Spring Will Not Be Silent in North Carolina

HKonJ-FB-Profile-pic“While [Rachel] Carson knew that one book could not alter the dynamic of the capitalist system, an environmental movement grew from her challenge, led by a public that demanded that science and government be held accountable.  Carson remains an example of what one committed individual can do to change the direction of society.  She was a revolutionary spokesperson for the rights of all life.  She dared to speak out and confront the issue of the destruction of nature and to frame it as a debate over the quality of all life.”  – Linda Lear, Introduction to the 40th Anniversary edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

On February 8, 2014, activists, clergy and concerned citizens will gather in Raleigh, North Carolina for the Moral March on Raleigh also known as HKonJ (Historic Thousands on Jones Street). This march is threatening to be “bigger than Selma” and is part of the wave of reaction to a Republican minority driving the North Carolina government toward exclusionary policies that hinder opportunity for all the poor and primarily the largely Democratic people of color of North Carolina.  These shocking policies,  most specifically around voting rights,  harken back, not just to the days of Jim Crow, but to the Slave Codes of the late 19th century.  Although not related to environmental justice on the surface, the call to action is the same:  we must fight back against short sighted public policies that serve to enrich an already wealthy minority while killing the larger population…and the time to fight back is now!

Silent Spring caused a firestorm of controversy around the use of pesticides when it was released in 1962.  Penned by celebrated author and pioneering biologist, Rachel Carson, the book called into question the entire biochemical industrial complex.  She made the powerful case for the toxic effects of biochemicals on all creatures, most of all on human beings, linking certain types of cancers directly to the production and use of chemical pesticides.  This was despite popular scientific theory of the time that claimed humans had “tolerances” and “adaptabilities” that surpassed these toxicities.  Her conjecture flew in the face of the greedy, ego driven, arrogant and entirely male dominated world of pesticide and chemical development.  Initially she was dismissed as a “hysterical woman” with no real scientific foundation for her claims.  But ultimately, when President John F. Kennedy took notice of her writing, things began to change.  Eventually, through public pressure, the government was compelled to investigate her theories finding them to be an understatement of the gravity of the actual situation.  Her work would lead to the creation of the EPA and domestic bans on DDT and other advances in the control, limitation and elimination of certain toxic biochemicals.  Her battle was not just for the masses, but rather personal.  Unknown to many at the time, while she worked on Silent Spring, she was battling breast cancer.  She would die in 1964 before seeing the full fruits of her labor.

Today, we still wrestle with big business and government interest around the environment, our food supply and ecosystems.  The battle for ecological justice is far from won, rather, it continues in earnest as the greed of a few continue to push Genetically Modified Organisms into our bodies and minds, with claims that they will be “better for us” in the long run.  The struggle will continue as long as the powerful, wealthy few live in fear of losing their power and wealth. Sadly, it is the same with the state of civil rights in North Carolina and other localities that are feeling the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling on key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights act last year.  But what is most shocking is the hubris of conservative politicians to assume that they are immune to the toxic political environment they have created. At the very least it is irresponsible, at its worst self destructive.  Reflecting back on Carson’s perspective on the environment, Lear goes on to state that Silent Spring:

…proved that our bodies are not boundaries.  Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death.  Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable.  All forms of life are more alike than different. 

Similarly, the restrictive public policies that the Moral March is highlighting ultimately bring down not just people of color and the poor in general, but all North Carolinians and ultimately all people of this nation.  Like the rest of nature…we too are permeable to the pesticides of class and race politics.  We are all susceptible to the poison of public policies that benefit only the very few.  The benefits for those few will only last a short time; the illness and cultural cancers for the many will and have lasted for generations.  Ultimately, greed multiplied by fear is the most toxic poison to the cultural soul.

But there is hope.  We  have seen the images from the struggle for voting rights in the 1960’s: black people…children going to prison, adults being attacked by dogs, or assaulted with hoses and brutalized by police.  But there was also Unitarian Universalist minister and pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., James Reeb, a white man, who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama for showing his solidarity with blacks in 1965.  His martyrdom and the actions of all the Civil Rights activists, black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and non-religious combine to inspire a new generation of leaders and community organizers who believe that equality is not just for people who look like one group of people or speak the same language or come from the same economic class.  They believe, and the science of Rachel Carson and the science of nature itself, back this up: real social equity is something in which we all must make a deep investment.  It is the only antidote to the poison that permeates the current political climate in North Carolina and it is the only real cure to stop it’s insidious spread to the rest of our nation and maybe even the world.

This spring in North Carolina will not be silent.  March on, march on!

Update: The Moral March drew thousands on a cold rainy Saturday.  Despite conservative media challenges, the movement is poised for much greater national action (READ HERE)

Links:

Historic Thousands on Jones

Standing on the Side of Love

America’s Tomorrow – via PolicyLink

Equity Blog – via PolicyLink

Twitter: #MoralMarch

Black Male Achievement…Coming Out

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes – Author

The work around black men in America is very much in the news these days.  The Obama administration has made a bold statement of acknowledging the unique challenges faced by this population and making a commitment to promoting advancement and achievement among black men.  My home state of California has led the way with groundbreaking legislation including a unique House Resolution (HR 23), committing to changing the outcomes for black men and boys as well as all men of color.  PolicyLink, where I currently work on the program team, has been intimately involved in black male achievement work and will launch a new website and blog devoted to these efforts later this month.

The Leadership and Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement has declared the month of October to be Black Male Achievement Month (#bmaoct.)  At the same time, October is also recognized nationwide as LGBT History Month and includes National “Coming Out” Day on October 11.  Far from being at odds, this coincidence is a terrific reminder that while we seek to promote and support efforts to create better outcomes for black men and boys in general, we cannot forget to have the conversations within the black community about gender justice, sexuality, orientation and what it really means to be male identified and black in our world today.

LGBT communities celebrated earlier this year with great gains in terms of marriage equality; but the excitement was tempered for black LGBT people with the decision coming down in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act.  This juxtaposition of political concerns exemplifies how black LGBT people often sit at a difficult crossroads of race and social orientation in America.  Similarly, it is well established that black men find themselves in the most vulnerable positions in American society at large and the same holds true for black GBTQ men.  But the broader injustices of racial profiling, barriers to employment and advancement, health concerns and being targeted for violence, are only made more bitter when black GBTQ men are demonized within black communities and are  seen as a “weak link” in the strength of the black family or somehow buying into a white centered and therefore counterproductive view of black male identity.

If it were indeed true that black GBTQ men were a weak link or counterproductive, we would not have the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the writing of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, or contemporary media voices like CNN’s Don Lemon, ESPN’s LZ Granderson or author Keith Boykin.  And of course, we would never have had the grand vision and epic social organizing skill of Bayard Rustin to bring together the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the setting for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Through black male achievement work, we have an opportunity to really grow.  Leveraging the insight and creativity of organizations like Brown Boi Project and by exploring deeper connections with broader gender justice movements including women and transgender people, black men can not only lift up what makes them uniquely valuable to our society, but also explore the depths and breadth of the masculine of center orientation.  An affiliation with these other efforts will not “de-masculinize” or “ghetto-ize” the crucial work around black men.  Rather, these movements should serve as examples to declare a fully developed and enlightened masculinity for black men that does not oppress others to achieve its place in society.  This is a male identity that takes responsibility for ending rape; it is a manhood that does not deny or shame same gender love; it is a masculinity that embraces its own femininity. It is father, protector and provider as well as being fathered, protected and provided for.  It is, in short, what it means to “come out” as a whole, healthy and complete black male.

-AD

Colonial Fool Part III: The Common Good

“The Common Good” is the first of two sermons being debuted at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento this summer, June 23 & August 4.  I decided to post this sermon partly in response to the irrational and misguided ignorance of the United States Supreme Court in their decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.  I have never seen a more clear example of narrow perception entirely changing someone’s world view and how the white male, heterosexual dominated concept of “common good” has a catastrophic strangle hold on our country.  Despite the lives lost over the years and the continuing restrictions on voting placed on non privileged and predominantly brown people in this country, four white men (and ‘Uncle’ Clarence) have decided that we’re done with Civil Rights.  

They have unleashed an unthinkable fury.

*** 

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

When I was in rehearsal for the Broadway show Ragtime, the Musical back in 1996, the whole performing cast had the good fortune to work closely with the creative team.  It was a heady experience working with the likes of E.L. Doctorow, Terrence McNallly, choreographer, Graciella Danielle; director, Frank Galati; composer, Stephen Flaherty and lyricist, Lynn Ahrens.  Not many people realized it but, Lynn Ahrens wrote many of the School House Rock tunes and lyrics including the “Preamble”…not the actual Preamble but the TV song.  I had some wonderful conversations with her about the craft of songwriting.  As a lyricist myself, I was very eager to share with her how much her music (prior to creating award winning shows like Ragtime, Once on This Island and Lucky Stiff) had meant to me as a very young person who was fascinated by communicating through song.  I told her that the “Preamble” was one of the tunes that I hummed constantly as a child and always looked forward to during my Saturday morning cartoons.  It was as a result of hearing catchy commercial music like this as well as studying the classics and a host of other music that led me to actually doing a show like Ragtime.  She was of course, flattered.  What is interesting to me now, however, is that there I was talking to her about the preamble of the United States Constitution, a paragraph that, although it has no real legal meaning, sets up the entirety of the rest of the Constitution as an instrument designed for the common good.  Yet, the show we were working on, Ragtime, was about the very different perceptions of what the common good actually is; how one person because of their sex, religion or race or social status, can experience the world as a very different set of outcomes entirely.  Ragtime is a musical about how different the common good looks to different people and how ill fitting the American dream really can be and the sacrifices that are made emotionally, culturally and even spiritually to live into that dream.

I was recently reading the book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness.  The author, Sharon Salzberg shares a great deal about her own experience with discovering and embracing Buddhism.  I am struck by the clarity of her writing and I expect I will enjoy putting the book into action…not that it is an instruction manual on Buddhism, but rather a guide toward discovering ways to be genuinely happy through meditation and focus.  However, there is another part of me that is puzzled.  Salzberg, like many Westerners, traveled to the East to seek spiritual enlightenment, specifically through Buddhism.  This is something we hear a lot about, and we see a great deal right here in the Bay Area…Westerners embracing Buddhism.  I wonder, why don’t we hear about people coming from the East seeking spiritual enlightenment here in the states…seeking it from Christianity…Judaism…Unitarian Universalism?  No, instead, we hear about people coming here in search of wealth, or ways to learn how to be more wealthy.  That says a lot.  Why is this such a one way street?  Is it that the spiritual grass is that much greener?  Is Buddhism that much “better?”  I am not raising this question to at all be critical of Buddhism or those seeking/ practicing Buddhism.  I am just asking, rhetorically, what is missing in our own Western based spiritual practices that leaves us lacking?

Have we considered that it may not be lacking at all?

Consider this, every religion and spiritual practice seeks to do the same thing: make sense out of existence.  Whether that is to prepare us for the afterlife, death, or birth, or give us tools to sustain adversity, to give us hope, to build community, all of it is aimed at satisfying the answer to the perpetual “why?”  Even the lack of spiritual practice, even the determined belief that this is all we’ve got here and now, is a way of processing how we are in our existence.  It is human nature to ask “why” and that, as I see it, is about the only real common good that we can legitimately pursue: finding a personally satisfying explanation for the question “why life?”

Westerners traveling East to find “Truth.”  Odd thing, so if on a certain basic level we are all seeking the same thing, why would someone have to go to East to find truth?  What’s to say we aren’t able to attain the same level of enlightenment through our own Western traditions?  Are they that tainted?  Or are we?  Why should we have to learn someone else’s ways to find enlightenment.  The human animal, regardless of where they are, seeks peace in its heart.  It seeks oneness with existence.  In our largely Judeo Christian shaped Western world, we actually have the same goal of peace, enlightenment and truth as any Buddhist or Muslim, but we suffer from uniquely Western challenges of life. But Buddhists, Muslims and everyone else also suffers from their own unique challenges of life.  No human is perfect and no human is outwardly the same.  What binds us together is a sameness of inner purpose…not a sameness of outward practice.  If the purpose is linked to our being human and not how we are human, then it stands to reason that we should be able to find that “truth” within; regardless of how we choose to practice that truth.

I like to study anthropology in my spare time…genetics and human migrations.  It amazes me that humans who exist with no knowledge of one another all come up with the same stuff.  On a biological level, we all eat and secrete, we all procreate and die, but then also on a spiritual level, we all stand in awe of things we can’t explain and we seek an answer…whether that be through faith or science or both or neither. I love the fact that many scientists are actually deeply spiritual just for this reason. Ancient drawings, statues, language…all of these attest to the inner sameness of the human animal.  This is the reason every culture has ritual and spiritual practices and sometimes what we call religion.  There is a human tendency toward humility for our existence that wants to package that immense knowledge into something that is comprehensible; the real common good.

I try not to be the black guy who gets up and always talks about being black; and I don’t believe that conversations about race are all about black and white.  But I’m going to go there to demonstrate a related point.  I cannot stand the expression “post racial.”  It implies that we have “overcome” and hints at a job well done for everyone who was fighting through the sixties and seventies…yay, its all over now.   Many achievements have been made admittedly, but the same attitudes that created slavery in America still exist.  Slavery wasn’t created out of meanness.  Slavery was created out of ignorance and selfishness…and a sense of inherent superiority.  The assumed cultural superiority that created that disparity is still evident in advertising, public policy and pretty much everything else in this country that continues to live by a government and Constitution that was created by wealthy white men in a time long gone.  The more I study politics, I believe we will not ever be able to claim a cultural position in the United States of being “post racial” unless we are willing to give up the foundation of our government and start again by including all of the voices that make up the population.  My generation (Generation X) in the United States is the generation of deconstruction; we think…often too much.  Wedged between technology and the death of religion, civil and human rights and Reaganomics, we saw the world of the 60’s and 70’s spun completely out of control (my apologies to the Baby Boomers) and reaching adulthood said, quite simply, enough.  The words “post racial” are part of that spinning out of control “oh, we worked so hard, so there must be a result, right?”  There is indeed a result, but its not that easy.

Again, I am put off by calling something “post racial.”  For me “post racial” conjures up language like “color blindness” or believing that people of all races are the same or leveling the playing field.  I don’t want to leave my cultural, racial-isms behind…If I do, what does that leave me?  You see, the problem with the concept of “post racial” as it is largely presented is that it is based on a white Western concept of “commonality” which is fine if you are white and Western but rather lacking if you aren’t.  There is this assumption in “post racial” that my unique racial-ness can and WANTS to be blended into the concept of the “melting pot” and that this will be for the “common good.” But that is the same assumption that told me to straighten my hair.  It is the same assumption that told me to be a lawyer or doctor or banker.  It is the same assumption that says I should want a heterosexual modeled relationship.  But no, those priorities still leave one group calling the shots.  Ask the descendants of the Nisenan people, the Southern Madiu people, the Valley Miwok and Me-Wuk people, the Patwin people, the Wintun People and the Wintu people any of the indigenous people of the land we are sitting on nowAsk an Australian Aboriginal…ask different people what their “common good” represents and you will get very different answers.

The way in which we need most to become “post racial” isn’t by becoming “post racial” at all.  It is by becoming “post colonial”…letting go of a colonial Western centered world view.  When you look at indigenous people living off of the land or in nomadic tribes, do you see someone who has “less” or do you see someone living their truth?  When you see Shinto ritual, do you see primitive religion, or do you see honest insight into the heart of a culture?  News flash: some people not only want to live in villages, but they don’t understand why we don’t want to live close to our multiple generations and instead choose to cocoon ourselves in homes where we have so much “space” that we rarely see our children.  Some people don’t actually want to support endeavors that use money to make money.  Some people don’t want to be rich or even have any major stake in what our financial system is about, just ask some of our homeless populations.  Yes, we all need water, but at the cost of displacing people?  We all need clothing, but at the cost of modern slavery and the serious threat to health?  Are money and wealth and “prosperity” bad?  It really depends on who is pushed out of the way or manipulated to create that wealth.  And it definitely depends on who is defining what “wealth” really is.

In certain social justice circles there is a lot of talk today about “equity” and “sustainability” and “resilience.” But to what end?  Equity…so we can all have two leased cars a home with a mortgage and raise children who will spend 40 years working just so they can afford to retire? Who decided that our “American Way of Life” was such a good thing?  I actually don’t understand why we should have to live a lifestyle where we need to take 2 weeks of vacation.  If we were actually living in balance with what our bodies and minds and communities need, we would have no need for vacation.  We might actually live in balance with the seasons and also be able to embrace the shifts in ourselves from one time of life to the next, from day to day and from hour to hour.  There would be no retirement, because there would be an important role in the community waiting for us as elders and everyone in the community would want to support that role and all the other natural roles that are part of our human way of being.

The world that we…that’s you and me, people over the age of 40 have created, has reached a saturation point.  We cannot sustain any more useless attorneys.  We cannot build any more hospitals for rich people, and staff them with professionals who look at medicine as a profit centered business.  We cannot create any more schools of “higher learning” that are jammed with students who have to wait until someone else dies so that they can get a job.  We cannot pump any more pollution into the earth.  We cannot make our way of governing and our stewardship of the land we stole any more complicated.  We cannot keep doing this.  The next generations see it clear as a bell.  And although they love us, I do believe they are perfectly willing to let us charge headlong off the cliff…letting us die in the mess that we have created…because this world of capitalist pursuit without consequence does not suit THEIR common good.

Let me close by bringing this back around to our faith.  In his Berry Street Lecture “There’s a Change A-comin’” last year, Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Muir criticized what he calls the “iChurch” and rabid individualism among Unitarian Universalists.  It is a fascinating and delicious talk, but I caution against the negative framing of the Apple industries “i” in that the next stewards of our existence have a very different view of that little letter and the technology it represents.  Instead, I think it is more a question of whether we belong to a  “we-ligion” or a “me-ligion?”  I see ME-ligion as the faith practice that is purely driven by individual goals and desires and the individual truth.  We see this a lot.  Some of those same people who have gone abroad seeking Buddhism or other enlightenment come squarely from this space.  As do some people who experienced oppression in the name of other traditions they grew up with and carry that damage looking for healing and self reconciliation.  This is an important part of Unitarian Universalism that is even lifted up in our fourth principle “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  There is nothing wrong with self awareness.  But taken to an extreme, ME-ligion begins to assume that everyone is doing the same self centered practice.  WE-ligion on the other hand has the potential to acknowledge the identity of the self, while pointing more toward our sixth principle “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Humility.  Here I believe is one place where we start to point toward that truth, that real “common good” that I speak of.  It is a common good that is small and simple enough to acknowledge that life and existence, however we experience it or explain it on a personal level, was here before us, is greater than us and will go on after us.  Yet it is a common good that is spacious enough for us to be our whole selves beyond the imaginary boundaries of “states” or the history of slavery and genocide, and allows us to access what is at our unique cores outside of Western contexts.  It is a common good that will enable the next generations to reclaim what it means to be truly human and wrest it from the priorities established in a monochromatic, monophonic world dominated by a handful of cultures who were motivated by fear.  And they will replace it with love.  Let us help them.  May it be so