Sunday, February 08, 2009

Conversation Recap for February 7, 2009

This morning twenty-two of us began with check-in, and a discussion of progress on the Conversation barter system.

Today we heard Dalton’s story, written in the form of a letter to his children, on the occasion of attending a funeral.

The ensuing discussion went into the different senses of community we see in different places. The sense of community in a place where we grew up, where people tend to stay forever, is palpable. A funeral seems to gather the markers of community.

We also discussed writing letters—something done less often in this electronic age.

We heard a musical interlude, to songs from Steve and Kristi.

Tom, Eve and Keith led a discussion of ‘why we honor people,’ an topic that grew out of the Tacoma Civil Rights Honor Roll. Keith opened with several ideas—we tend to honor warriors. One point of the Civil Rights Honor Roll is that there are many people among us who do the work for years—as a society we tend to honor them less often. Eve and Tom expanded on the idea of the apparently ordinary people among us who do the less-noticed work of justice.
One participant recounted a story of attempting to teach kids who were not supposed to succeed—and a small bit of publicity about the successes drew naysayers. There are institutional forces that react to publicly honoring people. This raised a question: how does the audience of the people being honored feel connected to them? Nationalism is a powerful force that is instantly conjured by political leaders, and can use it to build support for policies. It is not difficult to connect this to honoring soldiers. And yet that dialog can not always be easily controlled—we were reminded of how public perceptions of the war in Vietnam changed.
Several people told stories on the general theme of organizations or people within them attracting attention, attracting honors as resume building, while the workers are ignored. With some of the examples the details were left out, yet it was a theme that many around the table indicated they recognized. We did not delve deeply into this.

We briefly discussed the example of Ben Carson, the surgeon who was the subject of a TV movie broadcast last night. Among the points raised—he was raised by a single mom in a poor city. How often do we hear attacks on single moms, yet here is an example of someone who was always a star—in his high school, college, early medical career, and so on to his current world fame. We seldom hear praises for the single moms of people like this.

One participant asked whether we have the vocabulary to do the honoring we are talking about, particularly with respect to recognizing people of color. The negative images are ubiquitous and powerful.

Another participant suggested that when it comes to justice work, we honor people and then the dialog moves on. People forget what we honored. It is not like we have the continued institutional focus of a national government or armed forces that commands attention of the media. Recognizing the folks who struggle is in part saying we step into the struggle with them—and that can include a comparison with the more comfortable parts of our lives and the forces that enable injustice to persist. This can be a difficult thing to do.

Another participant noted that many of the people we honor as a nation are not clearly connected with the youth he works with. The people we honor are put before us as role models—and yet plenty of kids do not see the connection. He offered that famous people we honor—the examples were George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.—had their personal failings. Honoring people in their complexity might be helpful to showing how they actually do connect to ordinary people, such as a 16 year-old in Tacoma.

A leader of the discussion acknowledged one motivation for today’s discussion is a desire to examine the criteria used by the Conversation to come up with the honorees at the annual MLK Day celebration. Among the issues raised were the following. By focusing on people who have been at civil rights work for a decade or more means that the honorees are going to be of a certain age. Some work that we regard as important may not be classified as “civil rights.” Some in the room draw meaningful distinctions between civil rights and social justice, although as the discussion showed there isn’t a consensus on this point. It is possible we wish to do another kind of honoring, perhaps even at SoJust, if the work we are honoring is close to the focus of that annual festival. One participant noted the timeline of the nomination and recognition process, and connected it to the possibility of drawing ongoing attention to the kinds of things we find important. Another participant said the city’s political leaders used to do more recognition of upcoming leaders, and that is worth doing. The City of Destiny awards go in that direction. One idea is that it is possible to make distinctions among types of civil rights work.

We might want to note that historians and other scholars of civil rights use definitions that emphasize the quest for justice and equality. Distinctions are commonly made among discrimination, historical periods, particular public policies that promote or threaten justice.
One participant noted the national project for honoring the civilian dead in Iraq, at

Note This Announcement. The Lincoln Center first year students have the highest GPA of any school in Tacoma. WOW. This is a big deal, folks. This is being presented to the Tacoma School Board meeting this coming Thursday. The meeting begins at 6, and such recognitions are usually the first item on the agenda. (NOTE: The actual presentation of the news will come at the Study Session which begins at 5PM. Conversation members and others are encouraged to attend).

Tuesday the 10th, 6 pm, we need people to show up at Evergreen-Tacoma. The powers that be at the Evergreen State College are coming to talk about budget cuts throughout the college and how those might impact the Tacoma Campus. They need to hear how we value the place. Please come if you can. Bring others who share the sentiment.

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