A bigger choir – a countervailing force


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And . . .

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

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

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

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

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Photo notes

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

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

References

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

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

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

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


“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!

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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.