Tuesday, July 26, 2011


This week’s featured partner is smartMEME, a group dedicated to magnifying the impact of movement building by changing the dominant narratives at work in society today. Using the concept of a “meme,” they provide tools and support to grassroots organizations in order to accomplish this. A “meme” is a piece of the culture that carries meaning (i.e. a custom, slogan, or ritual) and spreads that meaning virally, so by starting small, huge change can be accomplished.

In their own words:

The smartMeme Strategy & Training Project is a nonprofit collective that works to apply meme theory and a narrative analysis of power to strengthen social change efforts. We use a story-based strategy approach to change the world by changing the stories used to understand an issue or situation. We work as trainers and consultants with a host of organizations from coast-to-cost providing strategy, training, graphic design, and communications support to groups working for human rights, democracy, peace, justice and ecology. SmartMeme is also home to a thriving youth network called STORY (Strategy Training and Organizing Resources for Youth), our program to train young activists in story-based strategy.

Check out their site to find out more about the wonderful examples of change they’re seeing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Public/Private Funding and What Shouldn’t Exist at all

Two news items crossed my e-mail today, and I have to share them:
I. In Blacksburg, Va., a City Councilwoman last week suggested that citizens donate toward the projected $125 million cost of building three new schools, thus offsetting the need for a tax increase, which would amount to a property tax increase of “10 cents or more.”

II. Build the Border Fence: The Official Border Fence Donation Website for the State of Arizona: This website encourages donations from citizens (and they mean this in the strictest sense) to complete the wall between Arizona and Mexico. The website explains:

“One of the gravest threats facing America today is the lack of security and enforcement along the U.S. and Mexican border. The consequences of this lack of security have yielded an unparalleled invasion of drug cartels, violent gangs, an estimated 20 million illegal aliens, and even terrorists.

Because of the Federal Government's failure to stop this invasion, the State of Arizona signed into law SB 1406. Part of this important legislation established this website for the purpose of raising funds through donations from private citizens, businesses, and corporations across the country in an effort to finance and finish building our border fence. One hundred percent of the funds raised will be held in a trust fund account in the Arizona State Treasurer's Office. The bill also created the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee for oversight and accountability of these funds. Additionally, in an effort to contain costs, inmate labor will be utilized in building the border fence.”
The second item is the most immediately disturbing to me. I wrote about this wall in my Nov 23, 2010 blog post when I crossed it for the first time on a trip to Nogales. It is a WALL, and not a fence, which has a much friendlier connotation. It is 8-12 feet high. In some places it is covered with barbed wire, and in other places, there are two walls running parallel to each other in case someone should get over the first one. Sunk deep into the ground, it stops both people and animals. Aside from its racist and xenophobic meanings, it is also wreaking enormous environmental havoc on a very fragile ecosystem and will probably be the final cause of the extinction of the Mexican jaguar, a magnificent nomadic cat.

This website does (probably unintentionally) have a very funny moment where donors are reassured that their money will be used wisely and go a long way because “inmate labor will be used in building the border fence.” Inmates are apparently cheaper and more controllable than undocumented laborers, although some of these inmates could be undocumented people being held in Arizona’s various private prisons. Private donations are being sought to help enforce public policy and the ability to do that is created by public officials.

The first item is even more blurring of public and private. A public official offers citizens the choice between paying more taxes or just donating money in order to build public schools.

Public officials are now in the fundraising business and are active participants in the privatizing of public structures.

A final fact must be introduced now - $1,216,539,560,417 or, written out: one trillion, two hundred and sixteen billion, five hundred and thirty nine million, five hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and seventeen dollars. This is the total cost, and rising, of what America has spent on war in the past decade.

The cost of war is still firmly in the public sphere. But in all the negotiations about raising the debt ceiling and on whose backs to balance the budget, we have yet to hear loud enough voices asking to dismantle our war machine.

We must have nationwide discussion amongst all our communities about what should be funded publicly, what should be funded privately and what shouldn’t exist at all, if we are ever to really move to a country that works for everyone. Try introducing any of these stories into conversation today. Just by doing so you will be a part of a fundamental change.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dr. Pop

This week’s featured partner is Dr. Pop, an excellent website started buy Gilda Hass. Dr. Pop is a popular education website that helps people become better story-tellers and strategic thinkers by explaining complicated things in simple ways. The main areas of focus for the site are the economy, urban planning, and democracy, and how they all work. “The economy is much too important to leave to the economists,” is one of the great lines on the site that gets at the heart of what they do.

You’ll find great resources and tools specifically for organizers, educators, and students, but useful for nonprofit organizations and community members who are working to bring about change.

Overall, the site focuses on fairness and equity and how we can create a better world in which we take care of each other – all cornerstones of a healthy commons.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Marriage Vow

Kendra Marr, writing in Politico reports, “In a year when pledges have become all the rage for Republican presidential primary candidates, The Family Leader's ‘Marriage Vow’ seems to be falling flat.  The 14-point vow asks candidates to pledge ‘personal fidelity’ to their spouses, remove female soldiers from combat roles and recognize that ‘robust childbearing and reproduction’ maintains America's health and security. It calls for acknowledgment that ‘children raised by a mother and a father experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble and less extramarital pregnancy.’ Plus, it requires those who sign to fight prostitution, pornography and Sharia law.”

For a short time, the pledge said that children born into slavery were better off than children born now, but that caused such an outcry that the Iowa-based Family Leader organization removed it with a nuanced apology saying they were sorry the phrase had been misunderstood.  Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum have signed this pledge (while the slavery part was still in it) but so far the other Republicans have refused. 

A quick look at the website of the Family Leader shows it to be an organization profoundly committed to heterosexual marriage.  They ask pastors to sign a four point statement including these two rather odd points:
II. Homosexual behavior is defined by the Bible as immoral and sinful. (Lev. 18:22) It is harmful both to the individuals who choose to participate in it and the society that chooses to accept it. (Romans 1:18-26) Given that understanding, the only truly loving response to the current debate over marriage is to reaffirm the only definition of marriage in Iowa Code – one man and one woman. Keeping in mind that the concept of fairness is subjective, it should never be used as a mechanism to overturn the plain truth of the Scriptures. The laws of Iowa can never be “fair” to everyone, but instead ought to be designed to promote justice. (My italics)

IV. Freedom of conscience is not the issue. We acknowledge that everyone has a right to their own beliefs. The issue is whether or not certain citizens have the right to use their beliefs to redefine that which God has already defined, and then force the rest of society to accept that redefinition. We submit that they do not.
Theirs is an interesting frame:  laws which promote justice cannot be fair to everyone.  And everyone has the right to their own beliefs, but there is no real point in expressing them unless they are completely in agreement with God’s beliefs.  And who knew that God had beliefs?  I would think that one of the advantages of being GOD is that you already know everything, having, for the most part, created it.  Does God believe in God? (OK—that is an old seminary joke which is only funny if you have been drinking Jack Daniels.) 

I am reminded of a woman I knew once who wanted to marry a man who was a quadriplegic.  They were Catholic and their priest refused to marry them, saying that the main function of marriage was procreation and this man’s condition precluded that.   They were shocked and went to another priest.  They told him the story and he said, “I don’t know if the other priest is right, but I will marry you.  Because one thing I do know is that I am to be loving and God is the judge.  I am not the judge.” 

Being loving is a lot harder than being judgmental:  take it from someone who has tried both.  And I like judging just as much as the next hypocrite, but I do remind myself of this priest from time to time and recommit to doing my job.  I am not the judge. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas

I have just finished reading “OUTLAW:  My life in America as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas in the NYT magazine, June 26 edition.  Many people will recognize Vargas’ by-line from years of excellent reporting for a variety of newspapers and blogs, and from his work on HIV/AIDS which culminated in a documentary called “The Other City.” 

This is a personal memoir about living as an acclaimed journalist devoted to truth while hiding his undocumented status.  Vargas was sent to the United States from the Philippines at the age of 12 and only discovered he was undocumented when he applied for a driver’s license when he was 16.  This article details the lengths he went to both to become an American citizen, which was impossible, and then to hide his undocumented status.  Moved by the courage of the many undocumented students who testified on behalf of the DREAM ACT, Vargas joins a growing chorus of people willing to risk being deported to countries they have not lived in for years (many since they were infants) in order to protest our country’s  unfair and racist laws governing immigration.  

Vargas risks not only deportation but loss of his career.  He says that he recently managed to get his driver’s license renewed which “offered me five more years of acceptable identification—but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. “

He continues, “I’m done running.  I’m exhausted.  I don’t want that life anymore.”  

I read this article on the heels of a trip to East Palestine, OH with my cousins, mother and sister.  There we visited the house my mother grew up in, saw the schools she went to, and paid our respects to our grandparents and great grandparents, and a variety of other relatives buried nearby.  Our family thrives on stories and we have a lot of them about our long dead relatives.  But we have no stories about how they got documented or whether they had to live in the USA illegally for any period of time.  And why?  They came from England and Germany a long time ago and they were welcomed here.  Their lives were not easy, but their struggles were not compounded by having to hide their immigration status. 

Most people I respect support the DREAM ACT and other elements of immigration reform.   Many of my colleagues work in organizations for which immigrants rights is a main program area.  I am sure reading Vargas’ article will cause us to increase our efforts.   But what I hope will come from Vargas’ coming out is that people who may have mixed feelings about immigration will see the very human toll that these laws and attitudes take.   There are approximately eleven million undocumented people living in the United States today.  Multiply his experience times 11 million and you get a sense of suffering that is almost unimaginable in a country which has as its most iconic symbol, the Statue of Liberty.  Vargas has put a human face on all these numbers.   Now it is up to all of us to change our immigration laws—to work on doing so a little bit every day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blue Avocado

In honor of Independence Day, this Tuesday’s featured partner is Blue Avocado, a nonprofit online magazine for community nonprofits. While not necessarily focused on the commons, this publication is fearless in raising issues of concern to nonprofits, and the role they should play. For example, back in April, they took on the issue of the charitable tax deduction (with our very own Kim Klein).

Led by a steering committee, including Jan Masaoka, they publish every third Tuesday through an HTML newsletter delivered free to more than 50,000 subscribers. In their own words, “Blue Avocado aspires to be a new kind of online magazine.” Find out how by visiting their website and signing up, which you can do by entering your email in the box on the right-hand side of the page.