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December 8, 2008

Uncomfortable Essay #6: Money: Time to shift a paradigm

In some ways, this essay is the most difficult to commit to paper. It is most uncomfortable. But I feel it is something that needs to be laid on the table for conversation.

One of many axioms I grew up with was “money is the root of all evil”. I’m not sure why it was part of my learning. Perhaps it was because we had little, and it was foolish to get ideas about prosperity. Wanting money was almost a negative value. Sometimes I think that the entire Peace and Justice community has internalized the same lesson. But seeming near-antipathy towards money, and near-reverence for selfless volunteerism is not helpful to promote our short or long term success.

Examples of the problem abound.

Within days of publishing Uncomfortable Essay #5, a friend wrote in behalf of a mutual friend, an activist who was interested in developing a website. I referred the friend to someone whose business is websites, who is very reliable, and who I know has reasonable rates. The two made contact: the rates were too high. The effort, then, has become finding someone who would do the website for nothing: a volunteer. The friend of a friend is himself an addictive volunteer and activist, and (almost cause and effect) also chronically short of money to spend paying for necessary things like a website for his organization.

My friend and I conversed a bit about the dilemma of “starving artists”. My friend, also an artist, “agreed completely” with me: willing volunteers with talent are exploited. If you want to eat, look for work in fields other than Peace and Justice and the like. The Peace and Justice business seems restricted to people who have both the time to do the work required and the personal resources to not need monetary compensation. Paradoxically we thus seem to restrict opportunities for great numbers of younger people we need who love what we advocate, and would be very good at it for the long term, but cannot afford to be involved with us. Very simply, they need to eat.

Our recently concluded Peace Island Conference (September 2-3) provides a rather large example of the problem. (I use Peace Island as an illustration, not as a personal complaint. I was a willing volunteer with Peace Island.)

For all intents and purposes, seven volunteers put on the Peace Island Conference. All but one of us were retired. To pull off the conference we, very conservatively, collectively contributed over 2000 hours of unpaid labor over nearly two years, and that was just actual time at meetings, and didn’t count things like driving to and from the meetings, or individual work at home. As I write, December 7, 2008, at least one of the volunteers is still very actively engaged in finishing work on the DVDs which are the record of the conference. To “pay” we volunteers even minimum wage and minimal mileage for use of our cars, would have required us to greatly increase the budget…and tuition. In fact, we didn’t even reflect our ‘cost’ in our budget. It’s an invisible number.

We planned to pay our speakers, but the group of 23 outstanding speakers we engaged for the conference were aware, up front, that we couldn’t assure any of them any payment for their services, though they were the attraction for the conference – the reason people came. They were agreeing to donate their time, in effect.

After considerable debate, and more than a little angst, we decided to charge $50 tuition for the two day conference.

An e-mail received the week prior to the conference, from an activist who also registered and attended the conference, helps define our dilemma, and that of the movement generally: “I realize that Peace Island is a bargain given the many speakers, etc. but I personally cannot remember when [we] have paid $100 for us both to go to any event, conference, concert, etc. Of course, we don’t even go to the [neighborhood movie] theatre as much any more since they raised their rates from $1 to $1.50 on Tuesdays! With my primary involvement in a group that has no dues, never charges admission, and can’t even afford to belong to MAP [$50 annual dues] I had to gulp when you said [in an earlier e-mail] “because we are priced so low”. We are securely “middle class” and yet $50 is still a lot of money to us: I can’t imagine how high $50 must be to the many who are far less well off than we. I hope we will fill the seats…for free or with a free will donation…if there are empty seats near starting time. Above all, the speakers need to be heard.”

(NOTE: We were anything but rigid about filling the seats, Very few requested scholarships, and we accommodated them all.)

After we paid our bills for Peace Island, we reported that we had essentially broke even on a budget that ultimately came to over $30,000; we were able to pay our speakers small honorariums within our most optimistic budget, as we had hoped. We paid for the space we used; for printing, postage, refreshment, videography, transportation for speakers, etc. But our budget included no money whatsoever for any other “internal” personnel costs, as well as for the people who helped with registration, etc. and as a result missed all or part of the programs they had paid to experience.

The solution to the problem of money is easy: to acknowledge that we need it. But it is made more difficult in that our movements conservatism on the issue of money is apparently very deeply engrained. Further, our many organizations compete with each other for scarce resources (which will likely become even scarcer in these harsh times.)

We need to be willing to talk about the problem openly, and to consider some options along the lines expressed at the end of Essay #5, above. Otherwise our movement will reach an internal crisis point. To paraphrase a story told by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) President Jim Harkness as part of his keynote at Peace Island about the aging of our nations farmers (“the average age [of today's farmers] is 55, and at this rate in 20 years there will be no more farmers”); in our case, in 20 years, all our reliable current volunteers will be, shall we say, unavailable. The outlook for recruiting a new generation of farmers is probably better than for creating a new generation of unpaid volunteers in our movement: at least farming offers the prospect of a livelihood, at least a garden and something to eat!

Failing to address this problem of money will defeat our very purpose, which is to advance public awareness and support of our goals. And young people, who we need to have involved, and who will be looking for work in increasingly large numbers during these grim economic times, will not be able to afford to spend time working with us, even if our advocacy is to help assure their own future. We should consider employing some of them for living wages.

We need to talk about this, openly and honestly, and propose alternatives to the status quo.

December 22, 2008

Uncomfortable Essay #7: "Overcoming the Fear of Success"

Years ago I came across a magazine article with the intriguing title “Overcoming the Fear of Success”. I have always remembered the article, though I couldn’t tell you in what magazine I saw it, nor the year it was published.

The essential message was to women: unless you are very lucky, you were taught from birth to fill a certain role. Until fairly recent history, the standard roles would be marriage, secretarial, nursing, teaching and such. Women who aspired to break out of these roles often had to break the family rules which were so engrained that if the person wanted to become, say, a banker or similar role traditionally reserved to a man, she might unconsciously do things to sabotage her own success. The family rule could be brutal: “who does she think she is?” It was easier to conform. By giving up her goal, she fit into the family system more comfortably.

At about the same time period in history I was representing employees in a union setting where there were two competing unions, only one of which could possessed the rights to represent all of the employees in a particular bargaining unit. The Law had a provision where bargaining rights of one union could be challenged by a competitor every two years. All that the competitor needed was a 30% showing of interest from members. Sometimes I worked with a majority union, sometimes with a minority union. Always, relations between the leaders of the two unions were at best tense, often non-existent, even in tiny units. This biennial warfare went on for over 15 years until the two competing unions finally merged at the state level.

I noticed at the time, that the closer the ‘out’ organization leaders came to the possibility of success, the more likely it was that they would do something to sabotage their probability of succeeding: slacking effort; internal squabbles, and the like. It was as if they feared the very thing they had fought so hard to achieve: the right to represent everybody.

At one point towards the end of the competition phase I was working with a fairly large minority union with several hundred members whose leaders really despised the leadership of the other organization, and badly wanted to take away bargaining rights from them. But I started noticing something that I could recall noticing in other similar settings before, but hadn’t really paid much attention to: the out of power organization really seemed to not want to be in power. The closer the union came to the possibility of success, the more its leaders and other more active members held back and even sabotaged their own campaign in assorted small ways.

I came to conclude that it made no difference on which ‘side’ the minority happened to be: in a real sense they liked being in the minority, since they knew the rules and roles of being out of power. Being in power was an unfamiliar role. It was easier to be against the incumbent, than to be responsible for outcomes.

Sometimes in our own movement I sense the same kind of self-sabotage. It takes place in many ways and on many levels, but the essential is always the same: being the outsider seems preferable to being the one in charge. After all, the one in charge is accountable; the outsider possesses the right to complain without consequence.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that we, collectively, fear success.

There are endless ways that we do this, beginning with isolating ourselves within our own particular passion, associating only with ‘birds of a feather’, and in many ways denying there are other legitimate points of view with which we might negotiate; minds to be changed by direct interaction.

Perhaps I’m wrong on this, though I doubt it. Talking this issue through, however, would be a solution in and of itself.

December 25, 2008

Uncomfortable Essay #8: Grappling with "the Truth"

This is the only Uncomfortable Essay to be published on a specific day: Christmas Day, December 25, 2008. If there is any other day in our calendar where there are as many, and as intense, interpretations of the real meaning of the day or the “Truth” therein, I’d be surprised. While there may seem to be a majority opinion on what Christmas is supposed to mean, and while there might be many areas of consensus about the general meaning of Christmas in our society, “Truth” is very much in the mind of the beholder. “Truth” is as elusive as it is portrayed to be certain.

So, how is “the Truth” of Christmas defined? “Let me count the ways”. Even the assorted Christian Bible study groups I see from time to time at my coffee shop, all having earnest conversations about the meaning of this or that text, may not be able to agree with each other on the fine points of interpretation about the day.

Occasionally I listen to a popular “light rock” radio station that bills itself as the most popular commercial station in this metropolitan area, and which goes to a 100% Christmas music format beginning even before Thanksgiving. Today, Christmas Day, as they’ve been saying all month, will be “commercial free”. Of course, today follows a full month of commercial laden programming. Many of the Christmas songs are in themselves commercials to spend money on Christmas presents. The week prior to Christmas, one of the big advertisers is a religious denomination, marketing its schools through its local head. And as everyone knows, the biggest single commercial block of the entire year is what is called “Christmas Shopping”; and Christmas time is a time relied on by churches for major additional money contributions.

So, what is “the Truth” of Christmas? It depends. And, of course, the issue of “truth” is much broader than simply considering the single issue, Christmas.

This fall I offered to a local organization a recently produced film questioning the official story about one of our national tragedies. I sent the film for preview to the local President. I thought it would be a good film to view and discuss at a membership meeting. In addition, I could supply the person who made the film, a college teacher, to engage in dialogue or even debate with our group.

A couple of weeks later the DVD came back with an attached post-it note. “Dick – I believe that showing this DVD to our members would be counter productive to my efforts to grow [the organization], and I believe that you realize that based on the dialog you’ve had with several of our [fellow] members.” (There had been an interchange between members, but by no means could it be considered a “dialog”.)

Subsequent I was at a showing of the film in a context similar to the local group just mentioned. It was a rich, respectful evening. People came with an open mind, offered their opinions and listened to other points of view. A month or so later, I heard a similar report about another showing of the film.

Several years earlier I had lobbied the leader of a well known peace group to show a recently released documentary film called “Peace One Day”, a documentary about a huge accomplishment by a single young Englishman, who convinced the United Nations General Assembly to adopt September 21 each year as the International Day of Peace. http://www.peaceoneday.org. It was a truly huge accomplishment. After a while, the terse response came back from the peacemaker about the film: not interested. The film was not hard-edged enough against war, too soft. So the film went un-shown, at least in her group.

I wasn’t surprised at the first leader response, since he spoke a likely truth about his other members: they would likely be very angry to have any of their own biases questioned in the least. They believed what they believed, and weren’t to be bothered with alternative interpretations.

I was surprised at the response of the Peace leader rejection of the Peace film some years earlier. After all, what I proposed was totally in synch with the mission of her group.
Succinctly, our movement is subject to the same kinds of communication problems as any other. We can get mired in the certainty of our “truth”, whatever it is.

This past October one of my ideological allies wrote that we collectively seem unwilling to engage in debate, and that the public interest in the presidential candidate debates then occurring was proof positive that the public has a hunger for open and substantive face-to-face discussions of issues. My correspondent had noted a posting of mine where I recalled reviewing a diary of a 1927 Debate tour of 31 Midwest and west coast colleges and universities. The tour pitted three young Englishmen against local debaters at each campus. The debates, as reported by one of the Englishmen in his most interesting diary, attracted large crowds, and enthusiastic responses at every campus.

It is an unfortunate consequence of today’s lifestyle, with its easy anonymity and sophisticated communications networking, that groups of individuals can band together and communicate solely with people who share their particular passion, their particular version of the “truth”. Other points of view can be disappeared, though that doesn’t mean that those alternate points of view cease to exist. Sooner or later the alternate truths bubble to the surface, with consequences.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to view a “truth”. And I think the Peace and Justice movement would be very well served to seek out and encourage all manner of discussion and debate about all of the issues about which we hold strong opinions. It would seem worthwhile to have true interaction with others of differing point of view. If we took more of this kind of risk, it would seem to me, the odds would seem better for us to actually resolve issues, rather than to stay in opposing “armed camps” permanently stale-mated, or doomed to “win-lose” relationships.

I have long been taken with a quotation I saw in Joseph Jaworsky’s book, “Synchronicity, the Inner Path of Leadership” (1996). Preceding the chapter on “Dialogue: The Power of Collective Thinking”, Jaworsky included the following quote from David Bohms “On Dialogue”. It speaks to this business of talking with, rather than talking to or at others:

“From time to time, (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle.
They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate.
There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.”

Even within our own settings, within the motley crews which are our own “tribes” (family, neighborhood, etc) this business of just talking and talking and talking can be a very good thing….

PS: Ironically, during this 2008 Christmas Day, two individuals e-mailed me with varying accounts of the famous Christmas Day Truce in the trenches of WWI in Europe. If parties intent on physically killing each other could call a truce for one day, why shouldn’t we be willing to listen respectfully to other points of view – or at least make such an overture? Some references on the Christmas Day Truce are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9coPzDx6tA&feature=related

December 29, 2008

Uncomfortable Essay #9: Death

Back in 1980, I saw an announcement about a concert of ethnic music, showcasing my own French-Canadian culture. I went to the concert, and decided to become involved in the organization, La Societe Canadienne-Francaise du Minnesota, which at the time had been formally in existence for less than two years, though its elements came into existence during the bicentennial year of 1976.

(I was 40 years old, then, and only a short time before had I become interested in my ethnic heritage.)

The organization was a vibrant bunch, with regular and active meetings and a newsletter. It was led by a very charismatic and passionate leader, a retired man about my present age, who had an immense amount of energy and talent as well. The organization had plenty of other talented sub-leaders. Two of them were pioneers on the twin cities public access radio station, KFAI. Their program focused on French and French-Canadian music.

As my engagement increased I volunteered to do the newsletter for the group, and I really enjoyed the task. While it was work, I learned a great deal I had never known about my own heritage.

The years went on, and slowly, and at first imperceptibly, things began to change. Somebody moved away; somebody else died; somebody quit because they were angry at someone else. All of these reasons, and others, are normal reasons for attrition in any organizations life. Members communicated by U.S. mail and telephone. E-mail came very late to us, largely because most of us had no familiarity with e-mail even after it became common.

The big problem for our group, and it became a very serious and ultimately fatal problem, was that the working (leader) base of the organization got smaller and smaller as people got older and older. We needed to recruit new and active members to refresh our leadership base, but new members took a lot of effort to find. Young people, for various reasons, had less interest in an ethnic heritage organization than we did.

Things both reached a zenith and a nadir for us at about the same time, in the spring of 1999. We had a gala celebration on the 20th anniversary of our history, actually got a nice financial grant from a Foundation to help with expenses, had a very large attendance, and everyone had a great time.

But most of the celebrants that night were simply consumers of the effort, and not contributors to it. Afterwards those few of us who remained active had less and less success marshalling support for anything related to the organization.

The daughter of a founding member did have an interest, and became President at about the same time she became a new Mom. Life interfered with her activity with our club. She wasn’t around very long.

In January of 2002, I put out the 122nd and final issue of our newsletter, and in effect ‘turned off the lights, and locked the door’ on a nearly 23 year history. I’m sure that among the subscribers who received that last newsletter there was sadness at our demise. But no one came forward to resurrect us.

These days it is only at an occasional funeral that I see dwindling evidence of our once vibrant past. Our charismatic founder died in 2005 at the age of 94.

I wonder, sometimes, if we could have re-invented ourselves. We celebrated a single nationality group with a distinct language and culture which was disappearing. Unlike we older-timers, few or our kids had little actual proximity to this culture. But we really didn’t pay attention to the re-invention process either. We are now just another historical archive entry at the Minnesota Historical Society and University of North Dakota Library.

Many small organizations I see today have similar problems to the one I just described. We are getting older, and we have not really come to grips with the absolute need to turn over the future to the youngsters. Our young people are more difficult to connect with. Life is complex, and kids communicate with different means than we elders are accustomed to. And it is difficult I would guess, for young people to feel very hopeful in 2009, particularly in an economic sense. There are lots of reasons for a present disconnect. But these reasons ultimately could turn out to be our individual and collective demise.

Our present day organizations also have a major difference from the French-Canadian club I describe. La Societe celebrated the past; while the Peace and Justice and allied communities advocate for the future which will directly impact on every one of our children and grandchildren and their cohort everywhere. Assorted documents can help bring to life the old ethnic culture for the presently disinterested youngsters; but we all have to work together to secure the future of the following generations, and it is the young people who need to take charge, sooner than later.

At the beginning of this Essay, I mentioned that I didn’t get interested in my heritage until I was 40. I said that as a specific reminder to myself. Because young people aren’t engaged now, doesn’t mean they won’t become engaged. But something has to be found to attract their attention, and that something exists in a multitude of forms. We just need to keep looking for the keys to make the connection, one or two people at a time.

We also need to talk very seriously about how to make a complete transition to a new generation of activists. This won’t be easy. But if we don’t find a way to cross this chasm, more of us will begin to “turn out the lights and lock the doors” at the very time we most need to be vibrant, alive and active.

December 31, 2008

Uncomfortable Essay #10: Life

Looking back, I can trace the genesis of these Uncomfortable Essays to early 2007.

I decided to call these “Uncomfortable Essays” because they were (and are) uncomfortable for me to write. I am reporting on observations I have made which can easily be construed to be critical of the very movement of which I am an active part. Publishing thoughts like these carries at least a small risk. One doesn’t know how they will be received. They might, after all, be considered to be wrong! In fact, they may well be wrong; they are simply my impressions.

I am relatively new to the peace and justice movement – becoming part of it after the bombing of Afghanistan began in October, 2001. I could see no good coming out of that warfare, which was supported by 94% of Americans at the time. It was a very lonely time. Only one of twenty of my fellow citizens agreed with me.

Since 2001 I have tried to participate in many of the significant events, met a lot of the leaders, did a little leading myself, and learned a great deal, including about the movement itself and the people active in it.

Even before 2007 I was noticing that the assorted protests and actions and even talks were drawing fewer people, even though public disapproval of the wars was increasing. In short, there seemed a paradoxical shift: rather than a positive correlation between public attitude and response in support of public actions, the correlation seemed more negative. People were tired of the war, but were less actively engaged – or so it seemed – in the traditional modes of protest and action. More people seemed to become “passive-ists” when more activists were needed.

But we seemed to keep doing the same things in the same ways, including simply re-doing what used to work. Succinctly, the first decade of the 21st century was not like the 1960s.
There are likely dissenting views about the current health of advocacy for peace, justice, the environment and global cooperation. For instance, earlier this year Frida Berrigan published a piece in Common Dreams entitled “Dismantling Peace Movement Myths” http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/07/8793. (Her “Four Myths” did not enter into my own writing, but are relevant as yet another reference for discussion.)

The purpose of these pieces is to encourage discussion and change.

As I began the process of these essays, I came to a conclusion that however many topics I might wish to write about, I would conclude the series at ten. I know there are more topics to address.

When I reached the time where I was thinking about this final offering, I decided to make it a summary document from which I would share some recommendations for hoped-for ‘solutions driven’ conversations.

I also decided to open this column to signed commentaries from readers reflecting on, or agreeing or disagreeing with, the substance of these essays, or offering thoughts on new topics. In other words, this space is now open to you. Make submissions to dick_bernard at MSN.com.

As to recommendations, I am simply going to leave it at this: the subject headings for the 10 brief essays are the summary of the commentaries. I would hope that these few pages will inspire dialogue, perhaps some change, and great future success in sundry ways.

We have to look seriously at the dilemma of organizing, generally. There are tens of thousands, probably millions, of “right” ways to advocate for anything. But we live in a time where people are reluctant to become parts of groups, even those whose philosophy they agree with. Perhaps this will change in harsher times, but not yet.

The dilemma is getting organized such that those millions of ideas, and those individuals who are “Armies of One”, can actually accomplish something together. This is not easy, particularly in this time in history when individualism trumps being part of a group. When even the U.S. Army, no model of individualism, adopts as its recruiting theme “An Army of One” to attract recruits, as it did from 2001-2006, you know you have an organizing problem.

Absolutely essential, in my opinion, is discussion of bridging the gap between elder and youth. Another essential, it seems to me, is the matter of general attitude. There often seems an aura of hopelessness in our conversations, even in this time where hope should be at least a possibility.

At this point in history, we have plenty of knowledge of the problems; it is of limited value to continue to complain about what is wrong; we need to be about advocating for what has to be in the many ways that are available to us. We need to work outside of our comfortable cohort, both inside and particularly outside the movement of which we are a part. We need to attempt to find common ground including with those for whom there seems no possible common ground.
We need to work very, very hard at the business of inclusion, collaboration, communication and relationships. All of these are essential, especially within our own circles.

We need to experiment with new approaches.

I deeply appreciate your taking the time to read these imperfect thoughts. I hope they generate a spark or two in the coming months.

Have a happy and productive New Year in 2009.

I leave the last word to counselor Earnie Larson, who left me and others in a 1982 seminar with a powerful thought about change. “Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes”, he said.

Dick Bernard
Woodbury MN
December 31, 2008

About December 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Dick Bernard Venturing in December 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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