Friday, January 31, 2014

Secret Diary of a Gentrifier

I think a lot about gentrification.

As Wikipedia describes it:
Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values,[1] sometimes to the detriment[citation needed] of the poorer residents of the community.

I went with a Wikipedia definition on this one because there's something intriguing about that little [citation needed] superscripted to the idea that gentrification hurts poor people.

Gentrification is a complex, and often controversial, issue.

Not so hot that the Wikipedia article is locked to prevent abuse or dramatization, but controversial enough that [citation needed] reads to me like a snarky, "Yeah? Prove it, buddy."

Today, a community voices article from my hometown (holllla!) has been making it's way around the web. 20 ways to not be a gentrifier in Oakland is a positive article articulating the ways that "outsiders" can move to a community without becoming gentrifiers.

" isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there," the article opens before delving into tips for how to really appreciate a community for what it is and to understand and appreciate your neighbors.

And all of that is great. Whether in Oakland or beyond, new people moving into a community should be thinking in terms of community assets. They should see the strength and spirit of a place and understand why the locals scrawl Oakland Pride with spray paint under the overpasses.

And while its great to have such a welcoming attitude, I'm not sure I agree that "it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier."

I was struck by that comment, particularly since this article is from Oakland.

I was born and raised in Oakland, CA. If I hadn't stolen away to go to school in Massachusetts, I'd be a fifth generation Oaklander. My mother still lives there. My grandparents had a bakery - over on High Street, if I'm getting my history right.

I love the city. I know its sights, sounds, and smells. I've seen its dark corners and its bright days. I've talked smack about San Francisco and dominated anyone who ever breathed a word putting us down.

If I lived in Oakland, I would be a local. With deep roots and authentic passion. If I lived in Oakland, I'd do everything on the "20 ways" list, and possibly a few more. If I lived in Oakland, no one could call me a newcomer. 

But if I lived in Oakland, I would be a gentrifier.

With my middle class and my East Coast airs.

I'd love the city and appreciate the city, and arguably I'd belong in the city. But I'd still add to rising rents and growing costs, eventually forcing my neighbors from their homes.

It's okay that I've grown the way I have. And I hope it's okay that I've found a new community to make my home. But the truth is I'm gentrifying Somerville just as I'd gentrify Oakland.

Living the American dream, perhaps, but at the cost of whom?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Skeptic's Notes on Deliberative Dialogue

Is equality in dialogue possible?

I had scribbled in the margins of an article on deliberative dialogue which I re-read this morning.

Apparently, I'd been feeling quite skeptical on first read since additional scrawls included:
How do you socialize people to be prepared for engagement? Listening to stupid opinions, being patient.

And perhaps worse:
Is there something elitist in saying "we know public deliberation is best for you?"

I don't always feel that skeptical. I am, in general, quite in favor of deliberation and would most certainly put it in my mental list of Good Things. And I love the romantic notion that if we were all just a little more open to each other's views, all a little more prepared to listen thoughtfully, and if we were all more frequently blessed with fabulous facilitation and intentional meeting design - then our deliberative democracy would be something quite awesome to behold.

But I've also been battle scarred by poorly facilitated meetings. I've seen too many opportunists sure to have their say, and too many disempowered members who don't think they have anything worth saying. I've seen meetings scheduled when "the people" can't make it, and meetings not offered in the language of a neighborhood.

Don't get me wrong, I've been to a lot of great meetings as well - I love meetings, to be honest. But I've seen enough to be, at times at least, deeply skeptical of the ideal - of the "romantic notion" as I called it above.

Today, if you'll allow, I'd like to explore that skeptism.

Is equality in dialogue possible?

In many ways, my skepticism comes down to that question. The classic example is the bombastic orator determined to make their point and dominate the meeting. This archetype can be troublesome, no doubt, but personally, this is not my top concern. I have confidence in a skilled facilitator's ability to manage that.

More troublesome to me is the language barrier. I've been to meetings run in English and interpreted in Spanish and meetings run in Spanish and interpreted in English. For someone who is not bilingual, I can say clearly that the experience is not the same.

Facilitation can help with this - making sure the interpretation is simultaneous and there are sufficient pauses for those in the non-dominant language to jump in. But even with great facilitation, language barriers are likely to damper someone's involvement. So at best, it seems like a matter of rotating a group's dominant language. The alternate solution of keeping groups monolingual is clearly fraught with other challenges.

Multilingual meetings also require a different sense of time planning then most of us are used to - the reality is that having successful multilingual meetings slows conversation down. But that's not necessarily a bad thing - in fact, I'd argue that most conversations would benefit from slowing down. So, language barriers are a challenge, but they too seem surmountable.

What worries me most is the baggage that participants come in with. Not only the meeting-dominator, who surely has something complex going on up there, but all the other participants, too.

The person who is tired from a long day or who is hungry from skipping lunch isn't going to be able to participate fully. The person who's loved one is in the hospital or who has a major deadline the next day isn't going to be able to participate fully.

And the person who's grown accustomed to being silent - who's confident they have nothing to say, and that their presence is of little to no value - won't be able to participate fully either.

And, this of course, is assuming those people show up in the first place.

A facilitator can help with some of this - making sure everyone has a chance to speak, engaging everyone in the conversation. But at the end of the day, it's often not enough. The baggage you bring in with you is the biggest obstacle to your full participation and nobody else can change that for you.

So I worry about those folks, and sometimes I get skeptical.

But I'm not always skeptical. Today, for example, under my earlier note of:
Is equality in dialogue possible?

I added, after a moment's pause:
Does it matter if it's not?

Perhaps it's just the worst form of government...except for all the others.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Area man cares, nobody listens

Perhaps because I've been thinking so much about the intersections of individuality, dialogue, and democracy this week, I was struck this morning by the Onion headline: Dad Delivers State Of The Union Rebuttal Directly Into Television Screen. As the article says:

Reiterating numerous themes from last year’s rebuttal while offering several searing critiques of tonight’s speech, area dad Bill Shaw delivered his official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address tonight directly into the television screen...squaring his body toward the front of the family room and looking directly into the television set as he delivered his impassioned thoughts on the issues of immigration, health care, the middle class, China, that holier-than-thou look Obama always has on his face, and the Toyota Prius. 

Satire though this may be, I was struck by the simultaneous passion and disconnection the Onion effortlessly captures in this piece.

Conventional wisdom indicates that most Americans these days are apolitical. That they're too wrapped up in their personal lives, too disillusioned, or - less charitably - too stupid to pay attention or care about politics.

But that's not really true. Well, too disillusioned, maybe, but I'd argue most people care nonetheless.

I can so clearly imagine this man - perhaps it is me - watching the State of the Union, talking to his TV screen, and then...doing nothing.

If talk is cheap, then talk without an audience is definitely worth little.

I can't help but wonder if this fictional "area man" shared shared his SOTU rebuttal with anyone else. Did he talk about it with his coworkers the next day? Discuss the issues with strangers at the bus stop? Raise his voice at a public meeting?

Probably not.

He may care passionately, but he only shares that passion in the privacy of his own home. Impassioned thoughts to an empty box.

If this sense of isolated enthusiasm is a phenomena broader than a fake man in a fake paper, it points to a bigger issue - a different issue - than simple disengagement.

As a society, we lack genuine public spaces to voice these personal rebuttals, to raise our questions and concerns, to challenge those in power, to ask hard questions and find collective solutions.

We have some forums, of course - brick and mortar, and digital - but those forums aren't open to everybody.

Perhaps more importantly, not everyone is taught that they belong in those forums. Not everyone is taught that they should have a voice in public affairs. Not everyone is taught that their rebuttal should be heard beyond the hollow confines of their living room.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The citizen and the people

What is at the center of democracy?

Wikipedia - a reasonable proxy for popular opinion - describes democracy as "a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally."

From that, I would say, the center of democracy is the citizen.

This seems reasonable. I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about what makes good citizens, how to support better citizens, or how to be a good citizen myself.

Disrobing the word "citizen" of its political baggage makes this model even more appealing. "Citizen" does not need to indicate legal status, but simply describes a person who belongs - literally, emotionally, or what have you - to a community.

So having "the citizen" at the center of society sounds like a promising way of having government of the people, by the people, for the people.

But wait. We just went from "the citizen" to the "the people." Are those the same? Different? Does it matter?


In her book "Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life," sociologist Nina Eliasoph reflects on her days as a door-to-door survey interviewer, unable to interact with her subjects, required only to "repeat the questions exactly as written in the question booklet until the respondent succumbed to the interview format."

This arguably "citizen-centered" approach is missing "the people." As Eliasoph elaborates:

Democracy, for this approach, rest on beliefs and values; add up all the private opinions to get one big "public" opinion; if all individuals carry inside themselves democratic psychological dispositions, like little ships in a bottle, then (presuming citizens have rights like freedom of speech and assembly) we will have democracy.

The approach is individualistic. Resting on each person to have an individual opinion that can neatly be summed and totaled to reflect the whole. But that misses the ideal democracy is - or should be - going for.

"Public life happens between people, in relationships," says Eliasoph.

Focusing too much on the individual overshadows those relationships. The value of public dialogue, of real debate and idea exchange, gets lost. Public conversations become about me trying to win for my view and you trying to win for yours - or perhaps worse, both of us refusing to open our mouths for fear of raising conflict.

Focusing on the relationships is more of a community organizing model. The individuals are still deeply important, but it's relationships which allow people to work together, allow people to understand each other, and ultimately allow them to develop solutions together. Of the people, for the people, and by the people.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Social Bond Individualism

Today, I tell a story.

Our hero is one John Randolph of Roanoke, renown statesmen of the early 1800s. Born into a prominent Virginian family, Randolph contracted Tuberculosis at young age and spent much of his life in pain.

At the age of 26, Randolph was elected to the Sixth US Congress, where he remained in office for many years. A thoughtful orator, Randolph was also known as a "hotspur" - having fought duels with Henry Clay and others.

I tell his story today having read Richard M. Weaver's article, "Two Types of American Individualism: The separate ways of John Randolph and Henry Thoreau."

As Weaver describes, Randolph was "a defender of the dignity and autonomy of the smaller unit, he was constantly fighting the battle for local rights. But it was the essence of his position that the battle must be fought within the community and not through means that would in effect deny all political organization."

Indeed, Randolph was a staunch defender of "the little guy," looking out for those disenfranchised or oppressed by power. 

He was a proponent of what Weaver calls "social bond individualism," which "battles unremittingly for individual rights while recognizing that these have to be secured within the social context."

At the center of this position is the dual belief that matters must be dealt with by those directly affected and that people have a responsibility to their fellow man. Individualism within the social context.

His support of individual freedom and protection of the minority lead him to oppose slavery. In his 1819 will, Randolph wrote:

I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscious tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me that the circumstances under which I inherited them and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my emancipating them in my lifetime, which it is my full intention to do, in case I can accomplish it.

As his will was later hotly contested in court, I'll take him at his word that he would have freed his slaves before his death if he had been able.

But there is a problem with this outlook. "Individualism in the social context" sounds compelling and positive. Protect individual rights, protect the minority, but do so while minding the health of the whole.

While this problem isn't unique to Randolph, it appears in his story in the form of the Missouri Question: should Missouri be brought into the union as a slave state?

Debating the point in three and four hour speeches, Randolph argued that "Missouri had a right to be admitted as a slave state, and Congress did not have a right to pass on the constitutionality of its constitution."

The voters of Missouri wanted to be a slave state. Therefore they had a right to be a slave state. Randolph wanted to free his slaves, and therefore he should have the right to free his slaves.

His conscious tells him his slaves are justly entitled to freedom, but what does his conscious tell him of the rights of slaves in Missouri?

This anti-slavery, pro-slaver view is certainly not unique to Randolph, but it raises important questions.

Weaver says Randolph is not inconsistent in these two actions, because his authenticity comes from his belief that "government, to be safe and free, must consist of representatives having common interest and a common feeling with the represented."

That's perhaps a more depressing resolution than saying Randolph was simply blind to his own inconsistency.

For now we see more fully - in Randolph's world, democracy and diversity cannot coexist satisfactorily.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Optimist and the Pessimist

I saw this written on a bathroom wall today:

Life can get better! 
Then              :-)

I was struck by the art of these two statements, literally orthogonal to each other.

I wondered which came first.

Did it start with the "pessimistic" message, followed by the encouraging "...can get better!" or did it happen the other way around?

I wonder which person drew the smiley face.

I put pessimistic in quotations above because I imagine that's how most people would classify a comment like, "Life suck[s] then you die." But I'm not sure I would.

Perhaps because I'm a contrarian and the general conflagration of "optimism" with "good" and "pessimism" with "bad" just makes me root for the pessimists.

But part of what moves me about this wall art is that while the sentiments seems contradictory...they really don't have to be.

I'll take as a given that whatever the state of life, it is true that "then you die." So for simplicity, the statements simply read: "Life can get better; life sucks."

Those don't seem mutually exclusive at all. In fact, both statements hold truth. And to see them together seems meaningful.

I've never been comfortable with the division of people into optimists and pessimists.As if everyone at all times should be either an energetic Tiger bouncing off the walls and never feeling sad, or a dull, depressed Eore moping through the hallways and never feeling anything.

But most of us are both of those things; reveling in some times and languishing in others.

They say the best thing about being happy is that you think you'll never be unhappy again. And the converse is true as well: the worst thing about being unhappy is that you think you'll never be happy again.

So we envision these stark divisions. The optimist and the pessimist. The happy and the sad. The light and the dark. Two states that can never mix.

I like to imagine that the same person wrote both comments. Life sucks, life can get better. Life can get better, life sucks.

Then one day, they added the smiley face, when at last they came to peace with a feeling that both states were true.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The scandalous case of the cornerback who said too much

It seems like everywhere I turn, I see people responding to the now infamous "Richard Sherman outburst."

I first caught this story on the morning news. I honestly wasn't paying much attention since celebrity gossip is not quite my thing, but I got the distinct impression that something scandalous had happened. The cornerback for the Seahawks, apparently, said something with perhaps more enthusiasm than was seemly.

Since the Pats were out of the superbowl (what a terrible game!), it seemed hardly worth my while.

Then I started to see the Facebook posts. In my feed, at least, a lot of folks were rushing to defend Sherman from the apparent attacks against him.

But I still didn't really know what was going on. I asked someone else what the hubbub was about. They* didn't really know either.

"Something, something, something, unsportsmanlike, something," they said (or perhaps I heard). "Yeah, I think it's basically that he was unsportsmanlike."

Well, at least that added some clarity. People tend to freak out over unsportsmanlike comments. Remember the blow back on Rickey Henderson after he declared that, "Today, I'm the greatest of all time" ?

He got into some mighty hot water over that. Though, frankly, I still think it was kinda funny. I mean, seriously, the man had just stolen his 939th base. That day, he was the greatest of all time.

It may not have been my style to announce it to the world, but...having never stolen a single base, I'm not in the best position to reflect on this. And, if you're wondering, the language "greatest of all time" was intended to be an allusion to the inimitable Muhammad Ali.

So, I don't really care if someone says something unsportsmanlike. I get that some people care - some thinking its okay and others finding it poor role modeling - but I don't really care. It's just not my thing.

But this story really caught my attention when yesterday Sherman commented that his biggest concern is that folks are "using the word 'thug' as a substitute for the n-word."

Okay, well, now I'm concerned about that, too.

I started trying to figure out what actually happened. After the game, Sherman went over to 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree and said something. Crabtree hit Sherman in the face. Sherman did a TV interview and Sherman exuberantly told FOX correspondent Erin Andrews "Well, I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me!"

In response, as CNN reports: The bile flowed almost immediately -- tweets calling him a gorilla, an ape or a thug from the ghetto. "Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the (expletive) head. Disrespectful (N-word)," said one, expressing a common refrain.

So, folks may indeed be using "thug" as a substitute for the n-word, but, from the quote above, people seem pretty open to using that word too.

I'm unclear on why no one's talking about Crabtree hitting Sherman. From what I recall, that's not how we're supposed to deal with our emotions. But, irregardless, it seems clear that there is a definitive racial component to this backlash.

I'm sure there are people who would be offended by unsportmanlike conduct regardless of race, but my impression is that those are not the voices giving this story its edge.

So, let's talk about that.

Let's not debate, in this conversation, whether sports players need to be good role models. Let's put aside for a moment the discussion of unsportsmanlike conduct. Let's not make this a story about Richard Sherman or Michael Crabtree. Of who said what to whom or who was at fault.

Let's talk about the fact that a not insignificant portion of Americans are appalled, upset, or disgusted to see a large black man showing, perhaps, a little too much exuberance.

I mean, really, let's talk about that.

*While "they" is not appropriate here grammatically, I continue to use it as a gender-neutral term no matter how many times in my life I've been marked down or corrected. So there.