30 November 2008

Eyes wide open; spirit fully engaged; hands ready for the work: On turning points and new (unwritten) chapters?

I couldn’t resist an opportunity to check in and challenge us as the first decade of the new millennium winds down; as the shocks that characterize it amplify: militarism, standardization, genocide, economic disenfranchisement, et al; as a president of color (finally) takes office; and as neoliberalism begins to flame out, helping many more see its impossibility as economic policy and offering the US (and the world) a choice of one of two directions: fascism and authoritarianism or humanism and democracy.

In many ways this essay, this riff, this stream concludes a series of essays I’ve posted since our last trip to the Global South. In these essays, I imperfectly raised issues of economics, social difference, education, and religion. (Click on any of the links to peruse these essays; education probably the more important of any of the four.) More recently, I offered an essay on violence, which I am revising and will post soon at pucknation dot com. Whether or not you have been privy to these earlier essays, I offer this final one as a way forward—possible turning points and new (unwritten) chapters—for your consideration and critique.

Keep writing in the dark: / a record of the night, or / words that pulled you from depths of unknowing / words that flew through your mind, strange birds / crying their urgency with human voices (Denise Levertov, Writing in the Dark)[1]
Since I realized a more critical consciousness was possible and necessary (when I began graduate school in 1996), I have consistently attempted to reconcile this consciousness and understanding of theory with more critical and constructive practice. Often, this has happened pedagogically, using the classroom as a sort of laboratory. But, it has also unfolded more concretely in my engagement with the world outside (the often times insular) school walls. At my (imperfect) best, I have sought to share this evolutionary reconciliation, openly—always coming to more critical consciousness and constructive practice based on your critique, questions, and nuance. I learned this praxis from many of you to whom I write. And, it has been energizing to see others engage this evolutionary praxis as a result of my teaching and learning with them/you. So, it is with this spirit that I offer what follows. Five, ten, twenty years from now we will return to these reflections and note how far we have no doubt traveled beyond these elementary considerations. Nonetheless, I present them as a marker to be imbibed, transgressed, and developed.

As we move ahead, I want to urge you to consider joining the work of the Rouge Forum. I want to encourage connecting to a broader national coalition with international possibilities and implications. This larger, connected body has an even better shot at confronting standardization, militarization, and the coming recession/depression with reason and passion.

Recently, I have accepted a post within the RF as the virtual community organizer, attempting to connect the various constituents within the Rouge Forum toward resistance of the above, as well as helping others launch a number of new and continuing projects, including: an edited text on more humanizing curricula, our annual conference (this year in Ypsilanti at EMU: see http://www.therougeforumconference.org/ for more details, and the following essay from Rich Gibson for some more background: http://richgibson.com/eeeecrossroads.html), a print edition of the RF News, etc. Simultaneous to this work, there are also some interesting stirrings emerging from the southwest relative to the formation of an institute for social justice, which may provide an apt space for education, training, and action. Finally, our work in the Global South continues to evolve with more critical possibilities, providing one of many potential international satellites for this work. More to come, for sure. In any event, my encouragement is to seek out this broader community, this wider theoretical agenda, and this growing movement for resistance and transformation.

Seeing usually / was a matter of what was / in front of my eyes / matching what was / behind my brain (Audre Lorde, Contact Lenses)
In the previous dispatches noted above I made several conclusions, pulling from recently read work and drawing upon ongoing discussions. I suggested paths that induce agency and/or demythologize reality, recognizing that roads which go through organized religion are often counter-revolutionary. I noted, simply, the need to collectively organize and become conscious, wrestling with our socialization/indoctrination/domestication, choosing to become political agents of hope, and recognizing education as a tool for domination by the rich). I pulled from Paul Farmer’s concept of “pragmatic solidarity,” highlighting that our words of concern must be matched by on-the-ground work that represents a “being with” not just a “talking about.” I also tried to wrap my head around Gustavo Gutierrez’s notion of a “permanent cultural revolution” in which our process motivates us to struggle against all the forces that oppress humankind. As well, related to process, I consistently attempted to recycle Rebecca Solnit’s ideas regarding “moments of creation” and “the politics of prefiguration.” Finally, I have tried to keep Milton’s concepts of “voice and visibility” in front of us, helping to re-imagine the struggle and to re-define what the terms of victory might, instead, look like.

Now my eyes have become / a part of me exposed / quick risky and open / to all the same dangers (Audre Lorde, Contact Lenses)
These considerations, of course, remain at play. We can use and reuse them in a recursive and reflective turn to make sense of our work. And, they can help launch us into renewed action. I consider, also, a few more concepts which may illuminate a way forward. Michael Lebowitz, very much considering a socialism for the 21st century, talks of the “revolution of radical needs”—that is, the interplay of self-change and systemic change. As well, he proffers a “democracy as protagonism,” which is a democracy of people who are transforming themselves into revolutionary subjects. In this way, then, we must conceive of history differently—not only as a “totality” (something our education fails to give us), but as something constantly to be written and re-written, lived not in the past but in the present as we imagine a future. In this history-in-the-making, then, we constantly make and re-make ourselves as subjects impacting this record rather than as objects dictated to by someone else’s narrative.

A few concrete projects may help cement the point:

For those of us who have been and are involved with the work in the Global South, this work has been an evolutionary process ( which Gina and I highlight here: http://www.richgibson.com/rouge_forum/2008/decadework.htm). Most of its history, certainly, is yet to be written. As we seek to launch a second decade of work there, many of us feel as though we have just gotten started and finally have a firmly articulated foundation which will help us implement new critical literacy initiatives with our ongoing partners as well as (hopeful) new partners. This process of reading the word and our worlds more critically will lead to a deeper consciousness, hopefully, on both sides. However, beyond the potentially reciprocal nature of this process, our desire is that the process actually become a generative one in which unimagined possibilities will emerge, conjointly and solidaristically, and from which an entirely new history—a new chapter—may take root. As well, we continue to envisage a more critical medical partnership, launched from a premise that health care is a human right. And, we continue to attempt contact with progressive movements within Jamaica, such as the International School of Bottom-Up Organizing, in order to partner and be led by grassroots groups within Jamaica.

More local to Louisville, work with the Volunteers of America Family Shelter continues into a seventh year. This winter season we’ll share in a fifth annual holiday celebration and next semester, with some new and former students, we’ll launch yet another partnership with the shelter. As I’ve written in the past, Louisville has a mostly unreported problem with poverty (a ranking of 3rd in the nation in concentrated poverty as well as a population of 7500 children who qualify as homeless, 8% of the total student population, attending its public schools). This issue of poverty and homelessness will only worsen given the economic downturn. While several of us have continued to raise awareness related to homelessness locally, nationally, and internationally through shantytown actions and ongoing service to this and other shelters, we still have miles to go—shifting from social service to social change. But, like the history of our work in the Global South, this partnership with VOA is a history-in-the-making—never quite certain when we may reach a turning point. So, we struggle on, making more critical sense of poverty and its root cause (capitalism), connecting our lives to those impacted by the inevitability of this system, and working together.

Even more local to many of our lives, several of us are taking this work to our classrooms in both university and K-12 environments. Even amidst rabid standardization, school to military/prison pipelines, and growing irrationalism (mysticism like Creationism taught in science classes), there are teachers doing the front line work of helping produce more revolutionary subjects. This work, as we know, is difficult because we as teachers must constantly re-educate ourselves based upon the mis-education we received for most of our lives. As well, we are consistently attempting to dislodge our consciousness from the slick socialization of a capitalist culture that attempts to turn us into unthinking consumers of our societal trappings. Though they attempt to keep us separate from each other, we must continually strive to ‘get together’: developing our own professional learning communities, making our unions work for us instead of for those who intend to oppress us, and taking action where prudent and necessary. We must continue to grow this mass base of front line workers who Rich characterizes as existing at the choke point of capital’s system. We have power. We need to harness it and be strategic in its use. This will lead to a turning point.

Aside from these particular projects or progressive pedagogical potentials, I know that each of us are also involved in several other projects and actions: from study groups to site-based decision-making bodies to community organizations. Where possible we need to link our actions. Resistive movements must be linked in order to mount the necessary action to overturn the status quo. We must make the time to seek out the intersections and, more importantly, engage these more conscious constituencies toward ameliorative action.

I think one rubric, under which we could connect this action is through the Rouge Forum, as it attempts to connect classrooms across the country in a more global attempt to resist standardization, militarism, and irrationalism. While there are a multiplicity of ways to formulate a calculus of resistance and hope, the Rouge Forum as only one such formulation, it seems as though we must get strategic, savvy, and together, as quickly as possible. While the symbolic hope of an Obama presidency has brought a certain suasion to some, we must know that our work today is the same as it was yesterday. What is most hopeful about Obama’s election is that folks demonstrated that they could still get together. The task for getting together for an electoral victory may be easier than getting together for systemic change, but folks got together, nonetheless. We know that improvements will be slight, if at all, since the rich still run the country/world. So, we must keep an objective reality clearly in focus. And, we must get about the business of mounting a commensurate resistance to the oppositional force that seeks to dominate truth and liberty, demolish hope, and dehumanize.

The killings continue, each second / pain and misfortune extend themselves/ in the genetic chain, injustice is done knowingly, and the air / bears the dust of decayed hopes (Denise Levertov, City Psalm)
We have choices to make. What Rich, Milton et al help to continue to remind us is that these choices are moral and ethical ones. These choices can point us toward what is right, humanizing, and just. And, we must think of it as a choice. This is a decision. To not make a choice for what is right, or to delay, or to remain silent, is to cast a vote for further oppression, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. To not consider it a choice, given our exposure, is to denigrate the legacy of resistors who have historically struggled for what was right, to find the right side of history. With a modicum of exposure to issues of injustice, everyone has always had a choice. Many, of course, have chosen the wrong side of history. Usually, it is the privileged that make this particular choice. And, we are also the ones who often sit, indignantly, with our perfect hindsight, castigating our less than enlightened forebears who chose slavery, who chose Jim Crow, who chose child labor, who chose the witch hunts, who chose to maintain a massive underclass to support our lifestyles. Aren’t these the same choices we have before us today? How will our posterity judge us? More importantly, how do those currently tread upon by the system judge us—the present-day privileged with our luxury of ‘choice’?

As I’ve noted quite ineloquently in the past, we need a massive systemic enema. I believe we are either working toward that or against that. Working toward that takes on many (imperfect) forms, but it must (inarguably) involve solidarity with other brothers and sisters who choose to struggle; it must (unquestionably) involve our self-change as we work toward and are informed by systemic change; and it must (at the very least) involve our voice—however shaky or initially soft—challenging the system. The oppositional force we face is strong. The only way to turn it is to mount a commensurate resistance that will eventually overcome this force. History tells us this is possible. This is, actually, the history to which we can contribute. But, we will have to choose to become producers of meaning rather than consumers of someone else’s propaganda. We will have to choose to become organic intellectuals rather than technicians for the empire. We will have to choose to become democratic and humanizing mechanisms for revolution and liberation rather than unconscious tools for the rich. I realize I am largely preaching to the choir, here. So, I look forward to the way we might make these choices together.

It is better to speak / knowing / we were never meant to survive (Audre Lorde, Litany for survival)


The choice to speak / or not to speak. / We spoke. (Denise Levertov, Protestors)
The recipe for what we do is simple, involving three interactive and interdependent parts—something Milton and I have been messing with going on three years now. It necessarily involves both practical and reflective work. And, it involves commitment to its exercise and evolution. It is also not perfect, nor divine or dogmatic. Therefore, it involves the need for your reaction and voice. Only together can we get it right.

We must work together: community. This necessitates a movement toward each other, a tendency to privilege the collective over the individual, and an attitude of affirmation and critical constructiveness. Whenever possible, we have to think about how we can accomplish our tasks together—how could the PrESS Network help with this? What kind of resources might the Rouge Forum have? What other organization is also working on this issue?. We must consider who we trust and what side we want to take. We must see that our liberation and humanization is bound up and only possible in the liberation and humanization of others. We all know the ways we can better get together. We all know the commitment this will take. We know the in-the-moment decisions this will take as well as the long-term planning this will incorporate. There is no mystery to this work. It really just requires us to do it: to get together, to avoid our self-isolating tendencies brought about by narratives of competition or a socialization toward selfishness, and to be in solidarity against what is irrational, apathetic, and oppressive. In this way we renew our commitment to democracy; we focus on process and the evolution of relationships; and we believe we cannot be free until others are free.

Along with coming together, we must continue to wrestle with consciousness. We must continue to learn and relearn history, particularly alternative histories. If we don’t know where we’ve been, we can’t possibly know where we are or where to go. We must come to a clearer understanding of reality, particularly material reality which illuminates for us the very real disenfranchisement of billions of people. Recently, Gina, Sonya, Milton and I produced an essay we sent to Intercultural Education about the possibility of realizing a more reciprocal global education—particularly through our work in Jamaica. In this essay, which is contextualized against a backdrop of accelerating dehumanizing trends in our culture, Milton wove an intricate history which elucidates the formation and intimate interactions of patriarchy, racism, and Capitalism. Prior to our collaboration, I had been ignorant to much of the history he pulled from, offering a new moment of creation for me and providing a more critical conceptualization of the way I go about my own work. As the media-ting and socializing forces urge us to act in dehumanizing ways: getting dumber in front of TVs that conjure ‘reality’; purchasing products with plastic for which payment is a future, more costly, proposition; consuming commodities that we know were sown by or picked by the world’s poorest; we ultimately do so at our own peril. And, as we allow education to be dictated by the dogmatic divinations of the ruling elite, we sacrifice another generation of children to its grand delusion and doublespeak of ‘great equalizer’. Though we must be critical and strategic with the revelation and dialogical evolution of a different reality, we wait with great cost. So, we must get together, challenge our consciousness, and figure out the next move.

Finally, we will need to speak and act with courage. To move against the grain will require immense boldness and perhaps a little bit of counter-intuition (depending on the grip of our individual socialization). Audre Lorde and Denise Levertov capture it well above, I think. In the prior lines to Lorde’s conclusion, she enlists all the reasons we are typically afraid, even when silent. So, she suggests, why not speak? And, Levertov, helping provide a theme throughout this essay proposes that it comes down to choice. We can remain silent. Or, we can use our voice and speak. And, these voices must become a chorus. They should not be whimsical solo acts (though we may find, at times and in certain circumstances, that we are the lone voice). That voice should harmoniously resound alongside the historical echoes of others singing the same melody. The ready words are formed through conscious struggle and tireless practice in our shared communities. Those who speak are informed by movements which are driven by diligent study and liberating praxis. So, we get together to challenge each other toward a deeper consciousness. This challenge, then, offers the possibility of developing more critical, collaborative, and nuanced scripts—always ready to be shared and spoken, deconstructed and developed further, if necessary.

I recognize these are fairly elementary considerations and I’ve not said much that is new. I also recognize that I struggle with these reflections. That I find myself firmly implanted in a middle-class lifestyle and have become a poster-child of Paul Kivel’s “buffer zone” agents, signals that I have a long way to go toward consciousness and liberation. That I notice the hypocritical tendencies for which my practice does not match the theory I want to espouse, highlights the possibility that I may be closer to a turning point. That I more often make decisions which recognize that I have choice and agency in the matter, offers hope. That I seek out others with whom to share the work and figure out the process, presages a new chapter for the struggle—the chapter that we write as a community.

Eyes wide open; spirit fully engaged; hands ready for the work.

[1] Thanks, Gina, for bringing us this poetry and constantly providing us the metaphors to make more critical sense of our reality!