Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reflections from the U.S. Social Forum

This past week (June 22-26) I was in Detroit, Michigan for the Second Unites States Social Forum (USSF). The first US Social Forum was held three years ago in Atlanta, as an outgrowth of the World Social Forum that began in Brazil in 2001. While estimates varied widely, there were somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people who converged on the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit for workshops, strategy meetings, dialogues and occasional protests.

According to the program booklet (p. 2) a social forum is “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and the domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed toward fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth.

That’s a mouthful, but basically it is a gathering of politically and socially progressive grass roots groups and organizers who have not generally benefited by the current social and economic order, and therefore are seeking to create a society that is more equitable, more humane, and more environmentally responsible. As such there were people and organizations representing causes such a public education, racial justice, mountaintop removal, gay & lesbian rights, trade unions, economic justice, climate change, and a whole lot more. As I kiddingly said to friends when they asked about USSF, we came together to plot the overthrow of the Empire.

This was my first time attending a social forum and as such I was taking it all in. What follows are a few impressions and reflections I took away from this amazing gathering of community organizers and social activists.

First, the USSF demonstrates that there is a massive movement of people who want a more equitable society and who operate from a variety of political and economic visions – Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, Solidary economics, modified capitalism, Buddhist economics and so on. While there was a significant minority of religiously oriented folks, by and large this vision is not informed by any sort of spiritual or faith perspective. Moreover, while the Tea Party folks, who represent the extreme conservative right, get a lot of media attention, this group represents the poor, the excluded, the forgotten and generally invisible in our society. While not widely publicized, this is a massive group of people to be reckoned with.

Second, I would estimate that 2/3 to ¾ of those gathered were under the age of 35 at least 50% were people of color: African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, various Hispanic groups and so on. There were also a predominance of poor and working class people and a great number of students. By and large the “leaders” ( I put this in quotes because by and large they were largely an anti-authoritarian group) were in their mid 30’s to early 40’s and brought with them a clarity of vision, a depth of experience and a deep respect for activists 50 and up who had gone before them. As opposed to my generation when they were in their 20’s (remember the phrase ”don’t trust anyone over 30”), these folks openly spoke of their debt to the activists of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s who went before them. The USSF is an intergenerational movement that sees that the struggle has been and will be over the long haul.

Third, while there was great deal of criticism of the current, social, political and economic order in the developed world, this is not just an “anti” movement (anti-war, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism). The purpose of the USSF is to seek and provide solutions, to build alliances and coalitions, and to work together in a more coordinated way. I expect that there will be several efforts that come out of this gathering addressing a wide range of issues.

Fourth, at the USSF I heard a perspective on the current state of affairs that is rarely reflected in the mainstream media. In light of the economic recession, the current instability in the Middle East, the debate over immigration in the U.S., the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the current disaster in the Gulf, it appears that global capitalism and the dominance of Western nations has peaked in terms of its dominance and is beginning to fall apart.

One striking example of the change taken was illustrated by a newly released Oliver Stone documentary, “South of the Border, ”which shows how over the last 10-15 years there has been a dramatic shift toward socialist leaning governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil just to name four). These countries have rejected the past dominance of their political process and economies by Western governments and large corporations, and instead have sought to make reforms that are designed bring uplift to the poorest of the poor in those societies. This trend has caused U.S. officials to vilify leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, when in fact he has been democratically elected and is widely popular in his own country because of the people oriented reforms he has made.

From the USSF perspective, one gets the sense that that tectonic plates of history are shifting and that we live in a window of opportunity for significant social and political change. It is more than a little symbolic, maybe even prophetic, that just days before the G-8 and G-20 nations were meeting in Toronto this weekend, there was a mild earthquake (5.0 on the Richter scale) in that city. Is God or the Creation trying to show us something?

Finally, while there was a small presence of religiously oriented groups a the USSF, I was struck by the overall absence of the Christian radical movement. Groups such as Sojourners, the new monasticism, and the emerging church were not evident ( the one group I did see represented was the progressive Jewish group Tikkun), despite the fact that many of the concerns discussed by such groups were very similar to things discussed at the USSF. As a Christian, I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. The language we socially oriented Christians use and the language dominant at the USSF don’t mesh easily. For example I attended a session on spirituality and economics, and it was clear that even though we freely talked about things we thought were wrong in the world, folks got very uncomfortable when the word “sin” was attached to such wrongs. So much what I saw being imagined and discussed would fit with my understanding of the Reign of God on earth, yet to use that language was difficult; apparently there is a lot of hurt and animosity from past religious baggage. I would hope there would be a stronger Christian presence in the future so as to connect our vision of God’s Shalom with the USSF vision of a more just world.

Overall, the USSF was an amazing experience; my cup was filled to overflowing, and I have been given a summer’s worth of ideas to ponder and digest. At times I felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event and often wondered why I was there, but it wasn’t because people excluded me in any way. I was just so humbled and awed by the amazing work that so many dedicated people are doing under oppressive and difficult conditions, and yet still remain hopeful for a future of peace, equity and justice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Else I Wish Obama Had Said

In Tuesday night’s speech President Obama sought to assure the nation that he was on top of the situation with the BP oil spill and that the company would be held accountable. As a result BP has been forced to set up an multibillion dollar emergency fund for victims of the spill. He also used the speech as an opportunity to emphasize the need for the U.S. to push more aggressively toward developing clean energy sources. As far as it went, I was satisfied and impressed with the President’s resolve. So what follows is not meant to be taken as a criticism of President Obama, but I must admit that I wish he said more.

I wish Pres. Obama had taken the occasion not only to push for clean energy, but also for calling us to simplify our lifestyles. While I am not aware of the current percentages, I do know that as 5-6% of the world’s population, the United States consumes well over half of the world’s natural resources. This need for natural resources, such as petroleum, causes us to go to war in the Middle East, to seek resources in previously protected and restricted wilderness areas, and to push further out into the ocean floor for oil. Had the accident that occurred in the Gulf occurred on land, there would have been no deaths, the well could have been capped immediately, and the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf would not have happened. The environment and the world at large can not afford us, nor can it afford countries like China and Brazil trying to emulate and catch up to us in terms of lifestyle.

By stopping at calling for clean energy and not also a change in life style, President Obama implied that we can keep on living our exorbitant and wasteful lifestyles, as long as we have “clean” energy. His options in addition to wind and solar energy, are nuclear power, which we still have not figured out how to “safely” store nuclear wastes for thousands of year, and so called “clean” coal, which many experts say is an oxymoron. What the world and the environment need is for those of us in the developed world to reduce our carbon footprint, by driving our cars less, eating locally grown food (rather than having things shipped from all over the world), and building communities that are eco-friendly rather than wasteful.

A few years ago I attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania with the title “Building Cities After the Age of Oil.” This collection of scientists, architects and urban planners shared ideas and models for building communities that were walkable, and energy efficient, and that utilized clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal. They talked about having gardens on the tops of houses, capturing rainwater for cleaning, building more public transportation, relying less on cars, and finding ways to store and save energy in neighborhoods. While much of the technical discussion was over my head, the message at that conference was clear: we know how to build green cities and green communities, what we lack is the political will.

I have no idea if President Obama sees the need for simplifying our lifestyles, but if he did, calling for a reduction of our consumptive lifestyles would be politically risky. I still remember then President Jimmy Carter during the gas crisis of the late 1970’s. He called on Americans to turn their thermostats down to 68 degrees and put on sweaters as a way of reducing our energy consumption. He is still ridiculed for that statement 30 years later, but he was right then and he would be right now.

The world can not afford our lifestyle, nor our pursuits to support that lifestyle. We would have no reason to be militarily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, were it not for oil and our addiction to it. We would have no need to be drilling further and further out in the ocean, were it not for our need for multiple, often gas-guzzling automobiles. As President Obama contemplates allowing for more offshore drilling, the current crisis should give us pause to ask if that is truly necessary. Now the critics will bring up the economy and the fact that it could be economically disastrous for some. The disaster is upon us, the question is: will we get the message its trying to give us?

There are numerous resources that can help us learn how to simplify. The place to start is with ourselves, to (in Gandhi’s words) “be the change we want to see.” Two resources that I have found helpful are Simple Living.Net and the Sabbath Economics Collaborative , both of which provide practical guides for living more simply, justly and eco-friendly. However, simply Google-ing “simple living” would reveal any number of other resources.

As the experts at the conference stressed, the issue is not that we don’t know what to do, or how to do it; we just lack the will. Every day the oil oozes out into the gulf and pollutes the shore line, we should be reminded that the birds, fish, vegetation, and the world at large can not afford us. It is not just BP that must mend its way. We too must look closely at how we are living.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where Were All The Christians (& Other People of Faith)?

Last week (June 3-7) I attended the annual conference of Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed (PTO) at the University of Texas in Austin. This gathering brings together students, educators and practitioners working for healing and social justice in communities and schools across the world. The organization takes its name from the two seminal thinkers and activists who developed the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Paulo Freire) and the Theater of the Oppressed (Augusto Boal). Both men have passed away, but this conference brings together folks who continue to work in solidarity with those most ignored and injured by the policies, structures and practices of our society. About two-thirds of the participants were practitioners of Theater of the Oppressed (TO) and one third were educators such as myself seeking to practice the pedagogy of the oppressed (PO) within and beyond the formal classroom.

While I have only recently begun to learn about the life and thinking of Boal, I have studied and sought to put into practice the teaching philosophy of Freire for several years. In that study, I have come to recognize that Freire was a revolutionary thinker and educator who sought to use teaching and learning as a tool for helping the oppressed change the dehumanizing systems that hold them down; I have also learned that he was a deeply spiritual man who referred to himself as a “friend of Christ.” In Freire’s native Brazil the overwhelming majority of people are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Freire himself had great tensions with the Church because of its complicity with the military junta and wealthy elites that exiled him from his country. Nonetheless one can not read his writings without coming across references to Christ, Easter, conversion, and love. While he did not write extensively about his beliefs, it is clear that his spirituality and faith in God shaped and undergirded his work and writings. Furthermore, his thought was shaped and helped shape the writings of the Latin American liberation theologians who taught that Jesus preached a “preferential option for the poor” and stood on the side of the poor and oppressed

As a result it has always baffled me that only a handful of scholars have written about Freire’s spiritual beliefs, and usually only in the context of liberation theology or religious education, and rarely in relationship to his philosophies of teaching and social change. Many authors make mention of his relationship to liberation theology and his use of Marxism, but few make mention of his connection to Christ. Moreover, it surprises that so many folks who claim to be shaped by his perspective on teaching & learning, and the process of social change don’t make the connection to the spirituality that undergirds his work. This is a project I have taken up and am attempting to present and publish in when I have the opportunity.

It also surprises me at gatherings such as the PTO conference that spirituality is rarely if ever discussed. In one workshop I attended we were discussing what a society free of oppression would look like. After several substantive suggestions were made, I offered that this new society also ought to have a spiritual dimension in that (a) Freire himself was a deeply spiritual man and that (b) almost all the world’s major religions have a vision of a preferred future that can inform our thinking on peace, equity and social justice. Well that comment dropped like a stone and the conversation quickly moved to something else. Afterwards a woman who worked at a church came up to me and shared a similar experience from another workshop where she also had felt alienated when she dared to bring up a spiritual topic.

So it left me thinking: where were all the Christians and other people of faith who see their faith tied to issues of social justice? Where are people whose work for justice and peace is fueled by a deep spirituality? Where are people like Freire, like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, like Mother Teresa, who are willing to bring their religious faith and spiritual beliefs into the public sphere? What confounds me is how often in circles where we discuss issues of social justice the names of people like Dr. King and Gandhi are invoked, and yet how seldom the focus goes to the spiritual vision that energized them to do and speak as they did.

Have we as justice seeking Christians become so intimidated by the religious right that we are unable or unwilling to associate with so called political radicals? I know that’s not entirely true because I have many friends actively involved in politically progressive efforts who do so as an outgrowth of their faith; yet are there not other thinking people of faith who see that connection? Likewise, I have to believe that there are many political activists who in the quiet of their own offices or homes are nurtured by spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, worship or devotional reading be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Zen or otherwise. Where are these spiritually oriented folks when it comes to these conversations among political progressives? For the past three years I have been attending conferences such as these, both politically oriented, as well professional academic settings, and I have experienced the same void when it comes to discussing spirituality. Next week when I attend the US Social Forum in Detroit, I expect to find the same hesitation. While this hesitation confuses me, it also troubles me because it suggests that issues of faith and spirituality have been pushed out of serious public conversation to the private and personal sphere, the implication being that spirituality has nothing substantive to offer.

During the years I was a Baptist pastor I often got in trouble with my congregations when in their words I “mixed religion and politics.” Most of those folks would have been considered political conservatives. The ironic thing is that people on the left of the political spectrum seemed to have the same hesitation.

Ironically, at the conference the most extensive conversation I had about spirituality and Freire’s work was with a Brazilian born linguistics professor who was a professed atheist. He said to me “Even though I am an atheist, I recognize that Freire was a dedicated Christian.” He too was surprised that spirituality was not more of an item of conversation at the conference. So here I sit in what my colleague Nathan Corbitt calls the “muddled middle” wishing to find more people of faith willing to make the connections between our spiritual practice and our work for social justice.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When it comes to Educational Politics, Where are the Adults?

When it comes to educational politics, one wonders where the mature
adults went to?

The Neshaminy (PA) teachers have been in a long and protracted struggle with the local school board over their contracts. The teachers have worked without a contract for two years, and over the last month the teachers have been “working to contract,” which means they are in the classroom but not available after school or any extra curricular functions. Just this week, the local FOX news station reported that now the teachers will not attend the graduation that will be held this week. All I can say is: Teachers that’s a bad move; shame on you.

Let me be clear: I am about as pro-teacher as they come. For starters, I myself am a teacher (though not at the K-12 level), as is my daughter. For years I was involved with our local public school district, and always spoke up on behalf of teachers’ salaries. I would take on anyone who would say they “only work 9 months out of the year,” because I know how many nights and weekends they put in, not to mention those so-called “summers off” preparing to do the best job they can. I think teachers are grossly undervalued and therefore underpaid in our society. If some salesman can make six figures pushing widgets, a teacher should be remunerated at least the same level. The public scrutiny and degradation that public school teachers have to endure makes me wonder why anyone would go into that profession. Yet, they do and we entrust our children’s learning to their care. To be sure some teachers are incompetent, but they are the vast minority; the bad ones weed themselves out quickly. Most teachers are more than competent, and some are outstanding. Yet all, regardless of competence level, are generally undervalued, under-appreciated and under-paid.

But the teachers in Neshaminy made a big mistake when they decided to boycott graduation. Teaching is not about politics, subjects or even school budgets. Teaching is about students and their learning. Teaching is about relationships. Teaching is about love of student and love of learning. The really good teachers have a way of lighting something inside a kid that gives them a hunger for learning. A fifth grade teacher took one of my children who had been designated as “behind,” and got her excited about books; that daughter is now a teacher. Another child at one time had trouble reading, but a high school English teacher ignited her love of ancient literature; now that child says “Dad, you have to read Beowulf!” Still another child found a love of life embedded in a course on Shakespeare. My wife and I had a part in our children’s education, but so did their teachers.

As a teacher I look forward to graduation because it was a way of seeing the fruit of my labors and to know that in some small way, I had a part in the growth of that student. Teaching isn’t just about imparting information; in fact that is a very small part of teaching, as most information we impart will soon be forgotten or replaced. Teaching is ultimately about is shaping lives and inspiring dreams. Teaching is about helping kids discovering a future, and gaining the confidence to go after that future. So for a teacher, graduation is the capstone, the coup de grace, the finish line of a job well done – for the students, yes; but also the teachers.

Reportedly students were upset that their teachers were not coming to graduation because they wanted to be honored by their presence, but also to thank them. You see, the kids know what the last 12 years of school were about. Regardless of budgets and contracts, it’s about love, and gratitude.

I can only hope that some of the teachers break their own boycott, and show up out of uniform, but show up nonetheless. The kids have earned it, and so have the teachers. After the mortar boards have been thrown up in the air and the diplomas dispensed, then the teachers, parents, and school board can get back to figuring out how to make it possible for kids and teachers to again join forces in this adventure we call learning.

On another note: Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman (in the picture above) has really screwed up West Philadelphia High School. After ignoring pleas by students, teachers and community members not to make WPHS one of her Renaissance schools; and then ignoring the school community council’s request to become a Talent High School in conjunction with John Hopkins University; after creating conditions of uncertainty that forced many teachers to seek employment in other schools; now Dr. Ackerman says its too late for West to have John Hopkins as a partner. Four years ago WPHS was one of the most violent and dangerous schools in the city; today students talk about their love the school, the teachers and the principal , Saliyah Cruz. As a member of the Community Partners of WPHS, I can testify to the vast improvement that has occurred in the school. There is no doubt there is much more that needs to be done before WPHS is a fully functioning school, but there has been momentum, hope and a workable plan. Despite her impressive resume, and her contention that she is all about community involvement, Dr. Ackerman has discouraged the students, teachers and community members by her irresponsible leadership. There is no excuse.

Maybe we ought to let the students take over not only the school, but the system. I'm not sure they could screw it up anymore than it is.