Thursday, December 11, 2008

the free town (co-athored by kassia)

Christiania is a free town/autonomous zone inside the borders of Copenhagen, Denmark. It was an abandoned military base; in 1969, some people broke through the fence and started squatting, with the intention of creating a free society. After many fights with the police, the zone was granted a special status in the danish system and the village was allowed to exist. The original people were a combination of student activists, drug pushers and hippies. They declared Christiania a "free zone" which determines its own rules and laws. One of the exit arches reads "you are now entering the EU."

Christiania is home to about 650 adults and 300 children. There are an incredible number of shops and businesses, as well as services run by Christianites. These include: garbage pickup, small grocery stores, a bath house, an indoor skateboard park, a large recycled building materials shop, several art galleries, one of Copenhagen's fanciest restaurants (which includes a row of tables specially reserved for Christianites and a special, cheaper menu for them), a women's iron forge, a shop that refurbishes old stoves, a kindergarten, and many others. One of the things Christiania is most famous for are their bikes. They developed a kind of tricycle with the parallel wheels in front, supporting a large carrying container (pics below.)

They are consensus based (again, disproving the claim that consensus doesn't work in large groups.) The area is divided into about a dozen sub-sections that themselves have autonomy over certain decisions like who gets to move into vacated residences. There is also a large theater that is used for meetings of the entire community. The Christianites are responsible for maintaining everything, the buildings, the utlities, the roads, etc. They pay the government each month for the water and electricity used by the entire community. Everyone pays 2000 kroners (about $300) to live in Christiania, no matter whether you live in a flat in one of the large buildings or a old circus wagon, which covers utilities and the various public services.

Our first visit was on a rainy sunday afternoon. Our host, a former member of Christiania, took us for a visit at his girlfriends house, in Christiania, for some coffee and apple cake. Her house is right on the waterway that runs through Christiania, where houses are technically "illegal." .Some houses in Christiania have been built from the ground up, but most are the original military buildings that have been (illegally) expanded and added to. Ironically, the government is barred from knocking down the old military portion of those buildings deemed illegal because of historical preservation laws. When you look at a house sometimes you can just barely make out the old brick box that was the original military shelter amidst a creative and expansive construction (pics below.)

As a free town, Christiania was still organized around certain firm boundaries. Christiania's Common Law states, "Christiania's commitment is to create and sustain a self-governing community, in which everyone is free to develop and express their selves, as responsible members of the community." Their prohibitions are "no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no biker's colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of thunderflashes, no stolen goods." Interesting mix, eh?

Twin Oaks blurs the line between community (in the contemporary understanding) and society. Usually, it seems, communities have a sense of purpose. Twin Oaks has some of this, but mostly it's purpose is to perpetuate itself. In this way it is like a society. Christiania pushes this even further, partly because it is so much bigger, but also because it is so much more diverse. The various demographics: the pushers and users, the activists, the hippies, the families, all have more room to develop sub-cultures. This makes decision-making that much more challenging. Being a model, being something "uniquely danish" as the Christiania guide states, is certainly important to many people. Being a safe haven for (soft) drug use is vital to many others. "Pusher street" once had as many as 50 stands openly selling hash and marijuana, the other thing Christiania is perhaps most famous for. Various crackdowns have eliminated the open market, but at its height, Christiania was the center of the european pot trade, with about $1 million passing through the community every day. The vibrancy of the arts, music, and performance culture is the focus for others.

The incredible freedom and beauty that comes from autonomy and freedom of expression possible in Christiania is palpable and tangible as one walks through the community. There are sculptures, beautiful graffiti murals, mosaics and paintings everywhere you look. And the feeling of an entire village that has been created outside of the usual of public space stratas (private, residential or public, commercial) is very special. It feels vibrant, alive, and rich. Its a bit like walking around a rainbow gathering or maybe burning man, where you are surrounded by unchecked creative expression. Music pours out of the various venues, clumps of people gather in the streets, and the air vibrates with energy. And given that this was once a military instillation, the transformation seems even more profound. The diversity of experience is striking, where, for example, the stairwell to the fancy restaurant is completely covered in graffiti, top to bottom. Also striking was walking from Christiania's slightly hectic urban center to the peaceful and serene waterfront residential areas, where it was not hard to imagine being out in a rural commune. "Christiania has many faces," one member said to us.

One way this has come up recently is in the struggles with the danish government. The history of Christiania has been marked by conflict. Even so, like SWOMP in Amsterdam the idea of this kind of thing existing in Washington DC is beyond comprehension. Over the years, changes in the government have brought a more hostile attitude towards the free town, especially towards the open drug market. Things have been especially tense over the last 5 years since a strongly right-wing government came into power with a clear intention to "normalize" Christiania. Christiania persists, although, of course, things have changed. The pressure has clearly taken a toll on the community. Arts and culture seem to be at a low point, and although the drug market is still underground, the substance use culture seems to dominate. A certain tension and depravity seemed to hang over the "downtown" of Christinia, where pusher street is the main drag. The fact that at most times there are more men than women on the street was an obvious symptom of this for us.

Our second visit highlighted the struggles of the free town, both internally and with the government. Christianites have been in a complex negotiating process in court with the Danish government about their legal status. Whenever the negotiations break-down, the police come in and knock down a few of the "illegal" houses. We arrived in the late morning on such a day. Negotiations had been stalled since the spring, and the police had come in the morning and knocked down the "illegal" part of one of the houses next to the river. Well into the afternoon, fully-geared cops roamed around and the streets were full of small clusters of people, tense and agitated, often shouting insults at the police. A protest was being planned, and most businesses had closed their doors. On one street, people spray-painted giant banners for the action. Many people were drinking or drunk, and an increasing number of the Christiania supporters arriving on the scene were young and black clad or older and staggering. One man that we talked to said years ago, Christiania was a haven for arts, performance, and other expressions of creativity; we agreed that this was hard to see today. Another person told us, "there's going to be a fight." As if to highlight this about 10 minutes later someone in Christiania shot a flare over a circling police helicopter. Around that time about 700 - 1000 people marched from the Christiansborg Palace to Christiania, marking the beginning of the day's active conflict.

Witnessing all this, what was clear was that only a small percentage of the protesters were members of Christiania. The people on the Christiania streets, and marching through the center of the city, were mostly young, black-clad, dreaded and pierced anarchists. Christiania's numerous children, famlies, and elderly members were noticably absent from the protests. For many people, it seemed like what was happening was a convenient excuse to fight with the police.

We returned that evening to a diabolic scene. People had been protesting in the streets all afternoon, and now the show-down was focused in front of Christiania. Traffic down the main street that runs along Christiania was blocked off by police vans and cops in full riot gear. A huge bonfire burned in the intersection near the Christiania main entrance. We snuck around back and ran into a bank of tear gas, then circled back to the front beyond the cop barricade but still a couple of blocks from the entrance. Other people were gathered in this area, talking and taking pictures. There were several large media vans with numerous reporters, photographers and filmers on the scene. Occassionally a battalion of police vans would tear down a parallel street and come at the throng of protestors from one of the other sides of the intersection. We'd see people run down the street to meet the police, throwing bottles and rocks, only to run back to the bonfire a minute later followed by a cloud of tear gas. Eventually about 8 vans and several dozen riot police converged on the intersection and cleared the demonstration, pushing the conflict down side streets and into the edges of Christiania itself.


The next morning, the smell of tear gas lingered at the entrance, and a large piece of pavement had melted from the bonfire. Various people on the Christiania streets swept up broken glass and other debris, but these were the only remnants of the previous nights madness. Inside, things had returned to normal; shops were open and people lingered in the streets. We took a long walk around the canal past all the different small neighborhoods and isolated dwellings, all cute and/or funky to the extreme. We walked through the idealic courtyards and gardens of the old V shaped military installations - perfect for community. We met an artist who had just returned from painting in NYC, who very warmly invited us and welcomed us to look around. We passed by the house that had been partially knocked down the day before; the cops had removed the "illegal" additions to the original military building; and people were already busy rebuilding it. When we mentioned this to our host he expressed a certain cynicism about this, that there was no way the Christianites could keep that up over the long term if the police persist. Still, it was a powerful image of community and freedom.

Sky's theory is that it is likely that the demolishing efforts are a calculated effort to divide Christiania and tarnish the community's reputation in the city, or at least to light a fire under the Christianites to keep the negotiations moving. If the government actually wanted to demolish the the illegal buildings, it seems unlikely that they would send in a single crew with a small police escort to take down one house. But even if this is not the intent it is certainly the effect. Several people told us that traffic had been at a standstill in several parts of the city center because of the conflict. A housemate of our host told us that on the bus people were wondering why things were stalled. She told them there were conflicts around Christiania, which elicited disparaging remarks towards the Christianites. This is ironic given that the number of Christianites in the conflict was probably quite small.

Our host's girlfriend told us that she came home from work not realizing what was going on. As she rode her bike towards the entrance she hit a cloud of tear gas and had to stop. Several of the protestors came over to her, and when she explained that she lived there and was just trying to get home they helped her through the scene. The latest issue of the Christiania newspaper published the most recent court document the lawyers for the community had prepared. The day after the confrtontation a community meeting was to be held to talk about what to do. Our host and his girlfriend confirmed that the community is divided over the issue of strategy.

When asked if the government will be successful in its effort to reintegrate Christiania into the normal functioning of municiple operations and housing market, both our host and a few members said no, but there will be changes. Changes had already started. The shift in culture for one, as well as an acquiescence of the part of Christiania businesses to operate fully under Copenhagen business rules. Also, the winds of politics may be changing. The right-wing government is increasingly unpopular, and will likely become more so given their handling of the recent global financial upheavels (most notably in their decision to cut subsidies for housing development at the same time that banks are less able to make loans, which will likely mean a severe rise in unemployment.)

Whatever happens, the future of Christiania is likely to continue to be colorful and dramatic.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

love, life, and bad habits

Graffiti in Europe is as ubiquitous and impressive as the coffee and public transportation, but the other night a very simple tag caught my eye. From my part in the Twin Oaks production of the musical Cabaret I knew that "leben" in german meant life, so when I saw this scrawled on a window I was intrigued.



Being in Berlin I did quite some reminiscing about Cabaret, which is set in this world famous (and infamous) city. The musical depicts well the astounding transformation of a decadent center of arts and music to ground zero of one of the most horrific events in world history. Berlin was and continues to be a city of extemes, and this tag, which roughly translates to "life, love, and bad habits" illustrates this well.

Berlin continues to be one of the world's most popular points for arts and music, with thriving alternative sub-cultures all around the city. It also continues to have a strong conservative-right movement. Berlin was host to the Love Parade for many years before the city shut it down because it didn't want to pay for the trash cleanup (which was much less than the amount of tourist money that came in from the event.) It is also home to the largest population of Turkish people outside of Turkey. The conflicts and tensions of the world definitely seem to congregate here, and yet this laisez faire attitude continues to permeate.

C'est la vie.

Our time in Berin was short and sweet, staying at one of the older former squats that started in east Berlin after the wall came down. Squating was quite common in west Berlin before the wall came down. Being completely surrounded by the GDR (east germany), it was not a particularly easy place to live or do business, leaving many abandoned buildings. Once the wall came down everyone in east Berlin flocked to the west, leaving many abandoned buildings in the east part of the city. In the early years there were as many as 150 buildings squated, a significant collection of which still exist, mostly now legitimized in some way or another.

K77 is one such building, which is actually the oldest building in the neighborhood. Their success came in part because the squating was done as a performance art piece. The residents-to-be made a giant heart, dressed up in nurses and doctors outfits, and made a show of transplanting the new heart into the "dying" building.


Over 100 people from other squats came to witness the event, and a lawyer was on hand to explain to the police that this was a public art piece, which has certain protections under Berlin law. The east Berlin police were also still unfamiliar and a bit mystified by the whole concept of squating (which was simply not something people did under communism) and allowed the action to happen.

Over the last 15 years or so it has been an important haven for artists and crafters. One of the three buildings on the property, and parts of the others are devoted to such activities, and it is in the mission statement of the collective that it wll continue to support the arts. Currently this includes an independent cinema, a yoga and dance studio, a pottery studio, and an art therapy practitioner.

The house has a curious approach to shared living. They share food completely, but they have no labor system to speak of, nor any requirements for cleaning or other tasks, except being part of a cook team to make dinner once a week. In part this means that the place is very dirty and messy most of the time. But generally people don't seem to mind. They are a very close knit group (they might not think so, but sitting with them at the dinner table or breakfast nook made it obvious to us), and it seems that the lack of requirements actually supports this, whereas rules or requirements on cleaning would probably just create tension.

Artists... go figure.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

technically enlightened

From stories I've heard and read, and what seems to be the common lore, enlightenment is something you sort of stumble into. There's the story of the guy who sorted fish who got so into his job that one day he couldn't distinguish between the fish and his hands and he became enlightened. There's the story of the monk who spent years in the monastery, meditating, striving, and finally gave up and left, only to go to a prostitute and become enlightened while having sex.

In one of the more depressed times of my life, I remember living in Santa Cruz, having dropped out of school and quit my job, spending a lot of time stoned wandering around the city, thinking that if only I could figure out one thing maybe I'd become enlightened, only to think that thinking that way was the one thing I needed to stop doing, which created a very tortured feedback loop in my head.

Kassia and I just sat another meditation course. It was sort of the second level meditation course in the tradition of Vipassina meditation we've been doing, with S. N. Goenka as the teacher. In the standard 10 day meditation courses Goenka basically gives an overview or a sketch of everything a meditator needs to know to go from day one of meditation to enlightenment. In the course we just did, which is only for students who have done at least three 10 day courses, Goenka spends the evening discourses translating and explaining the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. That translates to "the great discourse on the establishing of awareness." It's the discourse the buddha gave that details the practice of meditation and the process by which a meditator becomes enlightened.

So there I was, each evening, listening to Goenka explain it, line by line, step by step. And I thought, wow, I didn't realize reaching enlightenment was so technical. It's no big esoteric mystery. It's actually spelled out very clearly.

Of course, it's all theory. Goenka is very clear in his discourses that theory is secondary to practice. The theory is only there to give us a context for understanding our experience. But if the theory doesn't make sense, or if there's something we don't agree with, "doesn't matter," he says, "leave it aside."

It's very pragmatic, which appeals to me. As Goenka says, "don't accept something because the buddha says so. Don't accept something because the scripture says so. Don't accept something because your teacher says so." And in fact the buddha says the same thing. You have to experience it.

It reminds me of another buddhist story I read once. There was once a young novice who went to a great meditation teacher and said, there are some lines of the scripture that I don't understand, could you please explain them to me. The teacher said, I'd be happy to, but I don't know how to read. If you read the lines to me I will explain. You don't know how to read, the novice exclaimed, then how can you understand the meaning? The words are unimportant, said the teacher, they are not necessary to understand the truth. Say the truth is the moon, and the words are my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon, and you can see the moon without me pointing my finger at it.

So I do this meditation practice. I go and spend 11 hours a day at it for 10 days in a row. And of course I doubt, I question, I wonder, what am I doing? Is this doing anything? But by the end of it I feel so much more peaceful, happier. It's more clear to me how to lead a life that will be good for myself and good for others.

There are things I struggle with - how Goenka is as a teacher, and with how the courses and meditation centers are run. As much as Goenka speaks against dogmatism and integrating cultural tradition in with what should be a universal remedy for a universal malady (i.e. suffering) he is very dogmatic, and there is certainly culture mixed up in the teaching. But it's far less than any other religion or spiritual path I've come across. It's all about the practice.

So, I leave the things I don't like aside. Their mild enough that I can do that. And it helps that the theory, for the most part, completely agrees with modern physics and psychology, which are religions I have respect for ;0)

So, I keep at it. Now that I have a thorough theortical understanding on how to reach enlightenment, it is very clear to me how far I have to go. According ot the Buddha to reach enlightenment requires up to 7 years of constant, thorough understanding and awareness of impermanance. I'm not sure if I really have an understanding and awarness of impermanance yet, and it's certaily no where near constant or thorough. What I'm doing now, Goenka seemed to say, is simply making preparation, develping my awareness and equinimity. Basically, it ain't happenin' in this life time.

Whatever. The way I understand enlightenment is that it is when one is totally free from negative reaction patterns created from past experiences. I have moments of that, and when I'm in the middle of a meditation course I can sort of, vaguely imagine what it might be like to be that way all the time. But it's completely overwhelming, and when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter, because it's already working.

At this point, all I know is that when I meditate I feel better and that I create less negativity and agitation in my life and in the world around me. And that is definitely good enough.

Monday, October 27, 2008

SWOMP - Amsterdam

SWOMP (in Dutch) stands for Slimme Woonwagenbewoners Op Mooie Plekjes, which roughly translates to Smart Wagon-people on Beautiful Places. It's a unique and creative expression of the strong squatting movement in Amsterdam, using small trailer homes on vacant lots instead of occupying a flat or whole building.

In at least some european countries squatting is legal under certain circumstances, and if its done properly (and with some luck) it can be very hard for the authorities to displace squatters. Squatter cafes, (often former flats) dot the city and act as social hubs for the network and bases for organizing. The Mollie (anarchist slang for mollitov cocktail) hosts nightly activities such as community dinners, peak-oil preparedness discussions, film screenings, and game nights. Every Monday is the planning meeting for the weekly squatting action.

The SWOMP site we visited is the 4th of its kind (the first three having already been shut down.) The vacant lot was actually not vacant when a squatting action was first planned. It was an abandoned school. The city had been deliberating for over a year what to do with the building. When the city got wind that a group was planning on squatting it, they decided to demolish it. The squatting action was planned for Sunday. The wrecking crew came on Friday. By Sunday all that was left was a lot of sand and some remnants of brick foundation. Little did the city know they were creating the perfect venue for a SWOMP action.

The SWOMPers brought in 4 trailers and erected a 'fortress' around them. They tapped into left over water and sewage piping, set up 3 solar panels, and planted gardens. There is also a complex lock-down system hidden in the most inaccessible part of the fortress, in case the police show up (the entire structure would have to be dismantled to remove the people inside.) One of our favorite aspects is an urban gardening innovation using a pallet stood on end, lined with cloth, and stuffed with dirt. Poke holes in the cloth, plant seeds, and you've got a vertical garden. I have fantasies of covering the whole outside wall of a building with these things. You could cover your house in food!

This site has been occupied now for 4 months. The city recently polled the neighbhors about the lot. They suggested various alternative plans (like a playground or park) and asked what the neighbors wanted. Most said that they actually liked the squatters there. The city will probably shut it down eventually. Fortunately, it could take the bureaucracy well over a year to do so. I wonder how long something like this would last in Washington DC. 24 hrs maybe? Generally, squatting in Europe happens on a level far beyond anywhere in the U.S. Why this level of tolerance, and even acceptance, in Europe?

Squatting still has something of a heroic and romantic quality to it, even for many mainstream Europeans. People seem to feel a sense of sympathy and appreciation for what squatting represents. Fundamentally, squatting is (in part) a protest against homelessness and the exploitation of people through the privitization of a basic human right. I've been reading Earth Democracy by Vandana Shiva. She talks a lot about the concept of the 'commons' and the history of how the commons in Europe and in India were privatized. In the US, holding common land is not a part of our historic consciousness. But it is still part of the European consciousness, and examples of it do still exist in places. I imagine that sympathy for squatting comes in part from a low-level subconscious resentment lingering in collective consciousness over the loss of the commons and the wide-spread institution of wage-slavery over the last few hundred years.

Sympathy for squatters isn't as good as a mass movement to reclaim the commons, but hopefully it's a step in that direction.

For more info:
Their homepage is http://swomp.wordpress.com/ It's in Dutch, but if you do a google search for it there will be an option to translate it.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

civilized countries

"There are civilized countries in the world, we just don't live in one," said Pax. "Why don't we move here?" I asked. "Because it's always raining or cold or both at the same time," replied Hawina.

This conversation was precipitated by my amazement at discovering the waste bin for the municipal compost pick-up outside Irene's door (Hawina's neice, who we're staying with right now). "Yeah?" said Hawina. "Of course. It's the Netherlands." The compost pick-up had been the last straw.

Immediately upon arrival in Heerlen I was blown away (again) by the layout of the city streets. Car lanes are probably 25% thinner than in the U.S., there is rarely more than one lane in each direction, and the average size of motor vehicles reflects the size of the lanes. Sidewalks are huge, and there are bike lanes everywhere - often specially designed lanes that separate them from both cars and pedestrians.

Last June, Kassia and I attended the keynote speech at the Towards Car-Free Cities Conference in Portland, OR. The speaker was the former commissioner for parks and recreation as well as transportation of Bogata Columbia. Portland had just been awarded Platinum status as a bicycle friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists. He was congratulatory, but also told the audience not to spend too much time patting themselves on the back.

Portland is good, he said, not great. And sometimes, he said, it's much harder to go from good to great than from bad to great. He showed pictures of how they'd transformed Bogota's nightmare of transportation infrastructure into a veritable paradise. They'd designed the bike and pedestrian path network so that it is possible to traverse the city without ever crossing a car lane, while intertwining them with the public parks. Simulataneously, they reneovated all the parks to include pavillions, stages, and other public gathering places, and began organizing concerts, festivals, and other social activities.

He showed pictures of bicycle friendly cities around the world. Recently in the C'ville weekly, the author of an article about bicycling in Charlottesville had the audacity to repeat the line that Portland is the Amsterdam of the U.S. Hardly. Even Heerlen, a medium sized city in the far south of the country (which folks in Amsterdam consider very backwards) blows Portland out of the water as a bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit friendly city.

The day after we arrived we visited Oma (Hawina's mom) in what could be considered the Heerlen suburbs. She lives in a fairly new andtasteless 12 story apartment building. Not much to speak of there. But when Willow and I went outside to find the nearby playground, I was again blown away. We walked around a neighborhood with clustered housing units, clustered (for the most part) parking areas, narrow two-lane thoroughfares, and even narrower one-lane bricked driveways connecting the parking areas to the roads. Pedestrian walk-ways link the housing clusters, lined with trees, bushes, and other facets of simple landscaping, and in the middle of the neighborhood was a large public green with a playground.

Minus the usual facet of a common building, I could easily have been walking through any number of co-housing communities in the U.S. When Willow and I got back to Oma's apartment I asked her who owns all that space? Who owns the houses? The answer was that the park, the landscaping, and the paths and roads are all city land, maintained by city employees who are often part of a special hiring program for disadvantaged and handicapped individuals. The housing units are generally owned by the people who live in them. It's like the whole city is a co-housing community.

It's amazing being in this place where all these aspects of radical environmentalism and social engineering are assumed, even taken for granted. When Hawina said, "yeah, of course," about the municipal compost pick-up I thought, what would it take to get something like that started in C'ville? You'd probably have to start it as a private business first to prove it was financially viable and then maybe the city would buy it or start their own.

Several days ago, I was reading a news piece on the failure of the first bailout package to make it through congress. There was some quote from some conservative having something to do with the slippery slope towards socialism. This is a common argument against significant increases of taxpayer dollars towards public lands and public services. Somehow people in the U.S. still seem to believe that this kind of government activity will hamper prosperity and liberty. What will it take to prove to them that this is untrue?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

community and economy, sustainability and justice

I wrote this to a newly forming group called the Charlottesville Relocalization Community:

We need community. We need a powerful social network. We need relationships. We need each other. Effective organizing is usually based on strong relationships. If the relationships are solid then you can face whatever comes.

But community is not just about relationships, it's about culture. Community is about expressing values and teaching lessons through stories, through art, through music. It is where we learn about ourselves and each other, and our relationship to the world. It is where we learn to honor and to celebrate. We need venues to create a resilient social fabric of satisfying relationships and meaningful culture.

We need a system of economics: systems and structures for the creation, exchange, and distriubtion of goods and services. Much of our lifestyles are defined by the choices provided in the economic system we live in. Changing our lifestyles, our purchasing patterns and our use of material resources is a key element to addressing the ecological and economic crises we face.

More than that, we need to change our system of economics. We need an economic system that supports and encourages work that make healthy people and a healthy planet. We need an economic system that provides everyone with opportunities to contribute to that effort and that also guarantees that their basic needs will be met.

We need to see community and economy as intrinsically interlinked. We need a coherent vision of what a just and sustianable human society might look like, and we need to build the relationships and the plan of action that will get us there.

I offer this in the hopes that others will share their thoughts on the vision and mission of relocalizing charlottesville. I think Dawn's first stab is fantastic, and I imagine that a synthesis of the groups thoughts and dialog will make it even better.

my non-negotiables

I've been saying for some time that I'm pretty flexible about the kinds of community related projects I'm involved with. This is true and it isn't true. I'm pretty flexible about many things. I hold tolerance as a high value. But there are some things that I need in order to feel good about investing my time and energy.

Recently, it seems I was losing touch with this, getting confused. Kassia gave me some feedback that I was coming across more forcefully in my conversations, expressing more of a "this is how things need to be" attitude. So, I thought, maybe I should write down what my non-negotiables are so I can be clear up front about that. I told this to a couple friends and one of them said, oh cool, so what are your top 5? Off the cuff, this is what I identified, which helped me realize that I really am pretty clear about this. Here's a slightly refined version of what I said.

My 5 non-negotiables:

1. Continually working towards the creation of an ecologically sustainable urban habitat

2. A collective commitment towards healthy, functional, and cooperative social dynamics

3. That each member holds a personal commitment to their personal/spiritual growth, and the view that that growth is integral to making the world a better place ("good for one's self, good for others")

4. A collective commitment to staying socially and politically engaged with the larger community and larger society, including acting as a social hub and a base of activities for activism and organizing.

5. Supporting and assisting in the formation of other cooperative/collective/communal living and/or working groups/projects/entities


Also very important:

Aesthetics and architecture that are beautiful and functional in the aim of a health, sustainable community.

Sharing in the growing and eating of food. Dinner every night (not that everyone must be at every dinner) is minimum. Also, that food is there to be eaten - if it doesn't have a name on it, it's all yours.

Friday, September 19, 2008

being uncomfortable

the people I want close to me are those that are willing to be uncomfortable
to ask themselves, and be asked uncomfortable questions
to look at the parts of themselves that make them uncomfortable
to sit comfortably in uncomfortable situations
to face uncomfortable truths about themselves and the world
to make changes to themselves and their lives that are uncomfortable
but that will help to make the world a better place

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

doing shit

"I don't need networking, I need people who are going to do shit." That was Alexis speaking, a friend and long-term activist organizer in Charlottesville, VA. I'd voiced my concern that cooperatives and collectives tend to come together around one or two highly motivated individuals, and that this ends up creating dysfunctional power dynamics down the road. "That's a 3rd or 4th tier problem," he said. "One of the cornerstone radio stations of the Pacifica network is incredibly dysfunctional, but they're why you have alternative news radio. A dysfunctional organization is better than no organization."

I reluctantly agreed, but I wasn't willing to leave it at that. What would it take for a group to come together, all of whom are motivated, responsible, and "doing shit" to for an organization? "You need a social network, otherwise people drift off when they find partners and want to have kids. That's what Kat (Kinkade - founder of Twin Oaks Community) pointed out. The only problem is you need a social network to create a social network."

"And there's the problem of economics," said Sue, co-founder of Little Flower Catholic Worker. "When people are busy getting their needs met they don't have time to do all these cool activist projects, let alone build the social network."

These two factors seem to form the crux of the problem, which, in my mind, all boils down to basic human needs, both material and social. Providing for these needs through systems and structures, organizations and institutions, that are based on a deep understanding of sustainability and justice, is both what alternative movements should be doing and what they need to be doing to grow.

And to accomplish this, yes, we need people who are going to do shit, and, I believe we need the networking, or, as my friend Jenny calls it, cross-pollinating. "It'd be great if y'all are going to start some kind of communal household that will also be a hub for the social network." Indeed, and not just for the purposes of socializing, but for bringing people together from different networks, organizations, and communities to help identify potential relationships both material and social.

Back in Portland, during a meeting I helped organize on fostering the emergence of alternative economies, Rebecca, Portland State University professor and avid anti-racism advocate, said "look, we just identified at least half a dozen organizations without even trying. I'm sure there are dozens more. Is anyone going around to these organizations and asking them what they need and what they can offer?" "Huh, no," was the cynical reply. "Why not?" "Most people involved in alternative organizations aren't interested in that stuff. They just want to focus on their group, either because their in it for the image, or the social life, or because they just want to make sure their group stays afloat."

Still, I though, someone should be asking those questions: what do you need? What can you offer? I'll be that someone. To me, this strikes at the essence of cross-pollinating, which, once Jenny articulated the concept to me last Fall, is what I realized I just do without thinking about it.

But I do agree with Alexis, we need people who are going to "do shit." If we are going to have the kind of social network and base of resources we need to grow the movement we need more nodes, we need more places for people to get involved, more places from which both relationships and projects can emerge. I'll be one of those people and I'll help create those places.

For me (not necessarily for anyone else), this is where my balance is, with my head in the clouds and my feet planted firmly in the earth, the merging of dirt and dreams. This is the work that has finally allowed me to understand the concept of having a "calling." This is the work that viscerally, I know I have to do. I've made my choice, and now I have no choice, and it is a great feeling.

Monday, September 15, 2008

my body's story

Recently my dear friend Caroline wrote my (and many others) the following:

"I am currently in Barcelona, attending an art school for a semester, and i'm about to embark on the most ambitious project i've ever undertaken.

It's conceptualized around the idea of disconnection from the body. I'm still forming my exact words and thoughts around it, but it's basically the idea that disconnection from our physical self is the root of many of the struggles we face, both as individuals and in society.

My goal is to use this project as a vehicle for those ideas. What i need from my friends, peers, acquaintances, enemies, and folks on the street is your body story. I'm not looking for a well rounded essay on your entire life's experience of your body (though it could be that, if that's what you wanted), but something simple, basic, and essential. It could be a trauma or a joy, a history or an accident - anything. Anything."

So, this is what I wrote...

I remember being a kid and feeling invincible. I remember my friends and I riding our bikes down this long bumpy hill, no hands, arms up high, exhilarated. I remember clambering through the canopy of entangled conifers, or over the thick limbs of eucalyptus trees. I remember rolling down sand dunes, hiding in the brush.

I remember feeling very free, light. There was very little distinction between my body and the world around me.

We moved when I was 10, and social pressures came to the fore of my experience. I shut down emotionally, and became more physically rigid. One didn't have adventures - one played sports. Very particular kinds of movements, imbued with conformity and posturing. At home I became the proverbial couch potato. I had almost no friends for 3 years. My parents marriage was falling apart and the restrictions on behavior slackened. It wasn't uncommon for me to spend 10 hrs a day in front of the television eating junk food. And then my parents told me they were getting divorced and my world came apart.

I remember feeling confused, heavy. My body was full of emotions I didn't know how to express or process.

By the time I was 14 things were improving. I had friends again. I was even in love, a kind of tortured love, which was all the sweeter for its agony. I started having adventures again. I started shedding the weight of the last 5 years. Voluntarily, I stopped watching TV and started eating better.

When I was 19 I was taken to my first contact improv dance jam, we're various radical faeries, large, muscular, sweet gay men were more than happy to help me explore the ways my body could move. I took a yoga class, an aikido class. I started spinning fire. Yet the existential
dilemma of entering adulthood uninitiated started taking its toll, and I sunk into substance abuse. I still had adventures, but there was always this nagging, stinging, tinge of self-doubt.

I remember feeling free, yet lethargic, depressed, yet open to the possibilities of the adult life I was entering. I was in my body, but my heart was spinning, scared, excited.

Now, at 28, even at 28, I gain weight easier and my body is heavier, slower. I don't think it has to be this way. It's what I've chosen, though perhaps not consciously. Over the past years I somehow chose DJing over dancing, meditating over yoga. I feel good, happy. I've passed through the angst of my twenties and know who I am, and am at peace with who I am. Mostly. I feel like my body and I are like an old married couple. We know each other incredibly well, yet there's a certain depth of intimacy that seems no longer attainable.

I wonder, how do I fall in love with my body again?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

empowered receptivity

To me, the most amazing, the most awe-inspiring creation of human-kind is the world-wide automobile infrastructure. When I drive through one of those multi-level freeway interchanges, over the sleek, arched curves of steel and concrete, and see the tangled web of overpasses and underpasses around me I can't help but marvel. And I know that this is replicated over and over, thousands of times over, in countries around the world. In my opinion, this is the eighth wonder of the world.

Really, it is in its own class. The seven wonders of the ancient world were marvels of beauty and engineering. Clearly under and over passes have a more questionable aesthetic than the rest, though there is undeniably a beauty and grace in the construction, at least from a distance. But while other wonders caused suffering and death for those who participated in its construction, none come even close to destruction the destruction unleashed by this creation.

Consider the molding and paving over of landscape, the pollution caused by manufacturing the materials to build the roads, the pollution caused the manufacturing and driving of the vehicles on those roads, the pollution and destruction caused by the extraction and refinement of fuel for those vehicles, the untold number of animals killed on those roads, the number of people who die in motor vehicle accidents, the impoverishment of millions of people due to the concentration of resources in cars and roads used by a minority of the worlds inhabitants, the human and animal death and the environmental damage caused by wars for oil...

Truly, this is the wonder to end all wonders. If we're not careful it may be our last. Perhaps the ninth wonder of the world will be how we get ourselves out of this mess.

Internal combustion engines and fossil fuels have enabled incredible development, which we completely take for granted. 100 years ago very little of our modern infrastructure existed. But this frenetic period of growth has reached a plateau. Cities and suburbs continue to expand to absorb the increasing numbers of people who inhabit them, but the expansion in living space generally does not involve a corresponding expansion of public utilities and services. That infrastructure is becoming increasingly relied upon as it becomes more and more degraded.

I've participated in dozens of conversations about economics over the past months. And by economics I mean the broad picture of systems that coordinate human needs and desires with time and resources, from the local to the global, the individual to the societal. In these conversations virtually everyone agrees on one thing: there isn't enough time. No one seems to have enough time.

Of course we don't have enough time! Despite, or perhaps even because of, the exponential growth in population we have reached a point were we are hopelessly struggling to simply maintain, let alone expand the vast, artificial environments called cities that are becoming home to an ever increasing percentage of the human population (est. 75% world wide by 2050) And so much of our time and energy is spent purely on our own survival.

It's like we're in debt. Most people are in financial debt, yes. But is seems that we're also paying a debt of time. It does seem as if time is a commodity. Perhaps this was a consequence of the invention of clocks. "Time is money," as they say. "There's never enough time." Where did all that time go? How do we get more?

We don't have enough time. Time for what? Anything, it seems, or at least for any of the things we really want to do, as opposed to the things we need to do.

What happened? The progress of the modern age was suppose to solve all social ills. But seems that by enabling exponential growth and a quicker pace of life we some how took out a loan of time, and payment has come due. By burning fossil fuels it's like we've borrowed time from the lives of fossilized plants and animals. We're burning their lives to go faster, but at such cost.

We've hit the zenith of patriarchal culture, where the active, masculine principle as gotten so out of balance that there's no where left to go. This hyperactivity, this addiction to activity - build, build, build, grow, grow, grow, expand, expand, expand! Modern economics depends on perpetual growth. How can we have perpetual growth when our natural resources are finite? This exponential growth we've seen over the last 100 years, or perhaps since the industrial revolution, can't be sustain. And what we've built can't be maintained. Go into any city and look closely. It's falling apart. We can't keep up the pace, and if we keep trying we face the possibility of suffering and death on a large scale. Between food shortages, peak oil, climate change, WMDs, genetic manipulation, just to name a few, there is every cause to be gravely concerned.

We need balance. Simply slowing this avalanche is not enough. Stopping it is not enough. We need to turn things around. We need to rebuild the mountain side and then get out of the way and let nature regenerate itself. But how?

There's lots of amazing work being done in myriad fields, which are continually being integrated, seeking to address this problem. However, on ever level of social change, from the grassroots all the way up to the UN, we're still finding the same problem, a tendency towards hyperactivity, ambitious development, and the concentration of power and prestige. I tend to think of this as the "big male ego" problem, only it's not just men that embody this. It's that urge for success for the sake of fame or prestige. It's that tendency to allow self-importance and self-aggrandizing to become a significant motivator for one's actions. It's the tendency to position oneself in roles that have greater potential to influence and that are more likely to be seen and acknowledged. It's the tendency to believe that your ideas are right or better. It's the tendency to think it natural and normal for one to guide the actions of many others, even without their input.

One of the primary ways this pattern manifests in radical groups is "founders syndrome." It is rare to find a cooperative and/or progressive organization where the founders are still involved and maintain a relatively equal power dynamic with others. Similarly, it is rare to find groups that successful encourage a variety of forms of cooperative leadership.

Hierarchy is efficient. The roles are clear. It gets things done. Probably the main criticism of consensus decision-making is that it is inefficient. I don't believe this is inherent. I believe this is because consensus requires that we give importance to relationships and emotions, which we're not use to doing. It's also because it's not what we're use to. We're use to hierarchy and competition, to gaining power and being in control, or to submitting to power and control. In a cooperative group you're bound to have at least a few people who will start competing for power. They probably care for the group, and they want to get things done, but at what cost?

What's missing? How do we escape this cycle of hyperactivity and competition? How do we bring things into balance?

For years I have contemplated the dichotomy between being and doing. I thought them opposites. Recently I have had a change of mind. Doing is active. Being is neutral. So that what is the opposite of doing? I would suggest the answer is receiving, the quality of receptivity. Like the Yin-Yang symbol the seed of the one exists in the other. To receive something is an act, it takes energy and intent. Doing requires input, say by eating or drinking to fuel the body and mind, or in understanding the world around you in order to act in a way that is in line with consensual reality.

Here is the balance. Meeting hyperactive, doing energy with more hyperactive, doing energy is about as productive as two alpha males fighting it out. The power may change hands, but nothing really changes. Meeting it with passivity, with submission isn't going to bring balance either. And perhaps even the basic quality of receptivity isn't enough. What I believe is called for is the quality of empowered receptivity.

Think of it as enveloping, or digesting. For example, fungi are increasingly being used to clean up toxic waste. Think about constructed wetlands for dealing with human waste. Tree roots, other plants, and weather will break up and eventually break down concrete.

How does this relate to social systems and our personal behavior? Certain listening is key. But a certain kind of listening is called for. Empathetic listening. Listening that seeks to understand without an agenda for how to use the information. Listening that encourages the expression of deeper and deeper levels of personal experience. Listening that invites disagreement and conflict that exists to come to the surface. Listening that seeks to transcend dualism and reach unified understanding. Listening that fosters compassion and cooperation.

Also, empowered receptivity is only possible if I see myself as an integral and equivalent member of a group, a interdependent part of a system. It is not possible if I see myself as more important in or somehow above the web of relationships. If I think I am anything without the support of my community and the engagement of those around me, or that the community would be the same without me, I am not capable of empowered receptivity.

I must learn to distinguish my personal opinions, beliefs, and attitudes from my consideration of what is best for my community, and hold them in balance, recognizing that at the same time as the way forward is what's best for everyone, I am part of everyone and need to be honored while I honor others and the circumstances we find ourselves in. If the logic sounds circular it is because it is.

Seeking support from my community in the form of guidance and feedback is an important part of this. Asking questions of those around me: who am I? what does everyone know about me? what are my strengths and weaknesses? given who I am, what is the best use of my energy? what are my blind spots? what are the things people are afraid to tell me or think I won't hear? Learning how to offer this kind of guidance and feedback is also important.

But perhaps the most radical aspect of empowered receptivity is how it relates to our experience of pain. So much of what is wrong in the world has greed as a fundamental source. And what is greed but an expression of fear? Fear of what? Fear of not having enough. Fear of death. Fear of pain, emotional and physical.

Pain is just a sensation in our bodies, like any other sensation. Often it has a message for us, and often it's just there. Regardless, we're not taught to feel pain, we're taught to avoid it and repress it. Take this pill, drink this drink, smoke this or that, take this shot, drive this car, watch this movie, go on this vacation, have sex with this person or that person (or both at the same time!), work till you drop, jog till you drop, shop till you drop! Keep going, keep doing, keep yourself distracted, ignore it, walk it off, or just go to a doctor and get fixed.

Again this frenetic hyperactivity. And mainstream media is always right there, urging us on, playing on the very insecurities, fears, discomforts and pains that what they're trying to sell is suppose to get rid of.

What if we knew how to be at ease with our pain? And what if we knew how to be at ease with others pain? How would your childhood have been different if when you were upset your parents had known how to be with you, taking care of whatever real needs are there, of course, but also just compassionately, empatheticly present with you, conveying a deep sense that pain is just a part of life, there's nothing wrong, there's nothing wrong with you, you are good, you are whole.

The world is changing fast, and the winds are blowing ever stronger around the house of cards our society is built on. Apart from Hurricane Katrina the natural disasters and the food shortages have yet to hit home. But it would be naive to think that this is all just a rough spot and that things will turn around. As populations increase and resources are depleted supply will increasingly fall short of demand. The need for major change is urgent.

Yet the sense of urgency must not drive us. Thoughtfulness and consideration must drive us. Compassion and cooperation must drive us. We must move fwd at a pace that allows space for love and pain to be felt and expressed, that allows for silence and stillness, that allows for sharing and collaboration. This pace need not be slow. With practice graceful movements can be made with great speed. And we can take hope in recognizing that as quickly as we have created this monster we can take it apart.

Monday, July 28, 2008

taking it apart

This is a first step from a white male in exploring patterns of patriarchy, white-supremacy, and capitalism in radical organizing and cooperative groups:

I've been politically conscious from an early age. At 8 years old I was aware of George Bush Sr. winning the election from Michael Dukacas, and believed that meant more nuclear weapons, more war, more money into the SDI. Some of my earliest memories are from Twin Oaks Community, where my parents met, from a visit when I was 4. I grew up knowing there was this whole other way of living, and never really felt comfortable in the mainstream - things just never seemed to make sense. I was raised as a feminist, an environmentalist, and a socialist. The ideals of consensus and cooperation were never explicitly spelled out, but they were the norm. No wonder the mainstream world felt weird.

It wasn't until I was 18 that I was exposed to radical, alternative lifestyles. I spent the summer caught up with Earth First! and enjoying a quintessential commune experience at East Wind Community. It didn't take much after that to "drop out." My radical sociology professors at UC Santa Cruz gave me all the facts I needed to support my objections to the institutional structure of mainstream society. After I missed the deadline to declare my major, the administration put a hold on my enrollment unless I signed up for specific classes. I didn't want my education controlled. But even more, I just didn't care anymore. The allure of a diploma just wasn't enough.

I'd been living at the Cesar Chavez Student Housing Cooperative, helping rejuvenate the house from a decrepit state, avoiding a lawsuit from the city, leading new policy changes, assisting in re-writing the membership contract, and acting as membership coordinator. I'd found my calling.

I'd been shopping for my brand of activism. Seeking and fostering deeply intimate relationships that helped the individuals involved grow and evolve had always been important to me. And collective living offered a satisfying expression of my environmentalist and cooperative values. At 19 years old I found myself in something of a homecoming, moving to Twin Oaks where I was to spend the next 8 years.

During my tenure at Twin Oaks I became an activist for intentional community. I organized for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference. I provided the bulk of energy and motivation for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for several years. I helped build a relationship between the intentional communities movement and the student cooperative movement. I went to numerous conferences, gatherings, festivals, colleges, talking and giving workshops. I was a believer.

About 4 years ago I organized a panel discussion at the Communities Conference on "the state of the movement." I remember one of the panelists asserting that the question, do you want more community in your life is an easy one to get a yes, but most people are never going to live in intentional community. I was incensed, but also afraid. I didn't want to consider that he might be right.

Now, I agree. The Twin Oaks bylaws define the community's purpose thusly: "Together our aim is to perpetuate and expand a society based on cooperation, sharing, and equality... [w]hich serves as one example of a cooperative social organization, relevant to the world at large...." I took this very seriously, and resisted any energy in the community that wasn't in line with this. Perhaps I am just jaded and bitter, but I think the relevance of Twin Oaks, and of the intentional communities movement, is limited, and getting smaller.

I use to resist the notion that living on a rural commune was escapist. It's part of building the alternative! Finding the systems and structures that will replace those in the mainstream once unsustainable social, economic, and environmental practices demand that things change! I still believe this is true, but I also think that it is a form of escapist. Worse, at this point, it's hard not to see the intentional communities movement as another form of white flight.

The movement is predominantly made up of white, middle class individuals, and thus the culture is predominantly an extension of white, middle-class culture. This is a culture that is still very steeped in patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. Looking from any historical perspective, this decreasingly so, but to some extent these patterns have simply become more insidious and subversive, enabled by the tendency of those on the left to assuage their guilt by tokenism and self-congratulation.

Intentional communities cannot be "relevant to the world at large" if they do not address this. The systems and structures for cooperative organization will not be accessible. A global perspective is necessary for intentional communities to develop in such a way that they effectively address unsustainable and unjust practices and policies in the mainstream, and this will only happen if mutually supportive, peer-based, cross-cultural relationships are developed.

While I still have a close relationship with Twin Oaks I have been consciously divesting my identity from the community over the last year. My experiences during this period have assisted in a re-evaluation of the intentional communities movement, paralleled with an investigation into urban working and housing collectives movement, and a renewed education in anti-patriarchy and anti-racism theory and practice.

I recently spent several months living at Tryon Life Community Farm in Portland, OR where I was fortunate to participate in an anti-racism training. Early in the training the question was raised of how racism expressed itself in the community (at the time in that group there was a woman of Lebanese decent, a woman of Persian decent, and a woman of white, Jewish, and Persian decent.) I wanted to learn so I decided to display my ignorance. I didn't see racism in the community, I said. I seemed like everyone actively expressed west-coast, new-age, hippie culture, and I didn't see any difference in how people related to each other.

The answer I got was very edifying: There are parts of ourselves that we simply don't express in white culture. We've learned how to assimilate and you're simply not aware of it. The culture you take for granted is the norm. That's racism, that's white supremacy.

I reflected back to Twin Oaks. In the last couple years of my time there we'd had a surprising influx of 4 African-American women over the course of a couple years. Two we're half white, two were not. The two that were not got into bitter conflicts with various other members of the community, as well as the systems and structures, and left in state of mutual enmity. Of the two that we're half white, the one that had been raised more in black culture also struggled with the passive-aggressiveness and indirect communication prevalent in the community. While she mostly "fit in" and was a "hard-working, respected member of the community," she also ended up in some bad conflicts with people and ultimately left. The last of the four, raised in a military family, the one who was the most calm, reasonable and conflict averse, is still there, and is a well loved and respected member.

Early in my time at Tryon I went to a conference called Beyond Patriarchy, at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where I'd been invited to lead a workshop on men and feminism. I'd given men's issues workshops several times in the past. I was invited to lead based on piece I wrote after facilitating two discussions on sexism at Twin Oaks last winter.

Going to the conference I decided to take the opportunity to practice my feminism. In workshops I attended I focused on listening, and made sure that there were at least a few women who spoke more than me. I made a point of staying aware of my tendency to evaluate women from a sexual perspective and focused on relating to people in a non-sexualized, non-gendered manner.

I went to a workshop on the historical and cultural background to women's reproductive rights. The participants were told that, according to historian Gerda Lerner, in one of the earliest written code of laws, from the Sumerians circa 5000 BCE, something like half the laws involved curtailing the rights of women. The most brutal punishments were reserved for women who practiced abortion, while the rights of men to expose unwanted infants were upheld.

Through this workshop the thing that I got the most was how patriarchy has for millenia not only systematically disempowered women, but taught women to distrust themselves. I realized on a deeper level than every before that for all my insecurities and negative self-messaging, I still tend to assume a sense of confidence and superiority in expressing my opinions and ideas, and that this is not the norm for women. I shared this with a friend who offered a quote they'd recently read. The person said that they thought that "as men get older many for the first time begin thinking maybe they were wrong. Whereas women, as they get older, for the first time begin thinking maybe they were right."

While in Portland, my partner and I, in preparation for relocating to Charlottesville, VA (the city nearest Twin Oaks) with the plan of helping start some kind of multi-faceted urban community project, interviewed people from about a dozen different collectives and non-profits. We learned a lot about what has worked and what hasn't worked for these groups, which was very similar to what we knew about the dozens of intentional communities and cooperatives we'd collectively visited during our time at Twin Oaks. Many of these themes related to the new depth of understanding I was gaining about patterns of patriarchy and white supremacy, patterns that I believe also often relate to the culture of capitalism. This in turn related to conversations I'd been having with a good friend at Tryon about leadership, and the need to find a true expression of cooperative leadership. All of a sudden I was realizing how even the most radically oriented cooperative groups that I knew of were still fundamentally struggling with this stuff, sometimes in very obvious ways.

This needs to change, I thought. When I get back to C'ville I need to get more training in this stuff. I need to figure out how to build cross-cultural, cross-race relationships as a foundation to the organizing work I want to do. I need to help my white, intentional communities associates recognize and counter the effects of the patriarchy, white-supremacy, capitalism bloc.

But what's the way out, I began asking myself? Rebecca, a new friend, professor at Portland State University, and anti-racism activist, had been providing me with language and a theoretical frame work for what I was experiencing. She sent me a link to an organization providing workshops on challenging white-supremacy. Their website states, "Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshop organizers believe that the most effective way to create fundamental social change in the U.S. is by building mass-based, multi-racial grassroots movements led by radical activists of color." That list bit really triggered me. But I'd been so engaged in this stuff that I recognized I was being triggered. Okay, I thought, is this my white supremacy expressing itself? After a couple days I realized, yeah, putting myself under the leadership of people of color, and women, would probably do me a lot of good.

All this has lead me to a question that's been guiding my thinking for the last few weeks: how would our ways of engaging with each other and our methods of organizing change if they came from women and people of color? I'm only beginning to explore this question, both within myself as a white male, and in conversations with others, and further writings will follow. To bring this first step of exploring these ideas to a close, here is a list of the ways of engaging and methods of organizing I see as stemming from patriarchy and white supremacy present in alternative circles (thanks to Kassia for helping me flesh out this list.)

1. Cooperative groups tend to be formed by or around one or two highly motivated individuals, who tend to be white men. This tends to create power struggles between the "founders" and other members of the group, especially if significant property

2. Many members of cooperative groups tend to have an almost exclusively inward-looking perspective on their group, as opposed to seeing it in the context of a larger movement or larger society.

3. Many members of cooperative groups participate in those groups out of a sense of image or exclusive cultural identity.

4. There tends to be a focus on theoretical, visionary ideas and concepts as opposed to relationships and practical, hands activities

5. Individuals in cooperative groups tend to work in isolation as opposed to working in concert with each other on projects and activities.

6. The driving motivation for organizing tends to be around some kind of revolutionary political critique or ideology as opposed to having a spiritual, humanitarian, or earth-based orientation.

7. The atmosphere of work and living environments tends to be goal and productivity oriented, on doing and accomplishing, as opposed to loving, caring, peaceful, and nurturing. Spaces tend to be disorganized. Aesthetics of calm and comfort and basic needs like healthy food are deprioritized.

8. There is limited space for emotional struggle or expression. Sharing about one's personal life is a byproduct of working together as opposed to being a core component.

television, cars, and cigarettes

In my travels through babylon over the last 10 months I have been surprised (perhaps naively) to find the prevalent usage of three items among progressively minded individuals: television, cigarettes, and cars.

Of the three, television, specifically cable or satellite television, is the least prevalent and its usage pretty much ends when you get further left then liberal on the political spectrum. Still, I find it surprising. Doesn't everyone not totally enmeshed in mainstream values recognize the destructiveness of network programing and commercials? I feel the desire to rant, but I'll stop myself because I'm pretty sure that any reasonably intelligent person, if they think about, can list ten reasons why television is a highly toxic element in society.

But, really, it's cigarettes and cars that shock me. Saying the health impacts of cigarettes are well known is an understatement. Millions of dollars of been spent in education campaigns, and millions more have been paid out in successful lawsuits against the tobacco industry. The existence of global climate change isn't even in debate in the mainstream public dialog at this point, only how quickly it's happening. And with every oil company expelled from Iraqi thirty years ago recently given no-bid contracts to set up shop with the Iraqi national oil infrastructure has yet to recover, it's pretty hard to argue that the war in Iraqi was for democracy and against terrorism. Again, I'll stop there. Everyone knows!

What gives? Why are you doing this to ourselves? How do we justify participating in these incredibly destructive activities? It's not like it's just somewhere on the other side of the world that the impacts are felt. It's all around us, it's in our minds and bodies! How is it possible that multitudes of otherwise caring, thoughtful, intelligent people are helping wreak havoc on the health of the world?

If humanity makes it through the next few hundred years without devolving into a tyrannical, pre-medieval society, or avoids simply wiping itself out all together, I believe it will be because there was some miraculous, large-scale shift in consciousness that motivated people to pull together and create a better world. In the history books, children will read about, as Marge Piercy calls it in her book Woman On The Edge of Time, the "age of greed and waste." They'll look at pictures of obese, haggard, sickly people inhaling toxic smoke, staring glassy eyed at an overwhelming barrage of mind-numbing images, and operating massively inefficient, energy intensive personal transportation devices while people around the world suffered and died from starvation, malnutrition, inadequate access to safe drinking water, environmental pollution, curable diseases, war and genocide...

The children will be asked, "what do you think drove these people to engage in these activities?" What will the answer be? Maybe we should start asking that question of ourselves and each other right now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

the call - co-authored by kassia arbabi

There is a wide-spread sense that our current poltical, economic and cultural systems are failing us. Environmental degredation, economic injustice, social alienation, and political estrangement are pandemic. We are enmeshed in a level of consumerism that is environmentally destructive and unsustainable. Governments and corporations seem to lack the power and/or will to aid the masses of people negatively affected by these economic, environmental, and social conditions. Although they hold radically differing perspectives on the nature and cause of the problems, radical activists, Fundamentalist Christians, liberal and conservative commentators alike present rigorous critiques of the current state of our society. Regardless of our chosen cosmology or moral framework, if we recognize the suffering that exists in the world today and have the time and energy, we have no choice but to act.

But what is the right direction for our actions? There is an existing statement of the collective wisdom of human society which can serve as an entry point to this question. (It must be noted that this document was created by a small group of privileged people in a closed setting. It is not the voice of a broad or pluralistic demographic representation of race, class and gender.) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 states the following:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." Article 25. (1) The Assembly also stated that member nations of the UN should see to it that the Declaration "be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories." http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

Disseminating and displaying is one thing; implementing is another. So who is responsible for carrying this out? National governments, private corporations, and the free-market economic system have all failed to implement this radically sensible call to action. Our large-scale socio-economic and political systems, both public and private, have failed to provide for our collective human needs. If we continue to see ourselves as subjects in those systems rather than as empowered participants in providing for our own welfare, our needs will likely continue to go unmet. When it comes down to it, we are responsible for our own welfare: a responsibility we have been neglecting. Not the "boot-straps" kind of individualistic and selfishly motivated responsibility that ignores the inherently unjust and unsustainable nature of our economic systems. These systems are fundamentally flawed in that they propose exponential and ever expanding growth within the confines of a limited-resource system. No, our own welfare is fully intertwined with and dependent upon the welfare of those with whom we are economically and socially interconnected; our fellow planetary citizens. If we are to be truly self-interested, then the good we do for ourselves must also be for the good of all beings.

What if everyone, for no other reason than being alive, was guaranteed basic rights to "food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security..."? How would people live differently? Vast amounts of human energy and creativity would be released without the pressure and anxiety of making ends meet. What would it look like if groups of people began taking responsibility for making this a reality? With this question we begin to remember, rethink, and reenvision the concept of community.

What if our communities relied upon people investing their labor in concert with others and In the absence of economic pressure and anxiety. This community-invested labor feels meaningful, satisfying, and is an expression of love and appreciation. Groups of people can then begin to meet their basic needs outside of the failing socio-economic system, instead relying on internalized local systems of mutual support.

Models of such systems already exist; mostly in small, self-contained, rural communities. These communities have been and continue to be important centers of experimentation and learning. But given the current environmental, economic, and political state on the planet, this is no longer enough. An ever increasing percentage of the world's population live in urban or sub-urban environments (an estimated 75% by the year 2050), and are increasingly unable to provide for their basic needs under the current poltical/economic system.

Our political and economic systems are falling ever shorter of meeting the basic needs of the majority of the world's population. Bringing these principles of mutual aid and decentralized economic systems to networks of small groups in urban settings is a critical next step in our planetary evolution.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

sexism is alive an well

In case you were wondering if sexism still exists, watch this...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-IrhRSwF9U

Sunday, June 22, 2008

compelling thoughts

One of the most quintessential aspects of our experience, and one most taken for granted, is thought. It also totally, subconsciously habitual. We do it constantly. If we suddenly find ourselves not thinking for a moment it's shocking.

Try not thinking, for just 30 seconds or a minute. Can you not have any thoughts for 30 seconds? Probably not. Why is that? What is so compelling about thinking that we can't stop doing it for 30 seconds?

Is it something about the thoughts themselves? Perhaps. What is it that we think about? It might be hard to remember. When you start thinking about thoughts and trying to observe them they change. You'll forget that you were trying to observe them or think about them, but then you'll remember again, and then maybe you can notice what thoughts you were having that were so compelling that you forgot about observing them.

Me, I tend to quantify time a lot. I tend to think about how long it is till some event, or how long it's been. I tend to have a lot of conversations in my mind with people about things I feel passionate or frustrated about. Bits of songs and scenes of movies take up a good chunk of the time. All in all, unless I'm intently focusing on something, my thoughts, each individual though in itself, isn't that interesting.

So why can't I stop having them? And where do they come from anyway? Once I start observing my thoughts it gets confusing. Does my mind think them? But if it's my mind thinking them what is doing the observing? Is that my mind too? Is my mind multi-faceted? Am I schizophrenic? It's like there's the observer mind and the thinking mind, and the latter is so strong that the former is generally consumed by it.

We live in a society that emphasises the intellect over intuition or emotion or the physical. We're bombarded by messages and images, mentally stimulating information. Most occupations involve or focus on mentally engaging tasks. The arts and music, spiritual practices, and physical activity are hobbies, pastimes, or things that certain kinds of people do.

There is no room in our society for silence and stillness. This addiction to frenetic activity is a new phenomenon, yet we take it for granted as the way it's always been, and we have no idea what we may have lost.