Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Ethics for Activists - 6

I just used this story in an article i've written for a book on art and activism. I love this story. I've found versions of it from a number of different cultures - from Japan's zen tradition of koans to Medieval European morality tales.

A man was walking across a field when he noticed a tiger stalking him. He ran, the tiger chasing after him. He came to a cliff, caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down and saw that, far below, were jagged rocks that would as surely be his doom as was the tiger above. Just then, two mice, one white and one black, began to gnaw at the vine. It was then that the man noticed a strawberry, fat and ripe, on the cliff wall near him. He knew that if he grabbed the strawberry his grip on the vine would not last long. He plucked the strawberry and ate it. The strawberry tasted so sweet.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Ethics for Activists - 5

What keeps us apart
One day a devoted Talmudic student ran out of the synagogue shouting, “What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life?” He ran through the streets shouting all the while. He found himself before the house of his Rabbi. He went inside and, almost in tears, pleaded, “What is the meaning of life, master?” The rabbi slapped the student across the face. “Why did you hit me,” asked the startled student. The rabbi answered: “Such a good question. And you want to exchange it for an answer? It is the answers that keep us apart. It is the questions that unite us!”

Friday, March 25, 2005

Transylvanian Story Quilt Tour

Some friends are organizing a remarkable projet to be done in Transylvania and Hungary this year:
A giant quilt will be made to tell the story of the war on natural resources and resistance in Eastern Europe. This quilt will be given to the people living in Rosia Montana, where a Canadian company (Gabriel Resources) is proposing to build a giant gold mine. The locals are being psychologically bullied into selling their land.
Gabriella has worked with the Beehive Design collective and Emma is a wonderful artist who has worked with PaperFire Arts Collective. Both plan to facilitate workshops that will include popular education, storytelling, mural work and more to contribute to the struggle of the people of Rosia Montana to preserve their lives and land.

They're holding a fundraiser - here's their announcement and invitation for those of you in Toronto this weekend:

Where: in our living room: 119 Howard Park Avenue. 2nd floor, the winding stairs at back. When: Sunday, March 27th, starting with foods at 6pm. Performances starting at 7pm. Turning into a boogie event after 9pm, with skillfull CD swaper Ezra, my dear

Tickets: 10-20 dollars, or pay what you would like

This is a family friendly event, could be perfect for Easter Sunday. :-) If you can not make it, but feel a tickle to contribute, let me know.
Directons: We are at the end of the College streetcar's route. Take it to Roncesvalles and Howard Park and walk toward High Park (west). The nearest subway stop is Dundas West, from there take 504 streetcar going North and South, this streetcar comes also from Queen street. Parking is available on Howard Park Avenue. Bikes are welcome in the backyard of course.

Please call us for more information at: 416 535 8748

Gabriella, Emma and Ezra

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

New blog - check it out

A friend just sent me the link to her new blog : janela: reflections on living and volunteering in Brazil. Most recently, i've worked with Claudia on producing the Best of Rabble, an edited collection of some of the best work published on rabble.ca over the past few years - You'll be able to buy your very own copy of the Best of Rabble shortly from Rabble Reads - a new on-line bookstall. There's lots of excellent books there already that i recommend. Claudia did all of the heavy-lifting of selecting the pieces and co-editing them with Sharon Fraser (Rabble editor) before leaving them to my tender-mercies to "quark" them ( a new verb for me meaning to layout and typeset the book). Claudia's blog reminds me of my travels in the 80s to Nicaragua where i lived and volunteered a few times. While i recognize the privilege involved in being able to travel in this way, i also believe strongly in the benefits, personally and socially, to devoting oneself to such endeavors. I'm excited to see Claudia writing about her experience in a blog. I wonder what my experiences of such travel would have been like if i could have been writing about it this way. Check out Claudia's blog!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

When i grow up i wanna write like Katha Pollitt

Just read Katha Pollitt's latest column: Invisible Women (thanks, Matt). Pollitt's article has got me looking at my blog-reading, hmmmm... just how many blogs by women am i reading? And what would a gender analysis of blogging show us? I wonder if blogging is just as easy and accessible as it seems.

Community Art Toolkit - 1: Making Murals

Here's a wonderful description of how to do murals in community work: Painting By Listening. It features the work of Mexican muralist Checo Valdez. Some excellent "how-to" descriptions.

Parable for Organizers

I've heard the following story told about Moses Coady for whom the Coady Institute was named, Myles Horton who founded Highlander Center in Tennessee, and various other people. The "folk process" has kept it alive and well for a long time:

A father and son were riding along slowly in their horse-drawn cart as they returned home from town. The father was flicking a whip to snap flies out of the air to save the horse from being pestered. The boy watched and watched as his father skillfully snapped the whip, each time hitting his target perfectly. Flies fell to the ground by the dozens. After some time the boy turned to his father and said, “Dad, can you teach me how to do that?” “Sure, son,” said the father with a smile and handed his son the whip. The boy took some time to learn how to use the whip and after much concentration and many attempts he hit his first fly. As they drove along, the boy practiced and was soon hitting most of the flies he aimed at. Then he saw a big, fat bug swing into his view and he took aim. Just before he snapped the whip his father grabbed his arm and stopped him. The boy turned to his father and asked, “why’d you stop me?”

“Look at that bug, son, it’s a bee.”

“So?” the boy said.

“Son,” the father replied, “those bugs are organized.”

Monday, March 21, 2005

Why we write - why you should write

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in an essay titled In Defense of the Word wrote:
One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one's solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behaviour and language of those who read, thus helping us to know ourselves better and to save ourselves collectively. (in Days and Nights of Love an War, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1983, p.183.)
Galeano reflects poignantly and, as always, eloquently, on the role of the writer committed to resisting oppression in a world where most of the people for whom one writes are illiterate. This remains a true condition in Latin American countries. In Canada we do not suffer the degree of illiteracy that is true in many parts of the world. But it remains disturbingly true that the vast majority of people in Canadian society receive the majority of their information about the world from television. But we write anyway, to tell our stories, personal and collective.

There's a lovely story on Judy Rebick's 10,000 Stories blog that someone wrote as a comment last week:
I enjoyed your speech last night here in Victoria. I brought my 12-year old daughter along. While she didn't have the background to understand everything you said, she was surprised to realize just how recently women had won so many rights. And they are important to her. Your presentation reminded me of how as a young woman many of these rights were quite new but that I was able to use them as I thought that I should.
You can read the full comment here. It is evidence of the many-more-than 10,000 stories that are out there and that we'll hopefully hear/read more of in the coming months. So, just as Judy encourages people to write, so do i.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Reading for Activists

Years ago i read a handful of books by Robert Coles (i find an author i like and i just gotta read everything they've written). In the Moral Life of Children Coles wrote of his encounter and work with Ruby Bridges - a story worth reading as the International Day for the Elimination of Racism approaches - March 21 (also the first day of spring). Ruby was a young girl when school desegregation laws were implemented in her town in Louisiana. She famously attended class alone for many months as the parents of white children refused to let their children attend school with a black child. Ruby was six. Coles wrote:

Why not, too, think of the child as moral protagonist or antagonist - as in the South's racial conflict? Ruby, at ten, looked back at four years of somewhat unusual school attendance. A black child, she walked past hostile mobs at age six to enter a once all-white school in New Orleans... Her view of her experience? "I knew I was just Ruby," she told me once, in retrospect - "just Ruby trying to go to school, and worrying that I couldn't be helping my momma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the weekends and in the summer. But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it - go into that school and stay there, no matter what those people said, standing outside. And besides, the minister reminded me that God chooses us to do His will, and so I had to be His Ruby, if that's what He wanted. And then that white lady wrote and told me she was going to stop shouting at me, because she decided I wasn't bad, even if integration was bad, then my momma said I'd become 'her Ruby', that lady's, just as she said in her letter, and I was glad; and I was glad I got all the nice letters from people who said I was standing up for them, and I was walking for them, and they were thinking of me, and they were with me, and I was their Ruby, too, they said."

Don't Just Do Something. Think!

I recommend this article: Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents. The authors make a good case for the importance of combining critical thinking with action or, put another way, theory and practice (dare we call it praxis?). Their crtitque of "activistism" is as important for Canadians as it is for Americans. I agree with their claim that there is an anti-intellectualism that runs through left culture that needs serious work. They rightly identify some debilitating common sense notions such as "paralysis of analysis" that act as buylwarks against necessary critical thinking. I would add that we need to look at how our societies of have structured where and how critical thinking does happen - i.e. academia, for the most part. Of course, there are plenty of non-academic sources of critical thinking as well. And there's plenty of excellent academic work that deserves more popular attention. My concern as a popular educator is how resources are allotted to society to support critical thinking - especially collective critical thinking. What options are there for the activist seeking the company of like-minded (or at least similar-minded) people with whom to engage some of the necessary intellectual work of activism? I agree with the authors of this article that Left culture needs to take intellectual work more seriously. But there are two issues that, left undealt with, will only reinforce the very activistism that they are critical of: available resources and pedagogy. On the issues of resources they do point out that:
Unreflective pragmatism is also encouraged by much of the left's dependency on foundations.
And i would add that we need to look at the full picture of how the Left commits its resources (financial, material, human, etc.) across sectors (labour, ecumenical, anti-poverty, anti-racist, feminist, etc.) to assess how it is we collectively neglect our responsibilty to think better and more critically about the world we claim we are trying to change.

On the issue of pedagogy (an admittedly technical term), we need to look at how critical thinking is taught. For surely anti-intellectualism is linked to our common experience of education which has so much to do with how society is structured. Popular education is a practice that includes a fundamental idea/practice: that theory and practice must be combined. Not exactly a new notion nor one that is exclusive to popular education. Nor is it one that all self-identified popular education manages to meet well. To the thinkers named in the article (Bakunin, Marx and Fanon) i would add Paulo Freire whose practical and theoretical work on education and social change is a key to the intellectual work that is desperately needed by the Left. (There's plenty of other thinkers to add to this list as well - i'll save that for future posts).

One last point for now. The authors take an interesting swipe at participatory learning:

Nonprofit culture fosters an array of mind-killing practices. Brainstorming on butcher paper and the use of breakout groups are effective methods for generating and collecting ideas and/or organizing pieces of a larger action. However, when used to organize political discussions these nonprofit tools can be disastrous. More often than not, everybody says something, breakout groups report back to the whole group, lists are compiled—and nothing really happens.

I certainly recognize the naive application of tools for democratic learning. I suppose you could add to "activistsm" the unfortunate practice of "fli-chartism" - a naive interpretation of democratic learning that equates brainstorming lists of issues or points. Rather than simply dismiss participatory tools as "disastrous" when used for political discussions i suggest that we look critically at what participatory tools are good for and combine them with rigorous practices of collective critical thinking of which there are plenty. The field of popular education has a wealth of such practices (as well as excellent theory to support them). See the Catalyst Centre link (as well as the others) on the right of this page. Check out the Applied Research Center in Oakland (excellent work). And there's a new site that has just been launched: GlobalLocalPopEd that's worth perusing.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Indispensability of poetry

Poetry is an endlessly inspiring thing in my life. Poetry combines the joy of riddling with the play of language and metaphor with the rhythms and melodies of music. Poetry alchemically transforms the ordinary (and mostly unnoticeable) words and phrases of the everyday into the complex and specific meanings of our so, so variable experience – experience that is simultaneously joyful and sorrowful, mysterious and prosaic, emotional and spiritual, contradictory and logical and much, much more. Pablo Neruda never fails to break my heart (in the good way – the breaking that is the opening of our heart to our so beautiful and bittersweet world) and, in an essay called Childhood and Poetry, he writes of a boyhood encounter in which he exchanged, with a boy he never met, a pinecone for a toy sheep. He writes:

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses, that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

It won't surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn't know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light. (from Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, Robert Bly, tr., Beacon Press, 1993)

Friday, March 11, 2005

Ethics for Activists - 4

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song - but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny. - Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Inspiring Women & slide show

Last night, in Toronto, Judy Rebick launched her new book Ten Thousand Roses to a packed house (standing room only). It was an inspiring evening. One thing that touched me deeply was Ursula Franklin's answer to Judy's question about what was the greatest achievement (and greatest challenge) of the Canadian womens movement: friendship. (I wish i could quote Ursula's eloquence - it brought tears to my eyes, as it did for many others). On a more personally inspiring note, my sister, brother-in-law and their three daughters (8, 13 & 15) attended, and i was amazed to see my neices engaged in the event. The thirteen year-old has applied successfully to attend Ursula Franklin Academy, a public school with a mission statement that inlcudes peace, equity and social justice. My neice introduced herself to Ursula and was moved - a brave thing for a teenager. It made me feel good about that better world that we are striving to make together. The evening began with two inspiring performers: Zainab Amadahy of Spirit Wind, and Rosina Kazi of Lal; and the presentations ended with Motion - check them all out! And, if you haven't looked at Judy's blog, Ten Thousand Stories, you really should bookmark it and check it often.

Check out pics from the event.

Monday, March 07, 2005

How Popular Education Works -1

I was surprised to find my version of the following story on a website i'd never heard of. My 14 year-old neice read it and said she liked it (and everyone knows what kind of critics teens can be - whew!). I first learned this story from dian marino (who taught at York University) and after telling it pretty steadily for 15 years i still can be surprised by this tale.

The Master Archer

There was once a general of war who was tired of fighting. He had spent his whole life perfecting his skill in all the arts of war, save archery. Now he was weary and wished to end his career as a fighter. So he decided that he would spend the rest of his days studying archery and he began to search far and wide for a master to study with.

After much journeying he found a monastery where they taught archery - he entered the monastery and asked if he could live there and study. He thought that his life was now over and the remainder of his days would be spent in study and meditation behind these monastery walls. He had been studying for ten years, perfecting his skill as an archer, when, one day, the abbot of the monastery came to him and told the former-general of war that he must leave. The former-general protested saying that his life in the world outside the monastery was over and that all he wished was to spend the rest of his days here. But the abbot insisted, saying that the general must now leave and go into the world and teach what he had learned.

The former-general had to do as he was told. Having nowhere to go when he left the monastery he decided to return to the village of his birth. It was a long journey and as he neared the village he noticed a bulls-eye on a tree with an arrow dead-centre. He was surprised by this only to notice more bulls-eyes on trees and, in the centre of each, an arrow. Then, on the barns and the buildings of the town he saw dozens, hundreds of bulls-eyes with arrows in the centre of each one.

The peace he had attained in tens years of monastic life had left him and he approached the elders of the town, indignant that after ten years of devoted study he should return to his own home and find an archer more skilled than he. He demanded of the elders that the master archer meet him by the edge of town in one hour. Waiting by the mill the general could see no one coming to meet him though he noticed a young girl playing by the river. The girl noticed him and came over.

"Are you waiting for someone," asked the girl looking up at the former-general.

"Go away," he said.

"No, no," said the girl, "you look like you're waiting for someone and I was told to come and meet someone here."

The former-general looked unbelievingly at the little girl and said, "I'm waiting for the master archer responsible for the hundreds of perfect shots I see around here."

"Then it is you i was sent to meet. I made all the shots," said the girl.

The former-general looked even more sceptical, convinced that this girl was trying to humiliate him. He said to the girl, "If you're telling the truth then explain to me how you can get a perfect shot every single time you shoot your arrow."

"That's easy," said the girl. "I take my arrow and I draw it back in the bow and point it very, very straight. Then I let it go and wherever it lands I draw a bulls-eye."

Poem by Martin Espada

A friend just called this poem to my attention: Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper by Martin Espada. The poem pretty much speaks for itself - as i guess a good poem should.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

World Class Storytelling April 1-10, 2005

The 27th Annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling is coming soon and worth planning for if you're in or near Toronto in April. While I've performed at the Festival and given workshops over the years, this year i plan to be a listener. Incidentally, i was writing a fellow storyteller today and remembered the Scottish Storytelling website: Scottish Storytelling Centre. Check it out.

New Book on Paulo Freire

Peter Mayo, who has written the definitive comparison of Paulo Freire and Antonio Gramsci has just released a new book: Liberating Praxis: Paulo Freire's Legacy for Radical Education and Politics (Praeger, Boulder, Co., 2004). I, for one, can't wait to read it. Peter, myself a several others formed a popular education study group (inspired by the Naming the Moment Project) in 1990 that met for a year. I have followed Peter's work since and have always found it a source of excellent learning and reflection. Peter and I were also part of the editorial team that put together a special issue of Convergence on Paulo Freire. Here's a report and review of Peter's new book (launched along with another interesting one) posted on the University of Malta's site: University Professors' New Books.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Adventures in Storytelling (1): 1,001's New Home

The inaugural evening of the new home of the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling was a wonderful success. Judy Rebick started the evening with stories that are told in her new book Ten Thousand Roses. She also told a story (about a unique apology) that happened to her yesterday. You can read it here. We have a few kinks to work out but it looks like our new home is going to work out wonderfully. Spread the word.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

I read this story by Ursula LeGuin almost 30 years ago and it has remained vivid in my memory and soul ever since. I'm surprised and pleased to find it on the internet. It's not exactly a pick-me-up tale. But it is one that can shape a soul and one to which i owe some of the shaping of my own. A shaping i am pleased with.

How We Learn (or don't)

I was part of a roundtable discusssion about "cultural production" at York University on Wednesday. I spoke about the importance of the "trickster" for artists and popular educators - something i have been thinking about a lot over the years. It is also something i plan to write more about. For now, though, here's two stories i told as part of my bit:

Once there was a university professor who decided that he wanted to study zen. He travelled to a local monastery. He was shown in to the abbot’s study. The abbot was about to pour himself some tea. The professor stood before the abbot who looked up. The professor explained that he had been studying and teaching in the university for many years and that now he wished to add to his knowledge and learning by studying zen. The abbot nodded and began to pour himself some tea. The professor watched as the teacup filled to the brim and, apparently failing to notice the full cup, the abbot continued to pour. The cup overflowed and still the abbot poured. The professor was reluctant to embarrass the abbot but finally said, “Master, your cup is full and overflowing. It can hold no more tea.” The abbot continued to pour tea into the full cup and said, “Yes. And how do you, who come here with your cup so full, expect to fill it with the teachings of zen?” The professor nodded and smiled and bowed before the abbot.

A friend saw Nasrudin searching for something in the street out front of his house. "What have you lost, Mulla?" he asked.
"My key," said the Mulla.
The friend joined Nasrudin in his search. On their knees they both and looked about for the key. After a time the friend asked: "Nasrudin, where exactly did you lose the key?"
"In my own house."
"Then why are we looking here in the street?"
"There is more light here than inside my own house."

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Review of The Communist Manifesto

Between the ages of 12 and 15 i read three books that may well have warped me permanently into the person that i am today (for good or ill): the third was Being and Nothingness by Sartre; the second, due to my Aunt May's cryptic reference to an excommunicated Catholic was Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenology of Man. I make no claim to have understood anything from these books. I read them as much to please my adolescent ego (that i could read such things) as i did out of any genuine curiosity for such lofty thinking. But the first one i read i did understand a fair amount and still recall the pleasure of the text - the delicious (romantic, 19th Century, almost-Victorian) prose: The Communist Manifesto. I had been surprised to find the slim volume in my father's collection and i knew enough to know that there was something "forbidden" about this wee book. It was a quick read and i certainly missed the greater part of what it was about. But i got a sense of something great being written of. It would be ten years before i returned to that book and begin, as an adult, to reflect critically on the implications of those eloquent and passionate words. Judy Rebick has written a review of the Communist Manifesto which has been published as part of Penguin's "Great Ideas" series.

Article on Dotmocracy - Perils and Possibilities

This Now Magazine article is about a very effective small group decision-making method known as "dotmocracy". Worth a read. And here's an interesting Australian site with a nice brief description: Audience Dialogue - Dotmocracy. And, closer to home, is the Coop Tools site with lots of info. Dotmocracy is a very effective step in democratic decision-making. But i have two reservations with the application described in the Now Magazine piece: my experience of dotmocracy is with small to medium-sized groups (from a dozen up to about 60 people) and i usually use it as a type of straw-polling to get a sense of where the group is at, what its priorities might be, what its preferences are - emphasis on "preference". Dotmocracy is only one step in a democratic process and enables a group to think both quickly and collectively about where to focus their energy for the more in-depth critical discussion that needs to follow from the sense shared through dotmocracy. Dotmocracy, the way i've used it, is ONLY meant as a means of gathering information in order to make the best decision possible. It is entirely likely that dotmocracy could favour a common sense opinion that, upon further examination and debate, is found to contain more bad sense than good sense. No result of dotmocracy should be taken naively at face value. A group should always ask itself why some options got few "dots" (e.g. is it because of who is missing in the process (and why?); or because of a particular word choice; or because of a prejudice; etc.) My second reservation, provoked by the Now article, has to do with applying a small group process to a very large group. My concern is that the speed with which dotmocracy generates information could, in a very large group, act to silence dissent and dissent is a fundatmental aspect of democratic dialogue.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ethics for Activists - 3

Eduardo Galeano, one of the greatest writers in any language, spoke about "doubt" in an interview he did many years ago for NACLA's Report on the Americas. These words have acted like a mantra for me ever since as i struggle to be an effective participant in the struggle against injustice. What week or month goes by without adding to our burden of discouragements? Galeano's words remind me that discouragement is not something to fear, nor need we compound it with an additional burden of bad feeling for being discouraged. As Galeano writes, discouragement is proof that we are human.

...I do not have a bad opinion of doubt. I think doubt has been a factor in the movement of history. I have grown to appreciate doubt more and more and, at the same time, to distrust those compaƱeros who only offer certainty. They seem too much like the wooden men which the Popul Vuh in Mayan mythology describes as one of the mistakes the gods made when they attempted to create man and didn't know how to construct him and finally they made him out of corn and he came out alright. But one of those attempts consisted of creating him out of wood.

The wooden man was just like a man except that no blood ran through his veins; he had no spirit or courage and didn't speak a word. I believe he had nothing to say because he had no courage and therefore was never discouraged. The proof that one has courage lies in the fact that one can be discouraged. And the proof that one can arrive at certainties that are truly capable of transforming reality lies in the ability to entertain fertile doubts before arriving at certainty; doubts that buzz around in one's head, one's conscience, one's heart, in the imagination, like tenacious flies. We need neither fear doubt nor discouragement: they are proof that our endeavors are human. And we are fortunate that these endeavors are human. Otherwise, these would be the endeavors of false men, men of wood, that is to say bureaucrats, dogmatic men, people who choose models over reality. Discouragement and doubt indicate that one sees reality as it really is.