This is likely our family’s last year in our childhood home. None of us are kids any more. But we’re each in periods of serious transition, and I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals (or perhaps the lack thereof, in our newly secular and ever-wired world).
So when my sister and cousin suggested that this year’s Seder be a responsibility assumed by the ‘kids,’ I was quite game.
Years ago, when I first began to consider the possibility of what would later become the Open Referral Initiative, I reached out to my former colleague Matt Siemer with a question.
When we’d worked together at Bread for the City, amid marathon Smiths playlists and recurring Werner Herzog impersonations, Matt had once expressed a strong distaste for the phrase “human services.” At the time I hadn’t really seen the problem. But when I suddenly found myself using the phrase with some regularity, something about it did feel off. I couldn’t put my finger on it (nor did I prefer “social services” for any clear reason). So I looped back to Matt, who had since gone off to study ‘hermeneutics,’ in what I imagined to be a remote stone tower so sky-high and constantly buttressed by clouds that one could simply drink from goblets suspended out of the window.
Matt’s response came all at once (via Facebook message) and left me sitting in silent awe for a while. It has lingered with me ever since, so I eventually asked Matt if I could share it here. Thanks to Matt for his permission, and generally for his weird and wonderful example of how to be a human being.
My trouble, if I’m remembering right, was not only with the words themselves (that they inadequately described the group of activities comprised therein), but that calling those tasks “human” services seemed an especially damning reflection of what we thought we were capable of as human beings.
Humanism was once the study of how best to understand each other. The thinking was that conflicts between human beings were largely the result of misinterpretations, and that by fostering a society rich in literature and the arts, people could use those narratives to connect their situations to those of other people and gain greater sympathy for the complexity of our shared condition. Compassion, community, mutual progress and peace were thought to be the logical end of efforts like universal education, public debate, and (above all) acknowledgement that we are all responsible for the welfare of each other. Humanism is often seen as the kernel leading to the enlightenment, democracy, social justice work, and public literacy campaigns. To be human under this rubric meant to strive toward the betterment of all, and to find in that striving a meaning for existing together. To be human meant to carry your part of the burden. I guess when I was younger I was guided by this definition of human, and as a result the idea of emergency assistance of different kinds being described as “human” services left a decidedly rank odor.
For, by contrast, what do we find under our so-named “human” services? The administration of various types of care for low-income people, almost always underfunded, taken on by some only because it hasn’t been appropriately assumed by all. And because there are so many in need and so few accepted models of assistance, too many fall through and the ones assisted are too rarely transformed by the intervention. And though they would like to do more, the few people interested in solving the issue of poverty are being forced to wait until the very last possible moment, when a person is homeless or horribly sick or hungry or mentally damaged, to offer help. What’s human about that—about neglecting widespread distress until it’s virtually unfixable and then handcuffing the people designated to help?
I don’t suppose you would blame me for objecting to labeling such services under a definition of human. Is it human to make hell on earth for other people? Is it human to ignore the basic needs of another body until they become so severe that the person can’t function in normal society? Is it human to have the vast majority of a people reify an economic structure based on the scarcity of currency and then blame the people who can’t access the scarce resource?
What we exhibit, we are. And what we do defines us. Human services are cruel, cowardly, resentful, and ungracious. They exist that way because they’re constructed not for the benefit of those who would like to help, but for those spiteful belligerents who don’t want to see assistance provided until someone is squirming on the ground begging for it. Under this model, solipsists can willfully ignore each other, buying trinkets with cotton paper that has value only because some have it and others don’t. And they will argue and fight to the point of hyperbole to make sure the human race isn’t acknowledged, understood, or cared for.
So call these services “human” if they’re human. But let’s also then define what human means: flawed, callous, meager, tardy, hard-hearted, inadequate, and lack-luster. Let’s call humans a race of sick souls eager to inflict sadness on each other, pitiless and ungracious animals not fit to exploit the gifts their forbearers passed on as the result of mutual labor. And if “human services” are the best effort that we can muster, if that’s the best we can do for each other, then let’s speak of humans as a black stain and keep blameless the minority that would rather work toward our extinction.
I suppose I would have said something to that effect. But that was six years ago when I was still thinking in terms of politics. It could be said now, perhaps more fairly, that the vast majority of people are unintentionally cruel when poverty is an abstraction, but when the reality of poverty reaches them on a visceral level, their reactions are surprising, emotional, compassionate, and occasionally inspired. Human services are as short-sighted and slapdash as any other human effort. They’re not perfect and they never will be. But they exist because a plurality of people still try to understand each other and still act when they meet an injustice. I can’t help but think of all the people whose lives have been completely changed by the Catholic Workers or the unions or Bread for the City or even the federal efforts like SCHIP or SNAP, and I have to acknowledge they have an impact, even if it isn’t nearly what we would all like it to be. In a way, it’s appropriate that efforts to save lives are considered “human” services. They may be the last vestige of a noble effort meant to teach us all how to be human.
— Matt Siemer
Judith Hawkins’ family needs help, so please join me in supporting them in this time of crisis. See the crowdfunding page here, or just give in the gizmo below.
As is sadly typical, I’m coming to write about this a bit late, and it looks like the campaign is well on its way to meet its goal — but whatever, this goal is fit for passing. Let’s help Judy’s family heal.
Here’s some backstory for those who don’t have the privilege of knowing her:
While I was responsible for communications at Bread for the City, I was on the lookout for any media made by members of the communities we were serving. For the most part, the local blogs in Southeast D.C., for example, were written by newcomers who were championing the spirit of their neighborhoods. I knew and liked some of them, and learned a lot from reading their blogs, but also knew that they were generally telling stories that heralded the march of gentrification. Judy and her partner Valencia were two of the only voices I heard telling other stories — in their entirely self-produced mobile talk show, ‘It is What it Is’, which is often playful but also often looks directly at the sense of anger and adandonment and the attendant ills facing people who do not stand to benefit from the progress happening all around them.
It took a while but eventually I found the opportunity to recruit Judy to work on community media and mutual aid projects in the Bread for the City community. I count this as one of the biggest wins of my time there. Wherever she goes, Judy brings both a sharp critical eye and a whole lotta fun. From what little I’ve been able to see of her work in recent years, the ethic of mutual support she brings to Bread for the City southeast — from computer classes to media production to sewing circles — demonstrates an incredibly potent contrast between the dogged work of helping people solve problems on one hand while on the other offering them the time and space and confidence to learn new things and work together. (I think community organizations at their best should promote both, but have rarely seen it happen outside of Bread for the City.)
Fundraising-wise, I’m afraid it’s not super effective for me to be pondering the paradoxes inherent in the process of building solidarity across lines of race, class, etc. The struggle to bridge divergent cultures is real. (Judy made sure, for instance, that us kale-lovers took seriously the vital role of meat in community meals — yet she knows I will never fuck with those vienna sausages.) Even among those who would be allies, the interlocking mechanisms of power around us make it very difficult to engage in things that are pretty basic to building powerful relationships among us, such as speaking with candor. In my experience, those people who are motivated to try anyway are rare and vital. And yet even in those instances, all that ‘is what it is’ still very much is, claws ever out — chaos more readily erupting under foot, and with more cascading devastation.
We have an expanding ability to take actions like this, right here — to call for help beyond the block, across a world. It is one of the few reasons I have hope for the world. And yet beneath that hope, I yearn (and I hope you do too) for something quite different: a world where people’s security won’t hinge upon spontaneous appeals for individualized acts of kindness. That world may not be near to this one, but we can beckon for it. We can entice each other towards it.
I’m turning 34, and reflecting on my path through the world so far. The work I’ve chosen is not getting easier, and one of the few things I miss about having actual jobs is the structure for constructive feedback from colleagues and superiors.
So I put together an evaluation survey (if you’re reading this, I figure you likely know me, so I hope you’ll take a moment to fill it out).
And I also conducted some self-evaluation. Specifically, I took stock of a number of instances in which I received positive or negative feedback, and analyzed it: Do I really consider this positive feedback to reflect a strength? Does this negative feedback carry an important signal? Or is it the kind of negative feedback that one should expect one way or another when engaging in creative disruption, just by nature of the undertaking?
People’s feedback often conveys as much or more about them as it does about you. And at the same time, strengths and weaknesses are weirdly interrelated. So to sort through my reflections, I tallied out in three columns — a kind of plus / delta / deal with it matrix. As I more continue to collect feedback from colleagues and friends, I’ll see what changes. Anyway, see below and let me know what I missed.
My grandma had cancer for many years, yet it never really got to her. They only ever found a secondary cancer, about a decade ago, and they promptly got rid of it, but the primary cancer remained an unsolved mystery. This much landed her in medical textbooks.
I actually think Grandma was ready to go since that time of that secondary cancer. At least. She kept up some pretty good spirits, I think mostly for the purpose of greeting her grandkids.
I mean, it wasn’t *just* us; she had quite a lot of friends. She had even partnered up again, with a quiet, stern fellow named Sam who traveled around with her and regarded us kids with resigned bemusement. (Sam’s kids traveled a ways to attend Grandma’s funeral; it was the first time I’d met them. I told them how we’d come to love Sam too as part of the fam — this had surprised us, though I didn’t mention that. They held my hand and told me, ’She made him a better man.’)
But we all knew: Alice was ready to move on. She was ready to see her Danny.
Everyone says they were just the most wonderful couple — they’d fallen in love at first sight, after which Alice and Danny became the axle of two sprawling families. My grandfather left us 30 years ago, not long at all after they’d retired down to Florida.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she’d say to us. “I’m just afraid my Danny won’t recognize me when I get there.” Continue Reading →
About a year ago, I posted over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog about a facilitation tool with which I had been experimenting:
I find that it’s harder than it should be to have focused and effective conversations with non-technical people about open data, in large part because one of the key concepts involved is often described by an acronym (API), which itself abbreviates a phrase (‘application programming interface’) that is utterly ambiguous. This is the kind of problem that might only get worse when more words are thrown at it. …
- Someone describes what an API is.
- People draw what they think they’re hearing.
- Everyone discusses the results.
The results of this experiment were great! Continue Reading →
My favorite story about organizing in Marion Barry’s city: it happened at the height of the Save Our Safety Net campaign.
We’d been putting ‘SOS’ capes on DC councilcritters who pledged to prevent Fenty’s budget cuts by voting for higher taxes. We needed three more votes. So we planned this one last big action which had been tactically successful (lots of people showed up! we encircled the whole JAWB!!) but maybe not so effective (our targets basically blew us off).
After everyone else had left, the organizing crew sat on the steps debriefing — when suddenly Barry walked right up. Joni asked if he would accept an SOS cape; he did without skipping a beat. (This would turn out to be the last ‘caping’ of the campaign.) Hermon Farahi got video of it:
Almost nobody saw this video. But, amazingly, Barry did end up wearing that cape into the budget hearing and through the whole damn thing.
Naturally, this made the news.
The comments on the news articles about Marion Barry wearing a cape in the budget hearing were predictably horrible and racist. Over on Facebook, someone on our team made the mistake of quoting one (i think it was: “Bitch set me up, up, and awaaay!”) with a ‘LOL.’
This immediately brought out some fierce reactions from some of our allies, who (rightly) observed that a bunch of white kids playing dress-up had no business turning around to mock a civil rights icon. That Barry had personally touched the lives of so many of the people on whose behalf we were supposedly advocating. That all respect was due.
At the time, I was inwardly baffled. I’d read Dream City, but I didn’t get it. This was before I’d really sat and listened to many DC residents talk about the city as it used to be, and what Barry did and what he meant to them. To understand this is to learn a terribly important lesson in politics: give people something to believe in, and make them feel like it’s really theirs, and they’ll never want to let it go.
RIP, Mr Mayor.
Upon checking out my LinkedIn profile from last year, someone recently told me candidly that I scan as ‘high risk.’
On one hand, yeah: even in the midst of unemployment, I’d been cavalier with my engagement of this social network for professionals.
But on the other hand, also yeah: ‘high risk’ sounds about right.
The work I do involves risk-taking. At the core of my work is the asking of questions, and the questions I ask sometimes pose a risk to the honest answerer. The risk of speaking inconvenient truths. The risks of commitment that come with some truths. I try to be straight with people when I work with them: we’re gonna venture into uncertainty, and things could get weird.
But if your true objective is to change things, how can you afford to not take risks?
Of course, on the other side of risk is reward — the payoff. A better future. I usually suspect that the true risk of stepping towards a different future is less terrifying than it appears in the mirror. (And once or twice, I’ve even paid in full for the risks I’ve taken; these suspicions survived intact.) The best way to manage these risks, or at least the perception of them, is through strong relationships with others who share your vision and join together in venturing into the unknown. As the possible new future and its associated risk becomes more real, it takes more work to establish and sustain those relationships. This is the work that I do, or at least aspire to.
I often refer to this work as ‘organizing,’ or ‘facilitation,’ or ‘development.’ It’s an unusual line of work to specialize in. It shouldn’t be. Continue Reading →
Throughout 2013 I rarely spent more than a couple of months in one place, as I hopped around on a semi-intentional loop between DC, Wisconsin, and North Carolina — where I had formal and semi-formal residencies — and New York City, California, and the United Kingdom, where I had good friends and new professional contacts. These trips were partially funded by travel stipends for conferences, and other speaking engagements or consulting gigs; otherwise just squeaked through hella cheap and on the good graces of lovely hosts. Here’s a recap of (most of) what I saw.
My most delightful residency of 2013 was at Elsewhere, a “living museum” in Greensboro, NC.
The phrase “living museum” does sum up Elsewhere’s relationship to art. Elsewhere is a place containing a lot of stuff — the voluminous and multifarious and kitschy and quaint residue of its former proprietor’s habits, which shifted over a period of decades from shopkeeper to hoarder. Today all of that stuff remains in the space, yet the place is like a mill churned by a flow of people who remix the stuff and the spaces, creating a kind of funhouse performance of art-as-life/life-as-art.