November 2, 2004

Challenging America

It is the first election in which I find myself a father.

I brought my boy, together with my wife, to our local polling place at the Tuttle School in Minneapolis. It was probably the first public, civic moment of his young life. He was his usual impressive self—charming all the election officials in sight—but he seemed generally unimpressed by the significance of the event. I’ll cut him some slack. He’s only four months.

We arrived at 8:30 AM and were greeted immediately by a poised poll volunteer who directed us to the registration table. It was there that I saw The Challenger: a woman in a black business suit, perched on the edge of her chair next to the registration table. I’ve been attuned to the discussion about challengers at the polls during the past few weeks as accusations of fraud, intimidation, and other improprieties have been bandied about. My mother-in-law, an attorney, is stationed at a polling place today as a voter advocate—The Challenger’s challenger.

Given what I saw today, we need advocates like my mother-in-law around. An Asian American woman was registering to vote with her white roommate, a registered voter, vouching for her residence in the precinct. I watched The Challenger. She was looking this Asian American woman over very carefully. The Challenger didn’t say a word. The volunteers collected all of the necessary paper work and directed the newly-registered voter towards the ballot room.

When the woman was out of earshot, The Challenger spoke, addressing the registration volunteer at her side, “I wasn’t sure about that Asian girl. I wonder if she is a citizen. You know, a lot of University students aren’t citizens.” My body tensed and I felt the blood rise into my face. International students—most of whom are, in fact, non-citizens—comprise a mere five percent of students at the University of Minnesota (approximately 2,500 of 51,000, according to Fall Semester registration statistics). That hardly seems an overwhelming threat to Minnesota or to America. And it hardly seems grounds to raise a question about this voter.

As the registration volunteer explained—plainly and patiently—the process of challenging a voter’s legitimacy, it was evident that The Challenger wasn’t trained. She hadn’t seen the forms for submitting challenges (challenges must be submitted in writing) and she didn’t seem versed in the basic requirements for asserting a challenge (personal knowledge or a reasonable belief that the would-be voter doesn’t qualify). To her credit, The Challenger took no action, she seemed to be thinking out loud, but the arbitrary and prejudicial grounds for her question were unsettling.

I almost addressed The Challenger to remind her that a lot of University students are American born with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth who were born in exotic, far off places like Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. I refrained from comment. I was impressed at my restraint.

As I was moving toward the ballot room, another Asian American woman approached the registration table. I saw The Challenger, who never relaxed for a moment, peer at her driver’s license, looking her up and down. I wouldn’t say that The Challenger posed a menacing threat, but she was conspicuous. If I noticed her behavior, then certainly other voters would too. While that might deter a few dishonest folks who had intended to register fraudulently, I fear that her presence—and her impertinent remarks—have a much greater chance to do harm, disenfranchising legitimate voters. What would a non-white voter think to hear The Challenger question “that Asian girl”? Who wants to get tangled up in some bureaucratic process to defend themselves against a baseless accusation? Maybe it would just be easier to skip voting this time than to mess with all of that. Is it really worth it?

It struck me once again how vulnerable our American polling place—and American voters—are. They are staffed by very ordinary—but dedicated—citizens who receive no compensation for their time and energy. I voted in an elementary school, for crying out loud. There were no security guards, no police officers, no metal detectors, no military personnel. Americans have voted in the simplest and most ordinary spaces in their neighborhoods and communities for generations. Now during this election, more than any other, these spaces are suddenly inhabited by challengers and lawyers. Threatening confrontation—with unmistakably partisan battle lines—looms large. My voting experience today was different from all of my previous trips to the polls. I’m worried that the practice of voting itself will become a “contest,” in the most aggressive sense of the word.

What first-time voter isn’t a little like my infant son, vulnerable and innocent? Who isn’t a bit intimidated at the regulations, restrictions, and rules and worried that they might embarrass themselves—or worse, undermine the integrity of America’s democracy—by unknowingly violating them? Why are the election volunteers, who have been monitoring and regulating our elections in Minnesota for years, suddenly unreliable and untrustworthy?

As my son grows into an active citizen, he and his generation will face untold challenges to America. I wonder what the role of The Challenger will be.

Posted by ogde0004 at 11:49 AM

October 5, 2004

McKnight Grant

I just received word from Mai Neng Moua, our executive director, that we have received a substantial grant from the McKnight Foundation for general operations. That will keep the doors open and the lights on for a few more months.

Over our short history we have been fortunate to be successful at writing and receiving grants for our programs and operations. Mai Neng is a master grant writer. Even so, it is difficult to keep things going and we have been investing a lot of our time strategizing our fundraising and earned income strategies. In fact, our first major fundraising event is coming up on Saturday, October 23. If you have any desire to contribute, contact me: ogde0004@umn.edu.

While receiving this grant money makes me feel grateful for the support of charitable foundations, it also makes me wonder how long we can keep going this way. I have abiding questions about the popular support of literary and visual arts. Does all art have to function as a self-sustaining capitalistic project?

The success of Barnes and Noble and other mammoth booksellers is encouraging—Americans are not only reading books, they are buying them too. Can this trend towards popular literacy and literary interest find its way from the successful marketers and retailers to small operations like ours? Will we forever have to rely upon funds from institutional philanthropy, or will we eventually secure a financial based comprised of actual readers, writers, appreciators, and artists? Do we want to become a business, even if it is not-for-profit?

Posted by ogde0004 at 2:06 PM

October 4, 2004

Meetings and Schedules

Lately we've been having a difficult time making our HAIL* meetings stick. I admit that, given my difficult schedule, I've been responsible for several of the postponed meetings. Being engaged usually means being busy, which I find both a blessing and a challenge.

As I have been bogged down with the concerns of trying to make my schedule work and worrying about getting the work done, I admit that I've felt a bit tired.

I've wondered what that fatigue means. I've concluded that it means I've been too focussed on the aspect of time, forgetting about the work and its satisfaction. It is too easy to start seeing things in terms of meetings, hours, and obligations instead of meaning, power, and opportunities. A little organizing--looking ahead and clearing my schedule--can go a long way to making my work richer and more fulfilling.

But while keeping better track of my schedule is helpful, allowing the work to reclaim my time most invigorates my engagement. If, instead of fretting about fitting in another meeting here or there, I step back and invision the work freshly, the dread disappears and energy replaces it.

HAIL is creating opportunities for writers and artists to do their work. That is my work. Ka Vang's most recent play, From Shadows to Light, has just concluded a successful run with Theater Mu. She is a writer that we know. I believe that she is a writer that we have helped. Some day someone, and it might be Ka, is going to publish a piece of writing that turns the world on its ear. People are going to buy it at Barnes and Noble and weep, or laugh, or both as they read it. It's going to expand how they see our weary world.

Making literature happen is a big deal. It takes some work to do it. If that means scheduling meetings, I'm all for it.

*Hmong American Institute for Learning

Posted by ogde0004 at 5:20 PM

September 24, 2004

Reflections

Since I have conceived of this blog as more a reflective tool for myself than a forum for public reading, these are my own reflections on reflection.

I started seriously writing a journal when I was twelve years old. Ever since I have been more or less faithful about keeping a journal of my life. On my bookshelf sit a dozen volumes that cover virtually every topic of my experience. Keeping my personal journal has been important to me. I think it has accomplished three key things for me 1) it documents memories 2) it has been instrumental in formulating my identity and 3) it facilitates decision making.

Those purposes, as they pertain to the whole of my life experience, are quite worthy outcomes of keeping a journal. I have come to realize, however, that certain topics or activities invite a more focused reflection that is different than the general writing and thinking that goes on in my journal.

I think that particular projects or activities in which I am particularly involved and invested are worthwhile topics to reflect upon specifically. It has been important, at times, to keep a reflection log that is distinct from my daily, personal journal. Here it is, in the genre of a blog.

The work of the class I am teaching (EngC 1016: Community Engagement and Civic Learning) is one such project. I have invited (read: required) my students to choose an organization in the larger community and to engage themselves in the work of that organization. I am trying to stay honest by maintaining my own work in the community, as well. Though I am involved in a variety of organizations with various roles, I am concentrating on my work with the Hmong American Institute for Learning (HAIL) and its semi-annual literary journal, Paj Ntaub Voice.

Focusing on one field of engaged work will improve my involvement and deepen my learning. In the blog entries that follow in this category of "Community Engagement" I will write about my activities, experiences, and thoughts. My goal--still rather broad--is to sharpen my thinking about the work that HAIL is trying to do and to continue to innovate as we move into a year with an interim executive director. I will also be thinking about how my scholarship (writing a dissertation about the Hmong American literary arts movement) will influence the/my work. I'll ask many questions about my roles as a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and as a member of a particular community.

I'm on the edge of the reflecting pool. Images are beginning to take shape.

Posted by ogde0004 at 12:12 PM

September 22, 2004

Opening the box

Today is Wednesday, September 22, 2004

It was November 11, 1996 when I posted my first home page on the web. I remember feeling a euphoric rush to think that anyone anywhere in the world could read what I wrote. I was published. I was public.

But in the mid- to late-90s none of us maintained our home pages. I was more interested in experimenting with HTML and once I had tried my hand at it, I had no motivation to add or to update. That was before web editing software made it so easy. That was before blogs. My site sat like a relic for years until the server collapsed.

Now I'm teaching a first-year composition course and I'm thinking about the need for writers to write often and to think about our writing. If I'm going to encourage my students to become bloggers, I'd better know what's up.

I ask myself the same question I did in 1996: Even though it's publically available, will anyone anywhere in the world really read this? I thought there was a lot of web content in 1996. I stagger when I consider the vastness of it eight years later. So I'm content to believe that no one ever will read these words. If they do, that's gravy. Writing more often and writing to an imagined audience are sufficient ends in themselves.

Welcome, Mitch, to Blogden.

Posted by ogde0004 at 8:36 AM