April 19, 2006

The Purple Onion

The last days at the Onion are certainly sweet. Yesterday one could say I got little "work" done, as I ran into people one after the other: called them in off the street, off their bicycles, on the way to their classes, buses, and haircuts. But we shouldn't underestimate the importance of these meetings, these bumping-intos.

Today, for example, I was just finishing up an email to a friend about getting another friend involved in S.C.O.P.E. (Student Committee on Public Engagement), when he popped around the corner from the old non-smoking side and I could tell him about it in person. I only know the second friend is interested in S.C.O.P.E. because I ran into him here yesterday and we were talking about it. Although this might not be considered "work" in the academic sense, it's certainly public work: it's how change happens, it's how people learn, and it's tons of fun! I ran into Darrell today (here, of course), and he was telling me that in Portsmouth, NH they have tours of all the pubs where many of the important plans for the revolution were hatched. Do all revolutions start in coffee houses and pubs? How can we get people out to coffee shops earlier, when they're 12, 13?

I'm still slightly disturbed that the Onion is moving (a whole half-block away)... afraid that the community will disolve. But I've come around from being so pissed at the change that I thought I would transfer to the Hard Times, to realizing that if I did that I would become part of the disolution. (Plus, I've been assured that the seating will be comfortable at the new place, not one of those businesses that tries to get you out the door as soon as possible.) Here's hoping we can make the new place all this one is. And maybe start a few revolutions there.

April 9, 2006

Bad work culture creates bad civic culture

If one link between work and democracy is the expression of full human potential that is possible in both, could the lack of civic engagement we’re seeing today be in part caused by our lack of agency in work? I think this could definitely be possible. Democracy requires interaction with others (dialogue, argument, compromise) and problem-solving. These skills could be/should be part of our jobs as well. I feel that these skills aren’t practiced nearly as often in today’s capitalist work culture as they once were. This can then feed into general apathy for public engagement. If people could realize power and creativity in their jobs, they might be more likely to try to creatively influence their society by being civically engaged.

April 1, 2006

The neurochemistry of engagement

The most exciting piece I've read on organizing recently was Engagement versus Participation: A Difference That Matters by David Hoffman and others. I highly recommend it, and it's availabe here, but costs money. It focuses on a deeper meaning of "engaged" which is more than just political or being involved in community. In something called a Peak Experience Exercise, students were asked to identify times in their lives when they felt "engaged" in the sense of "empowered" and simply "alive". The experiences that the students related had several common elements: risk, spontaneity, novelty, challenges that match skills, community, and creative action. What I like most about this is the crossovers with psychology and neurochemistry. In the discussion of how risk can create feelings of engagement, for example, I was reminded of PEA (phenylethylamine), a neurotransmitter which is linked to both love and danger (or risk-taking). I think we need to recognize that the motivation for civic engagement can be a very basic psychological one.

March 12, 2006

Creating Public People vs. Creating Public Spaces

One of my roles in Minnesota Works Together, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship initiative I'm working on, is to convene public forums. I've been thinking of this as a way to "wake people up" by getting people to think about deeper societal problems and realize the ability they have to combat them. When looking at outcomes, this has led me to focus on causing changes in individual people, preferably measurable. This is quite an ambitious goal... one that I'll continue to work on, particularly by studying forums with different structures and seeing their outcomes... but one that I probably won't see much progress on this semester. Therefore, I was happy when I had the idea, in a discussion with Addi a couple weeks ago, that a more concrete goal could be to create public spaces, rather than public people. This would be an effort to create/encourage actual physical locations people can go to engage in dialogue with strangers.

The best approach would be to look at where this is already happening, with some limitations, and to encourage it there. I'm stil intrigued by the coffee-shop culture. Coffee shops are places where eventually the regulars get to know each other, but it would be nice if it happened more quickly. And there is the issue of their not being true "free" spaces, as you're sorta expected to buy a cup of coffee to earn the right to sit there for a few hours. This requirement actually kept me away from coffee shops for much of my adult life. But the good ones still allow anybody to sit there, with or without purchase, trusting in the caffeine and sugar addictions of the rest of the patrons to keep them in business.

The smoking ban has also created new public spaces, on the sidewalks outside clubs, restaurants, and coffee shops. It would be interesting to do a study of the number of strangers smokers talk to in a given week vs. the number of strangers non-smokers talk to. We need new culturally accepted conversation-starters in the U.S. Ones that will make it clear that you just want to talk, and aren't trying to pick someone up. Why is it so taboo to speak to other people here? Is it like this in other cultures? Was it like this in the U.S. 100 years ago? I get the sense that people are generally dissatisfied with their level of alienation here. That's why I taped up a column of "I Saw You" from the City Pages on my wall. I found it poignant.

But I'm supposed to be looking on the positive side. Existing public spaces. I'm looking into the practice of having discussions after political or other particularly engaging films. When I went to see The Battle of Algiers in Paris, there was a discussion afterwards. When I went to see Fahrenheit 911 here, people just walked back to their cars and disappeared. Hopefully this is something that the Oak St. will start up. Another possibility is catalyzing dialogue at music venues. What if the performer were to hand you, the audience-member, a sheet with their lyrics on it, and then sit down and ask you what you thought about them?


I am currently sitting at the Purple Onion rather than traipsing about the country because I decided that I would rather use this time (spring break) for reflection than vacating. I've always realized the importance of making time for reflection, but, once again, it has come up as part of the theory of organizing I'm studying, and that's great. There, they make a distinction between evaluation, which happens directly after an action and is focused on the practicalities of organizing, and reflection, which is a time set aside to consider the moral foundations and implications of action. I think the process of reflection is much underused in our culture today in general, and in education specifically. It's pretty clear that children aren't given the time to reflect in grade school, and that school in fact makes every attempt to quell their innate curiosity. But "higher" education is supposed to encourage critical thought. In most cases it doesn't. I never understood what I was doing in undergrad, why I was there, subject to the torture of using my mind the way others wanted me to use it. Whenever I tried to escape to some other life path than college, I was pushed back in. In grad school it's even worse. Some disciplines have competition among students that discourages them from working through problems together or questioning the process of their training. Others, like mine, are focused on preparation for professional life, and hence all extra time that could be used for reflection the second year is spent desperately job-hunting, so as to have some income before the student loan grace period ends. It's ironic that American culture doesn't give people time to reflect because they have to be in action all the time, yet when it comes to the few deep beliefs that we do have, we're to apathetic to act on them. Maybe not. Maybe we just don't have any deep beliefs because we haven't had the time to think about what we believe. In any case, community organizers are encouraged to follow the steps of research, action, reflection. Time for reflection needs to be set aside as part of the structure of the organization (or one's own life, or institution... what would this look like in schools?), or it won't happen.

February 8, 2006

Leaders vs. Followers

I disagree with Ed Chambers’ focus on organizing only “leaders? in Roots for Radicals. Chambers writes, “If you get caught with a follower, there’s an easy way out. Just say, ‘Take me to your leader’?.
In the first place, how is the organizer to know who is a follower and who is a leader? If the organizer’s goal is to find leaders, they are likely to look only in obvious places: at the heads of formal institutions. While this makes sense from an organizing perspective, as those leaders can “deliver? their institutions, the organizer is likely to overlook untapped potential in many people who are “leaders? at heart, but have not been given the opportunity to stand up and show it. These people may have valuable connections to contingents of society that have heretofore gone unorganized. One example would be youth or teenagers.
The larger issue I take with this division between leaders and followers, however, is that I feel it is just continuing the status quo. I would go so far as to label it another “ism? (“personalityism??) that we need to overcome. Frankly, I don’t see how Chambers can claim to agree with the Crick/Aristotelean definition of “politics? as the activity of dialogue and compromise among different members of society when he excludes the majority of people by labeling them as “followers?. Chambers writes, “Let’s be realistic. You don’t need everybody. A well organized 3 to 5 percent is enough to start serious social change. Not any 3 to 5 percent, but key people and institutions that others follow?.
This makes me think of Myles Horton’s distinction between education and organizing in We Make the Road by Walking (see Jan. 23rd entry). Horton claims that education is superior to organizing because when you’re organizing, you care more about your issue, the success of your campaign, than you do about the personal development of the individuals working with you. While Chambers claims he wants to provide “average citizens with a means of group action through which they can participate actively in the public democratic process?, I don’t believe targeting only leaders will accomplish this. While organizers need to create broad-based organizations to wield power and take back control from the market, if that’s all that happens, such organizations of organizational leaders will simply become the new oligarchy, and the average citizen will still be living under them. They will probably be better off physically and economically, but no better spiritually, no closer to reaching their potential as a human being, and they will not be living in a true civil society.
Maybe it’s misguided to say we need to develop everyone’s “leadership? abilities, because everyone can’t be a leader, by definition. However, I think we need not to label people as “followers? and give up on them, but find ways to develop everyone’s political capabilities and potential.

"Politics" is...

Just to clarify, I am using an Aristotelean definition of “politics?. Ed Chambers puts it this way in Roots for Radicals: “the capacity to gather with others as fellow citizens to converse, plan, act, and reflect for the well-being of people as a whole?.

Policy and a Pint

I hate to start off with a rant, but I just escaped to the Onion from the Citizens League/MPR event, Policy and a Pint, at the Varsity, and I'm pissed. The topic was supposedly "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead". I was excited when I arrived to find out the event was sold out and to see such a diverse crowd. Well, maybe not so much diverse, but people I hadn't met before, ages twenty to sixty. With the influence of my organizing classes this semester, I naively expected that they were going to hand us each a beer and we'd sit down and start talking to each other about our thoughts and experiences, exchange some info, and start dreaming about and planning how to empower 20- and 30-somethings. Maybe this expectation wasn't so naive, given that the stated mission of the Citizens League is to "promote the public interest in Minnesota by involving citizens in identifying and framing critical public policy choices, forging recommendations, and advocating their adoption". This event did nothing to involve citizens in political life... unless there was a spectacular shift at the end, as I left early. It was the typical scenario of experts on stage, citizens listening politely and asking questions. What upsets me the most is the lost opportunity, given how many people were there. I am involved with numerous groups who are trying desperately to get people to come out to a public forum and engage each other on political issues. This is not an easy task, and people were at this event and had an interest in politics, but they just listened and went home. I firmly believe in the IAF's rule, "Never do for people what they can do for themselves", and we can't expect people to care about politics if we let experts sit on stage and tell us what our experiences are and what to think. Ms. Draut, who was speaking on her book, Strapped, did say that the best way for 20- and 30-somethings to get control of their lives economically is for them to wake up politically, but this type of event does not assist us in doing this. I am impressed, however, that the Citizens League has the ability to turn out 200 mostly young people for a supposed political discussion, and I hope they will apply this skill towards events that are more productive. There was a letter in the Daily today suggesting that the Oak Street might become such a forum.

January 24, 2006


"More than one hundred years ago, Tocqueville commented, as did other students of America at that time, that self-indulgence accompanied by concern for nothing except personal materialistic welfare was the major menace to America's future. Whitehead noted in Adventures of Ideas that 'The enjoyment of power is fatal to the subtleties of life. Ruling classes degenerate by reason of their lazy indulgence in obvious gratifications.' In such a state men may be said to fall asleep, for it is in sleep that we each turn away from the world about us to our private worlds."

- Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals