Changing our culture of justice

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

Travis Ray ComesLast, clips from Minor Differences, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PILAMAYA‼️from TRAVIS COMESLAST

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Anne Focke

 

MY CRI DE COEUR – Lucy Bernholz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes

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

References

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

A “dispersed-unity” Thanksgiving Mask-arade

Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa, “The Last of the Few

Oh so thankful

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

Annual Thanksgiving walk route, approximately 7 miles.

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

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

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

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

LAKE UNION MASK-ARADE WALKERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catharina Manchanda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

MASK-ARADE WALKERS FROM NEAR & FAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a little later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Building a Parallel Polis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One Wish for the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

One wish for the world

Click image for video

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


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

It started with an essay about artistic freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he brought up communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

The world we know is not our only option

February 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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


Who is the public?

“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.

Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).

The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.

David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.

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

What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”

Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.

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

DAVID:  Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!

JESSICA:  It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

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

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

JESSICA:  Yeah, we need to revive this!

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

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

NOTES

Other related essays on my website include:
–  Returning to my alma mater, after half a century
–  Archaic social media – Arts Wire uncovered
–  David Mendoza: The past half century

The interview with David Mendoza by Arts Wire interns is from a 2017 podcast series titled, “AND_NOW?” To listen to the podcast, click here, and scroll down to episode 6, “Golden Horseshoe.”


Tackling the climate crisis, Penny U returns

Penny University at Town Hall invites you to join the conversation!

Tackling the Climate Crisis

Thursday, August 22, 2019, 7:30pm
The Town Hall Forum
1119 8th Ave (west entrance)
Seattle

Doors open at 6:30pm
FREE

The latest edition of Penny University asks all of us to imagine ourselves in positions of power to make radical political or economic decisions in response to the climate crisis.

Imagine that some great shock has galvanized the world at last, and made it clear that we must address climate change as an absolute emergency—every moment counts. The UN General Assembly and the Security Council have voted unanimously to convene a Climate Crisis Response Team. You’re on it. You have deep pockets and a blank slate, but very little time. How do you allocate money, attention, time, policy, and legislation? What are your top priorities? How do you trade off between mitigating damage that’s already been done, preventing new damage, and reversing the causes of damage to make it possible for the climate to improve?

Discuss, listen, and learn from one another as we envision a better world!

Edward Wolcher, Town Hall’s curator of lectures, and I created the Penny U conversation series to flip the script on a standard Town Hall event. Instead of presenting the ideas of an expert, Penny U prompts you to become a participant and explore big ideas through community conversation and popular education. This edition of these conversations has also been framed by John Boylan, Tom Corddry, Theresa Earenfight, Carolyn Law, and Warren Wilkins.

The cafe and bar will be open, cafe tables will allow talk in small groups so everyone can be heard, pens and paper will let each table capture highlights, and we’ll wrap up back together in one big conversation.

If you register (red button above), you’ll receive a “Know before you go” message containing additional information, including lists of known solutions. You can also register by going to Town Hall’s website here.

Penny U’s name is borrowed from 18th century London coffeehouses called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, people got coffee, pamphlets, the latest news and gossip, and lively conversations on politics and science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion. The low cost led to a mingling of people from all walks of life. Anyone of any social class could frequent the coffeehouses, which became associated with equality and civil society. Penny universities became safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate. More about Penny U at Town Hall here.

Many thanks to Anita H. Lehman for the picture of ravens in active conversation. You can learn more about her here.


Dad’s day with Einstein

“Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it.”

When I was a kid, it seemed like my dad had to go out of town for work every other week. I remember trooping off with my mom and four younger brothers to the San Diego airport to see him off. We’d all stand with our noses to the chain link fence, facing the wind from the propellers as Dad’s plane took off. 

Other than knowing that he worked as a physicist who studied sound traveling under water and through the earth, I knew very little about the work that took him away so often. As kids we knew that Dad worked for the military in Washington D.C during the second world war, and we knew that throughout his career with the military he remained a civilian and a scientist. We also learned that he studied explosions (sometimes up close) and that he had something to do with “top secret” projects, including one, we found out later, to test an underwater nuclear explosion in the early 1950s. It’s curious to me now that, back then, I just accepted the secrecy surrounding his work and didn’t feel compelled to learn any more details about it. 

Instead, what I remember most about my dad the scientist was the time he spent with us answering our questions and describing how things worked – what the seismograph in the corner of the dining room did, how a polaroid camera worked, how molecules and atoms were like worlds within worlds, and what forces held them all together. He was our own “Mr. Wizard” at the dinner table.He loved the process of science – coming up with a theory, testing it, finding it doesn’t work, trying another, maybe another and another, and in time finding the one that’s true. And he got special joy in seeing that click of discovery in our faces when we understood whatever he was explaining at that moment.

Another thing we knew about our dad was that he’d met Albert Einstein. The proof we had was a photograph that I’ve carried in mind since I first saw it. My brother Karl, the one of us who took after Dad and became a physicist, recently tracked down and annotated a copy of the photo for me. Taken in 1931 at Caltech where Dad got his doctorate and where Einstein was an occasional visiting professor, the picture shows a large group of faculty and grad students surrounding Einstein, the unmistakable focus of attention in the center of the front row. Also unmistakable to us was our dad in the third row right behind Einstein.

Caltech Department of Physics Faculty and Graduate Students with Einstein as a guest, October 1931

In 1959, the year I started high school, Dad accepted a position as chair of the Physics department of the then-new Harvey Mudd College. He told me he could no longer work under conditions where top military brass had the final word over technical work, regardless of their scientific knowledge. He stayed with the college until he retired in 1971 and remained active as emeritus professor until he died in 1986.

Recently, another brother, Ted, gave me a transcript of a long interview with Dad. Ted and his wife Vicki are the unofficial historians for our family. Part of a larger project titled, “Harvey Mudd College Oral History Project on the Atomic Age,” the interview was conducted in 1975 by Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Graduate School.2

At the first opportunity, I read all 167 pages of the interview. Not only did I learn more about Dad’s once “top secret” past – hinted at on the first page with a notice, “This manuscript is authorized as ‘open’” – I discovered there was more to the story of Dad and Einstein than just the gathering at Caltech.

Two-thirds of the way into the manuscript, the interviewer asked, “Al, you said you had an additional anecdote to tell about Einstein and the explosion work you had done earlier.” Dad described a time he and a colleague were sent to visit Einstein in his office at Princeton. They spent the better part of the day with him, Dad said. “We met him in the morning, had lunch with him, spent two or three hours in the afternoon, then went back to Washington.”

The interviewer asked, “How was he to converse with?”

Oh, very pleasant. Very easy, no problems. He was a remarkable person. Very retiring. To meet him on the street or talk with him, you wouldn’t have thought of him as someone with the mental power of an Einstein. He was gregarious and very much concerned with social problems, religious problems. He was really a very deeply religious person…sincerely in communication with his creator.

The interviewer then asked, “Why were you sent to meet with Einstein?”

The people at the David Taylor Model Basin [site of much of Dad’s explosion research] brought to my attention the fact that the Bureau of Ships had asked Dr. Einstein to develop a theory of ship damage resulting from non-contact underwater explosions. One of the basic principles that he used to develop his theory was the assumption that steel, under the sudden impact of a shock wave, would break in brittle fracture. Just the way glass breaks.

Now I had some data that indicated this was not strictly true. So the Bureau of Ships asked Dr. Hartmann and me to go out to Princeton and interview Dr. Einstein and give him the information we had.

So we made the trip on the 2nd of August, 1943. This was a very hot day and Einstein greeted us very pleasantly in his office, but he looked awfully hot. If you are familiar with Dr. Einstein’s pictures, there is a halo of white hair around his head, and on this particular day there was no halo. The hair was sticky with sweat and curling around his ears and around the back of his neck. He looked like a very hot and uncomfortable person.

He proceeded to tell us about his theory, and he had worked it out on a blackboard which was right behind his desk. Then, after showing it to us, he asked what the information was that we had. We had brought along some photographs of a bomb in the process of detonation. These were photographs taken at very high speed with a movie camera, and the first two or three frames showed the bomb case expanding like a rubber balloon. Now this is anything but brittle fracture.

Dr. Einstein took one look at that set of photographs and turned around and rubbed off his theory. [Laughter]  He said, “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now let’s see what we can do.” And in the process of the next five minutes, he worked out a completely new theory developing it right there on the blackboard, using the deformation of steel at first, followed by brittle fracture, which does occur.

I thought that this was one of the best examples that I have ever heard of the ability of a man, who is truly great, to say, “My theory is no good, I’ve got to start over again,” when someone brings up a fact that is contrary to the theory. Somehow, sure, Einstein is always accepted as a great man because he developed this theory and that. But to think of his ability to just scratch it, wipe the slate clean, and start over again is something that you rarely have an opportunity to see.

My brother Karl added a footnote to this story. Apparently, when Dad went to Princeton that day, he took a copy of Einstein’s textbook. After showing that Einstein’s theory was wrong, Dad asked him to sign the book, as if to honor true greatness, “See, your theory is wrong. Can I have your autograph?” The textbook is on Karl’s bookshelf.

It’s not just scientists who need the ability to say, “Oops, I’d better scratch out that idea and try again.” Can we non-scientists cultivate a similar capacity? Are we willing to shift our views given new circumstances and insights that cast doubt on our theories? The proof of error in our social, economic, and political ideas is seldom as clear-cut as a photograph demonstrating that steel can expand like a balloon. Though more difficult,  the ability to acknowledge our errors or misconceptions and make adjustments in our social and political ideas is just as crucial as is the ability to change our scientific theories.

I constantly have to fight a stubborn streak in myself that wants to be right, even when I should probably question it. And that stubbornness is not the way I like to see myself. I want to be open to hearing different, even contradictory information and being flexible enough to revise my ideas and my action. Perhaps I need to cultivate my dad’s sense of delight at the click of discovery – even if the discovery is that I’m wrong – and remember Einstein’s words: “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now, let’s see what we can do.”

“Now let’s see what we can do.”

Notes

  1. Watch Mr. Wizard was a TV program for children demonstrating the science behind ordinary things (1951–1965). 

  2. The oral history interview was recorded on three different days. This excerpt begins on page 112 of the manuscript, at the beginning of the third day, March 14, 1975. The interviewers were Enid H. Douglass, director Oral History Program, Claremont Graduate School, and John B. Rae, Professor of history, emeritus, Harvey Mudd College of Engineering.