Breaking Legos

I loved legos as a kid.  I had this huge tub of those classic multi-colored blocks in my bedroom.  I’d pull them out and root around with my hands as the legos made that crashing sound that only small little pieces of plastic can make.  My two best friends would come over and together we would build epic castles and towns complete with colorful streets, schools, fire stations, and homes.  We’d mix in little green army guys, a transformer here and there, and build towers with poker chips for good measure.  At the end we had our masterpiece.  We spent hours, even days, putting it all together.  Then it was time for the real fun.  Breaking it down!

We would gather up all my stuffed animals, balls and other poor toys, and hide around the corner from my bedroom floor.  Then we would take turns without looking and lob the toys at our masterpiece.  We could hear the crashes, and excitedly guessed what we may have toppled.  Was it the castle?  Did we knock down the invading green army guys?  After a few rounds, we’d all swoop back in making ambulance siren sounds, and go to work on repairing the broken buildings and caring for the casualties.  This cycle repeated for days.

I have three kids, and I’ve watched each of them break a lot of toys.  Sometimes it is on purpose, sometimes it is purely accidental.  It seems though that there are a lot of lessons.

Sense of Place

When I first learned of the terrible injustices inflicted by people upon people I felt very helpless.  I think a part of my life has been spent trying understand these realities in part to sustain my ministry in a more holistic way.

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One of the rituals I formed as a young adult was to do my best to always consider my physical place and ask about the people who called it their home in the present and past.  I always learn something new.  Another ethos I developed is around only traveling to places where I have a relationship and invitation.  I can’t say I honored this all the time, but it is one that I feel has grown stronger as I have aged and have more class privilege to visit places of my choosing.

Lastly, I have sought to intentionally be present in places where there have been terrible injustices and great transformations.  I make it a point to bring myself to locations that have meaning for social justice – both in terms of remembering our history and to feel my body in the same spot where others have struggled.

Once I stepped out onto the country roadside to look upon the lightly wooded ravine in South Dakota and upon a simple billboard that honored the Massacre at Wounded Knee.  I can still feel the sight of the beautiful murals at San Francisco State University and the sharp edges of the buildings where 1960s students of color went on strike for equity in education.  My partner and I stayed a month in one of the Zapatista Caracols in Chiapas after engaging for years in solidarity work.  Our family took a tour into the Old City of Manila where thousands were killed during World War II.

This winter we may visit Tule Lake Internment Camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned in America’s WWII concentration camp.  A place that continued on as dilapidated farmworker housing.  And we will continue to make visits to meet people who are the hearts and souls in our movement building work, from young people in East Portland to elders who share their stories with us around the campfire.

Photo credit – Alex Haas

Saltwater Ax

Saltwater and bits of seaweed stick to my glasses
Close up an ax is raised over a barnacled rock
You can hear the rapid babel of Chinese and feel the Old Men across the jetty look up at the back of your head
A crack rings out, everyone relaxes, senses go calm
Another delicacy of the sea is gathered while youngsters strut across the beach
The fog horn rings out protecting this place
Where land and rock and sea and sky meet

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No More Zimmermans, Prayers and Quotes

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I can not trust a system that is not willing to protect people of color.  – From a friend and organizing colleague in Portland, Oregon

My communities of pastors, human rights activists and neighbors are reeling from the news this evening that Zimmerman was found not guilty for the killing of young teenager Travyon Martin in Florida.  A culture clash of values at work, wrapped in a racialized media blanket and a desensitized American public that persistently dehumanizes people of color while fueling fear and militant individualism.  Why we need to keep coming together.  From those I love — Continue reading

Grassroots Organizing: A Public Health Model

A core part of APANO’s Model of Change is grassroots organizing, which comes in many shapes and colors.  I think its important for every community to go through a process to define what they mean by grassroots organizing, and its probably a good thing to update it periodically.

APANO developed language around this in 2012, and we’re revisiting, visualizing (see path to social change infographic) and refining through conversations among members at our Statewide Convention, staff and board.  I’ve had the opportunity to consider many approaches over the last 25 years, and am always enjoying new illustrations and deeper analysis on the subject.

I’ve been recently studying this model from grassrootschange.net with a public health frame.  It was shared as part of a discussion around countering bad “preemption” policies that ALEC and big industry have been utilizing to fend off health equity initiatives around the country.

Movement Activist

Have you ever heard the term movement activist?  It isn’t something I was very familiar with until a few years ago.  With the help of my colleagues at the Western States Center and friends who continue to organize post-Seattle WTO for convenings such as the US Social Forum, I’ve found myself thinking, feeling and acting out of a deeper “movement building” framework.

I appreciate how the idea of a “movement activist” links us to the historical struggle for social justice.  How the concept of movement binds us in solidarity with the oppression that communities beyond our communities experience, and calls us to find common ground.  In fostering this common ground, I recognize that there is an ongoing effort to establish consensus around the roots of the problems our communities face.  As one of my wise mentor-colleagues said, diagnosis determines therapy (thanks to the late Rev. Dr. Bill Jones).

A final note is on the being an activist, and how in this context of movement building, we are called to find ways to continue the work for a lifetime.  How are we able to sustain ourselves?  What is our support system?  In working to change the social order, with institutional forces aligned to protect themselves and undermine efforts at transformation, how do we grow and adapt?

Organizing is Hard

Over the last 5 years I’ve been working with community organizations that are more deeply grounded in organizing as a model of change.  I’ve always believed that everyone is an organizer, to a certain degree.  Parents are amazing at getting their kids to where they need to go.  Young adults plan big parties.  My friends who have “retired” are busier than ever.

Working as an organizer in a professional setting is different, and is probably one of the toughest jobs.  There isn’t a simple model, and there are many intangibles.  I’ve worked in a range of organizing jobs, or jobs where I brought an social justice organizing framework: campus, electoral, neighborhood, faith, multiracial and culturally specific.  They’ve been some of the toughest and rewarding jobs.

Organizing for social justice is hard because the work is at the intersection of the worlds suffering and the deep aspirations of humanity.  Each of these are precarious in the sense that they are both very complex and rarely do a group of people agree.  Yet when they do, great things can happen.

I think there are many incarnations of a good organizer, and no monolith.  There are important hard skills like being able to set goals, manage your time, and have the technical know-how to bring people together.  There are soft skills such as genuinely liking people, being energized by cooperation, and having a strong internal practice of reflection.  There are many other components such as analysis, history, networks, language skills, and more.  

Recently I’ve been contemplating the attitude of a good organizer.  What is the ethical nature of an organizer? How do they adapt to the change they create?  Why do they keep moving forward in the face of opposition, changing situations and limited capacity?  One of my colleagues reminds me about how important it is to cultivate peoples passion.

What is your passion?