Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nonprofit Vote

This Tuesday’s featured partner is Nonprofit Vote, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits integrate voter engagement into their ongoing activities and services. Nonprofit Vote focuses on the nonprofit sector due to its connection and presence in communities with underrepresented and underserved populations with a history of lower voter participation.

The organization has a wealth of resources available on their site, but we’d like to specifically draw your attention to a study they recently released that recently released study that demonstrates the effectiveness of nonprofit voter engagement efforts based on research done during the 2010 midterm election.

According the Nonprofit Vote, the study found that:
  1. When a nonprofit talked to clients about voting, their likelihood of voting increased.
  2. The likelihood of a client voting increased proportionally with each additional voting-related contact made by the nonprofit.
  3. A nonprofit's outreach efforts go beyond the individual they engage--clients contacted about voting were also more likely to encourage their friends and family to vote.
  4. Among the types of voter assistance provided, registering new voters and offering voting reminders made the biggest difference in increasing voter turnout.
To learn more visit their research page and read the study factsheet (PDF), or the full report (PDF).

Check back Thursday for a post from Sean Thomas-Breitfeld in our Race and the Commons Series.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

This is the Time

Many people followed the prediction that the world would end on May 21, and those who God saved would be taken up to Heaven and the rest of us left here below.  Facebook had a lot of pictures of “post rapture looting” which was fun.   Harold Camping, the nearly 90 year old minister who predicted this, said Monday:  “It has been a tough weekend.”  I think he should win a prize for understatement.  Cynically I thought, “You cry all the way to the bank.”  He collected $18 million dollars this year alone from followers and probably spent $100 million on tracts, billboards, etc.  He still has, by some accounts, $72 million in the bank. 

Whether he is a crackpot or a charlatan is not for me to determine.  What I am struck by is something another minister said today about this whole event, “It is interesting to see what people do when they think they have only a short time left.”  He told several stories of people reconciling with relatives or friends from whom they had been estranged, and people taking vacations or getting rid of stuff they didn’t need.  I was also struck by how many people made an effort to have fun, to heal relationships that had been hard, to leave jobs they hated anyway, and to throw out stuff they didn’t need.  Many commentators have said that the people who follow Camping are naïve or mentally ill, and that may be true.  But I also think that this prediction made some people get their priorities in order. 

This event raises many questions, some moral, some legal.  Will Camping give back the money he raised for this, especially to people who may have given him their life savings?  What is the obligation of the state to protect from people like Camping?  Should his organization maintain its nonprofit status? 

But the question I am most interested in is this:  how can all of us have correct priorities all the time, and not just when we think we are about to die (or in this case, be raptured away)?  Healing relationships, being with friends, having fun:  why can’t do those things every day?  Part of the reason someone like Camping can happen in the United States and is less likely to be found in other developed countries is that other countries place more emphasis on people and community than we do.

This minister I was with today finished his talk by saying, “Camping got the day wrong, but not the time.  We must always act as if God is here already and we must know that today is the day for justice and love.  Not tomorrow, not when the Republicans agree with us, not when the funders help us, but today, now, this minute.  This is the time.” 

This is the time. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Social Equity in a Multi-racial Society

The Equality Trust, which was featured in Tuesday’s blog post, has published a PowerPoint presentation compiling information on how the United States compares to other wealthy countries in terms of a number of social problems.  According to the information they have compiled, the USA has the highest rate of homicide, teen pregnancy, infant mortality and imprisonment of any of the 32 developed countries they looked at. 

The countries with the lowest of these problems are Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden.  These countries are also the most equal in terms of income.  I have presented these slides several times and every time people are shocked by how bad the USA compares to other nations, but then immediately say, “Well, these other countries are very homogeneous,” as though we have nothing to learn from countries that are not like us. 

But it was not until I read a column by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, that I realized one of the implications of “we are not like Norway and so cannot have the quality of life that they have.”   In his April 17 column entitled, “The Middle-Class Tax Trap,” Douthat says, “Historically, the most successful welfare states (think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer programs. But the working-age America of the future will be far more diverse than the retired cohort it’s laboring to support. Asking a population that’s increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.”

Joan Walsh, writing in Salon.com about Douthat’s comments, says, “Douthat seems to be saying we can't have a real social compact in a multiracial society; it only works in monochromatic Nordic societies. I think it would be the ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove him wrong.”

Reading all this I remembered a trip I made to a poor county in Eastern Kentucky when I was working in Appalachia in the 1980’s.  I was visiting with a wonderful progressive organization and we started talking about racism.  To my surprise, the Executive Director said, “We don’t have racism here in this county because we have never had any Black people live here.  This has always been an all white county.  When Blacks were leaving the south, they passed right through here because we had no jobs, and we still have no jobs.”

I asked him, “Do you mean racism only exists with the presence of people of color?”  He thought a moment and said, “I never thought of it that way.  No, I don’t mean that.”  We went on to have a very interesting conversation about how to address racism in an all white environment where the rate of poverty was almost 50% and one in seven households had no electricity or running water. 

There is a certain fatalism on the part of people who reject the idea that the United States can be both multi-racial and have rough social equity.  I don’t think the people who say, “We cannot be like Norway” are racist – some are anti-racist activists – but the implications of what they are saying has racial overtones and must be addressed.  The presence of people of color is not what causes social problems.  What if we thought instead that the struggles we are engaged in to end racism give us the insight we need to build a society with the same quality of life for everyone here as is experienced in Scandinavia?  That, in fact, we will be called on to teach Scandinavians some lessons about incorporating immigrants into the fabric of our social compact, something that has been difficult particularly in Denmark and Holland?  Until and unless we imagine our diversity as an extraordinary gift and asset, we condemn the majority of us to lives of increasing deprivation and a tiny handful of us to lives of excess and consumption.  We can do better than that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Equality Trust

This Tuesday’s featured partner is The Equality Trust, based in the United Kingdom. The Equality Trust was founded in 2009 by Bill Kerry, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, following the publishing of The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, which documents the real and negative effect of income inequality on functioning, healthy societies.

The Equality Trust is the online repository of all the research, slides, and tools included in the book, as well as ongoing updated research and commentary on inequality around the globe. While there is a focus on the UK in much of the recent posts, there is a plethora of useful data and visuals on US-based inequality.

As we continue to look at the need for rough social equity for a healthy commons, this work is an invaluable resource.

Check back Thursday for a post from Kim Klein in our Race and the Commons Series.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


The headlong stream is termed violent
But the river bed hemming it in is
Termed violent by no one.
The storm that bends the birch trees
Is held to be violent
But how about the storm
That bends the backs of the roadworkers?

Bertolt Brecht, “On Violence”

Brecht’s poem is a wonderful metaphor for understanding the concept of structural oppression. The image of a riverbed actually being more responsible for the speed and danger of the river than the water itself is a call for a paradigm shift in how we address the structures of oppression. Today I would like to explore a possible commons view of a way to begin to deconstruct structural racism.

Those of us who post on this blog use the concept originally put forward by David Bollier of “rough social equity” as the end goal of our commons work. This concept leads immediately to issues of poverty, income inequality, corporate power, tax justice and so on. We have looked at any number of economic models for addressing economic inequity. Economic inequity cannot be separated from racism since it is so abundantly clear that all forms of economic injustice disproportionately affect people of color. (See Tuesday’s blog post about ColorLines, which is consistently one of the clearest and most articulate publications on this topic.)

However, it is also clear that ending economic injustice will not, de facto, end racism. So it is worth spending time to try think about a commons view of racism separate from economic oppression. “Rough social equity” calls for a transformation of the structures of way inhabitants of a society view each other. In 1923, the theologian, Martin Buber, wrote a book called “I and Thou”, one of the most important books of the last two centuries. He said that human beings can adopt one of two attitudes towards the world: either “I-It” or “I-Thou.” “I-Thou” is a relationship between a subject and a subject, and “I-It” a relationship between a subject and an object. “I-Thou” relationships are characterized by dialogue between entities with no outcome in mind except genuine encounter and understanding. “I-It” is a utilitarian relationship, where the goal is to get what one needs from another. Buber was clear that “I-Thou” or “I-It” relationships were not just about one person in relationship to another, but could describe all manner of structural relationships, such as employers and employees, or countries (he was utterly opposed to any form of nationalism for example), or the attitude of religious traditions to each other. To my memory, Buber did not address racism in great detail, although he wrote extensively about anti-Semitism and later about Arab/Israeli relations, both of which have elements of racism.

“I-Thou” requires that two beings (which could be two races) meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. An authentic “I-Thou” meeting lacks any structure, and can be understood by some of the ways his German writing has been translated into English: encounter, dialogue, mutuality.

The "I-It" relationship is the opposite of “I-Thou.” In the “I-It” relationship, the “I” treats other people as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how can an object (which could be a person, a group of people or even a state) serve my/our interest? No one can stay in a permanent “I-Thou” relationship and Buber does not judge “I-It” as necessarily being bad, but the objectification of the other can and often does lead to oppression.

Those who love Buber will probably feel critical at how I have summarized his very profound teaching, and I suggest that anyone who hasn’t read Buber go out and do so, but do so in a book group or a study group so that a genuine “I-Thou” encounter might actually happen as you work with these ideas.

Others will probably wonder what this philosophy means for our day to day lives in deconstructing racism. A commons view often suggests ways of thinking that are exactly the opposite of what we have learned and take for granted. To deconstruct racism will require first making sure that no race is seen as “it”, either to be liberated or oppressed by “I.” The stream bed in the opening line must disappear altogether, at least temporarily, for us to be able to imagine a structure that does not breed inequity. Sometimes just sitting with an idea is the commons approach to finding a solution. As we explore more specific and practical ways to deconstruct racism in our society, we must start with the premise of no structure at all, or risk replacing one oppression with another.

I believe Buber helps us understand a commons view of structural racism. Rough social equity requires us to identify, and then remove, all that causes any group of people to be seen as “it.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


On Tuesdays, we share updates and information from key commons partners we think you should know about. This Thursday in the Race and the Commons Series, Kim Klein will take an initial look at how inequality disproportionately affects people of color and undermines the rough social equity necessary for a healthy commons, which in turn impacts everyone. One group you should know about that analyzes at racial justice issues and how inequality in America gets played out every day is Colorlines.

Colorlines.com is a daily news site offering award-winning reporting, analysis, and solutions to today's racial justice issues. Check them out online, or follow their excellent twitter feed.

As they say on their website: “We consider racism a structural problem, and that perspective informs our journalism. Colorlines.com features dynamic, hard-hitting coverage of the day's stories as they unfold, synthesizing complicated stories with multimedia features and breaking open new conversations with investigative reporting. Colorlines.com covers stories from the perspective of community, rather than through the lens of power brokers.”

Their perspective is fresh, intelligent, and offers incredible insight into the nature of equity and inequality. They provide a great background as we continue to look at Race and the Commons.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Prisons, Inequality and Profits: a Deadly Combo

In our first post of the Race and the Commons series, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld takes a look at prisons.

Prisons have been one of the public expenditures targeted for cuts as a result of states' revenue crises. There have been indications from several governors that they're finally going to pursue criminal justice policies that are both more humane, and also more cost-effective. Some have called this the "silver lining" of the current budget cutting mania, but reducing prison funding alone won't address the deeper racial dyanamic at play in our criminal justice system.

It's widely known that the criminal justice system is plagued by racial disparities. From profiling practices that put people of color under greater scrutiny to excessively harsh sentencing practices (particularly due to "three strikes" laws and the "war on drugs"), it's no surprise that 1/3 of black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives and that more than 60% of the prison population are people of color even though we make up less than 30% of the total national population.

We have one of the most unequal societies and the world's largest prison population. The rampant inequality that caused the economic crisis is also connected to the disparities of our criminal justice system. And even in this budget environment where Governors appear to be considering ways to reduce the prison population and seek alternatives to widespread incarceration, there are also signs that there are those poised to profit from the criminal justice reforms.

Ohio's Governor has proposed privatizing several of the state's prisons. And just this past week, Florida's legislature approved their governor's prison privatization proposal. Even California is sending inmates to private prisons in other states. Privatization gets sold to the public as a way to reduce government expenditures and increase revenue (that is IF the private corporations running the prisons actually were to pay taxes). But often privatization simply helps campaign donors go into business and profit off of services that were public.

Not only have private prisons been plagued with abuses of inmates and escapes of violent criminals, but criminal justice -- like healthcare and education -- should be kept public and protected from the profit motive.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Race and the Commons Series

We’ve spent the last month taking an in-depth look at Taxes and the Commons. Two themes come up again and again when we talk about these issues: 1) how taxes are collected and spent is a reflection of our values as a society, and 2) a healthy commons requires rough social equity. We will be revisiting those two themes over the next five weeks as we explore Race and the Commons.

One of the critiques levied against the commons frame has been its race neutrality or “blindness,” and the lack of a race analysis. However, the impact of tax policy and the enclosure of the commons, particularly in urban areas that have experienced white flight, disproportionately affect people of color and poor people. We will be examining the current manifestations of this in our Race and the Commons series.

Every Thursday through the beginning of June, you will find a new post examining a key area of how tax policy and the steady enclosure of the commons affects communities of color and how the commons frame can be used as a tool to counter those effects.

We will also continue to feature key partners on Tuesdays who are thinking about and addressing these issues. This Thursday, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld will be looking at taxes and the role they play in pipelining people of color, particularly men of color, into prisons. A key partner in this work is Policy Link, and their Center for Infrastructure Equality. They have a wealth of information, reports, and fact sheets that uncover the underlying causes of inequality and propose new structures in which everyone who benefits from these public investments—including and especially residents of low-income communities and communities of color—must have a seat at the negotiating table.