common Field’s form will continue. In a forthcoming issue of Art Journal, the context and birth of Common Field will be explored from multiple viewpoints, including an essay by James on the idea of “the common” in the life and future of Common Field. As with all commons, ours must be negotiated and defined, which will take time and many different voices to set its boundaries and shape its form.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

A few resources


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Private Resources for Public Good: An annual forecast from Lucy Bernholz

“How do we carry the core purpose of civil society into the digital age?”

“As we return to an era in which more than half of full time workers may be freelancing, the systems of social supports are going to have to change.”

“Perhaps more people’s working lives will begin to look like those of independent artists and less like life-term nonprofit corporate climbing.”

“If the economy is undergoing fundamental shifts, what role do we want nonprofits, foundations, and other social economy actors to play?”

Excerpts, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016
Lucy Bernholz

photo of Lucy

These are all quotes from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016, by Lucy Bernholz. I offer them to suggest the range of topics covered in her latest annual forecast for people working in and interested in philanthropy and the social economy.

Every December for the past seven years, Lucy, a self-professed philanthropy wonk*, has written a forecast for philanthropy and the social economy – that is, the economy that uses private resources for public good. She provides insight into big ideas that will matter in the coming year, makes specific predictions for 2016, identifies buzzwords that will likely come into prominence, and offers glimpses into deeper concerns she sees coming over the horizon. She packs a lot into the forecast’s 24 pages. I’ve had the good fortune to work with her since the publication was just an idea. In general terms, my role is as sounding board, clarifier, and editor.

The latest installment, Blueprint 2016: Philanthropy and the Social Economy (link below), was published just last week by GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center. For the past six years, Lucy has been pushing her readers to expand their understanding of the social economy beyond just nonprofits and charitable giving to include a wider world that includes social enterprises (B Corporations, L3Cs), online alliances, social impact investing, informal networks, and political activism. She has also been a consistent voice urging greater awareness of our “digital civil society,” in other words, the ways we use our private resources for public benefit in the digital age.

blueprint_2016_fina            blueprint_2015cover

Last year’s Blueprint 2015 contained sections that provide a great summary of both the social economy and digital civil society. Especially if you’re not familiar with Lucy’s thinking or with these concepts, I highly recommend it. The Blueprints may be annual forecasts, but their value extends considerably beyond a single year.

The structure of work

Working with Lucy always teaches me a lot, and this year I was especially excited because one of the two big ideas she urges us to watch next year has also been on my mind: the structure of work. She considers how work is changing and how these changes apply to philanthropy and the social economy. She says:

The coming year is shaping up to see the issues of workers’ rights, wages, and income inequality raised to the level of national and regional political topics. It’s time to consider how the changing workplace and its impact on lives and communities influences nonprofits, foundations, and civil society.

She considers research on the impact of advances in robotics and automation. She mentions scholars and activists focused on inequality and on increasing wages for the lowest-paid workers. She provides statistics that support the conclusion that “almost half of us – with or without smartphone apps and the rhetoric of the ‘gig’ economy – are working by the project or one-off opportunity whether we recognize it or not.” We’re freelancers and part-time or temporary workers.

She emphasizes that, as we enter an era in which more than half of full-time workers may be freelancers, the systems of social supports (from social security to health care, taxes, childcare, and retirement funds) are going to have to change. Having spent almost all my working life as this kind of worker, I wholeheartedly agree.

One approach to revising – or reforming – our system of social supports was the topic of discussion in a different setting, a recent conversation at Seattle’s Town Hall, organized by Edward Wolcher and me under the series title, Penny U. The discussion revolved around the establishment of a minimum basic income – an idea championed by Martin Luther King, conservative economist F.A. Hayek, and Robert Reich.

Artists’ work

In Lucy’s Blueprint 2016, I especially appreciate that she includes artists in her thinking. The following two passages among others, appear in this issue:

Some of civil society has operated as a ‘gig economy’ for a long time. In particular, artists and activists have often spent their entire lives weaving in and out of ‘regular jobs,’ doing their work independently and as part of institutions.

Even if only a handful of the predictions being made about the future of work are accurate, many more of us, not just artists, are likely to need the skills of designing our own work lives as hybrid part-time workers and self-employed entrepreneurs rather than just taking full-time jobs defined by others.

And more

The 2016 Blueprint investigates and provokes questions about many other related topics. The short quotes I use to start this piece only begin to suggest the range of compelling topics and themes covered. Rather than spend any more time summarizing them, I simply suggest that you go to GrantCraft’s site (links below), download your own copy, and read the original.

Here are a few more quotes to tempt you:

“Given all the changes in the nature of employment, the spread of automation, and the fluctuating value of data, we’re bound to see new enterprise forms.”

“We need to develop governance models, organizational norms, and new policies for digital civil society.”

“We need to understand and adapt the ways data and algorithms are used to shape public policy.”

“In today’s online environment, the less data collected, the safer the individual.”

“What does a social sector characterized by networks, distributed governance, and greater rates of spending look like compared to what we know now?”

 


* Lucy Bernholz has worked in, consulted to, and written about philanthropy and the social economy since 1990. Now she is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and works at the Digital Civil Society Lab, which is part of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS). Her blog is titled “Philanthropy 2173, on Twitter she’s known as @p2173, and she posts most of her articles, speeches, and presentations online at www.lucybernholz.com.

References

•   Read the press release for Blueprint 2016 here.
•   Download Blueprint 2016 here.
•   Download Blueprint 2015 here.
•   Connect with Lucy’s blog, Philanthropy 2173 here.
•   Find more about the Digital Civil Society Lab here.


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