Thursday, February 26, 2015

Seeking a New Meaning of "Independent"

     If you are around my age (61) and having a living parent or parents, you are probably spending a lot of time dealing with the issues they are having  which is very different from simply visiting with them.
     My mother is 88 and lives on her own.  She manages with the help of a part time caregiver and very good health care provided by Medicare and Kaiser.  (I can be critical of both of these systems but overall they work well for her.)  She can’t hear very well and has gradually lost most of her sight to macular degeneration.  Certainly she cannot read or see anything in print that is less than a large thick headline.  She is unsteady on her feet, having broken her hip last summer and has some heart problems.  But she eats well, enjoys company, follows Downton Abbey closely and watches the PBS NewsHour. 
      I have one sibling and neither of us lives near my mother.  We visit almost every other month and sometimes spend considerable time with her.  One of us and often both of us talk to her every day and sometimes several times.  My sister also handles a lot of other arrangements for her.    
     What bugs me most about my mother’s situation is the way that people say, “She was so independent before.  It is so sad that she is so reliant on others.”  Or, “Your poor mother has lost her freedom and now has to ask people to help her.  How awful.” 
      I feel it is the essence of individualism and one of the many toxic consequences of capitalism, that independence and freedom is equated with not having to ask for things.  The notion that my mother or any person in the world is not reliant on others is a joke. We rely on others every minute of every day—I rely on people to obey traffic laws, to keep their dogs on leashes or under voice control, to hold the door for me when I am carrying too many things.  I panic when my internet goes down for 20 minutes and I can’t reach the IT person.  I believe that what I buy at the Farmer’s Market is organic because they say it is, and that the electrician who fixed the wiring under my house did so because he said he did.  I rely on my knowledge that I have good friends and that my partner loves me.  I rely on access to air and to clean water in order to even have a life in which I can rely on my cat to make me laugh.  My life is only possible because of a other people, nature and systems. 
My mother has always relied on others.  And others have relied on her.  For example, my mother knows everything about how city planning and zoning laws work in her community.  Her neighbors rely on that knowledge and to this day, some of the people who come to visit are coming for advice.
     The reason that individualism and capitalism want my mother to be seen as “losing her independence” is so that she can become a commodity—part of the “aging market.”  She can then be sold many things:  security systems, annuities, all kinds of living options for prices that can reach stratospheric levels, medicine, therapies, and more and more products designed for elderly people.  To be sure, many of these are helpful but even the helpful products (like a lightweight walker) is marketed to my mother as an individual so she can get places without asking for help.
      As I watch my mother age, I realize than an essential element of creating  a commons based society  has to be the willingness of each person to ask for what they need (or to meet needs without being asked.)   The act of asking is an expression of freedom and independence.  Our refusal to be turned into a commodity will be sorely tested in the next 20-30 years as Baby Boomers age.  We can use our aging process to really promote a commons based society—where everyone recognizes what they need and what they can offer: or as David Bollier puts it, “as communities with shared, long term, non market interests.”  Or we can become a commodity to be bought and sold in a very and profitable market. 
(This is an interesting article which touches on the latter:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fatty On the Commons

Note from Kim Klein: 
     This week I am very pleased to introduce a guest blogger, Amy Benson.  Amy is Project Coordinator at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and I got to know her because she was an early adapter of the idea of talking about the commons in the context of nonprofit work.  She is a friend and colleague and a very strong ally with my pet project, Nonprofits Talking Taxes.  Amy provided a lot of thought guidance for that project as well as an enormous amount of technical support.  Among other things, she asked me to consider the impact of a common nickname I was using for a proposed tax on soda.  The nickname was ‘the obesity tax.’   Thanks to her we stopped using it and came to see how this discussion belongs squarely in the commons.

Fatty On the Commons
Hi, my name is Amy, and I’m fat.  I’m also attractive, nice, and funny (and humble!), and if you were standing here with me right now, odds are, you would try to argue with my opening sentence.  People hear the word “fat” and all kinds of unflattering assumptions come to mind.  I suspect that’s why people argue with me when I try to state a very basic fact, saying “no, you’re not fat! Don’t say that about yourself!”  It’s absurd.  I’m 5’7” and I weigh about 275 lbs.  I’m fat.

If you’re uncomfortable saying or even hearing that word, then we have some talking to do.

I assume you're here "on the commons" because you're interested in co-creating a space that's welcoming to all people.  You wouldn't want the commons to be hostile or uncomfortable for fat people, right?  As a person who's navigated plenty of fat shame in my life, and as a person who's been Fat Activist for the last 15 years or so, I have some tips and ideas for our work together to make sure the commons is welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes.

1. Don't medicalize fat.  Words like "overweight" and "obese" assume fatness is a medical problem.  Do you assume fat people are unhealthy?  That is a very common myth!  Many many resources* exist to debunk that notion, so we’re not getting into it here (because the commons should actually be available to people regardless of how much wellness they’ve got, right?).  Your choice of words can be tricky, though, since a lot of fat people don’t embrace the word “fat”.  Other possibilities include thick, curvy, chubby, chunky, fluffy, voluptuous, big, BBW/BHM, or something else that doesn't imply there's such a thing as a "normal" weight.  In a fat positive perspective, the word “overweight” doesn’t make any more sense than “overheight” as a synonym for tall.  Weight diversity is a normal part of human diversity.

2. Challenge your assumptions about fat people.  Think of the stereotypes you hold about fat and fat people.  What if you had to say them out loud to a fat person you know?   Consider that you may be unconsciously communicating those biases to the people around you.  We can tell (sometimes) when you're silently judging us.  It's okay, don't get lost in a shame spiral.  We've all been affected by fat phobic messages.  Start noticing when you're making assumptions about fat bodies or using fat-negative language, and ask yourself to stop.
This can be extremely difficult when it comes to our own bodies, especially if you're fat.  Seek out fat community, fat-positive photography and fashion, fat-affirming books**.  Notice the diversity of bodies around you in the world!
*Note, as you take this journey, and start challenging stereotypes in your mind, it's normal to want to talk about your transformation.  Please do not tell a fat person about how you used to stereotype them or people who look like them!  Those gory details are hurtful.  If you must discuss, tell a thin person who understands the changes you’re trying to make but hasn’t been as impacted by weight oppression.

3. Use your positions of influence and power to hire fat people, promote fat people, introduce fat people to influential people in your field, invite fat people to serve on boards, use fat people in your advertising in respectful ways (no headless fatties! hyperlink:, go see fat dancers and actors and performers, elect fat people...and make sure you have chairs and bathrooms to accommodate us!

4 - Incorporate an intersectional approach in creating a space free from size hostility
Fat oppression affects people differently depending on race, class, age, gender, ability and disability.  As you reflect on your biases and notice the structural advantages and disadvantages in the world around you, notice how these factors interact.  Systems of oppression enforce the idea that one type of body is better than another one.  We must challenge and dismantle all these heirarchies if we ever hope to take advantage of the full brilliant potential of the commons.

There's a lot to be gained for people of all sizes by changing the way we think and feel about fat.  We could get better health care, if our medical professionals weren’t invested in blaming any and all problems on fat.  We could stop competing with each other in a beauty culture where there is just one (thin, white, young) beauty ideal, and start appreciating the diversity of human beauty that’s around us all the time.  We could start living our lives more fully!  I know far too many people who won’t take a vacation or a dance class or a date until they lose some weight.

When I picture the commons, fat people are there and we’re smiling.  We’re smiling because we know the commons is a safe place for fat people, and that no one will try to take away our humanity by reducing us to a stereotype.  What do you picture?

* Resources about health and weight:

**Some of my favorite fat-positive resources:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few"

Vaccination and the Common Good:  The Limits of Individual Rights

I start with two facts and a belief: 
1) I do not have children.
2) I have been vaccinated. 
 3)    The measles vaccine is safe and very effective.    
     The recent measles outbreak which started at Disneyland and is spreading daily to more and more states, brings back a disease declared almost eliminated in 2000 in the United States.  It is so rare that many health professionals don’t know how to recognize it.   
        Several Republican presidential candidates have jumped on this issue, pandering to their anti-government base, by saying this is an issue of individual and  parental rights. Chris Christie first said, “parents should have some measure of choice about vaccination” although later came out in favor of vaccination.  Rand Paul claims to know many normal children who “wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Is he referring to his Republican colleagues?  Seriously,  they want to let people make their own decisions about vaccination but not about abortion.  Sometimes I wonder if they even listen to themselves.       
       There was no vaccine for measles when I was a child.  Getting measles, mumps and chickenpox was part of childhood. It was better to get these diseases as kids and then be immune to them as adults.  Measles was particularly scary because it is so contagious and can be quite dangerous.  When I was nine, I wound up having measles and chickenpox at the same time.  I lay in my bed for many days, taking baths in oatmeal to soothe the itching from the chicken pox (I can still hear my mother say, “don’t scratch or you will be scarred for LIFE!”).  The doctor came to our house and made clucking noises.  There was nothing to do but live through it.   And I did!   The measles vaccine was introduced the following year, in 1963. 
       Wikipedia says,  “The benefit of measles vaccination in preventing illness, disability, and death has been well documented. The first 20 years of licensed measles vaccination in the U.S. prevented an estimated 52 million cases of the disease and 5,200 deaths. During 1999–2004, a strategy led by the World Health Organization and UNICEF led to improvements in measles vaccination coverage that averted an estimated 1.4 million measles deaths worldwide.”  
You get vaccinated for two reasons: 
1) to prevent getting the disease yourself;
2) to help prevent others from getting it, particularly those people who cannot be vaccinated.
     The first reason falls clearly into the camp of individual choice—I can get vaccinated or not, or I can make this decision on behalf of my children who cannot make it for themselves.  

        The second is about the common good.  If you have decided not to get vaccinated and you catch a disease that is preventable by a vaccine, you live with the decision you made. Your choice, and none of my business.  But the problem is that you put everyone around you who cannot get vaccinated (babies, people with suppressed immune systems, the elderly) at risk of catching the disease from you.   When the vast majority of people are vaccinated, it creates what is called a “community” or “herd” immunity.  According to Dr. Robert Siegal, a professor immunology at Stanford, herd immunity brought about by large scale vaccination contains the spread of an infectious pathogen to one or two people.  It is essentially a firewall.  When one person gets sick with measles, the virus bumps harmlessly off those who are vaccinated.   This is particularly important with infectious diseases that can be symptomless.  For example, most people infected with the polio virus have no signs of illness and are never aware that they have been infected. These symptomless people carry the virus in their intestines and can unknowingly spread the infection to thousands of others before the first case of polio paralysis emerges. This is why even one case of polio is considered an epidemic.(  Because of the Salk vaccine, we have not had a case of polio in the United States since 1979. ( 
     From a commons point of view, the limits of individual rights are very clear in the arena of public health.  A person acting alone cannot achieve hygiene and sanitation, clean air and surface water, uncontaminated food and drinking water, safe roads and products, and control of infectious disease.  And yet, everyone needs these.   Each of these collective goods, and many more, are achievable only by organized and sustained community activities. 
     Or, as Spock says in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one.”