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.