Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Emerging Strategies to Re/Claim the Commons

Last week, over 15,000 people, including grassroots community organizers, activists, and social service nonprofits gathered in Detroit, MI at the second United States Social Forum to build unity around common goals of social justice, strengthen ties between organizations, and help build a broader social justice movement. It was not a conference, but rather an open space for people and groups to blend their ideas and energy on solutions to the economic and ecological crisis.

Building Movement Project, in partnership with many groups (including sponsor OnTheCommons.org), participated in a People’s Movement Assembly, which drew over 70 participants from all over the US and the world. The goal was to learn from one another’s efforts to create and claim commons in our communities, and strengthen those efforts by sharing challenges and strategies, and building alliances moving forward.

Each Assembly ends with a set of resolutions meant to call other USSF participants to action, and to name strategies for advancing this movement after the Forum. You can find the full text on the USSF PMA website, but we wanted to share some of the key resolutions that were generated, specifically around what is required in order to claim the commons:
  • Repairing and rebuilding community relationships damaged by injustice, inequity and disconnection.
  • Teaching ourselves to become stewards rather than only consumers
  • Creating the means, policies and rules that lead to equitable community resource sharing and ownership
  • Developing resource governance that is participatory, transparent and collaborative as well as appropriate to that particular commons
In the coming month, we will be featuring the work of some of the partners who helped organize the commons PMA and highlighting the strategies they have been using to reclaim their commons.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Road Trip

Please enjoy our restrooms whether you buy anything here or not. We want you to enjoy your drive through our beautiful scenery.
- A sign outside a small gas station near Poncha Springs, CO.

I just returned from a week long road trip with my 83-year-old mother and 50+ sister. We went first to Durango, CO where I was born in 1953, then went on to Santa Fe and Taos, NM.

Bathrooms are very important on road trips, particularly when we are trying to stay hydrated in the dry air. Of course everyone uses the bathroom when we fill up the gas tank, but the tank lasts longer than any of our bladders. I saw this sign and I thought, “What a wonderful commons approach to an asset this gas station owns.” So different from the much more common, “Bathrooms are for customers only.” I don’t generally think positively about gas stations, so the thought stayed with me.

Our trip included lots of national parks and forests, land trusts, historic hotels, trains, churches and monuments, all of which have interesting stories of individuals and communities coming together to protect and preserve, and sometimes, restore them, and then make them available to the general public as national treasures. Anyone who has spent time in the Southwest has to be aware of the role of the commons in protecting large areas of it, and the role of privatization in the colonial and imperial history of Spanish, then American conquest.

But of all the history, culture and beauty we experienced, my thoughts linger most fondly with this gas station. I am struck by the idea that a commons frame or a commons way of living is about hospitality and sharing. I want to spend some time thinking about how I might bring this spirit of commons to all that I own. A gas station is an odd place to find a commons and proof that commons can be anywhere.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Corporate Greed Toxic to Commons

If the catastrophe in the Gulf isn't a clear enough example of the critical need to protect our commons from greedy, amoral, and inept private industry, I don't know what it will take to convince people.

The latest estimates are that 45,000 barrels of oil are seeping into the Gulf waters each day, and that's in spite of the latest containment attempt (a 'cap' that's only capturing at most 15,000 barrels/day). And people are outraged by the images of the unbelievable environmental impact, but if you listen to the media, you'd think that rage is only being directed at the federal government and President Obama.

There's no doubt that people are disappointed by the response by the President (71% think he hasn't been tough enough on BP). BUT if you look at recent polls, the real outrage and blame is directed at BP. In fact, 59% of Americans are so angry that they are willing to see the company go out of business if that's what it takes to pay for the damage resulting from the oil spill.

In spite of the anger and mistrust directed at BP, the privatize-at-all-costs conservatives still want the corporation to continue to be in charge of clean-up efforts. Conservatives' undying faith in corporate power and disdain for government regulation is what led to this disaster in the first place (see this timeline of how Vice-President Cheney helped cause the oil spill). That's why I was relieved that President Obama specifically went after lax regulation in his speech last night.

The disaster in the Gulf is the logical result of our failure to aggressively protect our natural commons. Trusting big business to be responsible for stewardship of the commons has left us with a level of environmental degradation in the Gulf that even the experts can't fathom.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

In a brilliant new book called “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compile hundreds of studies to come to this conclusion, “Inequality is the most important explanation of why, despite extraordinary material success, some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures.” (for more on these studies, go to www.Equalitytrust.org.uk)

In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, statistics show that community life is stronger, there is less violence, health tends to be better and in fact by every indicator, life is better. The authors note that the obvious explanation for this is that there is more poverty in unequal societies and hence more social problems. But, even though it is counterintuitive, they have discovered that in more unequal societies, even middle class people on good incomes are likely to be less healthy, less likely to be involved in civic life, and more likely to be victims of violence. Children of middle class people are less likely to do well in school, more likely to use drugs, and more likely to become teenage parents, than their poorer counterparts in more equal societies.

This book should be of particular use to social justice activists here in the United States. The USA has the highest homicide rates, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest rates of imprisonment and is 28th in life expectancy. The authors say this is BECAUSE it also has the biggest income differences of the 35 richest countries in the world. Even amongst the 50 United States, those with less income inequality do better on all social measurements than the more unequal states. The authors believe we have reached a level of development beyond which further rises in material living standards will not help reduce health or social problems.

What is it about inequality that is so corrosive? In highly unequal societies, people with less wealth are very conscious of having less social status. The authors claim, “The most widespread and potent kind of stress in modern societies centers on our anxieties about how others see us, on our self-doubts and social insecurities….Shame and embarrassment have been called the social emotions: they shape our behaviors that we conform to acceptable norms….” Simply put, a society like the United States, with a long history of racism, classism, sexism has successfully made most people feel bad about themselves. People feel unimportant, unappreciated and not valuable. Everyone wants to earn more, have more, own more--thinking this will make up for being less. But of course it doesn’t. “What hurts about having second rate possessions is being seen as a second rate person.”

There is much that must be done to remedy inequality—policies must change, laws must be revoked, regulations must be returned, but each of us can play a part every day while we work for these larger changes. That part is to express how we value and appreciate each other in our workplaces, among our friends and neighbors. And of course to keep questioning how much each of us needs to OWN, as opposed to how much each of us can steward, enhance and pass on all that we own together.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Twilight Zone

The headlines of the last few days have made me feel I am living in the twilight zone.

Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix, AZ, has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for saving a woman’s life. Last year a 27-year-old mother of four arrived at the hospital three months pregnant and suffering from pulmonary hypertension. This complication put such a strain on her that continuing the pregnancy threatened her life and she was given an abortion. The hospital stated, “In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy. This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee.” Sr. Margaret agreed with the decision and was almost immediately excommunicated by her Bishop for assenting to an abortion.

Saving a life, letting four living children continue to have a mother and a husband continue to have a wife, receives the most serious punishment the church can hand down.

Israel has attacked in international waters a convoy of ships full of humanitarian aid headed for Gaza, to be delivered by several hundred long time peace activists. The Israeli Defense Force has killed at least ten and wounded dozens more. Bringing food, clothing, building materials to people living under occupation in extreme poverty receives a violent and deadly response from a government claiming to be the Middle East’s only democracy.

And finally the continuing saga of greed, incompetence and arrogance going on the Gulf of Mexico, with the BP oil spill in which punishment is not present at all. The BP executives continue to appear on TV, they continue to get their salaries and their stock continues to be traded. This completely preventable catastrophe has already earned the dubious distinction of being one of the worst ecological disasters in history.

What does a commons frame help us to think about these kinds of hideous stories? A commons frame asks for a complete reconsideration of the nature of power, and asks us to look at issues from the point of view of what is best for most people. A woman’s life has to be seen as being as more important as an eleven week old fetus. Human rights (and human life) have to be seen as more important than demonstrations of military prowess and national security. And finally, the health of the earth itself must take precedence over continuing to provide consumers with fossil fuels and shareholders with profits.

Peter Maurin said “our job is to create a society in which it is easy to be good.” In the twilight zone of the last few days, we seem very far from that.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rigged Economy

Last week, Kim Klein and I were in Seattle for a meeting on state budgets, taxes and banks. The conference was organized by the Institute for Pragmatic Practice, a new project of the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, and held at NWFCO's new home called the Southside Commons (a former church that they bought and converted into offices and a hub for community activities and social justice organizations).

The packed agenda of panels and workshops brought together progressive elected officials, labor leaders and community organizers to share ideas and best-practices for taking on the amoral banks who crashed the economy and the conservatives who want to cut taxes at all costs. Even though the commons wasn't explicitly discussed, the underlying critique of all the speakers was that the economy has been rigged to benefit the rich, at the expense of the well-being of everyone else. Challenging the corporate oligarchy will require commons-based thinkers to continue the conversations started in Seattle last week.