Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rough Social Equity

We left the beautiful Blue Mountain Center on Thursday and three of us drove to the Albany Airport for our flights back to California. As we set in the terminal, we learned of the horrific shooting at Ft. Hood.

Since then, this event has dominated the news. Ft. Hood is the largest army base in the world, and the main place where troops are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a psychiatrist. Much has been made of the fact that Maj. Hasan is a Muslim. Many Muslim organizations have condemned the killing and many elected officials as well as military brass have been very clear that any backlash against Muslims will not be tolerated and is not acceptable. They have to speak out because immediately the media speculated as to whether Hasan is a terrorist, and various right wing commentators made much of Maj. Hasan’s religious identity.

When Bernie Madoff made off with $50 billion, several elderly Jewish friends of mine said, “Oh, this is bad for the Jews.” I wondered what they were talking about, but then saw news reports and heard people on the street say things like, “He screwed his own people” and “Jews will cheat their grandmother for enough money.”

When the killings at Virginia Tech happened, a great deal was made of the fact the killer was a Korean immigrant, and both Korean and immigrant organizations had to condemn the killings. Everyone had to listen to speculation about the relationship of being this kind of killer to being an immigrant and/or to being Korean.

I was struck (not for the first time) how privileged I am to be a Methodist, not because I think Methodism is superior to any other religious affiliation, but because whenever there is a horrific crime, I never think, “I hope it wasn’t a Methodist.” Reporters, as they give the name and background of the person, never say, “He was raised a Methodist” or “He was becoming an increasingly radical Methodist with ties to Methodist groups around the world.”

What does this story have to do with the commons? I pondered that on the way home. We know that to have a healthy commons, a society must have “rough social equity.” The gaps between rich and poor cannot be too extreme; the treatment of one kind of people cannot be completely different than the treatment of another kind. The living conditions, education, access to nature and so on cannot be completely different from one part of a community (or a nation) to another.

Rough social equity requires that people accused of crimes be treated equally. We routinely say what religious faith or race or age is in describing them, or we routinely don’t. But we don’t say someone is African American if we don’t also note when someone is Irish American and we don’t say someone is a Catholic unless we also say that someone else is a Quaker. Of course, in this “war on terror” we are trained to focus on Maj. Hasan’s faith as a possible explanation of his crime, but not on the much more logical explanation that something was very wrong in the military he served and perhaps it was his faith that kept him from snapping sooner.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day Two at Blue Mountain Center

Day two at Blue Mountain Center dawned bright, clear and bacon free! We opened with a discussion about how health care can be viewed through the lens of the Commons. Messaging research has shown us that most Americans think about health care from a consumer perspective. We spent the morning exploring the challenges of breaking free of the dominant frame.

Following this we jumped into a report from Detroit which focused on healthy communities, and expanded on the conversation from the morning, which led to the connection that the health of a community is much more than just health care. Detroiters are crossing boundaries by using the Commons to connect across issue areas. As private ownership is on the rise, groups are coming together to lay claim to what is commonly held or should be.

We ended the day with an update on the progress of the Common Security Club process one year out from its launch. More than 100 small groups have participated in the process and we had the opportunity to experience parts of the curriculum and discuss its future implications.

We head home tomorrow and will update you on what we’ve learned in the coming weeks.

Highlights from participants include:

Kim Klein: When reflecting on the games we played I was reminded how important it is to question the rules and the authority associated with who sets the rules and why we follow them. Questioning our assumptions is an important part of promoting a commons based framework.

Stephanie Roth: During the health care discussion, it was pointed out that the health of the community is more than just health care—clean air, clean water, jobs, access to healthy food and transportation—all of these things contribute to the overall health of the community.

Robby Rodriguez: Hearing Lottie talk about the digital justice work in Detroit and its relation to the commons highlighted for me the right to communicate as a fundamental piece of a healthy community.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day One at Blue Mountain Center

We started the morning with a delicious breakfast (fantastic bacon and the oatmeal was ‘da bomb’) and then Kim started us off with a description of the Building Movement Project’s work on the Commons. The theme was time, and how time to think must be reclaimed. It’s equal for all of us, but our leisure time has been under attack since the 1920s. The United States is second only to Korea in number of hours worked, so how then can we find the time to envision creative solutions to our current problems.

After the morning discussion with Kim, the team from OnTheCommons (OTC) discussed the work they’ve been doing over the last few years. They talked about how the work has shifted from understanding and defining the Commons, towards lifting up and creating transformational systems change. They also shared some great historical examples of commons-based thinking gaining prominence in the U.S – from the agrarian progressive movement of the early 1900s to the co-ops and communes of the 1960s.

We ended the day with a presentation on the budget and tax crisis in California, and how it’s really an issue of the Commons. A group of activists and legislators has formed a network in the state to engage nonprofits in a conversation about the broken tax structure in the state. The presenters tested out some exercises that they plan to introduce as part of a curriculum on talking about taxes.

Highlights from the participants include:

Lottie Spady (EMEAC): It struck me when Kim shared a quote from Dorothy Day’s mentor, “There is a need to create a society in which it is not that hard to be good,” so that we don’t need to be altruistic, beg, borrow, or steal.

Caroline McAndrews (Building Movement Project): People mentioned several times that we are in a pivotal moment in history and what we do now will determine the trajectory over the next decade. Kim mentioned a similar moment in the late 20’s when developed nations had the capacity to meet the world’s needs and could have chosen to share those skills with the world, but instead chose to create a culture of waste. That was a really powerful image for me.

Ellen Wu (CPEHN): I really liked the phrase “imagine and co-create.” It opened up the possibilities for the afternoon.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld (Center for Community Change, BMP Project Team member): The charts and visualizations that OnTheCommons used to illustrate the gap between how bad things are getting highlighted the fact that time is running out to make change, but that the possibilities for transforming dominant ideologies are wide open.

We leave you with a quote Kim mentioned in her talk this morning:
“Our vocation is to be fully human. But what if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation?” Paolo Freire

More tomorrow!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Away this week

This week we will be in upstate New York at Blue Mountain Center discussing "The Applied Commons: Exploring Commons-Based Solutions to Pressing Social Problems."

Our goal for the meeting is to leave with a group of tools, exercises, and discussion ideas that we can all test in our own work and communities – even those of us who are not directly working on commons issues. To this end, we’ve invited not only folks working directly on commons issues, but also practitioners, trainers, and organizers who don’t necessarily define their work as “commons” work. We hope that the combination will allow us to break through some of the barriers that have arisen using this framework, as well as develop tools that can be tested in the coming year.

We will be blogging from the meeting with updates and interesting questions that come up and look forward to sharing the results when we return.