Monday, June 27, 2011

Sprog Blog: My Week at Grassroots Organizing Summer Camp

     I want to write about my recent experience at Sprog, a grassroots organizing camp that I just returned home from. I'm at a loss for where to start, what to write, and how to write it. One of the norms that we established at the beginning of Sprog was to be raggedy when you don't know exactly how to communicate your thoughts, or what you're feeling. I'm going to need that norm here, and I hope that something that I share will move your heart the way mine was over the last week. I could babble for pages on paper and for days in person about all things Sprog, but to adequately put the experience in to words, phew... probably not going to happen! The content of the course is easy enough to write about, but it's the relationships, the love between people, the massage trains in the dinner line, the incredible sunsets, the dance parties, the countless Wagonwheel renditions, the cinnamon roll on the beach, the, the deep and intimate conversations, the pure expressions, and the games of ninja that made the week such a meaningful experience.  Interpersonally, Sprog is very close to the world I hope to create for myself and others, very open, very free, very honest.  On the last day of the camp many of us shared what changed for us during the week. It was a series of moving expressions, and at times I felt elation, tenderness, humility, admiration, adoration, and deep love. On Saturday we all prepared to leave and the gravity that such physical distance would soon separate us sunk in. Sometimes I felt could not hold my new friends close enough to express what I felt for them; at other times I found it easy to let them go because I so trusted them as people, and knew we would benefit our communities. It was a phenomenal week.

A sunset game of chicken, but where's Ian? - Photo Courtesy of Claire Meints

     On Saturday June 18 about forty young people convened at Camp Kirby on Samish Island in Bow, WA for a week long camp called Sprog. Sprog is shorthand for summer program, so understandably many of us had some questions about just what we would be doing based on the nondescript title. The camp was organized by fourteen student trainers, and is associated with the Sierra Student Coalition, which is related to the Sierra Club. As it turns out the camp is a training course in grassroots organizing and activism. Essentially we learned how to create and share our vision for the future we want to live in, and were learning how to inspire and empower others to create the world they want to live in.  We learned tools to solve problems and confront systems of oppression.  I'll just list the trainings, they were: the history and styles of organizing/activism; creating our public narrative (developing the story of why we work on what we work on); campaign planning; building effective teams; tactics and strategies; regional, national and international organizing; cycle of empowerment; delegation and task design; running a meeting/facilitation; personal productivity and self care; framing an issue and message development; working with the media; meeting with decision makers; grassroots outreach; direct action; developing a group; organizational analysis; event planning; working with communities; and anti-oppression and collective liberation. At the end of the week we all participated in a simulation in which we applied what we learned in a fictional town. In the town, Tonga, a power company was attempting to build a coal fired power plant in a low income neighborhood that was home primarily to Native American and African American communities. We all played different roles and ran different campaigns based on our interests in the simulation. There were miners, electrical engineers, a wealthy bike club, a neighborhood association, a student clean coal group, a student social justice group and a student environmental group. It was absolutely insane as we all scrambled around trying to form coalitions, write letters to fictional groups in town, promote and host events, write press releases to try to get media coverage at the event, meet with city council members, talk with community members, it was nutz! The trainers shuffled between different personalities in the town. Rolf was a rockstar who was arrested for peddling drugs, Lucy Always-Right was a high strung slightly pretentious reporter, Donna Goetz was a recently elected city council member who disappeared from the town to Hawaii or Zimbabwe, controversy was rife. It was slightly ridiculous, mostly fun, pretty helpful, somewhat unrealistic and occasionally frustrating. The trainings were extremely helpful, and aside from the fact that it is impossible to simulate the complex political and social dynamics of a city, the simulation helped me to synthesize the material and see how all the individual trainings could be applied in the real world. Oh, and consider this my special offer, if you are involved with a group that could benefit from these trainings let me know and I will be happy to share them.  You will find them quite interesting indeed, guaranteed.  I found them extremely helpful!

The Miners Union - Photo Courtesy of Diana Lam
Radical anarchists shutting down work at the controversial site of a coal fired powerplant.  The sheriff and the riot police had to lay down the law. - Photo Courtesy of Diana Lam

     For me, and I think my fellow Sprogers would agree, the most unique aspect of Sprog was not the trainings themselves, but the rich, open environment that allows for rare conversations and deep connections to take place. From the first day our group was deliberate about creating safe, comfortable interpersonal environments that allowed us to share ourselves, our fears, and our loves. We created group norms right off the bat. The norm that affected me the most was “listen to understand, not to respond.” Sounds like a good life goal to me. When you walked in to the main lodge you saw a sign saying things like “share your story with one person today”, or “share your passions”, or “share what you love.” We had a warm fuzzies table where we could write notes to people about how our friends impacted us, or something about them that impressed us, or just something funny about them.
     Many of the trainings and the activities in the trainings were designed to open us up, so that we could inspire each other. One my favorite series of trainings was the public narrative. A public narrative is basically our personal story. Throughout this summer I will be developing my public narrative, and am looking forward to sharing it on this blog and with my friends and family when I have reached some point of completion. We had a chance to draft our public narratives during the trainings and to share them with others in the group. The stories that people shared were honest and personal, or if they weren't they fooled me. I saw parallels between my friends stories and my own experience, and from another perspective with different events, I could have fit own story in to there's.

Zach and Mika laying it down for us - Photo Courtesy of Claire Meints

     A story is always an abstraction of who we are, and is always incomplete as we evolve, but I found reflecting on my past, and what compels me to action (whether it is opposing short-sighted destructive projects like coal export facilities, advocating for beneficial projects student run food co-op, or attending sprog) to be really powerful. Re-connecting with the sensory and emotional experiences that lead me to act and then to share that with other human beings, and to hear others' stories are places where I feel connection and compassion. My story is different from everyone else's, but there are many parallels; I haven't lived in poverty, or suffered from war, disease, or exposure to toxic waste the way many people have, but I am affected and compelled to act by people who are. There are a couple of stories that I think about that I would like to touch more deeply because they have affected me.  When I was in India I was confused, heartbroken, and isolated walking past human beings with physical deformities, or kids who lack access to food. As I carried a $200 backpack that could feed a person for a year, I couldn't shake the feeling a feeling of guilt and judgment; at home I am angered by manipulative advertising, paparazzi news, and objectification of women, and it hurts me that I feel isolated from many loved ones because I don't want to participate in these things and because I am critical of them. Stories are powerful when they are honest, and our public narratives need to be honest. I felt empathy, respect and humility when hearing people's stories; I also learned quickly to trust them as individuals. I trusted that they were going to work to create the world that I want to live in. I believe this is the case with most everyone when they are asked. Right now I don't feel the need to convince people to care or to take action; people already care, we just need to be reminded about it sometimes, and people will follow their passions. I believe that what is really needed is people who know how to ask the right questions, to educate, inspire, motivate, and empower. To me, that is what Sprog was all about.
     On Saturday June 25 Sprog was over and we departed.  It was hard to believe that I had just met my new friends a week ago.  It seemed like much longer than a week but it went by in a flash. Sprog has past now and I am back at home in Bellingham, but the relationships and inspirations are real and lasting. To people who might want to do it next summer, I cannot recommend it highly enough. In the mean time, the rubber hits the road and I'm ready to move forward on, among other things, halting coal export, implementing a student food co-operative at WWU, and breaking down unjust systems in favor of ones of love, respect, and creativity, so who's ready to join me?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Where have all the Student Activists Gone?

     Where is the activism from students these days?  This question has been itching me for a while, and it's due time I express it!  I haven't been around on this Earth for too long, but historically haven't universities been hotbeds for progressive thought and action? My generation is by-and-large dropping the ball and it is unprecedented and deeply troubling. My thoughts are echoed by some of my peers and I hear it from engaged and concerned elders as well. The lack of engagement is certainly not for lack of pressing issues; as a student at Huxley College we commonly discuss urgent global environmental crises to the point that it can become almost desensitizing. However we are almost never taught to think critically about adequate responses to ecological and social deterioration. Most of us in the environmental college seem resigned to find our way in to a regulatory agency, or an environmental advocacy NGO. We are taught about the crises but we ARE NOT educated about the causes. Most of us believe that cap-and-trade will be adequate to solve climate change, that governmental regulatory agencies will protect us from unknown chemicals, and that our consumer choice to buy a Prius will pave the way for an environmentally sustainable green industrial future. We are taught to view environmental and social problems in isolation and are unable to see them in their proper context or to understand some of the common causes.

     One of the most troubling examples of lack of student activism that I have seen recently is regarding budget cuts to higher education. As students, shouldn't we care that even as the quality of education and diversity of classes and programs are being cut due to lack of funding, that tuition will continuing to increase? Or that universities will be forced to market to and accept more out of state students over Washington students because they pay more for tuition? Bruce Shepard, WWUs president was outspoken publicly about the cuts and his statistical analysis was widely published in newspapers on campus and in the local and regional press, including the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald. The numbers that Shepard provided were that average graduation time would shoot from 4.6 to 5.7 years because of decreasing numbers of classes available for the same or increasing numbers of students. For further context, cuts would be equivalent to cutting Fairhaven, Huxley and Woodring Colleges; another equivalent would be cutting 20% of faculty. As cuts are now official, for the first time in history students will be paying more than the state for public education. One article I read recently said that four years from now WWUs state funding will have been cut by 50%, that is staggering. All of this as average student debt upon graduation is already somewhere between $17,000 and $24,000 based on different sources I've seen. There were a handful of student protests on campus over this, the most publicized and best organized being the Rally to Restore Education. Despite that fact that the rally happened in an extremely public place, on a decent day at midday, and that hundreds of people RSVPed and invites went out to thousands online along with publicity on campus, there were probably somewhere between 100 and 200 people that showed up. One of my profs canceled class and encouraged us to attend because he thought we needed to stick up for the right to affordable education, as he said, “you guys are going to take it up the butt and it's no fault of yours!” From that 60 person class I might have seen 5 people that actually showed.  I called and texted most people in my phonebook, one good friend chose to get lunch instead, while a handful showed up, others chose to study even as their right to study without accruing huge amounts of debt was under attack.  The rally was a pathetic showing. Other rallies were similarly poorly attended: ironically, a satirical vigil for higher education attracted only a couple dozen people. How students can so willingly accept an attack on higher education is beyond me. If an attack on our common education isn't enough to move us to act as a community, then what will? I don't have the answer to these questions but they are troubling to me.

     One of the major problems that I see, which I touched on briefly earlier, is that many issues are viewed in isolation when in reality there are very similar underlying causes. When there are SO many social, political and environmental problems that seem disconnected, how do we have the time or the ability to address all of them? I know that when I feel overwhelmed I shut down, and I wonder if the sheer scope of the problems that face us shut us down politically, and if a simpler framing of the issues could reengage more of the population. If we are taught to think critically about them there are many common threads between them. As an activist, I know that I need to be more deliberate and skilled in how I frame issues I am concerned with, and frankly I need to be more educated on them. I can argue about why we shouldn't burn coal and why we need to address climate change until I am blue in the face, but the real problem seems to me to be the force driving climate change and coal burning. I don't think that it is effective anymore to point out why we shouldn't burn coal, enough of us understand the insanity of burning fossil fuels to make the political decision to stop, the problem is that we allow it by not confronting the drivers of coal burning. Relating this to the proposed coal terminal that is on so many of our minds, while the coal dust, diesel particulates, potential for shipping accidents, the insanity of burning coal, and the impact of trains are totally valid reasons for opposing the terminal, I believe we need to frame the issue differently. So let's start by asking why there is an incentive to put a coal terminal at Cherry Point and who is driving this? The people of Whatcom County did not, of their own accord, propose this project. This project was proposed out of self interest and opportunity for profit by large firms including SSA Marine, Peabody Coal, and BNSF, but let's not forget about the multinational corporate beneficiaries of this project in China, who will benefit from cheap energy – including many Western companies. This project serves to benefit those companies, and they will do all they can to throw their weight around in government at all levels, by buying media outlets and paying for propaganda campaigns, by influencing regulatory processes, whatever. They have all the resources to do that, while we do not; further, they are effective in convincing us that it is in our best interest to allow these projects. These companies do not exist to satisfy moral principles or to benefit our county or any communities really, they exist to turn a profit, and to provide returns on investment to shareholders, however possible. It is a sick system that rewards cutting corners and avoiding responsibility. In my current view coal dust, train traffic, noise pollution, destruction of habitat all seem to be symptoms of a sick and amoral system, and it is the system that needs to be addressed more than any individual issue. From this perspective the drivers of the coal terminal are not so different from the drivers of GMO seed production, which are also corporate profit and control, I can explain this more if there is a need. I recently attended a panel on environmental racism at WWU, which is a term used to describe the environmental exploitation of disenfranchised minority groups; examples are the dumping of toxic oil waste in Ecuadoran rainforest because the people lack the political and legal power to do anything about it, or the shipment of E-waste to any country that will take it, or the burying of toxic PCBs in minority counties. Issues of environmental racism are also very similar to the coal terminal and GMO issues because the institutions and market pressures that drive that exploitation are the same.
100 or more of us that didn't fit in the capacity of the Municipal
Courthouse during a meeting with mayor Dan Pike

     I am very encouraged by the broad community engagement in the dialogue related to the Gateway Pacific Terminal (see photo above!). However, I hope that community engagement on similar issues will not fall off after we collectively make our decision to reject the terminal, and I believe we will. I love the dialogue in happening in the Living Democracy group. I also love other critical groups like Fertile Ground because they are looking outside the box, for systemic solutions to the causes of the pervasive social, political and environmental issues that are all coming to a head (see climate change, revolution in the Middle East, and protests in Wisconsin). These are only my thoughts and observations, but I believe that we, as activists, concerned community members, and conscientious human beings need to be more critical in our approach to these problems. This means understanding and stating that coal dust, genetic contamination, climate change, and human exploitation are symptoms of systemic problems that need to be confronted systemically. My education on these issues is probably not as thorough or is different from some who might be reading this blog, and so I ask for your contributions, insights and objections. The question that I am seeking to answer in this post is, why the lack of political activism especially among young people, and how effective will re-framing issues that demand addressing by their underlying causes be in uniting activists and in engaging more of the public?