Alice, Alzheimer’s, and special powers

“Alice Anne”

I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.

I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.

The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.

Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.

My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.

The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.

Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.

Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1

What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?

A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2

In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”

The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.

Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.

Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”

With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.

Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.

“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”

I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”

“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”

One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”

Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”

One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.”  After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”

Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.

One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.

She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”

Aliceheimer’s.

As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:

Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4  The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.

Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.

The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6

Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”

When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.

 

What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.

Notes

1  Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.

2  Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

3  Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”

4  From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.

5  George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.

6  George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018.

 


Creative Tension – Individual interests vs. the common good

The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.   

— Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831

 

 

 

Introduction

There’s a high likelihood Tocqueville’s question will never be settled definitively – not now, nearly 200 years into Toqueville’s “future,” and not two hundred years into our future. I can’t imagine a time when one group of human beings won’t be tugging another toward one of these principles and away from the other. It’s a tension that’s probably best not settled, one we should constantly question and struggle to answer in new ways.

I’ve borrowed the Toqueville quote from “Civil Society and Its Discontents,” an article by Bruce Sievers published in 2004 by Grantmakers in the Arts.1 At the time, I was co-editor of GIA’s periodical, the GIA Reader, and had the opportunity to work with Bruce on this and other pieces for the Reader. Working with him was the best introduction I could have had to the crucial role that civil society plays, or should play, in our world. Civil society, the common good, the commons, and many concepts and understandings spinning around these ideas continue to play a central role in my thinking.

The essays that Bruce wrote for GIA were among the precursors to his 2010 book, Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons.2 As it was being published, the book provided the structure for a series of five conversations I organized with friends and colleagues Wier Harman, Carol Lewis, and Ted Lord. In mid-2010 after the five sessions were over, I considered “serializing” the notes so the ideas we wrestled with in conversation could be shared with others.

To try out my plan, I drafted a few pieces intended to provide a general context, without discussing the conversations. That would come next, I thought. I only got as far as three pieces before being swept up in other work, which has been a common fate of my writing over the years. Recently, I’ve gone back to the few I wrote and to my notes from the conversations themselves, knowing that a greater understanding of civil society is at least as important now as it was then. One piece follows here, and a second, ”Can we stay in the same room?” was posted on this site earlier.

January 2018

Creative Tension
Individual interests vs. the common good

January 2011

One evening in the fall 2004, a notice slid under my apartment’s front door notifying residents that the board of my condo association had just fired the building’s live-in managers, a couple who had shared responsibility for managing and maintaining this 80-unit residential building for about ten years. They were already out of a job and a home. That day, the notice read, had been their last.

In addition, the board had decided to change the association’s long-time practice of hiring resident managers. Instead we would now contract with a commercial property management firm and, in fact, a particular company had already been selected. A central argument for the change seemed to be, in essence, “keeping up with the Joneses.” Other condominiums in our neighborhood used commercial firms; resident managers were simply unprofessional, the board’s argument went, and was probably devaluing our individual investments.

Many of us who were owners were stunned. The managers had received no notice and the board gave them ten days to move out. (Activist owners managed to extend the allotted time to a month.)

Rancor and strife erupted and prevailed openly for months. Charges of secrecy, calls for due process, accusations of inappropriate use of power were countered by claims that it was all for our own good and, besides, it was a personnel matter that had to be confidential. Concerns for maintaining the value of the property clashed with concerns for open process and justice for the managers as human beings. In one way of understanding it, upper floors (with larger apartments, higher property values, and votes that counted more) seemed pitted against we on the lower floors. Some decried the loss of democratic process and of community and shared values. The imbroglio was intense and exhausting, and the bruises continue under the surface today, six years later.

This very local turmoil in my building played out in tandem with the 2004 national presidential campaign, then in high gear – on the radio, TV, and internet, in newspapers and in discussions at work and among friends. Angry debates about the Iraq War (barely a year old), the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the PATRIOT Act, and the voting controversies and irregularities of four years earlier – all colored the campaigns. Strident claims seemed barely connected to fact.

For a few days, with the Republican convention on my kitchen radio and meetings of a rump group of disaffected condo owners in the apartment next door, I retreated to my home office to meet a publishing deadline. At the time, I was executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts and co-editor of its periodical, the GIA Reader. Much of my role as editor was essentially interactive, communicating with writers and thinkers whose ideas subsequently reached GIA members and others through the publication. Aspects of the editorial work, though, required concentration and focus; the space and time for this was often easier to find outside the office.

One of the essays I worked on at home that fall, with the backdrop of both local and national dramas, was “Civil Society and Its Discontents: Philanthropy’s Civic Mission,” by Bruce Sievers.

Sievers’ piece opened with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville (Sing Sing, 1831):

The principle of the republics of antiquity was to sacrifice private interests to the general good. In that sense one could say that they were virtuous. The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.

Later in the essay, Sievers describes what characterizes civil society and distinguishes it from both commerce and government:

[The world] we inhabit when we are acting in civil society is very different from those of other spheres of social life: the economy and the state. Each of these three worlds has its set of goals, expectations, norms, and incentives. In the economic world, we think and act as producers, consumers, and investors; in the political world, we play the roles of voters, lawmakers, and public administrators. In the world of civil society, we become community members, volunteers, and civic actors.

What particularly characterizes [civil society] is pluralism, distinctive social values, and a creative tension between individual interests and the commons. It is the sphere in which private visions of the public good play out in interaction with one another to shape the social agenda. Participating in civil society involves the pursuit of a mixture of public and private goals, of social problem-solving and individual expression.

Yikes! “Creative tension” hardly states it strongly enough. The words in the essay and the worlds I inhabited beyond my desk began to get mixed up with each other. Sievers, for instance, referred to looking within civil society “for the sources of a familiar institutional gridlock in which it becomes easy to obstruct actions aimed at achieving public purposes but extremely difficult to take positive steps forward to accomplish them.” It doesn’t take more of an institution than a small condo association to see that gridlock in action.

Later in the essay Sievers writes:

It is…the erosion of essential civic values – the steep decline in public trust, diminishing belief in the efficacy of civic action, increasing fractiousness of public debate, and diminishing bonds of common civic identity – that poses the fundamental threat and that prevents the solution of large social problems. We are back to Tocqueville and his worry about reconciling the principles of “individual well-being and the general good” in the American experiment.

Although Sievers focused on the specific role that philanthropy can play in strengthening civil society, I paid as much attention to what the essay taught me about democracy and the principles of civil society. I was struck by the thought that somehow these abstractly philosophical ideas had an essential relevance to both the immediately local and the far-reaching national debates unfolding around me. But it was as though each of the three worlds – the local, national, and theoretical – existed on parallel planes that didn’t overlap in ways I could get my mind around in a practical way.

Big ideas – like those of Tocqueville and Sievers on civil society – help me adjust my understanding of what happens on the ground where I live, but they leave me unsettled until I figure out how to adjust my actions in response to them.

Coda 

The “erosion of essential civic values” that Sievers mentions seems to be occurring at an ever faster rate. Daily…hourly…we are urged to write this congressman, show up for that action, resist another dreadful bill, proposed legislation, or executive decision. Given the rise of ever-more powerful individual interests, how do we also begin to shore up public trust, dilute the fractiousness of our public debate, and strengthen a common sense of civic identity? Without it, we stand to lose the creative tension between private interests and the general good that Tocqueville called the “pivot on which the whole machine turns.”

January 2018


Notes

1  “Civil Society and its Discontents,” Bruce R. Sievers, GIA Reader, Autumn 2004.

2  Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons, Bruce R. Sievers, University Press of New England, 2010.


Digital dependency and civil society

Our dependence on digital data and infrastructure expands both the options for civil action and the levers and forces by which it can be restricted.     
–Lucy Bernholz

Photo, Perpetual, Ltd.

 

Preamble: A piece of the puzzle?

Back in February, I wrote of struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What is my piece of the puzzle in building up a countervailing force? 1 I’m still sorting this out, and now I suspect there’s not one but several pieces.

One puzzle piece is informed by my work with Lucy Bernholz, director of Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab and self-defined “philanthropy wonk.” For the last nine years I’ve been lucky enough to work with her as editor and sounding board for an annual monograph. Now based at Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society and director of its Digital Civil Society Lab, Lucy has deep practical and theoretical knowledge of philanthropy, and many people in that world have long looked to her for insights into their work. Over the nine years I’ve worked with her, her focus has expanded to encompass the whole of civil society and all the ways that, in her words, “people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit.” In this context, resources mean time, money, and expertise. She has also broadened the work to acknowledge and directly confront the fact that our civil society is highly dependent on today’s digital infrastructure and digital data, a dependency that brings both promise and peril. This work and these interests led to founding the “Digital Civil Society Lab.” 2

The annual monograph that I get to work on is published at the end of each year and offers “insight,” “foresight,” and “glimpses of the future” that are meant to help readers anticipate and navigate the next year. In January this year I posted excerpts from the previous Blueprint. 3 This year’s edition will be published in mid-December ­— Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018. At that point, you’ll be able to find it either at the Digital Civil Society Lab or on her blog, Philanthropy2173. 4   I’ll also post a link on this site. If you’re eager to read a Blueprint before then, you can check out all eight back issues here. 5

I love the process of working with writing by people I admire in part because it gives me a privileged view into their thinking. This is especially invigorating when the process allows for dialogue around ideas that matter to me. Working with Lucy has reinforced, challenged, and expanded my thinking. What work could be better than that?

Why might all this be a piece of the puzzle? Often a first step in changing something is better understanding what we’re dealing with. Learning from Lucy and doing what I can to help her insights be clear is part of it for me. Another is not hanging on to what I learn but sharing it with friends and posting it here. What follows is based on a couple of ideas from the Blueprint that’s underway right now, mixed up, I’m sure, with my own experience.

The dynamism of small and fluid

“We are surrounded by big, fragile institutions,” writes Lucy Bernholz referring to global companies, established political structures, and big nonprofits. This might seem to contradict what it feels like when we read the news and experience the impact of these large institutions on our daily lives. Lucy goes on, though, to point out that we can see their fragility in their mono-cultural, top-heavy, and increasingly rigid structures.

She contrasts these big institutions with the many small, fluid, and networked alternatives that exist all around us. In her words I recognize the kinds of informal groups, small organizations, and loose networks that have been home for the communities I inhabit and the work I do. The dynamism of the world of small groups isn’t changing, Lucy says, but she senses that their attitude toward big institutions is. The small have adopted a more challenging attitude toward the big and take a more confrontational stance than they did in the past.

From her vantage point at the Digital Civil Society Lab, Lucy specifically calls out small, networked “tech-driven alternatives to party politics, nonprofit or research-driven alternatives to corporate data monopolies, and crowdfunding of public services.” These groups, she reports, have often been purchased, suppressed, and ignored by the big institutions. And they “don’t see themselves as mere fleas on an elephant, rather they challenge themselves to be the termites that topple the house.”

A fluid array of these small, active alternatives function within civil society. In fact, along with many other groups and a set of behavioral norms, their participation constitutes civil society. As Lucy puts it…

Civil society is where those without power or critical mass can build both and influence the majority. It serves as a conduit to the majority system and a counterbalance to extreme positions. It also serves as an outlet for those actions, rights, and views that may never be the priority of a majority, but that are still valid, just, or beautiful.

Civil society is distinct from but overlaps with both the commercial marketplace and government, and it’s meant to be a place where we can come together to take action as private citizens for the public good.

Digital dependency

The Lab defines digital civil society as “all the ways people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in a digital world.” It also refers to the space of digital civil society as “complicated,” and part of what complicates it is that most of digital space is owned or monitored by commercial firms and governments. For the most part, the designers of the tools we use and the rules that regulate our use of them are guided by corporate or governmental norms and not by the norms of civil society – not, that is, by a commitment to the common good or to individual rights (of free expression, peaceable assembly, and privacy), and not to pluralism or tolerance.

Much of the resurgence of political action and resistance among my various communities of friends functions in civil society’s small, fluid, and networked groups, fostered in living rooms, in coffee shops, and on the streets. And it also relies heavily on digital communication and on information gathered from digital sources. These tools facilitate many aspects of our lives and increase the ways we can organize, share information, and reach people across the city and the world. However, our dependency on the digital infrastructure also means we’re vulnerable to actions by both corporations and governments to narrow the space we have to operate in.

In the upcoming monograph, Lucy writes:

Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age such as cellular phones, email, or networked printers means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in the space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny it) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.

Lucy gives many examples of ways that governments and corporations can and have narrowed or closed the space for civil society, and her scope is global. Her information is based on direct observation and on engagement with people in countries around the world – that is, her examples don’t just reflect what’s happening here, in the United States. The restrictions she mentions may be familiar to many of us, but the list is long. A few include: Digital tools make it easier to monitor financial transactions and public assembly. Business models using digital systems can use social media to censor or confuse. Governments have a direct impact on nonprofit and civil society purposes by shifting funding and cutting off access to key data sets and sources. In some places, companies are allowed to charge different rates to different internet users. “Toxic company cultures, their seemingly unchecked power and influence over public policy, the manipulative power of their products, and their ability to be used as news sources are common news stories across the world, even in the polarized media of the U.S.” And this is only the beginning of identifying the ways that the space for civil society and digital civil society is closing.

Another challenge Lucy identifies is that “civil society advocates,” many of us, for instance, “are largely isolated from digital rights expertise.” Beyond this, much of the open source infrastructure that supports the tools used by civil society groups and individuals is sustained “by the voluntary, episodic labor of a remarkably few people.” The system is underfunded, she says, fragile and invisible. As I see it, most of the rules and tools of our digital dependency are invisible…so invisible, in fact, that much of it has come to seem intuitive and natural.

What to do?

My first impulse is to simply to share something of what I’m learning and encourage you to read Lucy’s next Blueprint when it comes out. Working on both this edition and previous ones has made me more alert to choices I make when I’m online and gives me new targets for my advocacy. So much of what we’re organizing and fighting for is a fair and open civil society, a space for the small, sometimes confrontational, ever-changing groups that work for the common good and individual rights. So I take these words of Lucy’s to heart:

Efforts to maintain an open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure and how much the digital world changes civil society’s relationships to state and corporate actors.

I’d like to be part of increasing that understanding. This issue of Blueprint reinforces my awareness that digital technology is, as Lucy puts it, “not inherently democratizing.” More of us have to become intentional about engaging with it. Gaining a better understanding of what we face also increases my awareness of just how hard it will be to change, especially since the impact of the way it works has become ubiquitous and invisible.

Another of the many things I love about working with Lucy is that, with all she knows and all the perils she identifies, she still ends Blueprint 2018 this way:

It’s audacious to think that civil society, globally, can reboot and reframe itself. I think it must. And it can.

Notes

1.  What’s my piece of the puzzle?  http://www.annefocke.net/?p=1793
2.  The Digital Civil Society Lab, https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/digital-civil-society/
3.  “We must fight to protect democracy in a digital age, Lucy Bernholz,” http://www.annefocke.net/?p=1681
4.  Philanthropy 2173  http://philanthropy.blogspot.com
5.  Eight years of Blueprints  https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/blueprint/

The photograph of Lucy is from Perpetual, Limited, the Digital Civil Society Lab’s partner organization in Australia.


Organizing beyond legalities to catch the spirit

What is the power of a form?

How far can we stretch a legal form? Or, how can we operate within one in nontraditional ways? Or, can we imagine a parallel but equally defining creative form?

Is it possible to create an organizational form that fosters and embodies values of rigor, experimentation, responsiveness, difference in all its forms, difficult ideas, ground-level work, open communication, listening, collective action, transparency in governance and decision-making, and new forms of equity and power?

These are only a few words and phrases pulled from a longer statement of the core values of Common Field,1 an organizing network that connects experimental, artist-run and artist-centered spaces, organizers, and initiatives nationally.

Common Field began about two years ago, but its roots go back at least as far as the early 2000s. The Warhol Initiative (1999-2012) not only funded small arts organizations but convened them every three years. Sparked at those convenings, the desire for a network coalesced further in 2011 with a conference in Chicago – “Hand in Glove.” This was followed in 2013 by a retreat organized by the network’s five founders and attended by its first founding members. Public membership in Common Field was announced at a Hand in Glove convening in Minneapolis in late 2015.

Until now, Common Field has operated as a program of one of its members. More recently though, it became clear that it was time to be independent, especially in light of the growth of its membership, annual convening, programs, and budget. I’m a member of Common Field’s Council and of the governance team charged with overseeing this process.

Creating a legal structure may not sound sexy or contentious, but Common Field was guided by deeply principled founding members who wanted an organizational structure grounded in the values they believe in, values that the current Council continues to share. I wasn’t a founder and didn’t participate in early discussions, but, as I understand it, there was a justifiable fear that in adopting an institutional form Common Field would also adopt the power dynamics, inequities, and closed hierarchical structure that we see too often in the world around us, whether in for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental institutions. The governance team took this charge head on.

Common Field’s 2017 summer “Field Notes,” put one of our conclusions this way: We are in agreement that, while becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is imperative, it is just as imperative to evolve as a healthy and dynamic example of this organizational form. Martha Wilson – artist, founder/director of Franklin Furnace, and a fellow Council and governance team member with me – gave us wise counsel that we kept repeating in our discussions:

We can’t change the structure of a nonprofit, but we can change how we operate within this legal framework.

The work of the governance team was done with great support from legal consultants and Common Field’s staff and by using such tools as conference calls, shared online documents, and email. At one point in the governance team’s work, we were debating some of the fine points in the proposed bylaws. Perhaps buffered by distance, I took a philosophical side trip in my email response, citing artists Wendell Berry, Martha Graham, and Pauline Oliveros. My email message follows.

Note: My 20-year-old friends find it hard to believe that I actually write this way in an email message. In truth, the original didn’t include footnotes.


A form beyond legal structures

From: Anne Focke
Re: 501: Updated Bylaws
July 3, 2017 at 11:11 pm

Hi fellow governance folks,

I really appreciate the level of attention that you, Nat and Courtney, are giving this. Common Field will be stronger for your clear thinking. However, I want to take a little side trip before weighing in on the specifics here.  (Apologies…I realize, now that I’m done, that this isn’t exactly a “little” side trip. It’s actually kinda long.)

It strikes me that, as important as they are, the legalities are only one way we might define or express the form we want Common Field to take. A second, complementary, maybe even necessary, way to express its form would take advantage of the power of imagination that we bring to it as artists. The words of artists helped me come to this suggestion.

Some of the words come from a book of essays2 by Wendell Berry that, coincidentally, I began reading while attending a NAAO3 conference years ago (mid-1980s, I think, at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago). In one essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.” He wrote:

The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the “human problem.”  

For our purposes here, I’d replace “knowledge” with facts or rules or legalities. A little later Berry says, “It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision.” He applies this to marriage, farming, and community. I suspect that, for Common Field, it’s also true that, to clumsily paraphrase him, “No legal form can ever solve our human problem.” What I take from this is that, as hard as it is to make a decision the first time, the real work of making it a good decision comes after that, in continuing to understand and adapt it and to make the decision work in the real world.

Then, in another essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” which is more explicitly about form, Berry wrote this:

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties…are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect…Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it.

Maybe that’s what we’re doing now, writing the first line of Common Field’s pattern (a little corny, but…oh well). And we have to trust that life and our actions together are abundant enough to fill out the pattern that we begin.

This same essay includes other memorable sentences: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course.” And another…“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

A living form, like an organizational structure, will constantly need tending, will constantly find new obstacles in its way. An insight from Martha Graham picks up this thought in an exchange recorded by Agnes de Mille in her memoir, Dance to the Piper. De Mille wrote:

The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy….

I said, “When I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.” 

“But then is there no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and more alive than the others.”

All this is meant to offer an expanded context for our struggle to write these bylaws, while maybe removing some of the pressure to get them exactly right, right now. And it sets up a question:  In addition to putting in place the legal framework that Common Field needs simply to work in the world today, can we approach Common Field as a creative form? Can we create a larger form — that is, beyond the legal structure — a form begun and continually renewed by a restless desire for something always alive and always better, a container for imagination and aspirations held together by commitment and trust that can take us past the obstructions that baffle us now and through the many obstacles that will undoubtedly baffle us in the future?

The kind of form I’m imagining needs more than legal bonds to hold it together and to release all the possibility inherent in this field. To my mind, the legalities are secondary to the real form we need. This larger form may, of course, partly be expressed in the “non-governing documents” we’ll be drafting next. And these will certainly be important. But perhaps we can also create an image or an action or a text that Common Field could re-stage or renew at its annual convening every year, a kind of ritual maybe. Or it might be something completely different. Perhaps it could begin at the convening this year, maybe something simple that could be adapted over time.

One example, though I’m not suggesting it for Common Field, comes from a 1980s conference about “creative support for creative artists” that closed with a piece by composer/performer Pauline Oliveros. In a bright dining room at lunch time (that is, no soft lights, no candles), Pauline directed us in humming together in an easy-to-follow pattern. That simple act, in unison, seemed to set us up to leave the conference with a larger sense of ourselves as a whole. The experience stays with me still.

The culture we live in today, even more than in Graham and de Mille’s or even Berry’s time, is caught up in, or to my mind trapped by, “metrics,” measurements, and the rational. It’s easy to forget that that’s only one aspect of being human, only one side of what defines our relationships with each other. It would be amazing if, over time, Common Field could find a way to express its non-rational form. It would go a long way to helping it be the singing stream in Berry’s essay.

Whew!  I promise to be concise and rational in my next email.

A big hug to you all!

Anne


About the image

I was happy to find this image . . . it’s layered, both simple and complex, conveying a clear sense of structure that’s natural and pliable, but guided by clear underlying principles – bubbles, that look as though they’re in the process of shifting slowly.

Notes

  1. The full statement of “Core Values” can be found on Common Field’s “About” page on its website here:
  2. Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, published by North Point Press, 1983.
  3. NAAO, or the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, was founded in 1982 and held its last conference, I think, in 2000 in Brooklyn, New York. It served many of the same purposes that Common Field has been formed to meet.

“We must find a way to stay in the same room.”

January 7, 2011

Can we stay in the same room?

The commons. Public trust. Civil society. 

These words describe big ideas that matter. Once you start paying attention to them, they seem to show up everywhere. But sometimes the ideas they encompass are so big or so complicated, or are used in so many ways by people with such wildly divergent views that they lose their meaning or make it hard to tell where they hit the ground in our real, every-day world.

In a group conversation about where the concept of the commons can be found in our daily lives, Wier Harman, a hero of mine who has managed to keep Town Hall Seattle hopping each year with between 350 and 400 events across a wide spectrum of ideas and culture, first thought of groups that form around pre-schools.

But then he focused on what, given the general direction of his politics, he called the “unlikely,” emotional impact of standing at a Rotary meeting with a roomful of Rotarians wholeheartedly singing patriotic songs together at the start of their meeting. He noted that at work he puts a lot of time and energy into arguing for Town Hall as a space that allows for profound differences.

With his Rotary singing as a backdrop, he added, “We must find a way to stay in the same room.”

• • • 

These words retain the quiet power today that they had for me in 2011. I hang on to the aspiration they express at least as tightly now as I did then. I keep my notes from that conversation handy and find I’m pulling them out more and more often.

The question of how we do it continues to haunt and provoke me.

 


Who is the “public”?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

• • • • •

NOTE

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2017

Greetings all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne


Notes

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

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

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

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

««««««•»»»»»»

From the Introduction…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are all digitally dependent now.”

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

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

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

From “Glimpses of the Future” . . .

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

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

From the Conclusion . . .

“Our dependence on digital data changes civil society.”

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

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

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 Footnotes

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

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

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

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

Keeping up with Lucy

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

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

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


The New Colossus, 1883

The New Colossus

Emma Lazarus

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

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

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


A bigger choir – a countervailing force


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And . . .

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

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

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

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

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Photo notes

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

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

References

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

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

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

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