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.

Conversation Recap for January 25, 2009

We began with a check-in. We welcomed a new participant.

Today we heard Tina’s story.

In the discussion we touched on the Courage and Renewal workshops, and the ways they encourage people to connect their self-understandings with their vocations, and their avocations. Phrases used in the workshop contain short-hand references to stories and ideas shared there. The use of a new vocabulary to make sense of one’s life can allow a person to quickly combine several ideas, to emphasize connections between the different pieces of a life.

Another theme that emerged was the shifts in diversity that often accompany transitions in life, such as moving to another state because of a job or education. For example, going from Foss High School to an all-white small-town Southwest atmosphere can be a shock. It also has consequences for what happens to our kids.

We started a discussion of the MLK event.

As a prelude, we listened to the new Seal cover of the song, “A change is gonna come,” title track on his new CD.

And, we watched the January 24 weekly youtube talk by President Obama (see it here). It is a short overview of the policies he intends to pursue during his term. In it he mentioned a website his people have put together.

We discussed some ideas referred to in the talk. People have a lot of hopes about what can be done. One clear point emerged—there is a lot of work to be done, and much of the work has to happen in states and in local communities. High presidential approval ratings do not by themselves produce policy changes. Comments that emphasized the hopes also mentioned the work to be done.

One person noted his limited comments on the health care system, and said that it seems like he is organizing to do something larger. People might be interested in an excellent article on the topic in The New Yorker.

Several participants noted the importance of making opportunities, of a new type, for younger people. For example, some plans for shifting us to different energy sources include creation of many new jobs—who will be trained for them, who will fill them?

We then entered the MLK discussion. One participant reported comments from the Maiselle Bridges family. This was very important to them, and to us.

Several participants noted surprise at the size of the Sons of Thunder group—there was a miscommunication there, and several people here expected five to show up. Another person commented that sometimes choir directors ask members to participate and guess at how many will be able to and that may be where the confusion was--they all came! Several commented on how much we enjoyed their set.

For the Future, it is a good idea to have performance acts submit a stage diagram with details of their setup, including microphone placement etc. It is also a sign of the importance of rehearsals—many people were not informed of what was going on at which rehearsal activity. Some participants discussed the wisdom of clearly designating some of these responsibilities. If we don’t do that, then when things come up they just get piled on the one or two people that are handling organization details.

Accolades to Steve Philbrook, the sound man, who adapted.

There was apparently little cooperation among the local mainstream media, although there was a notification in one of the Seattle papers in their list of MLK events, and one participant talked to a couple of people who came from Seattle just for the event. The News Tribune ran a January 19 story, a day late, about MLK celebrations in the areas. There was a story in the News Tribune, as well as one of their photo slideshows available online. See the photos here. To see the TNT story, go here. There was some speculation that the story of the little boy who was killed at the monster truck event might have preempted an earlier commitment to run a story prior to the MLK event.

We also discussed several issues connected to the public face of the event—is it religious news, is it entertainment news, is it part of the arts—How should we promote it? We have limited control over the TNT’s placement.

The estimate of attendance: something like 250 to 275, although some felt there must have been more.

Many participants mentioned the high quality of the signers’ work.

A couple of the honorees asked if they could say something, and asked our Host for the microphone. Though there had been no requirement to do so, Eve chose to allow them to speak.

We discussed the tables in the basement. There wasn’t much attendance. One suggestion: have them upstairs in the anteroom at people exit.

Other very positive accolades were shared over the introduction for Dexter, done by Callista; by Steve & Kristi’s set; by Eve’s work as host; for the co-chairs of the planning effort, Callista and Mona; for Rosalind’s dramatic piece that was part of the program.

There was some discussion of what the event actually is. It is entertainment, in several senses. It is ritual. It is church. It is part of what the Conversation does. One participant used the metaphor of a full meal being served to the community. Another way to see it is by examining the many facets of the Civil Rights Movement—some of it was pulpit, some of it was SNCC, some of it was Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, etc. It wasn’t one thing, beyond the unifying core of social justice.

Perhaps the news media needs a regular section on social justice.

If the church was packed, the dynamic for many things would be different. How to do that? One way to think about it—what are our communities, and how can we each link them to the MLK event next year? Perhaps we all have opportunities to do this. Another idea is to assign sections to members of the Conversation—have each sign up for finding 20 audience members, something like that. One participant asked people to come, and about 80% of the invited folks showed up.