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, join new choirs, welcome different voices in our own, combine choirs, allow for differences. Dissonance is part of powerful music.

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

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


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

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

And . . .

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

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

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


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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

So many ideas, so much to do

Building community in our new political reality

A post-election Penny U update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do we do next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why we do what we do

(A forewarning . . . this is the kind of piece that grandmas have permission to post.)

We have many reasons, of course, to do what we do. But we often talk about wanting to leave the world a better place for future generations. This is, indeed, a grand aspiration. I hold it too.

In the close-up fabric of my life, however, these “future generations’ are embodied, tangibly, in my grandkids. I’m lucky enough to share two – Livia and Henry – with quite a handful of other grandparents. A few moments from the past few years reinforce Grandma Anne’s commitment to working for a better future.

A trip to the locks in the summer.

A water taxi ride to West Seattle.

Dancing in Grandma Anne’s former home in the last hour she lived there (2013).

Making gifts and funny faces.

Finding a new friend on a walk down the alley.

Sitting and sipping and watching the world go by.

Discovering the silliness of a selfie.

And a sister and brother who love each other.


“Office hours” carry on in 2017

One way I’ll be “carrying on” in 2017 is through my “office hours” with Artist Trust as part of the Jini Dellaccio Project. Every month I continue to reserve the second and fourth Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 and 3:30 for these conversations. You can sign up here.

Last summer “office hours” was a fairly unformed and open-ended idea. The notion was based on amazing conversations I’ve had over the years with people who just wanted to talk and on a vague sense that seven decades of life and work experience might prove useful or at least interesting to others. I also imagined the conversations would be two-way exchanges and that I’d be a primary beneficiary.

Artist Trust and I started this experiment for real in September, and it’s proven to be just as amazing as the conversations that inspired it. The conversations have given me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people I hadn’t known before and to spend time with old friends, the kind of focused time that feels luxurious but that we give ourselves so seldom.

People – both women and men – of many ages signed up – some early in their lives, some in the middle thick of it, and others, like me, enmeshed in life’s upper layers. Some came with a specific question or project in mind, and a few said, in so many words, “I’m not sure why I made this appointment.” Regardless of what prompted it, in the end each conversation seemed to matter. Sometimes an experience from my past proved useful, many times we discovered something new or the beginning of a solution through our back-and-forth discussion, and other times it seemed that the simple chance to talk with someone who was interested and listened closely was enough. Each one took its own course, and the form remains just as open-ended as it started.

“Office hours” sounds more formal than they are, and they tend to last more than an hour. We meet at Artist Trust and usually walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop, or we simply take a walk and talk while walking. Come use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. Office hours are open to anyone.  Let’s talk!

Sign up by selecting a slot here.


What should a concerned citizen do? November 15, 2016

Penny University –  a week after the 2016 election

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

Co-organizer Edward Wolcher and I have been hosting Penny U at Town Hall since fall 2014. We’ve generally had 20-30 people show up for the conversations that take place around small tables. Penny U has been a place to talk, not just listen. The discussion has been lively, and people leave energized. But, Town Hall sold over 250 tickets for the Penny U on November 15 when the topic was, “Post-election: What’s next?” Our retiring U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott was definitely a powerful draw. He helped set the stage with a few remarks during the introductory part of the program and received a standing ovation for his long service.

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

He went on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary report

We collected over 30 sets of notes from the conversation. In addition to being surprised at how legible and long most of them were, I was struck by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the focus was on the second question, not the first – on what we should do. Because interest was so high, Edward, Town Hall, and I scheduled another Penny U for early December to build on the desire to to find practical steps that we, as individuals and as a community, can take to organize around the concerns that surfaced. (see “So many ideas. So much to do!” for more about the December meeting.)

Following is a report on what happened at Penny U in November. There is no way to adequately summarize all the observations, insights, and ideas that were captured in over 60 pages of hand-written notes. The report feels like a shorthand outline that only skims the surface. In most cases, comments are direct transcriptions from the notes.  (If you’d rather read the summary as a pdf, it’s available here.)

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

Trump changed everything. Now everything counts.*


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


Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume

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

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

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

Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side”

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

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

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

Bolster the Democratic Party and communicate with current legislative bodies

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

Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure

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

Educate ourselves/improve our education system

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

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

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

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

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

Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement

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

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

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

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

DonateCame up over and over as a response

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

VolunteerVolunteering came up repeatedly as a way to respond

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

Organize – at neighborhood level, at national level, internationally

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

Take personal actionMany items under specific causes are also personal actions

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


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



Figuring it out: post-election Penny U

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

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

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

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

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

Figuring it out

November 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Making it up

A spirit of making it up – of life and work as an experiment – has run through my life from the start.


When I was about six, I learned to twirl a baton at the same school where I had a few ballet lessons and learned to love tap dancing. From then on until sometime after I entered college, I always had a baton around. In my world, what twiddling-your-thumbs might have done for some meant twirling just about anything twirlable. . . a tennis racket, a stick from the side of the road, an especially big serving spoon, or even a new pencil. But my best “real” baton had a thin, shiny body and was carefully balanced with a large head on one end and a smaller cap with a weight inside on the other. I think it came from Sears. Remembering it even now, my fingers start moving automatically as if its shaft were rolling through them.

One moment stands out as a marker of the last phase of my twirling days. It came a few years into my college life and several giant steps into my hippie days of long hair, short skirts, and long, roped beads. That sunny afternoon, I learned that twirling, even with a good baton, was a complicated match with my lifestyle. That afternoon, I absent-mindedly picked up my baton to fill a few minutes. With one especially vigorous twist of the wrist to send the baton into the air, the head of the baton caught in my long strands of beads – bright blue and green – and it was as though they exploded. Bright beads flew everywhere. Despite the laughter of the moment, the baton seldom came out after that.

Between age six and college, though, my baton inspired an early instance of what I mean by “making it up.” Perhaps out of a need to find friends in a new high school, I gradually convinced a group of girls to twirl with me. I don’t remember if we actually took lessons or if they had also been in twirling classes when younger or if we simply drew on what I could remember. But I made sure that we had regular practices, that we made up and learned “routines,” found recorded music to march to, created outfits, and eventually convinced the school that it needed marching majorettes at football games. Even though our school had no band, the five of us marched in patterns to recorded music, twirling and tossing our batons into the air at halftime. It was one of the things I was remembered for at my 50th high school reunion.

The thesaurus contains many synonyms for “make up” that reinforce the way I’ve used the phrase to refer to what I do: imagine, invent, conceive, create, improvise, put together, put in order, dream up, whip up, wangle. The meaning shifts around – I also like fabulize, fictionalize, pretend, concoct, build castles in the air, wing it, play-act, play by ear, and just plain play. And it’s used when we take a school make-up test, put on make up, or kiss and make up. Other terms take darker turns – manipulate, fake it, trump it up, stretch the truth, falsify, fib, lie. These may be the risks that come with this aspect of my nature, of my makeup.

As an approach to life, making it up is still my way, even as I live into my eighth decade. I want to keep living an experiment, tossing possibility into the air without knowing quite where it will come down and whether I’ll catch it again this time.



“Office hours”

Office hours at Artist Trust

As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I’m holding what for now we’re calling “office hours.” Tea time, coffee break, happy hour, chitchat, heart-to-heart, or even consultation – these conversations can take many forms. Artists and anyone else can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. One-to-one or in small groups, we can talk about anything. I’ve reserved two afternoons a month for “office hours” at Artist Trust.

You can sign up by selecting a slot here. (Thanks to Artist Trust for setting up this scheduler.)

Like so many other people my age, I seem increasingly to be asked for advice, for stories about the “old days,” or simply for the chance to puzzle over a problem together. I think of these as two-way exchanges because I always learn something in the process. Let’s talk!

More coming

I’ll soon be setting up “open door office hours” at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design. Information will be posted in “office hours” under the References menu on my website’s main page.


Returning to my alma mater…half a century later

“Half a century” seems SO long ago, much longer than 50 years. “Five decades” feels closer to my experience; after all, I can count up to five on one hand. No matter how it’s put, though, that’s about how much time has passed since I received my undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of Washington. It was 1967.

In the intervening decades, I’ve been an invited guest in a few college classes here and elsewhere, edited writings by wonderful scholars, attended events on college campuses, and donated papers to Special Collections at the UW Libraries. But I haven’t spent any real time in an academic setting – not taking classes, teaching, or doing research.

Alum in Residence

All this is why it’s such a special opportunity to have been appointed Alum in Residence* at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the coming school year. It’s exciting, if a little daunting, to walk through the front doors of the School, knowing that I have an office upstairs and that pretty soon the halls, empty now, will be filled with students and faculty and staff.

“So, what will you do?”

When I’ve mentioned my new role to friends, their first question is almost always, “So, what does that mean? What will you do?” And, as I usually say when venturing out on a new project, “Well, I’m not completely sure yet. I get to help make it up!” Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we have no idea what I’ll do or that we don’t have some plans. But my enthusiasm comes partly from knowing that we’ll be learning what the position can be as we go through the year. I’ve been given considerable flexibility in the way I use my time, partly because it’s an unfunded position. I’ve been encouraged not to feel pressure to take on everything that comes my way. As someone who often tries to do everything and all at once, this will take some self-discipline. I’m already learning that the School is a very busy place.

Although we know the program will morph and change over the year, here’s what’s planned as the year begins:

Archives. Over the years I’ve lived through a lot of history. Perhaps as a faint echo of my art history education, I’ve accumulated many documents and ephemera from that history – and/or, Artist Trust, Artech, Arts Wire, early artist fellowship programs nationwide, Grantmakers in the Arts, and more. Some of this is already in Special Collections at the UW Libraries, though much more is in my own storage. My position as Alum in Residence gives me the opportunity to offer internships to students who might want to work with me to examine this history, organize materials, and perhaps find homes for some of it. We will also view the materials through a contemporary lens, as a springboard for discourse and writing on topics of relevance today.

Open door office hours. I’ve been given a nice office – with a window even! – and I’ll establish specific times when I’ll be there with the door open, welcoming anyone who wants to talk about just about anything. You can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain about the past, try out a new idea . . . whatever. No scheduling needed. As I’ve said about my office hours with Artist Trust, I think of these as two-way exchanges. They could be called, “mutual mentoring”. I’ll learn a lot, and I hope it will be mutual. Specific times will be set as soon as I understand more about the flow of activity at the School once it gets underway in late September.

Conversations with purpose. I’ll host informal but focused discussions that build on my 15 years or so organizing conversations in different forms and in collaboration with others. I look forward to extending this practice to the School and to making connections between the School and the community.

One event is already on the books: on Monday, November 21, the UW’s entire undergraduate art history class of 1967 will host a conversation – all two of us. The other graduate in my class, David Mendoza, remains a friend today. We’ll talk together about those years (as far as we can remember them) and about what we’ve done since then with the preparation our art history degrees gave us. Our conversation will then spill over and involve anyone who joins us.

Class visits. As possible and at the invitation of faculty, I’ll participate in classroom sessions or other activities. (A past example from another school is briefly described here.)

“How did this come about?”

A second question friends ask is, “How did this happen? Did you apply? Did they seek you out?” As with many new things, the beginning point is a little fuzzy. Perhaps it’s like the headwaters of a river. Does a river start with this little stream or with that one? with the confluence where they come together or with a whole drainage basin? I suppose that’s why the word is usually plural, there’s almost never just a single source.

From my perspective, the Alum in Residence started with many of the same questions I ask in other contexts. Since someone my age today will live, on average, 30 years longer than someone did 100 years ago, what are we going to do with those extra years, so many of which are past the official age of “retirement”? If we aren’t completely undone struggling for money to cover our costs, how do we stay active, keep learning, and continue to be engaged, contributing members of the community?

Wanting a home where I could explore questions like these but not wanting to create a new organization, I looked around for compatible institutions that might house experiments to find and try out answers to these questions. Good conversations with several people in institutions both in and out of the arts yielded some declines but gave me good solid start. Artist Trust was one place where the idea stuck. I’m so glad to have the fiscal sponsorship of Artist Trust in a collaboration that is developing the Jini Dellaccio Project. (See more about this project here.)

While exploring possibilities with Artist Trust, I was also paying attention to new energy bubbling up at my alma mater. So, as part of the same search, I sent a query to Jamie Walker, director of the School of Art + Art History + Design, expressing my interest in the possibility of establishing some kind of “chair” or residency within a sympathetic organization that would allow me to pursue this experiment and share my decades of experience with others in a mutual exchange. “Since a position like this doesn’t seem to exist at this point,” I wrote, “I’m doing what comes naturally, making it up.”

As it turned out, my focus on the work and contributions of older people along with my history at the School resonated with Jamie’s interest in developing closer relationships with School alumni and, as he said, “taking possession of our own history.” The timing was right, it seems, for our respective ideas to meet, bounce around, adapt, expand, and come together. The process, he said, is “fortuitous and that’s different from luck.” As we talked about how we each get things done, he said he likes “to encourage things to happen that haven’t happened before,” and he often does this essentially from the side. Which, in my lexicon of such things, means exactly what we were doing: listening to each other, nudging, getting little obstacles out of the way, letting initial ideas soften and meld together. So, through our conversation, along with his doing all the necessary administrative work inside the University, we’ve come out the other side of these conversations with this Alum in Residence program.

I love watching and being part of a process like this – one idea bouncing against and intersecting with another, within a specific set of circumstances, adapting and shifting to find what’s shared, resulting in something that can look as though it were planned that way from the start.

One last quiet aspiration. In the past month, I’ve received many helpful introductions to the school and its people. In one of these, I heard someone fondly described as the “resident hipster.” If I try hard, perhaps by the end of the year I’ll have earned a similar status as the “resident geezer”…and in the process break down a few stereotypes of just who gets to be a geezer.


* About the word “alum,” to quote Merriam-Webster: “Many people are comfortable using the word alumni to refer to someone who was a student of a particular school. However, others feel quite strongly that this is an error and that the following Latin forms should be used: alumnus (for one male), alumni (for multiple males, or for a mix of males and females), alumna (for one female), and alumnae (for multiple females). The shortened form alum and its plural form alums began to be used in the 19th century. Initially, alum was widely viewed as highly colloquial or informal, but is increasing in use as a gender-neutral alternative.


Are you sure of your source?

One thing I’ve learned in my 10 months of blogging, or as I like to say “writing in public,” is just how much any site, even a fairly quiet one like mine, attracts spam comments. Ads for medical treatments, sexual aids, long nonsensical posts where I suspect someone is being paid by the word, and many offers of help – to generate more traffic, solve technical problems, or improve the content of my site. You don’t see these comments because an internal process lets me “cut them off at the pass,” so to speak.

Every now and then, they make me laugh. My favorite so far is a comment posted to the page where I give some background on myself, “About me.”

Are you sure about the source? crop

I’m pretty sure of my source, though she still surprises me.

But the “conclusion”?

Well…I try not to pretend it won’t ever come, but ultimately it remains one of those big mysteries.