No Apologies

I’ve decided I will no longer apologize–neither to myself nor to my anonymous audience here–for failing to write on this blog. Part of getting older entails sacrifices and necessary shifts from idealisms of youth and hobbies once held sacred. Writing for most of my burgeoning life has been a method for me to cogitate and develop independence of thought, but most importantly, to relieve myself of loneliness and give voice to an inner life long held silent.

But now I am married and professionally immersed. Though I don’t have many close friends in NYC since I moved here five years ago, I don’t generally have time to feel lonely. I continue to develop and refine my philosophies, but that development now either takes place amongst discussion with colleagues at my school, at education conferences or events, or on my professional blog, Schools as Ecosystems.

So while I do miss the personal and introverted creative explorations/exorcisms I once performed regularly here on this blog, I won’t allow myself to be burdened by guilt that I am compromising some essential aspect of my existence. The reality is that I am developing in other ways, and such is as it should be, because it must be, and it will be.

Ashen

I once asked
how close to the earth must I sway,
sweeping in the wind
like a broken tree?

But I have grown a bit
since that time.

That question was centered all around
me;
my struggle; my need.
As if the world
should work for
me.

A better question may be–
how close to another person can I get,
to know love
in every breath?

The world has riven
me, and will continue breaking
waves against any stance I assume.
But I can bend, and learn, and grow.

In the end,
I want there to be found nothing
but gratitude in my heart.

Differentiating Professional and Personal Streams

I had the honor of being selected to attend a recent conference on becoming a better blogger, hosted in Washington D.C. by Bellwether Education. This was a great opportunity for me to meet influential professionals engaged in promoting their voice and perspectives on education online, and to learn from them how to better promote and develop my own classroom-based perspectives.

I’d been struggling for a while now with how to develop my professional voice in conjunction with my personal voice. I’ve been blogging for a number of years now, but solely for a literary and/or personal reflection purpose (writing for me has always been a necessary therapy). While I’ve been interested in gaining greater readership, I haven’t actively sought for this through this blog, recognizing that my style of writing (which is decidedly eclectic in nature and topic) doesn’t exactly have mass appeal.

I had already begun differentiating some of my education specific content intended for larger audiences by publishing on GothamSchools’ Community page, which has been a great way to get involved in the online education community and advocate for my perspectives.

But this conference helped to clarify a difficulty that I had not really confronted head-on, which is that this blog, Manderson’s Bubble — which has heretofore catalogued and characterized my internal narratives — was not the proper avenue for me to continue to cultivate my professional voice. I needed to fully differentiate those divergent streams of my writing.

Realizing this, I got in touch with a great fellow educator, Will Johnson, who also writes amazing pieces for GothamSchools Community, and who I had been collaborating with in developing the concept of public schools as ecosystems. We began a collaborative blog specifically for our advocacy of this model, and to develop our online professional voices as special education teachers. (BTW, please check out our introductory collaborative post on the concept of schools as ecosystems and how it relates to current education reform perspectives.)

Our blog is called Schools as Ecosystems, and we have the ambitious goal of putting up a post daily in order to build readership and establish our voices online. If you are interested in education, please follow, bookmark, and share this blog!

I will continue to post here on the Bubble, but posts here will remain personal or literary in nature, rather than pertaining to my professional perspectives.

I’m excited about what Will and I have put up so far and believe that our model is rich enough to continue to explore indefinitely.

In other news, I just had a project on DonorsChoose.org for e-Readers for my students suddenly completely funded! Totally unexpected and awesome! Thanks dad, Jennica, MarieElaina, and The Hagedorn Fund! I’ve had quite the amazing year, aside from my school environment turning ridiculously negative (more on that later).

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

Pushing the Walls Away

It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.

Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.

But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.

Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.

It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.

Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.

Dimensions of Totality

One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality. In “community development” projects the more a region or area is broken down into “local communities,” without the study of these communities as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality . . . the more alienation is intensified.

–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Growing Healthy Food and Children

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.

Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

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The Hollow Reed Goes to Court

I have defined myself by loneliness, a barrenness of expectancy. Any light that passes through me is not my own, I am a hollowness that is sounded by the passing breath of what the universe elects to bestow, just as it so readily and inevitably draws away, to leave me again enshrouded in silence, in the magnitude of a void that lies at the root of every being. For this solitude is not my own;  it is the very concavity of the universe, against whose form I am embedded within, a child pregnant with nothingness, like the deadened sacs of jellyfish that wash to shore, glancing in the moonlight like glass blown bubbles, a horrifically beautiful detachment of alien life forms deadened of meaning. The eye that views us wholly is not our own. It is in the distance of aqueous rock, beholden to a history that extends far beyond the parasitic need of life.

As I unravel from out of my comfortable discipline, from out of the mountainous wilderness of my solitude and into a daily existence that necessitates immediacy, haphazard intimacy, and action, I find myself flailing, looking to strike out again for the deep water, where life slows until it is still.

But I have made a choice. I have turned my back to the night and descended into the electrified city of the people, where we choose to listen to the music of our own crafting. My deepest self, rooted in empty blankness, must belatedly put on the masks of human aspiration and join in the ritual dances of the season. To become a proselytizer of the human future, laboring for fecundity. To have hope, to believe in a collective expansion of spirit, that what we take will be less than what we make.

The individual light within me has been lessened, intentionally, to make way for the lights of other people who will come with me. The one light that we shine can only be stronger, the one song that we sing can only be that much more steady, defined through the legislated breath of each other, not simply by the passing happenstance gift of the beyond.

New Paradigm

You may have noted that I have been relatively quiet on the political/news front as of late, mostly because I don’t have any free time anymore, but furthermore because I think that most of the events, such as Obama’s inauguration, speak for themselves and we are all somewhat inspired and hopeful for the future, finally. But there are a few things that I want to say about the pressing economic and political events of our time.

First of all, former George W. Bush’s presidency was a complete and abject failure. Please, let’s not forget that. There have been a lot of interviews and articles before the switch-over that offered a somewhat benign retrospective of Bush’s reign, and it looks like reporters have been attempting to remain “objective” by entertaining the notion that Bush may have represented integrity because he never backed down from doing whatever the fuck he wanted, or something like that.

Bush was a terrible mistake, and a giant mar on the already besotted history of US politics. He stood as a representative not of personal integrity, but rather as the exact negative of what a leader should be. He didn’t listen to his opponents nor his own constituency. He didn’t utilize diplomacy in dealing with world bodies and foreign leaders. He took more vacations than any other president in history. His administration was peppered by yes-men, neo-cons, and nepotism. This is completely ignoring the myriad scandals that marred his administration. Basically, he didn’t do anything that he was supposed to do as a LEADER. The real “leadership” in the Bush presidency were the people who actually ran things, such as his vice-president and Karl Rove. Presidents in the past have oft been puppets on strings, such as Reagan, but at least Reagan had charisma and could instill some kind of false confidence, even when his actual policies resulted in terrible outcomes that we are still paying for today.

So yes, thank god we have closed that terrible chapter in our history. But we will be continuing to pay for those 8 years of bullshit for a long time hence, Obama or not. The Republican Party, as evidenced by their cold response to bipartisanship in the passing of the stimulus plan, are awaiting an eventual rebuttal to the centrism of the Obama presidency. They will do all they can do to ensure that his policies fail, so that they can renew their onslaught of the poor and middle class. Bear that in mind in the coming years: W. Bush was not an anomaly. He was the epitome of hard-line right-wing divisiveness. And again, let me be perfectly clear about the policies of such an administration: they failed. Period. They will never be effective. The myth of free market capitalism has been—with finality—debunked.

The history that Obama has made in his ascendance to the American presidency is not simply about a black man becoming a US President, nor reductively about simple “change”: it is about the forceful backing of an American public for a government that will utilize its policies for greater control and responsibility of economic tides. A government that does what it is supposed to do, rather than absolving itself of any and all responsibility beyond that of blatant militarism.

Now I want to discuss these “tough economic times,” as they like to say everyday on the news. This is indeed a time when the failed economic policies of the past are coming home to roost. This is also a time when “the American people” are beginning to pay for their years of living wantonly off of money that they never had and never will have. This is a time when issues of sustainability are no longer simply concerns of hippies, but of academic professors and Washington policy wonks. This is a time when America has to wake up to the fact that we have been sleeping, while the rest of the world has been quietly surpassing us in their investment in business and educational competitiveness.

Even though comparisons to the Great Depression can be fruitful simply for waking up people to the fact that this recession is real and its effects on people devastating, let’s also abstain from going too far. No one is jumping out of windows on Wall St. The lines for unemployment may be exceedingly long, but there’s no extensive lines for soup kitchens, at least, not yet. Retail chains that have stretched themselves too thin on the promise of endless sales have indeed been shutting their doors. Banks are decisively slimming their ranks with a butcher’s knife. And this impact cannot be understated on the economy nor on men and women now without salaries. But for many, it also doesn’t mean much of anything other than that they won’t waste their money like they might have before. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Because the fact is that transitioning into what they call a “green” economy can not be easy, nor even possible without the recognition that it is necessary. These “tough economic times” are not about a housing market bubble collapsing, nor about over-investment in bad securities and over-lending of easy credit: it is about the transition into a new economic and political and social paradigm. A paradigm in which we recognize our interdependence on each other and other nations, acknowledge the interconnectivity of mankind with that of the earth, and begin to take responsibility for the actions not only of ourselves, but of our governments and world bodies.

So as tough as these times are—and yes, these times are tough for me personally, thank you very much—they are also a necessary time for buckling down and gaining a clearer vision of what we need to achieve.

Rock Facing Water

In this contemporary juncture of my life in the continuum of heart-space-time I am being challenged, challenged by this giant density of city, challenged by the commute out to my work and by the long hours on my feet and by the loss of sleep, challenged by the people in the subway and the street, challenged by my living situation, challenged by my own limitations, challenged by my relationship, challenged by my expectations, challenged by everything that currently exists here and by everything that has led me summarily to this point of now.

I have not been writing frequently, as you may have duly noted, both because I lack free time outside of my days off and because I am having trouble enough grasping physically with my reality not to want to expend effort psychically and mentally untangling my emotions into worded strands. But I have a need. I have the pent up panopticon of my unvented frustrations and shattered hopes to deal with. I have the neglected plot of my blog awaiting tending to, calling out quietly for growth and development, for creativity and courage. I have myself to answer to, to nurture, take care of, love, and maintain.

Suffice to say that the challenges I face are far beyond the expected penance that any great dislocation can incur. I am realizing just how naive I still am, almost 30 but still sheltered in a collegiate sort of way. The struggle to actively prepare for the future is beyond all hopeful reckoning. I am understanding now that I must be prepared for disaster, for worst-case-scenario. I must be prepared to seriously and tenaciously endure. I must be ready to subvert my own natural inclinations and proclivities and breathe slower, breathe deeper, pace myself, hang back and await the unknown mystery that will come. To accept what I am given, patiently, with quiet ambition kept stoked hidden in a secret place from the world, to be unveiled only when the final cards are ready to be faced.

I think I seem to be implying that my reality is terrible, but it really is not. This is my point of this whole story. Things are not bad at all. The things that have been horrifying and distressing me are petty and largely irrelevant but to my battered ego. The challenges that I face wisp away when stood up to in full. My commute is focused reading time of the bounty that I skim from the wonderful NYC library. My work hones my body and teaches me humility and how to relate to a wonderful diversity of people and how to maintain a maturity and integrity of perspective and action. My living situation incorporates me into an extended family who supports and loves me. My relationship is committed, full of daily love and constant tendering. My expectations are evolving to include a much broader range of what my life is meant to be. And this giant, dirty city is teaching me what it means to truly live with and love humanity.

So these challenges, I am finally and wearily realizing, are welcome challenges. Though arriving in completely unexpected ways, rendering me momentarily defenseless, they are exactly and precisely what I desired and required, when seen for what they are. Something within me is rushing to the brink of a certain type of extinction. And beyond this shattering momentary loss and delimitation lies the widened horizon and incorporation of a greater sea.

So go we all. The economy, the body politic, the bedoeling roads of science, culture, and intuitive grasps at divinity. We journey our disparate paths to oneness. However embattled, however frayed, these droplets will find their way to their unexpectedly perfect destination.

Thoughts on Money & Poverty: The Root

In my series of posts focused on confronting the existence of poverty and thinking through the issues behind it [Thoughts on Poverty parts I, II, and III], I came to a series of realizations which I will sum up as follows: 1) development, profit-generation, and gentrification is not necessarily a bad thing; 2) poverty is not spawned by the idleness and laziness of the poor but rather through structures of commerce and policy; 3) charity is only a symptomatic response, and does not in any way address the root causes of poverty; and 4) poverty is sustained by the lack of will and indifference on the part of those with influence and money. These are all poignant observations, but my thought process was stopped short continually when I hit the wall of what do we do to change this? This can be seen especially in my second post, in which I end it by stating that micro-credit doesn’t work in the US, and that I have a lot more to learn on the subject of poverty.

I do indeed have a lot more to learn, but the wall that I was hitting turns out to be a quite common perception within the US in regards to the problem of entrepreneurship/employment and the poor. That wall is welfare. I was getting at this idea in a general way when I discovered that charity is a manifestation of shallow perceptions of the problem and not the solution.

The fact is that welfare has created a powerful disincentive to those stuck in poverty from ever obtaining the motivation to succeed. It’s throwing money at the problem, and increasing the division between the poor and the rich. It’s a type of exclusion, a method of control. Any of us who has ever been bribed by our parents knows this.

I arrived at this understanding while reading Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus. I have talked about Yunus before, and posted plenty of quotes of his, but I had not yet actually read a book written by him. I would highly advise reading some of his speeches and his books, in addition to books written about Grameen Bank such as David Bornstein’s The Price of a Dream. In Banker to the Poor, he discusses the reactions of Americans to the concept of micro-credit, and the problems he encountered with welfare states in the US and in Europe.

“I was not prepared for the amount of skepticism I encountered. What struck me was not so much people’s doubt as to whether micro-credit would succeed in the United States but their pessimism about whether anything would actually raise people out of poverty rather than merely alleviating its symptoms. Many Americans argue that their welfare state has created a lazy underclass of dysfunctional individuals who would never be interested in or capable of starting their own businesses or supporting themselves.

. . . Almost everyone I spoke with dismissed what I said, arguing that the Bengali experience could not be relevant to poverty eradication in the United States. They claimed that [poor people] needed jobs, training, health care, and protection from drugs and violence, not micro-loans, and that self-employment was a primitive concept lingering only in the Third World. Low-income people . . . needed money for rent and food, not for investment. They had no skills anyway.  . . .”

That is essentially the argument that I had been making in my second post on poverty. I was talking about how the cottage industries in Bangladesh of weaving, making furniture, rickshaw pulling, etc, were all something ingrained in their traditions and way of life. In the United States, I thought, what could we do to start our own businesses? Isn’t it a lot of hassle and paperwork, and don’t you have to get some kind of training and a degree? However, the more that you think about it, the more that you realize that the problem isn’t that people don’t have skills or ability, it is that they lack will and motivation.

I wrote a post while in Colombia on the teeming activity of its micro-economies, and of how this was inspiring to see, something that we need in the United States. And that is exactly what we do need! We need more street vendors, more individuals starting their own taxi businesses, more food carts, more clothing makers, more strange and exotic retail shops, more corner stores, etc. This local, community based commerce is what makes for a stronger overall economy. We need small-time entrepreneurs.

As I was reading Yunus’ chapter on the United States while on the subway, I excitedly gripped the book and finally realized the biggest major obstacle both in my mind and in my nation in regards to poverty: the concept and institution of welfare.

“. . . I witnessed directly how welfare laws in the United States create disincentives for welfare recipients to work. Those who receive welfare become virtual prisoners not only of poverty but of those who would help them; if they earn a dollar, it must be immediately reported to the welfare authority and deducted from their next welfare check. Welfare recipients are also not allowed to borrow money from any institutional source.

. . . In the developed world, my greatest nemesis is the tenacity of the social welfare system. . . Recipients of a monthly handout feel as afraid to start a business as the purdah-covered women in Bengali villages.

. . . I believe . . . that providing unemployment benefits is not the best way to address poverty. The able-bodied poor don’t want or need charity. The dole only increases their misery, robs them of incentive and, more important, of self-respect.

Poverty is not created by the poor. It is created by the structures of society and the policies pursued by society.”

One of the problems with welfare is that it is staunchly defended by anyone who thinks that they are liberal and/or compassionate. It is thus defended because it is seen as a necessary means of address to the problems of poverty. But welfare is only a symptomatic address; it does not change the structures that create the conditions for poverty.

We obviously cannot just lop off welfare and expect the problem to be solved. Welfare must be reduced in tandem with the extension of financial services to the poor in the form of micro-loans. Welfare must also be altered to allow for the poor to have incentive to take out loans and start their own businesses.

Welfare as a concept and institution should not be done away with. Welfare is necessary for those people who are not able-bodied enough to help themselves. However, it needs some drastic changes in its structuring. Otherwise, all other actions we take to eradicate poverty in the United States will end up falling far short in the face of the lack of will, self-esteem, and motivation on the part of the poor themselves. Only they can raise themselves out of poverty.

Geography of the Mind

Why can’t we look at people based on the color of their minds, the fruit of their perspectives, their intriguing meshed inner map of happenstance and outward trajectories of decisions, the varying shades of individualism interwoven within the living fabric of all that exists? We’ve got people convinced that somehow the color of their skin defines their capability and outlines their personality. That the accoutrements of one’s gender defines their ability to succeed or perform. That we’ve got to talk a certain way, act a certain way, perform a certain way.

It’s now been proven that sexual orientation is a formation of the brain before thought. There is no will, no choice in the matter. What appears can and often will contradict what is.

In the United States, we have furthered and maintained the myth of an identity known as the ‘black’ or ‘white’ person. Is the type of genes that one possesses relevant to anything but one’s healthcare provider? The color of one’s skin only becomes relevant outside of such concerns in a society that has bigotry at its core. The classification of black and white should not be used to subdivide cultural identity. We are all citizens of our country, with common goals and standards. Our perceived differences should merely lie in geography and ideologies, not in genes.

We live in a world based on diaspora. The identity of the citizen of a country is no longer based on the color of one’s skin nor even necessarily on the language one speaks. We create artificial subdivisions based on wealth and seclusion, and use excuses like racial identity to explain away inequity.

There is no escaping the conclusion that we all share common goals and agree to accept the standards of capitalism and democracy and human rights. Beyond that, why are we divided? Beyond that, why are we afraid? Beyond that, why do we classify ourselves as limited due to our appearance, when all of the evidence around us points not to what we look like, but where we happen to live, or what we happen to belief in?

All this hullabuloo during the presidential campaign has revolved around race and gender politics. What a petty misdirection of our attention from the issues that truly matter, and what concerns us all. It’s like everyone is patting themselves on the back because a woman and a black man are finally considered viable candidates for president of the United States. But guess what people? Wait to pat yourselves on the back until the day comes when we dismiss race and gender as completely irrelevant to the realm of politics—and to any other realm of public domain.

Thoughts On Money & Poverty: Part III

I’ve had some more thoughts to add to my developing perspective on poverty that stems and evolves from my last post; there I had begun the line of thought that poverty is not an issue of charity and indifference, but rather of a systemic need to provide recourse for the poor to make their own money in a legitimate manner (duh!). Continuing this direction in thought, I would like to now confront a fundamental obstacle in the path to the poor helping themselves: those with the money and the power.

It is the onus and privilege of those with money and power to pretend that they have nothing to do with poverty. I am now going to begin speaking of these folk as “we”, in the assumption that if you are reading this post, you are probably not living in poverty. And I include these poor, destitute 20 somethings in NYC who are forced to flirt for free drinks and eat junk food while living in their loft apartments in midtown Manhattan (follow that link up there to read yet another article that demonstrates just whom the NY Times caters their news towards). At this point, you are probably throwing up your hands and backing out the door, saying, “I’m not responsible for poverty. I can barely afford my credit card bills, fill up at the pump, or pay back my student loans.” But you are. We are all responsible, because of the very reason of such a denial. We are responsible because we are complicit.

Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into one of those liberal assays of guilt and blame. I simply wanted to make my point very clear: the major obstacle in the way of the poor raising themselves out of poverty is not themselves—it is those who hold onto money and power and deny it from the poor. We are all complicit in this act because of reasons such as I had detailed in my last post on this issue: we believe that the poor are poor because they are lazy, stupid, or simply because we need poor people in order for there to be rich people. And so we either extend charity or pity, or we remain indifferent. And thus complicit.

Beyond complicity, there are those who work directly to keep the poor poor, and these are the people with the major money and power. The Bush Administration, along with groups like Enron and Halliburton, have clearly demonstrated what kind of stripes these people wear. They are greedy sons of bitches who will not hesitate to lie, cheat, and betray all of the world in order to get what they feel is their entitlement. And because we are complicit, we slap their hands, but we do nothing to stop them. Because we all want to be this powerful and have that much money. We all want to become the real life embodiment of the American Dream.

But to assume that simply because we live in a capitalistic society and that our market thrives on competition that we require for there to be have and have-nots is ridiculous, and in fact completely anti-capitalistic. The more people that we can allow onto the playing field of the economy, the more that there will be enhanced competition as well as collaborative growth, and the more the market will develop. Poor people need to be extended credit and resources to start their own businesses, fund their own developments, build their own communities, and invest back into the bigger pool. The more that micro-economies thrive and teem and interact with smaller fry, the more that the macro will be stabilized and efficient and healthy.

The fact is, there is no credible reason to keep poor people poor. The only thing that keeps poor people poor is the greed, complacency, bigotry, short sightedness, and all other forms of small mindedness from those with money and power. It is therefore only extreme indifference and cruelty that allows us to see, when taxes are cut and budgets are slashed and essential programs and social services are jettisoned, not the devastating effect on human lives, rather solely the hypothetical increase in our own coffers. We put up blinders to our own humanity to think in such a manner. The fact is that there is no excuse. There is no acceptable reason for accepting poverty.

And there is no acceptable reason, for that matter, of accepting any kind of tainted and bitter revolt against our own humanity. Compassion is much stronger than pity. Understanding is much more powerful than fear. Everyone on this earth has the potential to be beautiful. Everyone deserves to be beautiful, to shine, to be seen as the treasure and gift that they are.

We need to fight back against the ugly despair, disgust, and terror that is our nightly news. We need to fight back against the complacency and indifference that is so easy to succumb to, the avoidant eyes on the subway, the challenging aggression on the streets, the burning short fuses on the freeway.

No one said it would be easy. But there is a fundamental step within our own minds that must take place for anything good to happen: we must determine whether we will fight for joy, fight for beauty, fight for wonder, and fight for humanity, or whether we will simply step back into the shallows of our temporary alliances and turn against what we know is true. We know that the existence of poverty—ever, anywhere, but most especially now—is simply

unacceptable.

So what do we do? Do we start throwing our pennies in the cups of homeless on the street? No, of course not. We need to start affecting change in the structures and environments of the most destitute and impoverished areas of our cities. We need healthy, beautiful, clean, and affordable living spaces. We need access to public transportation. We need the extension of credit and access to money. We need access to well-funded educational and youth development programs. We need nutritious food. We need potable water. Is any of this complicated?

Essentially, all that the problem of poverty and its related issues requires is ATTENTION. The solutions then flow from creativity, community, and collaborative dedication. And turning our attention to these matters should not be seen as charity, selflessness, and other forms of saintliness. Rather, we turn our attention to these matters because we recognize that we are enhancing our greater community—because we are removing the root source of fear, bigotry, and despair from all of our lives. Like what I was saying in another post about the need, in our personal lives, of cleaning and organizing every hidden and unattended spot in our living spaces and mind, so too in our civic spaces and minds we must focus on those areas that are ignored, have been left to fester and decay, have turned into dumping grounds. Because these are areas that are parts of ourselves.

We cannot detach ourselves from each other, except to the detriment of everyone’s humanity.

Organize Your Self

I grew up with my momma cleaning up most of my scattered detritus after me. I’ve never been a terribly messy person, but I certainly wasn’t clean either. I considered myself organized because I would make piles in terms of accessibility: the most recent thing that I had just used would be on top, so I would know where to find something I used frequently.

Since then I’ve learned how to maintain cleanliness and organization. Having girls as roommates for a couple of years has helped, as they would yell at me about being messy until I started cleaning up after myself. Then after working in the housekeeping department for a few years, I developed a higher level of personal standards of organization and cleanliness, because I had to tell other people how to clean, and not only how to clean well, but furthermore why they should want to clean well. I would generally approach this issue from a philosophical standpoint regarding the broader issue of why working hard and applying yourself fully to work–no matter the given task–is a definitive life-skill.

I’m going to take the argument for why working hard is an important capability for everyone to have and broaden that concept a little more to introduce the idea that how we think, act, and organize ourselves in our private lives is deeply and intimately related to how we develop and achieve our goals professionally. This might seem simple to you in concept, but in reality not many people really make that connection. So let me see what I can make of it.

Clean Up, Organize, and Maintain Your Life

Yeah, I know. This is sounding like a self-help, motivational thing all of a sudden. But sometimes hearing it from other people is refreshing, because I can tell ya, hearing it from myself is refreshing. Look, you need to clean up after yourself. And I’m not just talking about your dishes or your clothes. I’m talking about behind your couch, behind the toilet, underneath the sink, those boxes full of junk in the attic. Every inch of living space that you leave to fester unattended is representative of a space within yourself. If you have a tendency to hoard things and allow them to pile up until it overruns your living area, then guess what? Chances are quite good that you allow emotional baggage in your life, both professionally and personally, to build up until they affect and infect your everyday existence as well.

Obviously, there’s differing levels of maintenance required, dependent on high and low traffic areas. But it’s all ultimately part of a whole. You’ve got to get a handle on the whole thing in order to know that you are on top of it, and the only way you can do that is by starting now in tackling all the areas that you’ve been pushing away and allowing to sit unattended. Once you’ve done a “deep clean”, or “spring clean” or whatever you want to call it, then you can settle back into the daily routine of doing your dishes, picking up your clothes, vacuuming your carpet, etc, and simply doing semi-deeper cleans periodically. But every single space, outer and inner, top to bottom, must be accounted for if you want to get your life in order.

Don’t believe me? I don’t got no psychology degree, but I can tell you that cleaning (please only use non-toxic cleaners!) is indeed therapy. We reflect our living environments. There are some things that we can’t control, like the guy on the subway who curses us for no good reason, or the pinecone that fell on top of our head right as we walked underneath it. But in the areas of our lives that are under our control, it is imperative that we empower ourselves to organize and maintain those areas in order to allow ourselves to develop.

I’m not saying to be OCD about it. But I’m letting you know that allowing your baggage to build up and sit for years in a corner is equivalent to effectively blinding yourself to your own problems, even as they culminate to become a visible monster, visible to everyone except yourself.

This baggage, this junk, this dirt, mildew, mold, mice, and other assorted benefits of laxness will manifest itself in your life in terms of your relationships and work life as well. You will be the person who never moves upward in job responsibility, who never moves forward in a relationship. You will be the person who wants to ignore their own hand in their failure to achieve. You will be the person whose computer runs so slow that it’s basically an Apple IIe in boot time.

Present Yourself Well to Everyone

We like to think that when it comes to friends that we can let our guards down and just let it all hang out, without being judged or condemned. But in fact, it is often our friends that are our harshest critics–for the very reason that they have greater insight into our lives and how we live it. Unfortunately, our friends don’t often want to tell us straightforwardly their criticisms, and so we rarely get the feedback from the people that are best capable of giving us that feedback. Instead, we get that critical feedback from strangers or hostile acquaintances, and by then, we aren’t really positioned to listen to them.

It’s important that we present ourselves well to everyone, from strangers to family members. Everyone judges. It’s human nature. We aren’t saints–we use our brains and our eyeballs and we compare and contrast other people with ourselves. With friends and family members, we CAN let our guards down, and we know that we can always come back to open arms. But only to a certain point. You see, if you keep acting like an inconsiderate slob or snob around a loved one, at some point, they will get fed up with it. And no matter how much someone may like you for your wit and company, they will probably not recommend you to their employer when you are looking for a job if you walk around all day with the crack of your ass showing. You can’t take your friends and family for granted. In fact, you shouldn’t take anyone for granted. You should treat every single person in your day with the same respect. Because it all comes back to you.

And another point here is that appearance is related to integrity. That ties in with my overall theme, which is that your personal life ties in intimately with your professional life. The way you look, the way you talk, the way you think. How you lead your private life has repercussions on the way your interactions on the street and on the job go. Call it karma, call it do-unto-others-as-they-would-do-unto-you, call it what you like. Just recognize that everything you do is related to everyone else, and that people may not be able to see who you are in your fundamental being, being as it are that they are not saints, don’t really give a shit about you, and have enough to deal with in their own lives, BUT, even completely random strangers on the street get a vibe from you. People in your workplace get a feeling from the way you talk, the way you carry yourself. Your friends know you for certain qualities. Your family jokes about how you always did this and that as a tyke. Who you are and what you do are unimpeachably interrelated.

Take All Criticism Into Consideration

I kind of went into this point a little bit above when I talked about how even the closest of friends can be your harshest critics. But sometimes a complete stranger will criticize you. Sometimes it will be your boss at work. And you will want to say “fuck you” and disregard everything they said to you. And that’s completely understandable, and in certain situations, that is exactly what you should do. However, there are also many times when you should be listening. Criticism, especially when it occurs on the job, should be taken as constructive, even when it sounds harsh and demeaning. Some managers simply aren’t good people, aren’t good managers, and don’t know how to communicate well with different people. But they are trying to get something across. And sometimes your friends, family, and even complete strangers are as well.

Taking a criticism of yourself into consideration does not weaken you unless you feel that it is so valid that you can’t see any way of answering it. So you need to take it head on. Let yourself be challenged. Take every criticism as a lesson from a teacher, and see how you can use it to develop yourself and make yourself stronger.

It’s like on American Idol. Paula Abdul thinks she’s everyone’s friend. She’s not. Simon Cowell is the one to listen to. He is honest, to the point of being brutal. If you did a shitty job, he will tell you that you did a shitty job, while Paula blathers on about dreams and how wonderful you are. If the contestant listens to Paula, and shuts out Simon, then he/she is most likely just about to be voted off the show. Simon may be harsh, but he is attempting to provide constructive criticism that should be taken into consideration if the artist wants to develop and progress.

Sometimes people just don’t phrase it to you in the right ways so that it can slip in past your ego. So you need to just drop your ego sometimes and really listen to other people when they critique you. Let yourself be judged. Learning to wade through other people’s problems and picking out what is of use to you and what drags you down is how you grow. Often in the midst of the bricolage of someone elses’ jealousy, desire, rage, and anguish is a gem of constructive criticism that is waiting to be taken into your consideration and worked on.

Alright, so I think I am just about cleaned out on any further burning nuggets of wisdom that I feel the need to bestow on you right now. I’ll plop out any new ones as they come along. I’ve still got a lot of growing and learning to do myself, but I’ve been thinking about these particular things that I’ve learned as I’ve been coming up against extreme change in my life, both professionally, emotionally, spatially, and otherwise.

Thoughts on Money and Poverty: Part II

Thorn Corridor

On my last post on the issue of gentrification, I’d left off with the question of “How can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?” The more I’ve pondered on this, the more I’ve realized that the question is quite a bit more complicated than it sounds. Essentially, what we are really looking at are the root causes of poverty, and considering methods of assisting communities in raising themselves out of it.

The problem with poverty is that there are a lot of differing [mis]perceptions of the issue: the most common one being that of the better off, which assumes that those who are poor are lazy, stupid, or otherwise—that is, if the well-to-do are aware of the issue and consider it at all (it sounds amazing, but having grown up in a well-to-do area, and having worked in the hospitality industry with the extremely well-to-do and their offspring, I know first-hand there are indeed people out there who live in an oblivious bubble, both self-imposed and otherwise). Stemming from this initial prejudice, there are two common perceptions on poverty and the poor: 1) they are an unfortunate and inevitable scourge of humanity, to be ignored, endured, and shut away into their own enclaves; and/or 2) they are to be pitied and supported through the works of charity.

I think what becomes apparent as one examines this issue is that while welfare and charity are quite obviously direly needed by those stranded in extreme poverty, what must be recognized is that charity is ultimately only a temporal bandaid that avoids the root causes that create and sustain the conditions for poverty. What becomes further apparent from this realization is that the poor must be given the structural means to help themselves. In other words, the only ones who can directly and actively work to address the root causes of poverty are the poor themselves. Thus, they require not charity, but a pragmatic and systematic support that hands the money and the tools over to them.

This may at first sound perhaps out of touch with reality or idealistic and overly vague. But this is a concept that has been applied effectively by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh starting in the 70′s, when he introduced the concept of micro-credit and banking for those in poverty with his Grameen Bank. Since then, micro-credit has been further applied successively, most notably, in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Yunus founded a bank which extends credit directly to the poor, so that they could gain the means of raising themselves out of poverty through their own hard work and entrepreneurship. This is an approach to poverty that is staunchly capitalistic in its approach, yet underlied by a basic concern for human welfare. Most approaches to poverty are rooted in that initial notion of charity which we just have outlined above, and exist as non-profit donation-based organizations. These organizations generally do little or nothing in regards to helping the poor help themselves. Rather, it is always a matter of the rich helping or giving to the poor. This position, of course, is already rooted in a problematic perception of poverty that does nothing to empower the poor themselves, and rather perpetuates the symptoms.

The problem with micro-credit is that there haven’t been found ways to translate it into a workable and comparable vision in the United States. The reason for this is that micro-credit works quite well in village-based economies, where the poor have recourse to starting their own business in say, weaving kerchiefs, or vending food, and other such small, individual, street-cart type sales. There exists in such cultures many small, micro-economies in which small entrepreneurs are able to thrive. But in the United States, the economy, lifestyle, and culture is different, and small-time entrepreneurs face a number of hurdles before they can break into the world of commerce.

And this is where my thought begins to shoot out randomly in a haze like a flashlight in the fog. This is where I realize just how much more I need to learn. I have already gone from the issue of gentrification to that of poverty in general, thus expanding and deepening the questions on money and poverty. So at this point, I’m going to step back from these questions and look again at the bigger picture. I think what has been changing in my own thought and perception is that I am no longer fundamentally opposed to capitalism—the concept of making money. I believe that we can consciously make money, while at the same time benefitting the environment and combating poverty. And as these changing ideas sink in, my worldview begins to shift on an everyday level, such that as during this trip to Colombia, I have been noting the influence of wealth, and welcoming it.

Thoughts on Money and Poverty

Building

Some thoughts that have been fomenting somewhere in the back of my dome have been coming to the fore as my trip winds down to a close here in Bogotá, and I’ve had some more time to contemplate the bigger picture. One item that I’ve been considering is the changing perceptions I have of the concept of ‘gentrification’. I’ve always been critical of the influence of big money on people’s lives and communities. I’m especially critical of the bland and complacent lifestyles of the well-to-do, the ‘yuppies’, the SUVS, the suburban sprawl, the homogenous franchises, and so on. But my experience here in Colombia has driven me to question some of the aspects of gentrification that before I immediately and completely rejected. This has been due to the fact that when you’re traveling on a budget here, you’re inevitably staying in some neighborhoods that aren’t exactly high-end. And as a traveler coming from somewhere else, it makes you all the more conscious of the presence of poverty, wealth, and the types of commerce going on around you. And when you are looking simply for a bite to eat, or a place to get a good juice or coffee at, you are looking for some kind of welcome, however tentative that may be. At the very least, simply the product you desire, preferably sanitary and with a smile. But in some places, these basic expectations have been hard to come by, for the very simple reason that many businesses here are run by families or individuals that cater solely to a small local market, and have little interest in growing or developing their operation. They will close for weeks on end for the holiday season, they will not provide customer service aside from plopping down your plate and taking your money, and there’s often a sense that they could really care less for your business.

In such circumstances, I have discovered a sudden appreciation for the Juan Valdez Café chain. Yes, it is a franchise, but there are a few things that you can count on when you enter into one of these ‘yuppie’ establishments: 1) friendly, efficient service; 2) clean facilities, with a bathoom; 3) an atmosphere conducive to sitting, relaxing, chatting, and reading. These are aspects, as Americans, that I think we often take for granted in our businesses. We expect—and demand—adequate customer service, clean facilities, and proper delivery of the product. We live in the land of franchise.

Now let me be clear about something: I despise franchises, both as a concept and in their usual effect on local communities. However, when else has failed, and all I’ve wanted is somewhere to sit and read and drink coffee, Juan Valdez has been there. This isn’t to say that I haven’t discovered some great local cafés and what not. I will happily circumvent Juan Valdez whenever and wherever I can. But there have been times when there just haven’t been any other places open, or air-conditioned, or quiet or spacious enough to read in.

Here in Colombia, they don’t have the knee-jerk allergic reaction to franchises that many of us idealistic Americans have developed. They love their Coca-Cola and Postobon, they love their Juan Valdez, and while there are certainly Colombians who question capitalism and its accompanying imposition of materialistic values, as well as the influence of foreign investment, overall, Colombians seem quite happy with name-brands and familiar franchises. And that may have had a subtle influence on my experience here as well. When everyone drinks Coca-Cola all the time, it makes you more apt to grab one and sip it along with your fried chicken, patacones, and french fries.

But I’m getting off on a tangent. What I was getting at in bringing up the subject of Juan Valdez cafés is that there can be a positive effect from the influx of outside money and businesses. As a traveler and tourist, for example, I am bringing in money from outside into the country, and this is good for their economy. I understand when people speak disparagingly of gringos, and I have never been one to welcome tourists into my own community with open arms. Tourists are, in general, annoying, demanding, and most of their money goes to big business. That said, however, in the big picture, I believe tourism is a good thing for a country as a whole, especially if the tourism is encouraged to developed concurrently with local environmental and social concerns.

And so I’ve been extending that thought into the more general concept of the influx of outside money into any local community. I think that gentrification is easy to criticize and despise, but I think that what also needs to be considered is that inevitably, a community needs outside input in order grow. Before gentrification, a community is generally mired in poverty, and there is little potential for growth and expansion. Gentrification, in fact, could be seen as an inevitable aspect of growth and development.

I’m going to ignore for the moment the myriad negative effects that gentrification can incur on the local community (such as simply driving out all the prior, poor inhabitants), which I am fully aware of, and rather move onto the parable of hip-hop. The growth and development of this music mirrors quite well the growth and development of any community when it encounters a sudden influx of outside wealth. Hip-hop started, of course, in the restrictive hard-knock life of the streets. It was a revolution in articulation. Suddenly, disenfranchised youth found a creative and positive outlet for their passion, desire, anger, and thought. Much like graffiti, it empowered them in a way that, at first, seemed unprofitable to the outside world. It began simply as a method for those who had been unseen and unheard to express themselves. And as hip-hop developed and expanded into other communities, and eventually across the globe, it inevitably became commercialized and diverged into the mainstream, and glitz and glitter and glamour now are the name of the industry game. It seems to be dominated by a rich and famous elite, who proclaim at every chance they can their extravagant wealth. While this aspect of hip-hop can and will be lamented by those who love it for its roots in self-expression and rebellion, at the same time, it can also be seen as an inevitable outgrowth of the expansion and development of the music as a whole. This is analogous to the development of any artist who is “discovered” and inducted into the mainstream. Sometimes, and oftentimes, this sudden influx of outside money and influence results in pathologies and the destruction of an artist’s original intent and purpose. But other times, it simply extends the power, creativity, and influence of the individual to a broader audience, which is a good thing, if they are doing anything original and inspiring. And they develop their style in accordance with this extension (sometimes, of course, losing some of their original fans in the process).

But such is the process of evolution and growth. Communities, like individuals, are not steady-state bubbles. They are influenced necessarily by external factors, and they must utilize and embrace these factors if they are to grow. They can, of course, choose to withdraw inward and fight off all externalities, but inevitably, they either must collapse or expand.

So to get back to my original idea: I am beginning to think that external inputs of wealth are not completely undesirable. The problem, of course, is that most of the time, none of this wealth ends up in the pockets of the original inhabitants of a community, and they are either driven out, or they are left to fester in small controlled pockets within the newer developing community. So the problem I think that must be addressed, therefore, is not that of “gentrification” per se: the problem that must be addressed is: how can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?

I’m going to get into some ideas and approaches to that question in another post, as this one is getting rather long. I wanted to first lay down the foundation for it, however, as for me these ideas are a new direction in thought. I’m beginning, basically, to look more at such issues in an integral fashion, rather than simply separating the negative from the positive and looking only at one side. I’m recognizing that the idea of money and wealth is not so simple as rejecting the entire concept of monetary gain. Rather, the idea is to unite the principle of natural wealth with that of manufactured wealth.

Sick of Partisanship

As the whole presidential race idiocy begins winding itself up in the media, I grow increasingly agitated at the state of politics in this country (the ol US of A for those of you who stumbled acrost this page randomly). The whole nature of all interactions here, whether political, economic, or legal, all seem to have to be made on adversarial terms. It’s always A vs B. It’s never A working with B to produce C. It’s Democrats vs Republicans. It’s capitalism vs socialism. It’s environmentalist groups vs corporations. It’s good vs evil. Etc, ad nauseam.

The problem with this state of affairs is that when it comes to issues where all parties involved need to work together to create any kind of real solutions to major problems, such as in the arenas of public health, or reducing carbon emissions, then there is never any progress made until things attain such a state of degradation that it is undeniable to everyone that drastic measures must be made. And by that point, of course, it’s just a little too late. It’s “damage control,” instead of “preventing catastrophe.” It’s “rebuilding from the ground up,” instead of “retrofitting existing structures.” Aside from those of us who subscribe to neither liberal nor conservative, nor Democrat nor Republican, most Americans are quite happy to delimit their perceptions to one side or the other. Once you’ve picked a side, most issues resolve themselves rather conveniently into black or white. And you will never understand the perception of the “other side.”

If you’ve read any of my political rants in the past, then you know that I obviously don’t hold much patience with Republicans and conservatives of most any stripe. I really don’t have any interest in seeing their point of view, because it dominates enough of the political and cultural scene as it is, even as “liberal” as Americans pretend their major cities might be. But I also despise Democrats and people who blindly adhere to notions of liberalism as simply ideological opposition to Republicans, while mostly, in action, still just big-business economic ass-kissing just like conservatism. But ultimately, I really don’t give a hang about Republican or Democrat. I care about issues that truly affect the world and the nation, and that truly need to be addressed, one way or another. Issues such as revitalization of the economy, global warming, and public health. And the only way that such issues will ever get addressed is if people in positions of leadership put their fat heads together and work out the nitty-gritty details as a team, instead of squabbling over ideological issues that they will never resolve simply so that they can maintain political supremacy.

And this is the exact point where the pseudo-Democracy of the United States begins to look a bit out-dated and inefficient. Because it seems to be in the very nature of our economic, legal, and political systems to be adversarial, partisan, and privatized and individualized. Any kind of notions of “teamwork” seem to invoke knee-jerk allergic reactions to the ideologies of socialism and communism. But addressing and resolving trenchant issues such as those embedded in public health and global warming require a social cohesiveness that will not be achieved through mere partisanship. We must somehow go beyond ideologies, whether political, economic, or otherwise, and attempt to look at issues through a cumulative scattered cohesion of lenses, the liberals and conservatives and goods and evils all sewn together into a temporary visage of futurity. A rainbow quilt of different perceptions, meshed into a higher vision, beyond that which could have ever been achieved through the simple antagonism of isolated fragments. Such a networked collectivity of expression can still be competitive, aggressive, and progress oriented. But it must necessarily demolish the currently seemingly intractable obstacles of factions squabbling over (largely irrelevant) ideological issues.

Nuclear Energy Now

“I think we have little option but to prepare for the worst and assume that we have already passed the threshold. Like paramedics, their first priority is to keep the patient, civilization, alive during the journey to a world that at least is no longer undergoing rapid change. We face unrestrained heat, and its consequences will be with us within no more than a few decades. We should now be preparing for a rise of sea level, spells of near-intolerable heat like that in Central Europe in 2003, and storms of unprecedented severity. We should also be prepared for surprises, deadly local or regional events that are wholly unpredictable. The immediate need is secure and safe sources of energy to keep the lights of civilization burning and for the preparation of our defences against the rising sea level. There is no alternative but nuclear fission energy until fusion energy and sensible forms of renewable energy arrive as a truly long-term provider. Nuclear energy is free of emissions and independent of imports from what will be a disturbed world. We would be right to cut back all emissions to a minimum, and this includes emissions of methane from leaking pipes and landfill sites. But most of all we need electricity to sustain our technologically based civilization.”

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (2006)

A List of Ways to Reduce Your Waste

The main problem right now in all of the world, including within each of our own lives, is waste. We waste our time, we waste our resources. Our social, economic, and political systems waste money, people, natural capital, time, and energy. We have all been taught to waste, because we have been taught—and we allow ourselves—to be blind, heedless, “good consumers”.

Businesses can strive to become closed loop production systems, in which they use a whole systems approach to reduce and eliminate waste. This ultimately saves them money and allows them to become increasingly efficient and agile in adapting to the market. So too in our individual lives we should strive to eliminate our output of waste as well as our input of short-term or function-less products.

People always seem to be confused about what they can do in their individual lives, aside from donating money to charity, to really enact change to regressive and repressive social, economic, and political systems. As in any grassroots movement, the real change comes from within. And then it begins to affect daily lives. And daily lives—the furthest downstream from centralized, sloth-like systems—affect everything.

So as an exercise, I thought it might be useful to attempt to compile a list of ways to reduce waste from our everyday personal lives. I don’t do many of these things myself yet, either, so take these as suggestions and goals. If you know of other ways that individuals can act to reduce their production and consumption of waste, please feel free to add more in the form of comments. Also, think of ways that you can mirror some of these actions within your community or workplace. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you could change.

Please note also that almost all of the items detailed below will ultimately save you money, in addition to the social and environmental benefits, so please get beyond the dismissive mentality of labeling me as a “treehugger” or “hippie”—that’s the kind of perspective that lends itself to further waste.

1) Purchase from local businesses and food sources as much as feasible.

2) Reduce or eliminate the use of a personal vehicle. Walk, bike, and utilize public transportation. Delimit the sphere of your personal social needs to as localized an area as feasible.

3) Utilize your free time for things that make you feel good, foster interaction with other people, and that are productive. Reduce or eliminate mindless activities such as TV watching. Learn new things. Take classes at your local community college. Check out books from your library.

4) Make exercise a part of your daily existence, such as in biking or walking to work, or biking or walking to a bar or bookstore or cafe. Try to eliminate the perception of exercise as an accessory chore or activity to become more desirable.

5) Cook your own food. Mend your own clothes. Make your own coffee or bring your own coffee mug to coffee houses. Utilize whatever resources you have to do your own thing.

6) Eliminate the use of plastic bags at stores. Bring along a tote bag or backpack to carry items in whenever you go shopping.

7) Stop buying water bottled from municipal sources. Get yourself a Brita filter and drink tap water.

8 ) Buy produce directly from local (preferably organic) farmers; attend farmer’s markets or join food coops.

9) Make your own household cleaning solutions

10) Purchase only energy star rated appliances and lighting systems; convert all of your lighting to compact florescents

11) Insulate your house with energy efficient windows

12) Convert your lawn to a natural food source

13) Compost your food and outdoor waste; utilize kitchen scraps for the making of stock

14) Harvest rainwater and utilize in shower and household use and/or garden irrigation

15) Design and implement a greywater system

16) Reduce your use of paper and wood products; reuse paper as much as possible (double-sided printing) or eliminate altogether through the use of a computer. Use alternative woods, reclaimed wood, or engineered wood products whenever possible when designing and building structures.

17) Take yourself off of junk mail lists; utilize e-mail notification services where possible for bank notices, cellphone bills, etc.