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."

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...