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.


Time away . . . calm, solitary, and uninterrupted?

Or maybe wild, accompanied, and interrupted?

Last month I spent two weeks on an island, in a beautiful home tucked in the forest, with a view looking south over the water. The evening sunset on the first night, after Heather and Greg – my friends and the home’s owners – left for Mexico, looked like this:

And the woods were lush and green with moss and ferns and trees on top of trees.

Pretty idyllic, right?

I was working on a gnarly question I’d posed to myself and had imagined that a stretch of calm, solitary, uninterrupted time was just what I needed to tackle it.

I was wrong.

First, I was wrong to assume I’d have two calm, serene weeks. The beauty remained, and I wouldn’t want to have missed all the forms it took while I was there. But after that first sunset, the wind and storms picked up and the beauty took a wildly different form. I’d been warned that the island could be windy, but it kicked into the extreme . . . gusts up to 50 miles an hour, I heard later. Big branches landed in the roads, a door in the house blew open, and things outside got tossed around. In early morning, the power went out across the island, only briefly, but the outage may have triggered the string of other little interruptions over the next few days – the geothermal heat pump stopped working, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the stove top back on, and one night the smoke alarm over my bed began chirping.

All this meant I also got to know islanders, like the folks at the island hardware store (where I bought space heaters and then smoke alarm batteries) and the neighbor up the road who helped me install the batteries when the chirping started in the middle of the night.

Even after the weather and surprise home tasks calmed down, I had one of those crazy-making, computer-based meltdowns that consumes a day in a minute.

Then, I was wrong about the benefits of being solitary. After all, Fergie came with the house and was my companion for the two weeks. Sharing my life with a dog was new to me.

She and I took walks twice a day, up Buck Mountain in the morning and somewhere farther away for a longer adventure in the afternoon.

I learned that living with Fergie came with both costs and benefits, with responsibilities and interruptions but also with the joy and comfort of companionship. I’m not ready to find a dog of my own, but I would not have traded those two weeks with Fergie for something closer to complete solitude.

I was also wrong to anticipate that being out of my normal routine would provide a long stretch of internal focus and calm. One afternoon early in my stay as I was still learning my new routine, I began to prepare for venturing out in the rain to do a few errands and take a walk with Fergie. Did I have the leash, the doggie treats in my pocket, the car keys, my umbrella and scarf, the flash drive for printing at the library, the grocery list, my driver’s license, the doggie poop bag? What had I forgotten? And while figuring it out, Fergie, with her extrasensory powers, tried to be patient (sort of), circling me by the door, chomping at me in her friendly way, waiting for this slow human to get her act together. Putting my shoes on (I’d left a couple of pairs right by the door to make it easy) was the final step before going out. Our flurried departure was hardly calm.

After a short drive to the town library, I stepped out of the car and noticed my feet. I paused a moment to consider how ready I was to show off my new fashion statement, and then I went inside to print.

Most of all, I learned I was wrong about needing serenity and no interruptions in order to tackle the work I’d brought along. Sometimes I need extended stretches of quiet time. But for this “time away” that wasn’t what I needed. I needed a wildness and a companion and all those interruptions. I didn’t answer my question. I didn’t “solve” my problem. Instead I learned that, like other puzzles in real life, it doesn’t have an easy or a simple solution. Living with my gnarly question, which itself involves a mix of dark and light, anxiety and hopefulness, was well matched to my time away on the island.

Those two weeks were a gift that will grow in value over time.


It’s not a jigsaw puzzle at all

 

In mid-January, I traveled about two and a half hours north by bus from Seattle to the ferry landing in Anacortes. Once there, I hurried as quickly as I could, given bulky bags, to the ferry landing and walked on the waiting boat that would take me to Orcas Island where I would soon be house- and dog-sitting for friends. The hour-and-a-half ferry ride took us past many of the San Juan Islands and stopped at two of the more inhabited ones before reaching Orcas. While we sailed, I noticed at least three or four tables-full of my fellow passengers engrossed in jigsaw puzzles.

After briefly wondering why, on such a nice day, the view outside our windows hadn’t captured them as it had me, I wondered how it happened that so many different groups came up with the same idea for passing time. In fact, I learned later that the ferry system itself provides the puzzles, which are often left unfinished as one group disembarks and new passengers pick up where the first group left off. But watching them got me thinking about puzzles.

One of the tasks I’d given myself for my time on Orcas was to take another pass at my stubbornly unresolved desire to find “my piece of the puzzle.” How am I finding my place in our current political, economic, and social circumstances? Am I using my time and specific experience in the best way I can?

Being surrounded by jigsaw puzzle players made me think about the kind of “puzzle” I actually want to help piece together. From the moment I began asking myself the question, the image I’ve had was of a giant jigsaw puzzle. As I watched the ferry-riding puzzle players I realized my puzzle is not a jigsaw puzzle at all. I’m not trying to help put back together a picture that was once whole – a picture, in fact, that is usually on the box the puzzle came in, propped up in front of the players. The players knew exactly where they were heading.

What faces us in this country right now is not at all like that. We need to be creating a new picture or a new pattern, made of both old and new parts, one that is constantly in motion and changing and that can help us know where we’re heading and, maybe, how we’ll move forward.

For quite different reasons, the year 2005 was another time filled with reflection on where I’d been, how well I was doing what I was doing, and how I wanted to be working and living in the future. Though I don’t put too much significance on what I call the “big round birthdays,” I turned 60 that year. Both my job as the director of a national nonprofit and also my life and work in Seattle were filled with assessments of my role.

At my job, the board of the nonprofit organization I served as executive director, seemed to go into a fury of evaluation. They asked me to describe my “leadership style,” something I hadn’t thought much about before. I engaged an “executive coach” and created “mini-mentorships” with foundation leaders I admired. I participated in team-building efforts and personality tests with the staff and assisted with a board governance assessment.

At home, in the very same year, “assessment” took a different form as I received several awards and other kinds of recognition for contributions I’d made to the Seattle community over the years. Though only coincidentally coming in the same year, each honor put me in front of a microphone to say a few words – of gratitude, certainly, but also of my perspective on the award, the occasion, or the times – each also a valuable moment of self reflection.

Finally, toward the end of the year, I was commissioned to write an essay that allowed me to reflect on the way I get things done. The invitation came from a writer I admire, Matthew Stadler, who also edited and published (in early 2006) the result, A pragmatic response to real circumstances.* At the time I wondered how I might take advantage of all this reflection and assessment, of feeling “so extensively diagnosed — washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and polished up.” As part of my current search to understand my “piece of the puzzle,” I’ve looked back at that essay to see what I might learn from my 12-year-younger self. Here’s an excerpt:

From “Risk and drift” in A pragmatic response to real circumstances, 2006

Recently, I’ve imagined that the ages when risk might be easiest would be in our 20s and again in our 60s, before we have a lot to lose and after much work is behind us. In fact, Gene Cohen (M.D. and Ph.D. with a specialty in aging) says that as people move into their 60s, “they often feel free to do something they have never done before. It’s a time when people begin to hear an inner voice thåat says, ‘If not now, when?’ These are powerful feelings of liberation…a counterpoint to adolescence, but with a formed sense of identity.” I have no idea whether this applies to me — or, if it does, maybe “liberation” will simply be a quiet, barely audible release of insecurity and a willingness to own up to my own patterns.

Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), recasts this private shift as a part of something much broader:

In important ways, little ripples of inspired activism around the United States parallel aspects of the global justice movement and the Zapatistas. All three share an improvisational, collaborative, creative process that is in profound ways anti-ideological, if ideology means ironclad preconceptions about who’s an ally and how to make a better future. There’s an openheartedness, a hopefulness, and a willingness to change and to trust. Cornel West came up with the idea of the jazz freedom fighter and defined jazz “not so much as a term for a musical art form but for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints.

I take heart from that. And Jane Jacobs, twenty years earlier in Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, articulated a similarly widespread practice that she called “drift,” a kind of work defined not by “practical utility,” but by play, curiosity, and aesthetic investigation. Jacobs described an “aesthetics of drift” and said that successful economic development had to be open-ended and make itself up as it goes along. Her words gave me new ways to understand artists’ work and new ways to imagine their place in the world. Now, I see that much of it also corresponds with patterns that matter in my own life. Here is Jacobs (and the ellipsis is hers):

We might call development an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…

Coda

If ever there were a time that we’ve needed to operate with improvisation, to not rely on old patterns, and to be aware of and participate in the “little ripples of inspired activism,” this is it. We definitely face unprecedented problems and have to be prepared for unprecedented work in the hope that it will lead to unprecedented solutions, knowing all the while that those solutions will also lead to more unprecedented problems. It’s a never-ending process, as implied by the ellipsis that closes the quote from Jacobs.

Clearly, jigsaw puzzles don’t capture the kinds of patterns suggested by words like “ripples,” “improvisation,” or an open-ended process that “makes itself up as it goes along.” Images and metaphors often help make ideas tangible. And if the image isn’t of a jigsaw puzzle piece, what is it?

For ideas, I looked back on images I’ve used in other contexts:

I’m still working on it.

 

Notes

* Anne Focke, A pragmatic response to real circumstances, Publication Studio, 2006.


Thankful

2017 Thanksgiving Day walkers

When I started living alone about 15 years ago, all of a sudden my daytimes on Thanksgiving Day were wide open. Since then, almost all my celebratory Thanksgiving meals have been with friends Norie and Ralph, who enjoy preparing the evening’s magnificent food with little help from us, the guests. So, what on earth, I wondered, does one do during the day on Thanksgiving without any hosting or cooking responsibilities?

Take a long walk, of course!

At the time, I lived downtown, an easy walk – about a mile – from the south end of Lake Union. So I decided to walk around the lake. I wanted to see how close to the water I could stay as I circumambulated. Over the course of about 6.5 miles, the terrain and the landscape change many times – from docks with fancy water craft and restaurants, to light marine industry, houseboats, small street-end parks, two bridges, a major regional park constructed on the site of an old gasworks plant, a couple of sea plane terminals, and much more. And the weather is just as changeable – rain, fog, clearing, sun, wind, drizzle – anything goes.

I always made curious little discoveries and encountered memorable characters. One year I passed the same couple twice, and we realized we were doing the same thing, just in opposite directions. We said, “See you next year!” though we never did. Another year I ran into a wild-looking guy on a little road that ran alongside a run-down ramshackle complex of buildings where I suspected he lived. As he chased pigeons away from the building, he muttered to me, “Too much society!” I smiled and scooted away hoping I wasn’t also too much society. When I got twenty yards or so down the street, he shouted, “Hey!” in my direction. When I turned, he gave me a big thumbs up, saying simply, “Thanksgiving!” You just never know where you’ll find joy.

One year, Norie took time out to join me. From her I learned that Seattle City Parks and Recreation had given “my” path an official name: “The Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop.” The City’s path doesn’t always stay as close to the water as my path did, though I suppose parts of mine were probably a little too sketchy to ever be “official.” But the course is marked with signs, and information about it is posted online.

The Loop is named for Cheshiahud, a Duwamish man, also known as Lake Union John or “Chodups,” who lived most of the last years of his life on the edge of Portage Bay, an extension of the lake. The photo below shows him with his wife Tleebuleetsa, also known as Madeline. Born in about 1820, Cheshiahud died in 1910. It was said he was the last of the Duwamish people to live a traditional, independent lifestyle near the lake, land historically inhabited by the Duwamish people and their ancestors. More about his life is here.

Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa

Eight years ago I began to invite friends to come along. We start our walk at 11 a.m. at South Lake Union Park. We head out, whatever the weather, walking counterclockwise. With a few side trips – to the lake at street ends, a photo-op stop at the north end, and a coffee break at the Fremont Bridge about two thirds of the way around – we allow about three hours, though it often doesn’t take that long. The weather is always a surprise – bright or gray, sunny, drippy, or down right wet. For the first shared walk, we even had snow on the ground.

Each year, we have a few stalwarts who walk almost every time, many repeaters, and always new people – young and old, very small children in strollers, and a nice assortment of dogs. One year, we picked up a few curious strangers part way around. The past few years, we’ve passed, or more correctly, been passed by, quite a caravan of families on bicycles of all sizes.

I’ve loved the way that, over the duration of the walk, people drift forward and back along our loose line of walkers, talking with both long-time and newly-discovered friends. All in all, there’s never been a year when I didn’t end the walk feeling invigorated and grateful, for the walk, for the weather, and most of all for the friends.

Note: The  photo of Cheshihud and Tleebuleetsa was taken by Orion Denny, the first white male born in Seattle.

 


Introducing . . . the wise-ager

How do we refer to ourselves, we who are beyond the traditional age of retirement?

For years now, I’ve puzzled and searched for a word or a phrase that seems right – one that’s true enough, easy to say, spirited and with a splash of irreverence. Most terms don’t fit my image of us. If the terms aren’t boring (senior citizen, mature), they’re generally male (codger, geezer) or derogatory (hag, battle-axe). Others feel pretentious if referring to oneself (sage, wisdom-keeper) or are just too sweet (golden-ager).

In a 2011 talk at Town Hall, Mary Catherine Bateson gave me some of my first solid insights into how to think about this phase of life. Almost everyone after age 50 has some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I can name at least one in my life, more if I count near misses. On average we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. The U.S. instituted its retirement plan in 1935 and set the age at 65 when average life expectancy in the United States was 61.7 years. Today, for a woman my age (I’m 72), life expectancy is 86.5 years – not quite 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years yet either. In addition, many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson stressed, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”

If we do live into these extra years, the big question is, what are we going to do with the time? Society isn’t organized to know what to do with us. We hardly know how to refer to this phase or what it’s for. I’m eager to help figure out what this age means, but we need a new word. For now, I’m calling us “wise-agers,” accent on the first syllable.

I mused on the question of terminology in “Gee, you look great!” – a short piece that was prompted by memories of a friend, Helen Gurvich. There I made a short list of nouns, adjectives, and phrases that have been used to describe us, and I included a comment from a friend: “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves recycled teenagers.”

Exactly!

Wise-agers have many decades of experience to stand on. The time we have now gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve learned, to share it, to mix it up with what we learn from younger people, and to act with the stamina and energy our relative health gives us. Especially given the times we live in, our world needs every source of human energy, knowledge, and action it can get.

Jini Dellaccio, Helen Gurvich, Anne Gerber (photo credits below)

Many remarkable people provide inspiration for how these wise-ager years can be lived. One is Jini Dellaccio, a remarkable woman and photographer whose life and work frame a project aimed to enhance the ability of wise-agers to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community – the Jini Dellaccio Project. There are others. One among them is Helen Gurvich, mentioned earlier. And another, Anne Gerber – a hero and close friend of mine until she died in 2005 – showed me how a wise-ager life could be lived. She was proof, for instance, that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. From her too I learned the simple joy of walking on the beach in the rain.

Thinking back to the wise-ager definition, my favorite root of the word may be wiseacre. I like the edge of sassiness or eccentricity it adds. Defined as “one who pretends to knowledge or cleverness, an “upstart,” or “smarty pants,” wiseacre was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day on August 5, 2012.  Merriam-Webster says,

Given the spelling and definition of “wiseacre,” you might guess that the word derives from the sense of wise as in “insolent” or “fresh” – the sense that gives us “wisecrack” and “wisenheimer.” But, in fact, “wiseacre” came to English in the 16th century by a different route. It derived from the Middle Dutch “wijssegger,” meaning “soothsayer,” “prophet,” or “seer.”

And “wijssegger,” according to the Oxford Dictionaries, probably came from the Germanic base “wit,” that is, knowledge or to know.

Together, soothsayer, smarty-pants, wit, and knowledge – especially when combined with wisdom and wizard – capture something of the spirit that I admire in all three wise-agers I’ve named. If enough of us start using it, perhaps one day “wise-ager” will make a proper appearance in a legitimate dictionary. Perhaps it can at least sneak in as a footnote.

Photo credits
•  Jini Dellaccio, 2012 photo by ML Sutton, with a self-portrait of Jini from the 1960s.
•  A still from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 2009.
•  Anne Gerber in a travel photo by an unnamed photographer.


The Jini Dellaccio Project – The story of a wise-ager

A fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust to honor photographer Jini Dellaccio

 

A wise-ager is like a teenager, just at the other end of life, apt to cause trouble and give hope. Etymologically, “wise-ager” is related to wiseacre, wisdom, and wizard.                                                                                                    

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project participates in redefining life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. Its aim is to call attention to the real potential of the wise-ager stage of life and to demonstrate the value of using and sharing experience gained over many decades. It believes wise-agers have the imagination and power to be part of making the world a better place while living fully and finding joy in it at the same time. It’s about investigating the potential of the years many of us are given after the traditional age of “retirement,” years many or most people in our parents’ generation didn’t have.

The project is named for photographer Jini Dellaccio who died at age 97 in 2014. She was an exemplary wise-ager. She set her own course and lived a spirited and meaningful life that spanned playing saxophone in a girl band in her 20s during the Great Depression to learning to use a digital camera in her late 80s. Her story grounds the project in the inspiring life of a real person. My peerless co-conspirator in the project’s creation is Sarah Cavanaugh, who knew Jini and stood by her through the final phase of her life.

Years before the Jini Dellaccio Project began, I could imagine the potential of the “wise-ager” life. As these years came closer, though, my high aspirations for how I’d spend them ran smack dab into a practical, financial wall. I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the work I wanted and felt I had the potential to do. Like many others my age, I needed to find a way to keep making a living at the same time. Until then, I’d managed to make up a life that allowed me to be paid for work that mattered to me. That work got harder and harder to find. I know that other wise-agers and I are not alone in this challenge, and I also know that there is a huge amount of work in the world that needs to be done but that isn’t attached to jobs that pay anyone to do it. So, rather than squeeze my “real” work around a patchwork of small jobs, I chose to make up another way to gain enough financial flexibility to do the work that matters to me now. Helping to create the Jini Dellaccio Project is a result.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange rather than a market exchange. It is fueled by gifts that individuals make to Artist Trust, the project’s fiscal sponsor. With the funds collected, Artist Trust pays me through a contract to help define and manage the project and to exemplify a wise-ager life. I treat this as a gift that carries a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community. This gift also offers me a sense of freedom from specific expectations for what the return will be, a flexibility to learn and adapt as I go, with the possibility of giving back something unexpected.

For years I’ve been musing on the history and meaning of gifts and their place in our lives and in our economy today. In the abstract, giving and receiving gifts seems as honorable an exchange as buying and selling a product or service. But in real life, gifts are emotionally charged.

From Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift,I came to understand that gift exchange establishes emotional bonds (it’s a relationship, it’s messy), while market exchange leaves no connections behind (it’s a transaction, it’s clean). One is associated with community and obligation, the other with freedom and alienation. From James Allen Smith, a historian of philanthropy, I learned that “the substantial power of a gift coexists with great potential for harm.” The old Germanic words gift and gif convey both gift and poison.

I believe in the power of gift exchange, in our societal need for gifts as a balance to the marketplace, and in gifts as characteristic of a commons and of civil society. As I took on this project I had to deal with the queasiness I felt being on the receiving end of gifts. But I want to use the language of gifts and not that of investments. With all its messiness, the language of gifts is closer to the values that Sarah and I want the project to stand for.

The whole story of the project and the way it came into the world is much larger and more complex than what’s here. My part of the story began in the middle of anxious nights of financial worry, of shame at not having put together a financial plan for my “retirement,” of losing my familiar cheery self, the one always able to see the sunny side of a setback. I began to get out of this hole when I found the courage to share my anxiety with Jini’s friend, Sarah, the other half of my writing group. In fact, none of this would have happened without her, the project’s co-creator. Her story is different from mine, but our two stories cross and intersect in ways that have changed us both. Another part of the story is the role played by Artist Trust and its director, Shannon Halberstadt. The role of fiscal sponsor isn’t one Artist Trust has played before: legal and fiscal responsibilities had to be clear, mechanics had to be developed, Shannon and the board had to believe in the value of the project. After deliberation and due diligence, though, they did what artists themselves often do, they took the risk.

So, here we are, with one year of the project behind us. When the year started, I wanted to tell people what would come of it. “I don’t know yet” never felt sufficient, even though I knew it was the right answer at the time. So, it feels good now to look back and see what actually happened. A summary of some of the activities in the first year and a few thoughts about what’s next is available online here.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a grand experiment, an exercise in imagination, collaboration, and many tiny details. I’m eager to see what the next two years bring.

September 1, 2017

Note
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property, 1983. Re-published as The Gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world , 2007.

 


What can happen in a year?

The Jini Dellaccio Project’s first year

The Jini Dellaccio Project encourages a redefinition of life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. It calls attention to the potential of this phase of life and to the value of using and sharing experience gained by wise-agers over many decades. The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange. I have a contract with Artist Trust to help define and manage the project and to provide an example of a wise-ager life. We are in the midst of the project’s second year. What follows is a report on some of what happened during the first year.

September 1, 2017

 

July 2016 to June 2017

A year of living with this gift had a big impact on the way I used my time. I loved having the open-ended flexibility to learn and adapt as I went without needing to be sure I was paid for what I did. It opened up the possibility that what happened might surprise me, and others too. It freed me up to do much of the work I’m doing now.

Office Hours  Last fall I began offering a twice-monthly schedule of “office hours.” This started as a way to try out my new role, and it continues as an open invitation to anyone who wants to talk with me about anything. Both Artist Trust and I periodically announce the program, and the slots fill up. Anyone interested contacts me or makes a date using an online scheduling app that Artist Trust set up. I wanted the lightest structure possible; the schedule and the name “office hours” are as formal as it gets. Better terms for these conversations might be coffee breaks, happy hours, tea time, or chit chat for trying out someone’s own new ideas or discussing whatever’s on their mind. The stories, ideas, and sometimes dilemmas that people bring range widely. I feel privileged to be brought into their lives this way and never know at the outset what I might have to contribute. I’m often surprised to discover what it is that turns out to be useful. What started as an experiment has settled down to be something I love having in my life.

Like the other activities that have come from the Jini Dellaccio Project, the office hours are not designed to make money. In fact, part of what makes them work is that they aren’t part of a market exchange. No one who schedules an office-hours slot has to start by figuring out if they can afford to pay me, and I can show up with an open mind and no pre-planned materials, ready to discover what’s on their mind and to share whatever seems valuable from my own experience. And the learning is always two-way. We both take a risk and then trust that it will be a good conversation. This allows us a freedom to respond in the moment and take our talk wherever it leads. The spontaneity and our ability to change course would not come as naturally if a meter were ticking.

Alum in Residence  Last summer (2016), Jamie Walker (director, UW School of Art + Art History + Design) and I created a new, year-long Alum in Residence position at the school. I was given an office (a major gift since “real estate” in the art building is dear) and many other privileges of being an official part of the school’s program. Through the academic year, I kept fairly regular hours, visited classes when invited by a faculty member, and organized a conversation with David Mendoza about his life since graduating with a UW art history degree 50 years ago. The largest project I undertook involved working with a small team of interns who sorted through the records of Arts Wire, an early online network I started in 1989. Not only did we inventory the contents of many banker boxes, but the intern team helped bring the material to life and relate it to our world today through two exhibitions – one in the coffee shop, one in the gallery – an Instagram account, essays posted on the web, and a podcast series about what they learned, for which they interviewed people around the country who had been involved.

Jamie went through all the institutional hoops necessary to establish the position, but, given the constraints of the school’s budget, one hoop he couldn’t leap through was finding money for it. The Jini Dellaccio Project gave me the flexibility not to require it. Being unpaid is its own kind of benefit: the position is an experiment, and I was given a lot of latitude to figure out what it could be. I’m also happy that plans are underway to continue the experiment with another graduate. I’m sure the next Alum in Residence will bring to the role their own ingenuity, life circumstances, and past experience.

“Carrying on”  Writing is a thread that winds through all the messiness and many directions of my past and present life and work. As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I made a commitment to write – specifically, to regularly add pieces to this website, Carrying on. I consider it to be “writing in public,” meant to be read by others. Like many people, a long string of half- and almost-completed pieces fill paper and digital folders, and I have many little books and odd pieces of paper full of ideas I want to explore in writing. I finally decided that, if not now, when? This project and the challenge to figure out how best to use this phase of life gave me the shove I needed to keep it going. And writing is real work. The truth of Thomas Mann’s words becomes clearer every day: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Grandma Anne  Recently I realized that the Jini Dellaccio Project also made it easier for me to step in and spend time with my grandkids Livia and Henry, relieving pressure on their parents while giving me the chance to be “Grandma Anne.” I’ve often made the case, on behalf of other parents, grandparents, and friends with aging parents, that, paid or not, caretaking is real work. I’ve never believed that work has to be onerous to qualify as real. My time with Livia and Henry is most often full of joy, it’s sometimes invisible, sometimes demanding, but always essential. Having time this last year was especially meaningful because in late August they moved from Seattle to Kansas City.

What’s next?

The coming year’s work is beginning to take tangible shape, but it’s still very much in motion and alive. Among other things, it will play out against the backdrop of the times we’re living in. Our political, economic, and social systems are racked, and I still struggle to find my role in it. I’ll keep writing, I’ll maintain my office hours, I’ll continue hosting and participating in conversations both with others and on my own. I also want to explore whether and how this project might continue after me to benefit others. I plan to keep living as one example of the difference the role and support of a project like this can make, and I’ll approach its next phase with an open-ended attitude similar to the one I started with . . . making it up, alone and with others, as I go.

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project is fiscally-sponsored by Artist Trust in honor of photographer Jini Dellaccio.


It used to take five fingers

For the last 67 years it has taken all the fingers on one hand to count my brothers. From the time I was five, I could run through their names. Fred, Ted, Frank, Karl, Ross – in order, in a flash.

I’m at a loss for how to count them now.

My oldest brother Fred – Alfred Bosworth Focke, Jr. – died on Saturday, November 25, 2017. He died peacefully, at home, with his wife Kay and daughter Julie by his side. I’m grateful it was, as far as anyone could tell, gentle and pain free. Julie told me afterward, “It was as though he quietly faded and then was gone.” He was 82.

Yet even as I absorb the news, the self underneath the sadness knows I still have five brothers. Four I can see and touch and talk with, but the fifth remains, in memory making a full hand.

 


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.


Why keep making things up in an eighth decade?

Making it up, part 2

 

With seven decades under me, I want the chance to reflect back on the past I’ve known and to imagine forward to what might yet be by learning from others – young and old, here and there, alike and different, artists and others.

The years I’ve lived have given me a many-layered foundation, built slowly over 70 years, an aggregate mix of success and acknowledgment, failure and loss, gaps and continuities. The foundation is a strong but supple underpinning that offers something steadier to stand on than I had when I was twenty, a ground for making and strengthening relationships, for continuing to make a living and a difference, for being curious, being mad, being silly, for listening, loving, thinking, writing, acting up, and continuing to dream.

I want to share what I’ve accumulated and see if it’s useful beyond myself. I want to use the past as a springboard for my curiosity and for new connections and ideas. I’d love to inspire others to do the same, to use the foundations we’ve built to make things better.

Get up, I tell myself. Get up!  Let’s get going!

On turning 70, I became clearer than ever that my time is limited.

So, if not now…when?

I have so many questions.

What do we, who are 70 and beyond, do with the extra years that modern medicine and knowledge have given us? How do we mix past and present? How do we, as an ever-larger percentage of the population, answer these questions and make a difference today?

How is the nature of work changing? How is the economy around us changing? Can we be part of imagining a different future?

How can we live together with all our differences? What can we do to strengthen the common ground that seems to be getting lost?

What can we learn from artists’ experience of work, or of aging, or of the common good? How are artists adding to wider community conversations? What more can we do?

I want to provoke new attempts to find answers.

In an eighth decade, what patterns can I make? What new ways can I move? I’m still trying to change the world.

I want to use my old-fashioned, old-fogey ways and mix them up with sometimes hard-for-me-to-understand new ways:  new technologies, new ideas about the social world, new understandings of the natural world.

I’m eager to bounce ideas around with younger people. I want to be a novice again.

I want to be a spur, a spark, l’ancienne terrible – though this personality type doesn’t really sound like me.

I’d love to figure out how to call myself. It seems we’re often asked for a few words to identify who we are. I’ve never had a good answer. So, at this point, am I . . .

A vintage instigator?
An antique inventor, rabble rouser, catalyst?
An always curious old codger? (Can women be old codgers?)
Or maybe, a seasoned listener and observer who’s been around the block – more than a few times?

I want to keep making it up.

I want time and a charge that asks me to go back to the little piles of notes and ideas left behind at times in my life, notes that are now stacking up in storage, to think about them one more time, to clean them out, pass them along, or at least recycle the paper.

Jonas Mekas, now 93, put it this way: “My own personal work was done in pieces. Now all those pieces are crying out to be completed. I’m obsessed with finishing them.”

The spirit of making it up – of life and work as an experiment – has run through my life from the start, from organizing marching majorettes in high school, to making art, creating an artist workshop at a television station, helping start formal and informal organizations, networks, and conversations, and, just last year, helping to create, fifty years later, a new alumni-in-residence program at my college alma mater.

I want to keep living an experiment, where the results are unknown and possibility is wide open.


Note:  The first “Making It Up” was posted on November 28, 2016.