Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who's Responsible for Maintaining Public Space?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time on bike paths.  This past Sunday I did a two hour ride on the Ohlone Bike Path which starts in Berkeley and winds through Albany, El Cerrito and into Richmond.  As I ride along, I notice the scenery, nod to the walkers and bikers coming the other way, and think on what a wonderful part of the commons these paths are.

The bike path in Berkeley provides a glimpse of the median income level of the towns it passes through, and the willingness or ability of the residents to be engaged in maintaining their path.  In Berkeley, various parts of the path are planted with native plants, shrubs are trimmed and the path is free of trash. Some parts of the path even have beautiful murals.  As I moved further north, some parts of the path are beautifully planted, watered and well kept.  Other parts are planted with drought resistant plants, reflecting attention to the chronic water shortage that we have in California.  But some parts are overtaken with invasive fennel or other weeds, and weeds crowd into the path.  In Richmond, the path begins with a creek restoration project which is really lovely, then deteriorates into a path marked on either side by a chain link fence, one side of which is topped with barbed wire.  Richmond is, by and large, much poorer than Berkeley.     

In a “Show Me the Money” training recently, participants argued about how these paths are to be maintained.  All agreed that the government should provide land for these kind of trails and should build them.  One participant, a retired Marine who works with pre-teens who have brushes with the law, felt that the kids he works with should be employed by the county to maintain parks and outdoor areas.  They would learn discipline, they would gain skills, earn some small amount of money, and have fun being outdoors.  Another participant felt that this would mean we always have to have a supply of kids on their way to juvenile hall, and in the long term, this is not what we want.  He felt homeowners should be assessed a small amount which would be put into a pool and evenly divided over all the public outdoor areas so that each town would have nice bike paths and parks.  Another believed it would be best to keep it the way it is:  each community decides how important these areas are to them and maintain in whatever way they can. Why should people who own homes in poor communities have to spend money on bike paths?  Maybe they would prefer to put their money into street lights, or just keep what little money they have.  (He later admitted he doesn’t like to go outside.)

I found myself agreeing with everybody, which meant that I kept changing my mind as the conversation progressed.  What is the role of an individual, a neighborhood or a whole town in creating and maintaining outdoor public space?  If government agencies do all of it, does this decrease creativity?  What if one community wants a mural and the other doesn’t?  What do we do with kids who have few job prospects and go to terrible (and badly maintained) schools to encourage them not to get into the prison pipeline?  And why should people pay for something they have no intention of ever using? 

The reality is that the commons is so large and so important that is has to maintained (in some cases, restored) and upgraded in as many ways as possible.  Volunteers have an important place in taking care of public spaces.  Those same volunteers need to make sure there is enough money in the tax stream for costs that volunteers cannot incur.  And those of us who need a little help with our lives need to find the joy of helping our communities.  But above all, how we decide to keep our public spaces open and accessible to the public will require a certain equality of opportunity for involvement that is sadly missing now.  One participant ended this part of the discussion by saying, “We should be having this conversation with all the people we meet on our bike paths.”  Even our companion who doesn’t like going outside agreed.   “I’ll be having a conversation in the computer bank of the library,” he said.  “It will be almost the same in terms of content.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

USSF 2010: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Building Movement Project, in partnership with many groups, participated in a People’s Movement Assembly at the US Social Forum last month, which drew over 100 participants from all over the US and the world. We featured one of those groups in a post this summer.

This week, we want to highlight the work of another one of our partners in organizing the session: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago. Little Village joined the People's Movement Assembly process to explore the links between their environmental justice work and how to build a healthier, more inclusive, and racially just democracy. They think of the environment as, “where we live, work, study, play and pray,” and they follow a mission to “work with our families, coworkers, and neighbors to improve our environment and lives in Little Village and through out Chicago through democracy in action. [They] work for a real voice in building democracy, including if, how, when and where any development of our communities takes place, as the basis for environmental, economic and social justice.”

In order to protect the environment around us, all people must first have full agency to act. At Little Village, they “live by the principle that, as working and poor people of color, we have the right to control our lives and resources.”

For more information on their campaigns and how they link democracy with environmental and racial justice, please visit their website.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Americans for Tax Reform vs. the Common Good

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is one of the leading anti-tax crusaders in the United States.  He is famous for saying, “I don’t hate government.  I just want to make it small enough that I could drown it in the bathtub.”  He and his followers take a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” to every incumbent and candidate and ask them to sign it.  It says, "I ____, pledge to the taxpayers of the district of the state of _____ and all the people of this state that I shall oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."  Here in California, all but one Republican legislator has signed this pledge. (You can see an actual copy of it on the ATR Website)  The organization also claims that it "opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle."

I found another quote from Norquist recently which really shows his true values.  In an article by William Greider called “Rolling Back the 20th Century” (The Nation, May 12, 2003),  he said that he wants to bring America back to what it was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over.  The income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.” 

He will say almost anything about anyone, such as this extraordinary analogy: “Clinton and Obama practice this politics known quaintly as the Richard Speck strategy: if you cannot take on everyone in the room at once, take them out of the room one at a time.”  (Richard Speck raped and murdered 8 nurses one night in July, 1966.  He took them out of their dorm room one at a time.)

I thought of him today when I was leading a workshop on what nonprofits need to do to address California’s broken tax structure (  Our call in these workshops is to engage in conversation, to listen to others, to show compassion and to encourage nonprofit staff to get involved in supporting any and all efforts to reform our budget and revenue structure here in California.  In some despair I wondered what kind of conversation I would have with Mr. Norquist and his followers. Fortunately I believe he does not represent the majority of Americans, but he has drawn a firm line in the sand and we must do all we can to counter his point of view by emphasizing the common good and what it will take to create a rough social equity. Taxes are not the only solution, but they are an integral part of any real and lasting change that helps everyone.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Un-Commons Recovery

On Monday, the announcement came out that the recession officially ended last summer. The chatter online was that the “egg-head” economists are out of touch with the economic woes of people on the ground; and setting aside the technicalities about how the National Bureau of Economic Research determines what constitutes a recession and when it comes to an end, there is wisdom in our skepticism about the recession’s “end.” There’s also a commons angle to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ created by news of economic recovery in spite of our real-life experience of job losses, foreclosures and troubles making ends meet.

The sad fact is that the recovery isn’t something that’s being held in common.

The economic growth over the last year has not only been “anemic,” it’s also been highly targeted. The rich have rebounded very quickly in this “recovery” but the rest of us are still struggling.

The number of people with more than $1 million in assets grew by more than 17% last year, thanks to the surge in the stock market; but the U.S. poverty rate rose to 14.3%. At the beginning of this year, companies had the highest share of assets in cash since the early 1960s because they were sitting on cash instead of using it to hire back workers and create new jobs. In fact, FedEx announced last week that it was planning to cut 1,700 jobs, even though its “first-quarter net income doubled”.

But this isn’t new. Over the last two decades, the economy has been structured to benefit a few, while the rest of us tread water or go under. The New York Times created this chart that shows job growth (or losses) following the end of a recession. It’s not just a coincidence that the recessions of the 70s and early 80s were followed by major job growth, but the more recent recessions were jobless. The trickle-down economic theory of the 80s -- which justified de-regulation, attacks on unions, and tax cuts for the rich -- fundamentally re-structured our economy in a decidedly Un-Commons direction.

It's time to re-think and re-structure our economy so that the recovery doesn't continue to be privatized for a few, but can instead strengthen our Commons.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Show Me the Money: What do we know about taxes?

I am currently engaged in a wonderful project called "Show Me the Money". The purpose of the project is to engage nonprofit staff in understanding tax policy, and then hoping that they will advocate for revenue solutions to our budget crises rather than more cuts. Nonprofits that rely on government funding to provide needed services are watching their funding be reduced again and again, while both the cost of doing business and the need for their work increase. This has reached crisis proportions, with thousands of nonprofits laying off staff, cutting programs and even going out of business altogether. The bottom line is that without significant restoration of government revenue, there is not enough money to do the work that communities count on nonprofits to do.

Compounding the problem is the fact that nonprofits (with a few exceptions) have not taken any leadership in advocating for fair and just tax policies that would create a tax stream capable of maintaining a social safety net and adequate quality of life. In the vast majority of states, and certainly nationally, there is no “nonprofit lobby.” Congress people do not look at their windows and think, “Oh, no, the Nonprofit Lobby is here.”

I see social service agencies turning themselves into pretzels to meet more and more need with less funding. And the problem is that every time we try to do more work, help more people, provide more services, using the same amount or often less money, we say to the right wing, to the Grover Norquists’ of the world: “You were right. We didn’t need that much money to do our work.”

There is an appalling ignorance about issues of tax and budget structure among nonprofit staff. In my (admittedly not scientific, but still fairly large) survey of nonprofit staff, few knew how their state budget structure worked, few had opinions on things like what the estate tax should be or whether increasing sales tax on alcohol and soda is a good thing or pushes still more of a tax burden onto poor people. (This may be true in the public at large as well.) Mostly, in keeping with the overworked and beleaguered culture that prevails in nonprofits right now, staff feel there is little they can do to influence tax policy and so the effort to learn about it would not be worth it. There is a related unwillingness to stand up for ourselves and for the people we serve for fear of losing our tax status or losing further funding, or out of inability to budget the time.

The organizations that are experts on tax policy and do advocate for progressive solutions tend to do it like this, “Here are a bunch of difficult- to-understand facts (mostly numbers) and here is what you should do: use this message, advocate for this, vote for that.” The problem with giving people a lot of information and then telling them to act on that information is that no time is spent finding out what opinions or feelings people start out with. A Canadian activist once told me, “When American activists see a problem or find an injustice, you immediately say, “What shall we do? What shall we do?” And you run around DOING a lot, but much of is ineffective because you don’t stop to say, “What do I think about this? What do others think? Are my feelings and my thoughts different? Am I acting out of what I have been taught to think, or have I taken the time to create my own thinking? Who can I talk with?” Americans take great pride in saying that people have the right to their opinion, but no one is going to form an opinion if their lived experience is that no one ever asks them for their opinion.

Organized philanthropy is no help either. For example, recently there was much praise for the “Giving Pledge” led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Certainly the Council on Foundations or Independent Sector should thank these men for being so generous, but also they need to ask a question about what kind of society lets people accumulate that much wealth in the first place? In the world of organized philanthropy, we see very little advocacy about the estate tax, and some large coalitions of nonprofits have opposed Obama’s proposal to cap deductions, even though 71% of Americans file a short form and receive no tax benefit for their giving at all. To my knowledge (and I would love to be wrong), there is no major coalition of nonprofits that has raised the question about the purpose of taxes, and has asked how it is that we have a tax system which is redistributive, but redistributes massive wealth to fewer and fewer people.

There is no easy solution to this complicated problem, but any solution must begin with educating ourselves and each other about the role of taxes in public life. Taxes are primarily a revenue tool, but they are also a mirror of community values, and we need to make the connection between taxes and the common good. A commons approach to movement building starts with a commitment to conversation, and an assertion that having a conversation is DOING something. Start with asking yourself and everyone around you, “What is your tax philosophy?” Mine is borrowed from the economist Adam Smith who said in the late 1700’s, “the goal of taxes should be to remedy inequality as much as possible.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashanah, 5771: no more fears, no more scapegoats

Today is the Jewish New Year, marking the start of the “Days of Awe”, a ten day period of reflection, meditation and repentance ending with Yom Kippur. Actually, the New Year started at sundown last night, and my partner (who is Jewish) and I invited a few friends to join us for dinner. As it turned out, we were all women and, except for me, all Jews, none particularly religious or observant.

All of us are also activists, and so our talk naturally turned to the rampant Islamaphobia (as one person pointed out, “It’s so widespread we had to coin a name for it”) that is sweeping our country. From the frenzy surrounding the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan to the most recent threat to burn Korans on Sept 11 by a tiny fundamentalist group of Christians (using the word loosely), Muslims have become the new target of American fears and bigotry. Last night, several people recalled their parents’ growing up, when being Jewish evoked similar sentiments. And many of us recalled our own childhood and early adulthood when whole neighborhoods were off limits for Jews. In fact, a new poll by Gallup shows that people who express contempt for Jews are 32 times more likely to be anti-Muslim.

What might a commons frame have to say about all of this? I won’t pretend to present all that a commons philosophy offers here, partly because anti-Muslim prejudice cannot be separated from racism and anti-immigration points of view, and because religion (which is only part of this equation, but one that cannot be left out) is a gray area in commons thinking, which I will discuss more in another blog post.

Because this is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, I want to raise the question of fear. A commons-based society is one in which fear is uncommon. Clearly individuals may have personal fears: spiders, needles, heights, etc. And many of us have various levels and stages of fear around big life events such as dying.

But in a commons-based society, people would not be afraid of each other, and would not need to create groups of people to vilify and fear. I am almost 57 and in my life, I have been taught to be afraid of Communists (under every bed), Catholics (the pope tells them what to do, and, under Kennedy, the Pope was running the country), Jews (controlling all the money), and then in more minor ways, hippies, drug addicts, gay people, and probably any number of other groups and subgroups. I was not taught to be afraid of Black people, mostly because I grew up in a town where there were none, not because we were so pure.

At all these stages of my life, there were people who tried to counter these fears. Some people would give the fears names that made them into moral issues: “anti-Semitism,” “homophobia”, “racism.” While these analyses were both helpful and accurate, I often found that in people who were truly fearful, this approach simply covered their fear with either guilt or defensiveness, but their fear remained intact. Others tried to counter fear with facts, which again, in the truly fearful, now added a feeling of stupidity to their fear. Possibly because I was very friendly with a number Jews and Catholics growing up, and my parents were sympathetic to Communist ideals, (not to be confused with being Communist sympathizers, which they were not), I did not share the fears of my childhood friends and was often accused of being anti-American. I also attribute some of reaction to fear mongering to my own dawning awareness of being a lesbian, and watching how much fear I could strike in someone else just by saying that. Our country practically practices a fear du jour: witchcraft, the British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, creatures from outer space….the list is way too long.

Counting Islamaphobia with more education about Islam and calls for tolerance from every kind of pulpit to say nothing of enforcement of hate crime laws is critically important. But just as Islamaphobia has replaced a number of other fears, we don’t want to simply educate ourselves out of this one, only to replace it with fear of some other group of people in the next decade. We must train ourselves out of fear itself. People let go of fear when they feel heard and understood, and when their own personal experience counters the fears they have been taught. We often use the words “compassion and tolerance” as though they were interchangeable, but in fact, we need to separate them. Can we be compassionate – from the Latin, meaning to “feel with” – to people who are afraid, without tolerating behavior that is unacceptable? Compassion will not replace analysis or facts or education: it will simply form the basis from which we engage. Our commons commitment has to be “no more fears, no more scapegoats.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day reflection from RFK

Labor Day marks the end of Summer; that's what the holiday meant to honor the labor movement has largely been reduced to. So lots of progressive folks comment on the true meaning of Labor Day (much like ministers talk about the true meaning of Christmas). But I came across this excerpt from a Labor Day speech by Robert Kennedy 42 years ago:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

School Daze: Racism and the School System

Today several of the neighborhood children were going to their first day of the new school year. They were nervous and excited. I smiled at them and wished them luck, and I remembered my many first days of the school year. I went to a public school down the street from my house. Girls had to wear dresses and boys had to wear long pants. We all had to bring two #2 pencils and tablet of paper. We had a library, music program, art once a week, and recess. I hated dressing up (and still do) so I am happy to see that the children seem to be able to wear whatever they want, and some even seem to be in uniform. I loved the library and hid out there during recess, which I did not love.

Most of the children in my neighborhood go to public schools, as they are decent in Berkeley. However, a friend told me that she is sending her daughter to a private school. She said she had kept careful track last year of how much time she spent fundraising for her daughter’s school so that they could have a library, an art program, a music program, and physical education. She also kept track of how much of her own money she spent on events related to the school. She is a single parent who works as a bank teller so she doesn’t make a lot of money. She is African-American, which will figure into the story momentarily. She had seen kids coming in and out of a very fine private school not far from her bank. She observed the wonderful arts and crafts the children proudly showed to their parents, the ways the teachers greeted each child in the morning and waved good bye at the end of the day. She decided to go into the school and see how much it would cost to send her daughter there. This private school has set a goal to be more racially diverse and their financial aid is based on income, so her daughter, who is also a good student, would help this school meet its goals. When this person calculated how much time she would free up to actually spend with her daughter instead of fundraising, and how much money she was already spending, and what kind of financial aid package this school would give her, she realized it would cost her about $1,000 a year more to send her daughter to private school than to public school. Her daughter starts today in a class of 12 students, compared to last year when she started in a class of 32.

Another friend, who is an activist with an organization that teaches high school students community organizing told me this story: in one high school in Oakland, the students participating in this program were asked what they wanted to organize for. After a much briefer discussion than my friend expected, they said, “Clean bathrooms where the toilets have doors and toilet paper.”

A friend in Hawaii wrote to me this summer and said that the public schools last year had been shut for 17 Fridays, giving that state the shortest academic year in the nation, and turning her and other parents into pretzels as they tried to arrange something for their kids to do on those Fridays. She finally used up most of her vacation taking care of her kids, but she made a little bit of money from parents giving her money in gratitude that she was willing to take care of her kids’ friends as well.
And the list goes on…..

Our children have fallen victim to the neoliberal view that I have written about before, which commodifies everything, including people. In a country where enough people can send their children to good schools and then to college, and in an economy where there are not enough jobs, having thousands of alienated students and frantic parents, overworked teachers with too many students in crumbling buildings doesn’t matter. In fact many of the students from very poor schools will form the workforce that prisons provide on contract with corporations.

To turn this around will require not just working for high quality public education. We will have to look and talk about the racism that informs so much of who is valued and who isn’t. I believe that racism is at the root of most of what is wrong with our public schools, and with our national failure to prioritize education. Obviously, white people suffer as much from poor schools and a poorly educated population will contribute to a poorly run country, but one can’t help but notice that the poorest schools also have the most kids of color, and that a private school seeking to diversify its student body would probably not see a white child as helpful to that goal. And most of all, we see racial overtones to the way that public schools have been made into charities. Foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals contribute money to them, create and fund programs to improve them. Public schools, being one of the main sources of poor people, are the “needy” and an industry of benefactors has been created to meet that need.

A commons frame says that high quality public education, like health care, is what you provide to everyone. Everyone helps pay for it, everyone benefits from it. If foundations, corporations and wealthy people were serious about education, they would pool their resources and advocate for proper tax funding for every school, for higher taxes on themselves to provide the revenue needed, and to funding anti-racism work which would actually address the root cause of most of our current problems.