Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Last Thursday, I celebrated my 58th birthday by going to a play called “How to Write A New Book for the Bible” by Bill Kain.  Kain is a Jesuit priest and a well known writer.  The premise is fairly simple:  a man moves in with his mother as she becomes too frail to take care of herself after the death of his father.  Over the course of the play, much is revealed about their family.  The mother dies, which is bittersweet for everyone because they loved her very much and will miss her, but didn’t want her to suffer, and also now the son can return to his life in New York City.  The premise is that the mother and father are as grand as any characters in the Bible and that the Bible is simply a very long story of a very big family.  Every family’s story could be added to the Bible. 

The idea that each family is of Biblical proportion is intriguing to me, and I think presents some suggestions of what “family” would be like in a fully commons society.  First, there would be no secrets and all would be known.   The Biblical heroes have serious shadow sides:  King David was an adulterer, Noah was a drunk, Jacob was a liar and a sneak, Moses did not want to help his people escape from Egypt, Abraham let the Pharoah think his wife, Sarah, was his sister and let Pharoah take her to his harem, and the list goes on and on.  Human beings doing their best, but only sometimes and other times acting pretty badly.  Having no secrets would help everyone feel more normal and would result in far fewer lies as there would be nothing to cover up.  We would know that love is constant, life saving, joyful but rarely unconditional.   Ironically, knowing that would allow us to forgive and move on much more easily.  We would, perhaps, find it easier to forgive ourselves and in so doing, create a world in which kindness was commonplace .  The cliché of the human family would begin to have real meaning as we looked at each other and saw everyone as a relative. 

This week we have possibly the largest family holiday in the USA—Thanksgiving.  It is one of biggest days for domestic violence programs, for drunk driving citations, accidents and travel delays.  A holiday of extremely dubious origin, it has become a time to simply have four days off in a row because unlike the birthdays of famous dead people, Thanksgiving can’t be moved to a Friday or a Monday.   

I am not a big fan of Thanksgiving, but have come to accept it as something that most non-Native American people celebrate and some even enjoy.  This Thanksgiving I will do my best to focus on being a member of a family that belongs in the Bible and use this holiday as a way to practice living a commons life as my current life.  I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Voter Suppression

Today, we share some news from our friends over at Nonprofit Vote. They were highlighted in a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy as a key resource for voter engagement in the nonprofit sector.

Read "Legal Efforts to Suppress Voting Should Draw More Concern From Charities." (PDF)

From the article: “Every other foundation and nonprofit, regardless of its mission, needs to understand and act on the threat to its ability to serve society when the basic premise of democracy in America is at risk.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Path Wanderers

After spending a fair amount of time at Occupy Oakland (“fair amount” being relative to me who almost never goes to demonstrations), I decided that I must do something entirely for the commons which would not be controversial.  I chose to join a work party this weekend with a wonderful all volunteer organization called Berkeley Path Wanderers.  Their membership dues of $5 per family insure that anyone can belong.  They create, expand, maintain and repair the 140 stairways and public paths that run throughout the city of Berkeley.   

I went to the designated site where we were installing stairs up a steep hill to connect one set of paths to another.  I learned how to clear the space for a three foot long railroad- tie style step, make sure it was level and the right distance from the next step.  It was harder than it looked and each step took about 25 minutes to install accurately.  Fortunately I had a great partner who had installed many stairs and was generally very handy. 

It was a beautiful fall day and the people were very nice and welcoming.  But as for my wish that this would not be controversial, alas, no such luck.  The leader of the work party told those of us who were new that at some point, a woman at the top of the hill would come out on her balcony and yell at us.  She does not want this path installed near her house.  We were instructed to ignore her.  Many people have tried reasoning with her and every attempt to engage her makes her yell more.  Sure enough, about 20 minutes after we started she came out on her deck and said, “You are in violation of Berkeley City Code 92436.5” and then, for emphasis, “Point 5!”.  My stair partner said, “Point 5—that’s scary.  Point 4, not a big deal.”  We laughed.  I looked up just to see what she looked like and she screamed, “Didn’t your mother teach you any respect?  What about my privacy?  You are invading my privacy!”  I looked down quickly and got back to work. 

The fact is that we are not in violation of anything—in fact the city of Berkeley loves Path Wanderers because they do so much work and they pay for everything.  All the tools, the wood for the stairs, the storage shed where everything is kept between work parties—all paid for by volunteers who also do the work.  A cross section of the public is maintaining a certain kind of public space through private donations with the blessing and protection of local government.   To me, this in an ideal arrangement.  It is the totally appropriate use of private donations and volunteer energy.  The paths can be maintained by volunteer time and money for the sake of everyone in the community who likes to walk.  Many of the paths are wheelchair accessible and most have benches along the way so you don’t have to be a big hiker to benefit from this work.  Since they are throughout the city, there is almost no one who doesn’t live near a path. 

I asked if the work parties often had trouble with neighbors.  Not surprisingly the answer was no.  Most people are glad to have a path near the house and certainly glad to have an existing path maintained or upgraded.  However, sometimes people really object to the idea of the public being able to walk by their house and look in their yard or windows.  The tensions between private and public, and the width and depth of the liminal space between those is the topic of many commons discussions.  What belongs to me alone?  What must I share?  What must others share with me?  How much more do I have when I share?  Am I ever willing to have less so that others can have more?

After the work party, I walked by myself for awhile and enjoyed being alone.  We often say “less is more” and there are many instances in which that is true.  But also, “more is more.”  The more public space there is, the stronger the social safety net, the more engaged people are in their communities, the more we all have, both for each of us alone and for everyone.