In December last year (2021), an essay I wrote, “Collectively Imagining a More Just World,” was published by the Polity of Literature on ArtsEverywhere.com. The editor’s introduction and the first few pages of the essay itself are included below. On the essay’s title page, the Polity of Literature offers this brief summary:
Travis Ray ComesLast committed a terrible crime, but what should happen next? Stories of injury and stories of repair involve us all. We must tell and receive these stories collectively.
The commission to write the essay gave me the freedom to follow the story wherever it took me, and the pandemic gave me time. The story takes a winding path with many side trips along the way as it follows two main characters who were also my principal collaborators in learning and writing. Their words are often incorporated directly.
Travis Ray ComesLast, Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux, has been in prison since he was twenty and so far has served twenty-five years of a fifty-one year sentence. He’s no longer the person he was when he entered prison. Recently he wrote, “Changing my life is a way of showing remorse, taking responsibility, and making amends.”
Heather Dew Oaksen is a filmmaker who has known Travis since 1994 when she taught video skills at Green Hill School, a maximum security juvenile detention center. Their friendship has continued and grown since then. Heather spearheads a team of supporters who are fighting for Travis’s freedom.
Above all, Travis’s trust was fundamental to my ability to tell this story, and Heather’s high spirits and willingness to engage in the nitty gritty details were essential.
My third main collaborator, Polity of Literature editor Matthew Stadler, offered me the opportunity to write, engaged with me in the ideas I took on, and showed me in new ways that writing and reading are fundamentally a collective process. I encourage you to check out both the Polity of Literature series and the ArtsEverywhere site.
The introduction and first section of “Collectively Imagining a More Just World” follow. The full essay is here.
Travis Ray ComesLast, an Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux tribal member, grew up near Spokane, Washington. After a chaotic childhood he committed a series of increasingly serious crimes, later explaining to a friend, “I got into as much trouble as possible one day trying to get arrested ’cause I knew that if I did I would get help, and since I didn’t know how to ask for help, that was my way to get help.”
By the time he was an adult a conviction for killing a man had put him in the Washington state prison system for more than fifty years. He would live and possibly die as a prisoner.The system that put him there, the state justice system, cast his imprisonment as compensation for the horrible injury he caused his victim and his victim’s family—a-life-for-a-life being the logical conclusion of a system predicated on an-eye-for-an-eye. Now Travis is forty-five-years old. The victim’s family is still aggrieved; the daughter who never had a father growing up is living with the life-long impact of that loss. And Travis, an entirely changed man in his head and heart, will live most of his life, perhaps even die, as a prisoner.
In the 1990s Travis told his story to a young filmmaker, Heather Dew Oaksen. Over the next decade Oaksen began telling Travis’ story, and the stories of other prisoners, through her films. Anne Focke, in her second piece for the Polity of Literature series, tells the story she learned from Heather’s films and from Travis himself after she joined a team of supporters Oaksen gathered to help Travis in his effort to regain his freedom.
Whose story is this? How should it be told, and by whom? Literature is collective, always. It exists only among writers and readers and never in solitude. Literature displaces solitude by bringing us into the collective space of writing and reading. As such, it is a powerful means for justice, which like its inverse, injustice, is always and only a collective condition.
Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts—the trees and fungi and people—are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution—our success as a productive society—is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive.
— Suzanne Simard in The Mother Tree
This story is not about forests directly, but it benefits from what we, in human societies, can learn from forests. As I write, I want to learn how or whether the many related but disparate people and activities I come across can work together toward something new and larger. Can they become like healthy soil, with mycelia, fungi, mycorrhizal networks, tree rootlets, all feeding and influencing each other? How does this mesh grow thicker and stronger? How can it become visible and, over time, undo or take apart and break down large, seemingly permanent structures and institutions and then grow new ones, like fungal fruiting bodies, to provide nutrition to new or ancient seedlings? New narratives will be needed for this and perhaps are already being created by collectively imagining new futures.
My story begins with a single thread, a single path through the ecosystem of the story. I start with one individual, Travis Ray ComesLast.
I came across an article in the Spokesman Review by Colin Tiernan… it was a story entitled “All These Children Matter”…actually made front page! It was a story about the unmarked graves of the children found at some boarding schools and the affects it has had on Native Peoples. It spoke about intergenerational-trauma, PTSD and secondary PTSD resulting from the atrocities experienced at the schools. Reading the stories made me cry… its sad and frustrating!
I couldn’t help but remember all the stories my mom would tell me of her experience at boarding school and the thought of how much the affects had on my upbringing? I wonder what if she would of felt safe enough to teach me and my siblings our traditional ways and language… would I of made better choices, did the trauma [she] experienced at boarding school deprive me of a fair equal opportunity at life? How many and to what extent did the boarding school traumas have on Native Americans? Experts say the trauma has been passed on from generation to generation, even to the extent its in our DNA!! Had my mom not attended boarding school would I be in prison??
I just know much of what keeps me in place today and made me the man I am today is the traditional ways of my people. The story shed some light on what Indians have been saying… it validates what we been knowing all along! I encourage you to read the article.
An email sent by Travis Ray ComesLast from Airway Heights Corrections Center, to a friend, Heather Dew Oaksen, August 2021
Travis Ray ComesLast, Assiniboine-Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux, is in his twenty-fifth year of incarceration for a murder committed when he had just turned twenty. He will be seventy-four when he finally completes his court-mandated sentence of fifty-one years. Born in 1976 in Spokane Washington, Travis speaks of himself as having felt abandoned as a child, reports Heather Dew Oaksen, a friend of mine as well as Travis’. He grew up in the midst of constant disruption and violence. His father was in prison and his mother mostly absent. An alcoholic for most of her life, his mother, Sharon, would disappear for long stretches of time.
Travis has three siblings, Heather told me, and so many half-siblings she lost track of the number. “I never really knew my biological father,” Travis told her years later. “He was in and out of prison all my life! My earliest memories with him are all bad… giving me beer in the little half beer cans they use to sell, hitting my mom, and going on a high-speed chase with him and my uncles. In the middle of the chase, they dropped me off on the side of the street and told me to go home… dirt was all around me from the car racing down a side road. Asking my mom about this years later she said I wasn’t even two years of age when it happened.”
The extended family is large and sprawling—a stepfather, the stepfather’s brother, aunts and uncles, and many other familial and tribal connections in the Spokane area. What I know of Travis’ early years are the stories he tells. Others have surely had similar childhoods, even if I have not. I repeat the stories that Travis tells because I want to show him as he sees himself. As a five-year-old, an aunt took Travis in and cared for him at her home, which she also ran as a house of prostitution. Travis made easy friends with “all the ladies,” and at some point, they gave him a few quarters for candy. When the news of this exchange got around, the ruling pimp exploded in anger and fired gunshots at the closet where Travis was hiding. Even in this near-parentless context, Heather said, as Travis got older, he followed his aunt’s example and was constantly trying to take care of his younger siblings and his mom. At about age 17, after his three siblings were taken in by relatives, he was left alone in a house with no electricity. “I spiraled out of control after this,” he said. “I got into as much trouble as possible one day trying to get arrested cause I knew that if I did, I would get help, and since I didn’t know how to ask for help, that was my way to get help.”
This family life had a lasting impact that shows in the lives of Travis and his siblings today. A younger brother, Kenneth, is in prison for a double murder he committed at age 15. While an older brother is doing pretty well, his sister suffers from addiction and has multiple children by different fathers. Most of his half-siblings are in jail. “There is much history in the ComesLast name,” Heather told me recently, “and it continues to hold Travis back.”
Even while living in this home environment, Travis learned of his Indigenous culture and was proud of his Sioux heritage. He’d been taught by his stepdad and that side of the family—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends of the family. They had a drum group called Spokane Falls and travelled around the area performing. He said recently that what he knew of his culture he learned through the drum and singing and dancing. From age eight to thirteen, this kept him out of trouble. He even had his own regalia. At one point, though, the family gave away the drum and all the regalia, collected over years from various relatives. This had a terrible impact. “It changed the dynamic of the family,” Travis said. The family lost its centre, and he began his own downward spiral. Speaking to Heather in a juvenile prison, he told her: “There’s a lot of things I still don’t know about my culture. You know, I feel something in my life is being left out. I don’t feel whole. Until I know fully about my culture and all my ways, that piece of me will always be missing.”
Recently, Travis had a heart-to-heart with his mother about her boarding school experience. He wondered why she waited so long to tell her children the story. She had been reluctant to talk about it earlier, he told Heather. She wanted to forget. Her response is understandable. Stories of the abusive system of Indian Boarding Schools have filled the news over the past year or so. In 2020, the Washington State Senate adopted Resolution 8703, which acknowledges the government’s role in the abuse of Indigenous children at state-funded boarding schools. “This is part of our lives that just won’t go away,” said Tulalip tribal member John McCoy, a retired Washington state senator. McCoy went on to explain that the resolution states that between 1869 and the 1960s children at these schools “were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen as representing traditional or cultural practices, shorn of their hair, stripped of traditional clothing and all things and behaviors reflective of their native culture, and shamed for being Native American.” The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, begun in 2012 and based in Minneapolis, is launching a ten-year push toward healing, education, and advocacy. Their website quotes board member Sarah Eagle Heart saying, “Our grandmothers are just now talking about the pain they experienced in Indian Boarding Schools.” Travis’ mother is one of these grandmothers and just wanted to put the experience behind her.
As we move into the new year, I carry with me feelings of deep gratitude, while still aware of the crises our country and world face. Fueling my gratitude are memories of a “dispersed-unity” walk on Thanksgiving Day last year (2021). On that day over 125 people walked “together,” some of us around Lake Union in the middle of Seattle, others elsewhere in the city or wherever in the world they were. In preparing this post and organizing all the photos and notes the walkers sent afterward, I felt again the love and relationships their participation expressed. It gives me hope for the new year.
In Seattle we walked in memory of a friend and much loved musician, teacher, and quiet activist, Paul Taub who died in 2021. More about Paul is here. Guiding spirits for our walk each year are Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa (pictured above), said to be the last Duwamish people to live a traditional, independent lifestyle on the shore of Lake Union. We honored their historic land as we walked. More about them is here. For me, knowing their history plays a part in changing the meaning of a day reserved for giving thanks.
I’ve walked around Lake Union on what’s now called the Cheshiahud Loop Trail with friends every year since 2010. In 2020, the first of our pandemic years, we walked around the lake in masks, separately or in small groups, and invited friends across the country to take their own walks “with” us – alone but together – wherever they were. They sent photos and messages recording their walks. That “dispersed-unity mask-arade” felt so good, we’ did it again 2021.
Because we had such an amazing turnout in 2021 from many parts of the country, I’ve divided the following photo and text memories into several groups: Lake Union walkers, other walkers in the Seattle area and across Washington state, and folks who walked the wider world. Enjoy the journey!
Lake Union walkers
Nearly 30 people walked around Lake Union as part of our 2021 Thanksgiving walk. Some of us walked as a group, some walked solo or in pairs. Rain was forecast and the sky looked threatening throughout the day, but it didn’t actually rain until the final couple of miles . Most Lake Union walkers walked on Thanksgiving Day, but a few made their way around the lake on a different day but with our collective procession in mind.
The group in this photo gathered at our “traditional” photo-op stop, Waterway 15. From left to right we are Suze Woolf, Shaya Lyon, Ellen Sollod. Liz Brown, Liz’s dog pal Lily, Chris Day, Steve Price, Emily Zimmerman, Sushila K.C., Garrett Cobarr, Carolyn Trapp, Micki Lippi, Paul de Barros, Sue Dickinson, and Paul & Sue’s dog pal Rosie.
A second group photo was taken a little farther down the path, closer to our coffee shop stop. We gained a few and lost a few. Included here are: Chris Day, Emily Zimmerman, Gary Rondeau, Ellen Singer, Gary & Ellen’s dog pal Sage, Parker Lindner. Parker’s dog pal Puka (in the stroller since she can’t quite make such a long walk these days), Paul & Sue’s dog pal Rosie (checking out Puka), Paul de Barros, and Sue Dickinson. I was there in both groups phone camera in hand.
Susan Peterson and her friend Pat Cirone joined us at the south end of the lake as we headed out. At about noon, before we reached Waterway 15, Susan sent me an email: “Pat and I are going to head back. Thanks so much for inviting me! And thanks for the dedication to Paul.”
Shortly after we left the park I got this text from Shaya Lyon:
On the day before Thanksgiving, I had received an email from Alida Latham: “We will try to join you for a few blocks, depending on how my body is behaving. We will watch for you in front of our house on Fairview East. We have to be elsewhere shortly thereafter though, so just a brief bit of company.” As we made the turn shown here, a couple of us sent a quick text to Alida to alert her to our approach.
A few moments later, Alida and Christopher emerged from their home, walked into the street, and met us with a bowl of tangerines for the road. A friend who hadn’t walked with us before joked that now they’d expect treats to appear at strategic moments along the entire route. Instead, they experienced a delightful first ever!
Woody (or Woodruff T.) Sullivan and his wife Barbara walked with us for the first time as part of our 2020 dispersed-unity Thanksgiving “mask-arade” and decided to walk with us in person this year. It was wonderful to have them along. I’m sorry they didn’t show up in any of this year’s photos.
As always happens, walkers meet new friends, talk and walk together for a while in twos and threes and small groups, and then the configuration of walkers shifts and continues on in new patterns a little like leaves drifting down a stream. A good example of this motion arrived by email afterward. Suze Woolf wrote: “We enjoyed the whole time, but it was particularly lovely when we speeded up to get to know Micki Lippe and her neighbor.” Suze also sent photos:
And she annotated them: top left, “Steve Price before the Freeway/University Bridge;” top right, “Micki and I trying to do Grant Woods’ Gothic farmers;” lower center, “Mikki Lippe’s young Nepalese neighbor, Sushila.” Micki sent a follow-up note as well: “Going on that walk was one of the best things that has happened to me in a very long time. I met Garrett, who I really enjoy talking to…and then I met a man whose name I did not catch, but he was the very tall man [Steve Price]. We had such wonderful conversations… So interesting, such bright people. Sushila really had a great time also.” And to conclude, Micki asked, “Also I was wondering am I the oldest one who was there? I will be 79 in January.” Both Suze and Micki asked for each other’s contact information. I obliged happily.
A few people walked the lake that day on slightly different routes or in the opposite direction. As some of us walked counterclockwise close to the lake’s north edge, we caught a flash of bright orange moving clockwise on a trail above us. The walker’s big wave let us know it was Catharina Manchanda. She was walking on the Cheshiahud Loop Trail perhaps hoping to meet up with us. But our group had veered off that trail for a while to be as close to the lake as possible. Catharina and her family have walked with us in past years. We missed them this year but were glad to at least come close.
A few other people walked with but apart from us. The next day, Tom Corddry let us know that he and Lynn Holmes had been there on Thanksgiving.
Bonnie Swift wrote about the walk that she and Toi Sennhauser took: “I’m attaching a photo of Toi and I under the Aurora Bridge taken the day after Thanksgiving. We met at the Center for Wooden Boats and walked around the lake, which makes it about a 3-hr walk. We thought of you!”
Finally, to wrap up the Lake Union walkers’ story, as a group of us reached the coffee shop at milepoint five, the rain slowly started. From there, only two of us chose to push ahead. With coffee cups in hand, Shaya and I turned, crossed over the Fremont Bridge behind us, and completed the two miles left in the loop.
Other walkers in the Seattle area and across Washington state
Meanwhile, other dispersed-unity walkers were traipsing elsewhere around Seattle and Washington State. You can travel with them below, in more or less alphabetical order.
Edie Adams, Michael Simons, their friend Jacob, and their puppy pal, Paris Doberman, walked the area around Snoqualmie Falls
Bill Affolter, Suzie Tedesko, their son, David, and grandson Shay on David’s back. “We’re on a wet, windy but beautiful Thanksgiving walk to Iceberg Point on Lopez Island. Love this great tradition.”
In my invitation I’d written: “If you’re tied to the kitchen or otherwise not very mobile, a walk around the table or the block will do!”
Lisa Buchanan and Michael Welsch in Seattle took that suggestion to heart. The day before Lisa wrote: “I will be elbow deep in cooking dishes for that day and later we will visit our friends from Taiwan to have dinner. Will send a shot of what we’re up to sometime during the day.” Then on Thanksgiving she sent this captioned photo, “Michael playing with anchovies.”
Lyn Coffin, her son Chris, and her granddaughter Anya (who goes to Stamford, Lyn noted), “walked around a small part of Lake Washington.”
Kathy Fridstein in Port Townsend, with her husband Mark Manley and grown children Heather and Eric, wrote: “We had an active, busy and wonderful Thanksgiving weekend! The day focused on tending to the fire and cooking the turkey in our pizza oven. With Mark’s careful attention I believe this was the best turkey ever. We are so thankful that this year we could enjoy family and friends at one large table indoors for wonderful conversations and a festive meal.”
Gail Gibson and Claudia Vernia sent these notes and photos from the other side of the Cascade mountains: “Thinking of you all. Happy Thanksgiving from Snow Mountain trail, squinting in the sun.”
Marcia Iwasaki with Stan Lokting sent these notes and photos from south of Seattle: “We took our Thanksgiving walk in Lakewood this morning before the torrentials. You’re a genius to inspire us all to both appreciate nature and make tummy room for feasts to come. We are a lucky bunch to enjoy this day and to know you. Happy turkey day!”
Karen Lark in Seattle wrote: “I didn’t manage to take a photo of our walk since, as one might expect from my family, it was quite late and dark by the time we walked up and down the road. It was also POURING rain, so we each had an umbrella in hand and still got quite wet. I used an umbrella from my parent’s front porch that may belong to a neighbor, with fluted edges and a pattern of large pansies over the whole thing. When light shone through the umbrella you could see all the flowers, like my own personal stained glass window on our walk. Thought of you while we were out!”
Kazuko Nakane sent a note and photo of the walk she and Alan Lau took: “Yesterday, we were at Rose Garden next to Woodland Park. It started to rain, and we went home.”
Heather Dew Oaksen sent messages both before and after her walk with husband Greg and son Erik. The day before, she wrote: “How wonderful to participate in your annual community tradition. And, such a nice tribute to Paul. He is missed for sure. Though we can’t be with you physically on T-Day, we’ll definitely invoke your spirit and those of other walkers as we stroll in Moran State Park.”
And right after their walk she sent more: “Hello and happy day to you and other walkers. We took a wet and windy hike in Moran State Park on Orcas Island gathering Hedgehog mushrooms for dinner. Nature’s tasty treat.” The results, she wrote later, were actually a mix of chanterelles and hedgehogs.
Mary Ann Peters sent a 20-second video from her walk with Thatcher Bailey along Union Bay in Seattle. A little later she added: The “Thanksgiving walks are a beautiful thing and I’m so glad they continue. My circumstances continue to limit my intersections with people, so small is the ticket.”
I couldn’t figure out how to insert her video here, but below are stills from its beginning, middle, and end moving east to west.
Judy Piggot in West Seattle sent this note: “By the time I walked it was dark. After a heart-filling day, a walk, even a wet one, was welcome. No photo though. “
Simon Pritikin, who lives with his family in Seattle, sent this note and photo: “Hope your Lake Union walk was wonderful and made for another good Thanksgiving. Sorry we missed it but we did get a nice walk in the woods. Hope you’re doing OK through all of these pandemic and other challenges.”
I followed up with a note, wondering where Simon and his family had found such bright sun and gorgeous leaves. He replied agreeing that it was a pretty gray day in Seattle, but he thought he’d send “some liquid sunshine for intrepid walkers. The pic was from the week before in NJ! We had dinner with a friend on the Eastside so took a much less sunny hike that day.”
Charlie Rathbun sent a 14-second video, showing him and Nina Moser climbing steps with two little dogs. “99 steps,” he wrote. “Nina does it 10 times. I do 5.” I asked about the dog pals with them. “The Aussie is ours, Percy,” he said, “The little Cavapoo is Dosey, our neighbor Ann’s dog. She is the one behind the camera.”
Again, I couldn’t figure out how to add the video, so here’s a collage.
Debby Ross is a friend we met on a Thanksgiving walk several years ago. Turned out she had mutual friends with some of us and has come regularly since then … until this year. The day after Thanksgiving I ran into her walking on a sidewalk near my home. She was sorry not to have managed to join in but had us in her mind that day. I decided that was close enough.
Beth Sellars in Seattle wrote: “I imagine your Lake Union Walk was just as wonderful as always, in spite of the increasing rain. While we had a short period before the extended family arrived, I took your advice, and my son Matthew and I took my daughter, Anna (ZOOMING from Switzerland) on an hour-long neighborhood hike. It was actually quite fun and humorous as we hiked along with Anna, pointing out all the “high points” and beautiful trees in the neighborhood to Anna.
“Attached is an image I took overlooking the Locks with dog Rooster, and Matthew holding Anna in ZOOM format. Thanks for the idea, Anne…it was really fun!”
David Strand, who lives a few blocks from me in Seattle, sent these memories: “I hope the 2021 thanksgiving walk was a big success back in Seattle. Here is my evidence of my virtual participation with family and friends up in Mazama in the Methow Valley. It was a little chilly but we were buoyed by my brother’s adorable and rambunctious new puppy and a beautiful pileated woodpecker sighting.”
The whole group included David, Connor, Michaela, Aravind, Eileen, Jonah, Kira, KC, Kristi, Dana, and Erik. The solo pair is David and Connor. I forgot to get the dogs’ names.
Walkers in the wider world
The sense of connection and relationship across the city and state were amplified by the knowledge that, far and wide, others were walking with us. Notes and photos of their journeys follow, again in alphabetical order so as to avoid any other sense of hierarchy than the alphabet.
Rebecca Barnes in New Bedford, Massachusetts, wrote: “Here’s my Thanksgiving picture – before our walk! Forgot to bring my camera when we ewent out. My friends Pam and Andrea, and my dog Arty. Hope your deadlines were good ones.
Wendy Brawer, once a Seattleite, now a long-time New Yorker, participated in last year’s dispersed-unity mask-arade with a group of friends by walking along the waterfront in Long Island City. But I hadn’t heard from her this year. Then, on December 9, 2021, Wendy sent this note: “Hi! I broke my arm on Thanksgiving so have yet to walk around a body of water…but I will be in touch. doing alright thanks to my Wingman [Ray Sage].”
On Thanksgiving eve, Rebecca Cummins, who has walked with us almost every year since the beginning, wrote, “Misha and I are currently in Joshua Tree at a residency there. I will miss our annual group walk – its such a stunning tradition.” And on the day itself, she sent a photo and this note, “Documentation of my walk to Mt. Ryan, Joshua Tree, for sunrise. Hope you had an awesome walk with the crew! Missed you all!”
Aviva DeLancey (my stepdaughter), is a resident of Kansas City, Missouri, along with her family – Brian (her husband), Livia and Henry (their kids, my grandkids), and Louie (their puppy pal). Aviva sent photos and a message: “Happy Thanksgiving!! Hope you had a good walk today. We’re in the woods of Tennessee outside of a town called Goodlettsville.Going home tomorrow.Took some short walk /runs with Louie today around the property. 💗”
Gwen Demombynes reported in for herself and her husband, Patrice (Port Townsend residents): “We are still back east, heading back to the PNW on Saturday. We walked and I thought of you. These are from the sculpture trail created by David Colbert in Cornwall Bridge, CT.”
Richard Farr and Kerry Fitz-Gerald have recently moved 70 miles north of their long-time home in my neighborhood on Capitol Hill. They’re now in Anacortes not far from the ferry landing to the San Juan Islands. Richard wrote: “So sorry we missed you this Thanksgiving. We were in Alaska (my first time ever) visiting our youngest – and we did go on a hike or three in the -3F or so temps, so I attach a picture.: We also moved to Anacortes. Our new house is surrounded by forests and ocean and we’ll love it even more when we stop falling over boxes.”
My brother Karl Focke, whose home is in Austin, Texas, says, “I took my walk in Tyler TX at about noon. My walk was along the South Tyler Trail.”
Another brother Ross Focke, who walked with us last year, walked again with Beth Benjamn this year. Beth wrote of the photo they sent, “Thanksgiving walk photo – Thompson Creek Trail, Claremont, CA. I wanted a photo by the watch out for mountain lions sign.”
Judi Jennings, Louisville, Kentucky, wrote, “I made a Thanksgiving walk in solidarity with you all today. We don’t have a lake in Louisville so I walked in Cherokee Park in remembrance of the original inhabitants & also my ancestors. Here is one pic from about 5 30 today & I have one more I will forward to you. Thanks for reaching out and I loved thinking about you and Seattle happy memories and gave thanks for our friendship. ❤️❤️”
“This is me now she 74 😀. Should have said with other picture that the stream in it is Bear Grass Creek used as a pathway by Daniel Boone et al in surveying & claiming the land for white settlers in 1770s.”
Barbara Johns of Vashon Island, Washington, sent this: “Good morning, Anne and fellow walkers, and thanks for calling us together once again.
“My Thanksgiving walk was shortly after dawn at Kealakakua Bay on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It’s an area steeped in spirit and history, native and colonizer, a sacred site since ancient times and the site of Captain Cook’s “discovery” and later death. I’ve walked to the nearby heiau at dawn most mornings of our stay here, and although a short distance, it seemed an appropriate destination for Thanksgiving. This season to native Hawaiians is Makahiki, a time of renewal, and I wish to all of you the same.”
Barbara continued: “Captain Cook Monument, erected by the British in 1871, is a white speck across the bay. Requested Thanksgiving self-portrait is at base of steps to heiau platform. I continued the walk down the road and around the point, with sun now fully risen.”
Barbara notes: “Heiau means ancient temple in Hawaiian.” Thinking some of us might like some history of this place, she sent photos of historical signs. The text in them isn’t readable in this blog format, so for somewhat clearer reading I’ve added them to the backend of this site. You can find her photo of a sign about Hikiau Heiau here and one about Kamehameha here.
Peter Mahler, in Madison, Wisconsin, the day before our walk, wrote, “We [he and his wife Annette] will be at friends in the country outside Madison. We will try to take a hike for a bit to be part of the unbroken circle. Thanks to you for maintaining the tradition.” Especially since he walked with us last year, I expect that’s just what they did.
John McGuirk, whom I know from my years working with Grantmakers in the Arts, sent this photo and quick note: “Hello from our new home in Palm Springs!” More specifically, I learned later, he and Richard live in Cathedral City.
Jean McLaughlin (Penland, North Carolina) joined us in last year’s dispersed-unity walk and was with us again this year. She wrote: “Tom [Spleth] and I walked a 2 mile path near our home today and redid it later in the day with our friend Mattia Serrano who was visiting from Scotland. Hope your walk was as pleasant as ours. 50 degrees. Clear skies.” I replied telling her of Seattle weather that day. A few days later, Jean added, “Our temps dropped into the teens last night….still clear thank goodness… we took advantage of one last 50 degree day to hike the Roan Mountain to Jane Bald on Saturday…steady gusts up to 40 miles an hour…but warm and gorgeous. Love the sound of the friendships surrounding you.”
Kate Murphy, whose home is in Seattle, was in Portland with her mom for the week. She wrote: “Happy Thanksgiving Anne! A few photos… The Portland sun came out just in time for our Thanksgiving walk up Wildwood Trail in Forest Park — Wishing all a Happy Thanksgiving 🍁. Gobble Gobble, Kate and Sadie 🐾”
Maria Nordman sent a photo and a captioned, 8-second video, “Santa Monica rainbow hello from Maria.” Here are a couple of images from her video along with her photo greeting.
From Portland, Oregon, came this from Sandra Percival: “Happy Thanksgiving Anne & company! I’ll be walking a similar length walk albeit a few hours to the south of Seattle! I will be following in your footsteps and reminisce on the days of walking Lake Union in Seattle. Here’s my Portland route and favorite bridge – the Steel Bridge:”
With a virtual hug, Frances Phillips sent this from San Francisco: ‘I’m afraid that I botched this very simple assignment. I didn’t manage to take a walk on Thanksgiving Day, though I did take a lovely walk along the ocean shore in Pacifica the next day. Unfortunately, I left my phone/camera at home, so I am unable to document the event. I’ll try to do better next year!”
In fact, Frances didn’t botch anything – she took a walk, she thought of us, she sent a note. That’s good in my book! And besides, as she says, there’s always next year!
From a few hundred miles south on Thanksgiving eve, Louise Steinman let us know, “I will send you a photo when I walk around the Silver Lake reservoir or up in Griffith Park on Thanksgiving morning. (after my French lesson with a medical student living in Haiti.)” The next day she sent this greeting and photo: ‘Happy thanksgiving!!!”
From not far away, Aurora Tang sent this the day after: “Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I lost track of time and at 10pm last night realized I forgot to go on my Thanksgiving walk! But here is a photograph from today’s walk with my husband, in Los Angeles.”
Friend and high school classmate, Nancy Taylor (then Tyson) wrote a few days before Thanksgiving from her home in Hawaii to say, “Thought you might be interested in this email I received this morning as our 5 girls are coalescing around your wonderful idea!!! Tori, #3 daughter, writes this from Singapore…
“We would love to join!! It’s not a holiday here, so maybe we can walk to school ‘with’ you! If it works for everyone in all time zones we could maybe even do it at the same time!! Cam’s graduation is Friday (sadly stupid covid means it’s just being recorded. Wah wah I hate Covid) and he’s to be at school by 8 am. So the boys and I would walk over about 7:15 am our time Friday which would be Thanksgiving Thursday 6:15 pm for Tiff, 5:15 pm for Tace and Dom, and 1:15 pm for all in HI. Would that work?!”
I didn’t hear from Nancy again until about a week after the Lake Union walk. “Well — our family was almost a total failure in terms of contributions!!! We all walked ‘together’ that day (with the exception of one daughter and her family) and we were Face-Timing with 4 of the girls and, as a result — none of us remembered to take a picture!! The only picture that was taken was by the one daughter who walked earlier and was not on the call!! Here is the picture she sent! It was taken in Truckee, California. I wish we’d remembered but we didn’t and that’s that!!! But we did walk!!!!
I couldn’t resist asking if I could include everyone’s name. “Of course!!” she said. “Please include whatever you’d like! We’d be thrilled.” So, Taylor family walkers included:
Heather, Carroll, and Nancy Taylor in Kaneohe, Hawaii “you know that one!!”
Kimberly Taylor and husband Chris Rohstedt and son Marcus Rohstedt in Truckee [in the photo above]
Tori and her husband Dave McMillan and their two boys Cameron and Markham in Singapore
Tiffany Christian and her dog Petey in Williamsburg, VIrginia
Tacy Soucie in Houston. “Her husband Dom was preparing food for people in shelters at the time of our walk/talk I believe.”
Another Nancy was with us too, my cousin Nancy Walton who wrote from her home in Mullin, Texas the day before, “Rocket and I will be doing our 1 mile around 7 am central time and I’ll send a pix. Then we go to Jeff and Alyssa (newest family member) and on to Thanksgiving at her mom’s in Austin.” At about 8am central the next day, Nancy sent this: “Windy and cold here could only get rocket in picture.” And a few hours later she sent one of herself.
Janet Wright (Hoboken, New Jersey), a long-time friend of Nancy Taylor, sent an email to Nancy and me: “Thank you for this wonderful suggestion. My family and I tried to walk in solidarity, in our haphazard way, on our own timeline…I was in the hospital at the time we could have joined your walk (2pm EST) so all day long I was aching to be discharged so I could at least walk a block along the Hoboken riverfront on Thanksgiving for my wonderful family and friends and in gratitude for the diagnosis which may finally get me fully back to my best possible state of health. Brian and I managed the one block walk before I even got home from the hospital! This hopeful, unifying and spiritual activity was very meaningful to me and my family.
Aloha and Mahalo”
Ellen Ziegler (Seattle), sent memories of her walking on Maui, Hawaii with Tom DeGroot: “Hi Anne! I was in Hawaii There was not much Thanksgiving there… :+) We walked along a Thompson Road ‘up country’ in Maui, where it’s 74º instead of 84º. We thought of you walking around the lake together and were grateful for your thoughtfulness and togetherness. Here are two photos, one earlier in the day and one later.
Much love! Ellen and Tom”
When I think of all these walkers and of the relationships among us all, I also imagine the many more connections each of us has, often criss-crossing with the others. All together we make up a mighty, fine mesh. Invisible in the soil under our feet, the mycelium layer of tiny fungus tendrils connecting with each other and with plant rootlets, gives us a way to imagine our own connections.
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.
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.
If you’d like to stay informed on future efforts toward Travis’s freedom, please send a note to me or to Heather Dew Oaksen.
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 onPhilanthropy 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.
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
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.
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
Eddie S. Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves The American Soul, New York, NY: Crown Books, 2017, p. 6.
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
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
Rob Reich introduced me to this idea.
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/
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
Chiara Cordelli, The Privatized State, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.
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 here: https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/resources/blueprints
The website for the Digital Civil Society Lab is: https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/research/digital-civil-society-lab/
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.
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
“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.
“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.
— 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.
— 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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
The essay, “Artistic Freedom,” is in the GIA Newsletter, Volume 2,1 and can be downloaded here.
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.
“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.