Thursday, August 13, 2015

Got Privilege?

My first visit to Louisville, Kentucky was in the late-eighties. My father (who was then chief of police in Westbrook, Maine) took our family on a road trip to Kentucky to attend a police convention. I even invited a childhood friend (whose dad was also a cop). As kids we thought police were cool. COPS aired Sunday nights on Fox, I dressed-up in my dad’s old uniforms, and played ‘cops and robbers’ with children in the neighborhood. I even skipped school once to watch one of those corny Police Academy movies. This was the world I knew and, like my white privilege, this upbringing socialized my perspectives on the world.
        The second time I visited Louisville was in March 2015, this time I was there to examine and challenge this socialization while attending the White Privilege Conference (WPC) with Dean Mary Watson and some colleagues from The New School.

The WPC is a gathering of students, educators, social workers, administrators, members of faith organizations, lawyers, and, yes, police. Dr. Eddie Moore held the first WPC in Iowa in 1999 and has been meeting in cities throughout the US ever since. When I spoke with Dr. Moore before the conference, he told me when he first thought of the idea, people advised him to “Change the name to something more palatable like the ‘diversity’ conference.” Critics decried that the powerful title 'white privilege' would invariably turn people away. This has not been the case. Over the years, the WPC has become more popular. At this year's conference, there are close to three-thousand attendees. (Admittedly, some locals I encountered in Louisville were confused by the title, thinking it was a conference encouraging white supremacy.)
        According to its website, The WPC “offers solutions and team-building strategies for anti-racist organizers to work toward a more equitable, just, and humane world.” Attendees gather to learn about power, privilege, and oppression in not only America, but internationally, and (perhaps toughest of all) internally. This was to be a strikingly different experience from my childhood trip to the city of bourbon and BBQ, but one I was glad to have had to reflect on when considering the ongoing discriminatory practices of law enforcement against black lives alongside the militarization of police throughout our communities. What seemed cool as an ignorant child now seemed perverse and unjust as an adult.   
A week before the WPC, President Obama spoke from Selma to commemorate and honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in which civil rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama State Police when attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th 1965. The President said, “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.” 
      Part of the work happening at the WPC was just that - to give purpose and to inspire the work of future generations to not only learn about the specious tenants of racism, but to develop ways of dismantling them as well. The WPC creates a safe place for people to openly discuss and understand race and privilege. Like any other conference, there were inspiring keynote speeches, informative workshops, performances, film-screenings, and lots of networking opportunities. But one of the more challenging (and unique) aspects of the conference was at the close of each day when attendees broke-up into their respective 'caucuses' - white people met with whites, black people with blacks, asian people with asians... Each caucus was led by a trained facilitator. The point of the caucuses were for people from similar racial groups to freely talk through what they had learned and/or were having trouble understanding. 
      I was surprised by the amount of ignorance evident in my own white caucus. I assumed most people here had already done some anti-racist workshops. Of course, many were well-intentioned liberals -some who had, yes, done the work to understand their own privilege, some volunteered time in underserved communities. Nevertheless, it became clear even the most well-meaning whites (myself included!) have a lot of work to do.  
      To be fair, these attendees were at least working to understand and challenge their prejudice and privilege. Most white people prefer outright ignore their advantaged position in society. We are oblivious to these benefits and often refuse to even acknowledge that white supremacy has been with the United States since its inception and (despite the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, the election of the first black President, etc.) is still alive and well. 
White supremacy is expressed in America explicitly (through the attacks and violence we continue to see against black bodies by domestic terrorists or perpetrated by the state through the hands of authorized police) and implicitly (through unjust voting laws, lack of access to equal-opportunities like education and jobs, to racially biased mandatory minimums alongside our profitable prison industrial complex.) Bigotry, racism, and fear continue to deprive people from engaging in any politics to realistically address the role systemic racism and white supremacy play in the creation and perpetuation of this American empire. 
      As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, man in this country, I take so much for granted. Consequently, my perspective and experience with race is limited, because I have the luxury  of ignoring it. I must work to understand, address, and curb my own internalized racism, which appears in my socialized mind as externalized racial superiority. (i.e., “If you’re white, you’re all right.”) If I hope to enact any real change in this world, I must start with myself. I must recognize that this system has -through no fault of my own- advantaged people like me and disadvantaged others. This oppression has always been both unfair and hypocritical. What is my fault is when I don’t call this system out, or worse, reap the benefits from its ongoing existence. 
      Talking about race can be tough; especially, for white people and yet, white people are almost always racially comfortable. This comfort becomes accustomed, expected, and entitled. Dr. Robin DiAngelo defines this as 'white fragility'. Accordingly, when white people here the phrase ‘white privilege’ they often take umbrage because they only hear ‘privileged’ whites – this is a common defense mechanism socialized into us. 
      Whites often feel the term ‘white privilege’ somehow delegitimizes their own struggle and adversity (i.e., “I came from poverty. I worked hard! My family and people had it rough too!”) True. No one can ever fully understand where each of us came from, nor the struggles we traversed to get here; however, to ignore structures that have benefitted and continue to entitle some, while blatantly discriminating and attacking others is not helpful for any of us. Most importantly, no matter who we are, white supremacy keeps us all in poverty.
      Accordingly, we must begin to dismantle the systems that continue to keep so many of our brothers and sisters in chains. Much of this work will need to be done in our communities, together (i.e., "We the people, united, will never be defeated.") And as we approach an election year that is already shaping-up to be a lively one, we must recognize #BlackLivesMatter will and should continue to disrupt these proceedings so as to ensure our presidential candidates not only address the need for Racial Justice but provide concrete policies and proposals on how they will makes this an integral part of their administration.
President Obama also said from Selma, “action requires we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.” Obama went on to reject the notion that “nothing has changed.” He continued, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties.”  
       Agreed, things have changed; however, the work is never complete. And, to be fair, many experience racism in this country as something 'endemic' and there is still, racism that is 'sanctioned by law' in this country. Accordingly, I hope we can shift our perspectives toward humility and away from narcissism and fear. We need to learn about other people’s experience so as to work collaboratively in creating a more just and equitable society. Most importantly, we must do this work from a place of love. 
      After all, this work isn’t -as WPC keynote speaker Loretta J. Ross warned- “about calling people out. This work is about bringing people in.” Indeed, let’s bring more people in and let’s also lean in to the difficult conversations - unafraid of making mistakes as we grow together. We must acknowledge our racial, ethnic, and religious differences through not only the adversity but through celebrating our identities as the “joyous explorations in ambiguity” that they are.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Changes Nothing...

Not much has changed since Naomi Klein published her book in Fall 2014, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Instead, a dire situation only continues to deteriorate. That same week, world leaders gathered at the UN to set goals to “reduce carbon emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will.” They were also there to agree on an ambitious goal to limit the rise in global temperature by no more than 2-degrees Celsius in the coming years. Three-hundred-thousand also took part in a People’s Climate March to show solidarity with those fighting on the frontlines against the extraction industry. Later that same week, hundreds of activists “flooded” Wall Street, to draw attention to the ways our economic system continues to place profit above the needs of not only this planet but the survival of everyone on it. Indeed there was much education, energy, and emotion driving “climate action week.”  Many were poised and ready to do more.
But, frustratingly, there has been no abrupt, sweeping change to anything, let alone everything. We’re still consuming and polluting like we have multiple eco-systems to spare. Sure, there have been moderate steps taken in the right direction, and lots of awareness concerning the science of climate change, but nothing close to what is realistically needed to begin rolling-back the inevitable effects of our industrial-era binge. Climate change will happen and is happening. Just because this winter was the coldest on record throughout North America, does not mean it wasn’t the warmest globally. The weather is getting wilder and weirder. So, how will we adapt?
It is inspiring to read about the noble efforts and hard-won victories from the Climate Justice Movement. For instance, environmental activists worked alongside indigenous communities to succeed in blocking the development of the XL Oil pipeline. Universities (like The New School) and cities have divested from fossil-fuel companies. The state of New York (standingwith four European countries) agreed to ban hydraulic fracturing. Students, activists, educators, and yes, even entrepreneurs continue to remain committed to enacting real change. Nevertheless, despite these wins, the climate justice movement suffers no delusions about how difficult it will be to truly change everything.
Small victories have taken place, but they do not outweigh the surge of ongoing developments that continue to challenge and damage the limits of our environment. While the climate justice movement rallies in the streets and takes the fight to the courts, the extraction industry and its powerful influence ensures valuable interests and profits are protected. For example, while we debated the XL oil-pipeline, the United States added 11,600 miles of pipeline over the last decade, increasing its capacity by a quarter.
What is most troubling about Klein’s book is the sheer magnitude of the change we’re tasked to collectively make now, so as to potentially delay the collapse of civilization. Extreme weather patterns throughout the foreseeable future are inevitable, what is frightfully unclear is how humanity will react. Likely, obliviously, and stupidly – there is no denying a horrible truth staring right back at us – our stupid, wasteful ‘stuff’. Human consumption, and all its many incantations of flavors, needs, and demands, consumes at an insatiable, unrelenting pace and doesn’t seem to abate. Sure, we can talk a good game about climate action: reduce, reuse, recycle, plant a community garden, but we’re still locked into a trajectory that does not bode well for our ongoing survival.
Robert N. Stavins opines about “Climate Realities” in The New York Times. He writes, “In theory, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change with an intensive global effort over the next several decades. But given real-world economic and, in particular, political realities, that seems unlikely.” Unlikely indeed; for instance, although the U.N. has set a goal of keeping global temperatures from rising no more than two-degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, China alone “is expected to add the equivalent of a new 500-megawatt coal-fired electric plant every 10 days for the next decade.”
And what of the extraction industry, which remains steadfast in pursuing profits at whatever costs? As Bill McKibben made clear in his 2012 essay, “Global Warming’sTerrifying New Math”, one of the greatest challenges facing the Climate Justice movement is finding a way to convince the most profitable corporations in the world (e.g., ExxonMobil, et. al.) that they will need to leave at least 80 percent of the carbon they have claims to in the ground. Meaning all that property and resources investors are counting on cannot be touched. How can we convince these companies (along with their multi-million-dollar lobbying firms) to just walk away from trillions in wealth?
McKibben’s cautions that "to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm. Right now we're at 400 ppm, and we're adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Unless we're able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control."
It is difficult to comprehend how climate deniers continue to have any clout. It seems like every month a new report is published communicating the urgency and irreversibility of the real changes that will in fact change everything. For instance, just this week, NASA published a report indicating the likelihood that the Larsen B ice-shelf would break-off and melt sooner than initially predicted. This also tends to be the frightening trend of any updated climate report - the predictions are always adjusted, but never in the affirmative, only to further perpetuate a presumably hopeless situation.
Perhaps this is the reason it is so intoxicating to fall in-line with the climate deniers camp? Ignorance (or oblivion) is bliss. Better to pretend everything is okay; especially, if you're privileged enough to benefit off the valuable resources of this planet. But what happens when the effects of climate change begin to really affect our communities? It's easy for Americans to ignore the affects of climate change when it is happening over there, but when the waters begin to rise in Miami, water becomes increasingly scarce in Los Angeles, and New York City swelters through extreme summers and braces for winters with "super-storms", deniability would be laughable if the subject wasn't so depressing.
When talking climate change, conversations tend to display a wide-range of emotions: dismissive, extreme, cynical, outright refusal, etc. Accordingly, this is because there is one thing that remains the same for all of us, climate change affects everyone, thus it is inherently personal (whether we admit it, or not). Naomi Klein explains that This Changes Everything was the toughest book she has ever written. As a recent mother, Klein wrestles with raising her child in this “the age of extinction.” But despite the grim realities facing future generations, Klein remains hopeful. Her time spent with activist and indigenous tribes fighting the extraction industry (i.e., “blockadia”) helped her “to imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak.” But Klein leaves her reader with the sense that the climate justice movement will need to ready itself for a broader battle.
Accordingly, Chris Hayes warns in his essay, “The New Abolitionism”, That “there is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.” In the same issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein again connects the struggles of the Climate Justice movement with consumerism. She writes, “Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy… At its core, [this] is a crisis born of overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the world’s most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.”
Of course, consuming less is not a phrase in the lexicon of multi-national corporations making billions off the continued abuse to our ecosystem, let alone the millions of first and developing-world consumers demanding the comforts of modern industrial living. As natural resources such as our air, water, and soil continue to become unsuitable for the propagation of life on this planet – religions, communities, and ideas will fight to survive. The wealthy will try to protect themselves and their property through security systems and isolation. But no one will be exempt from the repercussions of our industrial-era actions.
Despite all this, think tanks, lobbying firms, and institutes are all pushing efforts for broader fossil-fuel exploration alongside, continued exploitation of the local communities in the way of corporate interests. Humanity has become the key causality of late capitalism. For instance, consider the Hudson Institutes recent report titled, “Energy: The West’s Strategic Opportunity in the Eastern Mediterranean”, which outlines the “geostrategic significance of the middle east.” The report draws attention to recent hydrocarbon discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea and goes on to encourage ‘the west’ to unlock the “economic and geostrategic benefits of the East Med’s energy potential.” The bulk of the report reads as a warning to ‘the West’, which must pro-actively (i.e. militarily) “secure” interest in the region, or lose all that valuable fossil fuel to another regional player. This report is just an example of the many delusions intoxicating the structures of power that determine the fate of our planet.
I would like to believe our species is capable of reasonably confronting this huge challenge. But I also fear this is an unrealistic and idealistic lie we tell ourselves. Can this really be the subject that mobilizes people enough to create a catalyst for a just and equitable society as a whole? Likely not... But if we could, if there is to be hope, we must present and develop viable economic alternatives to the extraction industry. As Klein writes, “One way or another, everything is going to change. But at least for this moment, it is still up to us to contribute to this change and what it will look like.”
The climate justice movement has a costly and difficult task ahead of itself. It is no wonder many are already suffering from burnout. In order to make the changes required to potentially slow the effects of climate change, the international community must work collaboratively and cooperatively – two qualities hard to imagine in this volatile geopolitical landscape. Even if we reduce emissions, regulate the extraction industry, and everyone is engaged in a lock-step effort to enact real change, the planet is still poised for a wild and weird ride.
Still hanging on…


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Uncle Bob

Dr. Robert Allanach, PhD
Today at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. My uncle, Dr. Robert “father Bob” Allanach, PhD, was laid to rest. 

To lose a brother, an uncle, a husband, and a "father" to so many who looked to him for counsel and advice? Another grim reminder of that truth Jim Morrison sang about back in the late sixties - "No one here get's out alive." Nevertheless, we all leave behind our reputation's lasting influence and example for others to honor and celebrate. So what was my Uncle's?

Despite the emptiness that has replaced the place Robert formally inhabited physically, I know he still very much walks with us. In fact, I have been thinking a lot about him since his passing on Sept. 8th. I have been asking myself - what would Robert say in response to this statement? How would Robert act in this situation? I laughed. I chuckled. I nodded. Sure, I realized Robert may have come across as too intense, sardonic, or damn straight honest to some, but fuck 'em. Don't interesting people often come across as 'too intense'? My uncle was direct and he despised bullshit.

Thankfully my uncle Robert was a man of principle who valued social justice and practicing good deeds onto others. He followed and lived by the teachings of Jesus Christ. He worked in prisons, the church, and as a clinical psychologist. Robert defended the rights of others and stood up for those who no one else stood up for. He believed people could create and establish positive change; accordingly, he spent his life seeking to do good and did. I encourage you to read the post my father wrote about Robert's life (reposted below the break.)  

Today as Robert's family and friends gather in the city he loved so much, I recall back to the pleasant childhood memories when we all lived in Maine. I recall enjoying the smell from my uncle's pipe when he would visit. I remember his wit, humor, and loud, jovial laugh. I always respected and was proud to see people looking to my uncle and my father for advice and meaning in their lives. Sure, my uncle and father had a healthy sibling rivalry. Although they didn't always see eye-to-eye, or agree on everything (and who ever does?), they managed to always get along and find deeper purpose and truth in life through constructive dialogue and debate. Despite their differences, I always respected the similarities they shared. I will miss these memories, but I will remember them so they're not forgotten.

Finally, I'm also happy to know my uncle found love in his life, our heart goes out to his husband, Keegan Allanach, during this difficult time of mourning. I was also glad to have been able to talk to my uncle, even if only over the phone, before he passed from this life. As usual, Uncle Robert was honest and unabashedly direct about his situation, and was more interested in hearing about my life than kvetching about his own lot. Now, we can only allow his lasting influence to advise us.

With love, light and peace Uncle Bob. Peace out.

DR. ROBERT C. ALLANACH, PhD (9-25-1949 - 9/8/2014)
By Ronald Allanach, PhD

SLIDELL, LA ---- Dr. Robert C. Allanach, 64, of Slidell Louisiana, a fierce lion for the rights of disenfranchised children and their rights from Greater Portland, Maine, to Oklaholma, Honolulu and New Orleans died Monday, Sept 8, 2014, at Slidell Memorial Hospital, where he struggled for two weeks with plasia white blood cell thymona, a rare and incurable illness.

Robert was born in Lewiston, Maine, September 25, 1949, spending his youth in South Portland, Maine, graduating from South Portland High School, Class of 1968.

Robert was founder of the Little Brothers Association of Portland, Maine, on May 18, 1972, an agency still existing for over 42 years today helping struggling children. The start was Huckleberry House, Eastern Prom.

Robert, a former member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) for over 35 years, served with the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons in Oklahoma and CT. While in Oklahoma at risk of losing his job and despite threats, Robert took on the US Govt which was manipulating to close the schools for poor Native American children. The schools remained open.

Robert later went on to become the Director of Boys Hope/Girls Hope of New Orleans for several years, also serving the parish of St. Joan De Arch in New Orleans. Robert loved New Orleans and especially had great joy showing out of town guests "his" city.

For over a two decades, Robert served the New Orleans Police Commissioner in the capacity of Police Chaplain responding to many desperate calls by officers who needed help for the mentally ill. Later, Robert sadly left the Oblates, feeling the Church was "too confining." Robert worked later as State Mental Health Director of Louisiana, LSU Health Medical Sciences Center, New Orleans, CEO, Youth Bureau of St Tammy and Washington Parishes.

Robert's two most wonderful times that brought him great happiness were when he purchased his home in Slidell where he enjoyed working in the gardens of his beautiful home, sitting and listening to the birds. The other was his marriage to Keegan B. Allanach, in Hawaii a year ago. Robert was finally at home and meeting his Love that brought him so much joy to his last days.

Robert during the last few years of his life realized his dream of opening his own private practice in Slidell, LA providing therapy to individuals, couples and families. Beyond his private practice, Dr. Allanach was also an active consultancy with Medical Management Options, providing behavioral health care services to MMO's IOP and PHP programs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Dr. Allanach held an undergraduate degree in Justice Management and Theology from Chaminade University of Honolulu; a M.Div. degree from Boston College; a MA degree in counseling from Emmanuel College in Boston; a doctorate in clinical studies and psychology from Andover Newton, Newton Centre, MA.

Dr. Allanach completed his clinical internship at Massachusetts General Hospital's Charlestown Mental Health Unit. He completed his residency training at the Elan School in Poland, Maine under the clinical supervision of the late Dr. Gerald Davidson, MD, who served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Allanach also received training at Our Lady of Holy Cross College, New Orleans in clinical supervision.

He was certified Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Life Fellow of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, Fellow and Diplomate of the American Board of Medical Psychotherapists, Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association, Clinical Member American Psychological Association, Clinical Fellow of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, Clinical Member American Group Psychotherapy Association, and Board Certified Group Psychotherapist with the National Registry of Board Certified Group Psychotherapists.

Dr. Allanach published articles on juvenile delinquency risk factors, mental health issues, and clinical supervision. He also authored "This Hurting Place".
Above all else, he was a friend and supporter to all.

Robert is predeceased by his father, Harry Allanach and mother, Christine Norris Allanach, and is survived by his spouse, Keegan B. Allanach, twin brother, Dr. Ron Allanach, , and his spouse, Ben Lorgeranon,of New Westminster, British Columbia, a sister, Denise Tibbetts and her husband Dennis of Cumberland, Maine, brother, Thomas Allanach Sr., and his wife Mary-Ann of Nashua, NH, nieces Laurie Tibbetts of New Orleans, and Jessica Tibbetts of Los Angeles, nephews, Nicholas Allanach, spouse, Ena Hashimoto, New York City, and Nathan Allanach and partner Misty of Harriman, NY, Thomas Allanach Jr., Tolland Ct., Mary, Nashua NH, Mark Allanach, Santa Ana, CA, adopted sons, Dr. Murat Gemici., MD, Denver, and Robert E. Cooper and spouse Geraldine Cooper and one granddaughter, Solynn Cooper of Slidell, LA.

Celebratory service and prayers will be Sept 27, 2014, at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, New Orleans, LA. At Robert's wish, In support of life, the body was donated to advance medicine through Science Care, a whole body donor program. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mira's Method

Mira Erickson (1971)

In June, the International Center of Catholic Charities, lost its esteemed and beloved director, Mira Nikolic Erickson (1940 - 2014). Her memorial service was held in the place she worked and dedicated much of her energy - the center itself. Former students, volunteers, friends and family gathered on this occasion to honor and reflect on the life of this “classy,” “inspirational,” and driven matriarch, who spent so many late nights and early mornings ensuring the projects she focused her positive energy and expertise on succeeded. 

Four years ago, while earning a certificate in teaching English at the New School, I met Mira when searching for a place to gain invaluable teaching experience. The International Center (then located on twenty-third street) had a history and reputation for volunteerism and civic engagement. Mira interviewed me and asked if I’d be willing to offer a structured class of my own creation for one night a week. I agreed and have been doing so ever since. From that initial meeting, I knew that despite the warm smile and support, Mira was someone who did not suffer fools. I would be given an opportunity to prove myself - nothing more. She had little patience for pettiness or negativity, but was always supportive and encouraging to those willing to work and better themselves. Mira also had a unique way of finding the best in people and giving them opportunities to act on these better qualities.

Mira new what it was like to arrive in a new place alone, but so full of hopes and dreams. She came to the United States in 1962 as a student from Yugoslavia. Mira came here to complete the degree she had started at the University of Belgrade at Smith College, the esteemed independent women’s liberal arts school located in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was refreshing to hear stories of Mira’s youthful adventures from her longtime friends and colleagues, It was also inspiring to reflect back on the historically significant decade she would live through while attending school as a young women.

In the late sixties, Mira began working with Dr. Caleb Cattengo in New York. Dr. Cattengo would establish Educational Solutions in 1968 and transform the field of language teaching by developing his “the Silent Way,” which  became “an approach to teaching languages that let students do all the talking. The teacher guides students into correcting their own mistakes, giving them first-hand experience navigating the ‘new’ language.” Mira was a lifetime proponent of Cattengo’s approach. She gave her teachers and students room to grow and to acquire knowledge through their own efforts. Admittedly, teachers and students accustomed to more disciplinary, or teacher-driven lessons, would find Cattengo’s unconventional “Silent Way” challenging; nevertheless, learning itself is a challenge that ultimately lives with the individual student, not the teacher. This is not to say that Cattengo’s “Silent Way” completely disregards the needs of the student. The “Silent Way” does not mean there are no grammar lessons or tests; however, the impetus for learning must come from the student, thus allowing the learner more autonomy to grow and own the newly acquired knowledge. 

Ultimately, Mira would appropriate Cattengo’s silent way and take it further by establishing her own (un-official) “method.” Mira’s method was one in which the student became part of a supportive and unique learning community, where no student was ever left alone. By providing a place of support for students to not only learn the language, but to also gain confidence and self-assurance to ultimately acquire communicative proficiency. She wanted all her students and immigrants to go, as Mira so succinctly put it, “from newcomer to New Yorker.” And part of becoming a “New Yorker” was for each student to develop their own unique voice and story.

When I reflected on Mira’s life at her memorial, I thought of the incredible and inspiring influence she had on so many immigrants lives. Accordingly, I decided it would be most apt to read from Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus” (which is mounted on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty). And like that mighty statue, that stands so proudly in our great city’s harbor, Mira was a true guiding light to those the “tempest-tost” onto this land. Mira Erickson was “a mighty woman,” who, in so many ways, was also a “Mother of Exiles” to those who came to her for support. Although she will be missed, her influence still burns bright in the dreams and lives of the many students and immigrants she helped become New Yorkers.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Esperanza's Workshop

Esperanza Spalding with her beautiful afro.
By Nicholas Allanach

Last night, Esperanza Spalding showcased ten new songs to a sold-out house of young fans and older Jazz aficionados, all were eager to hear the “prodigy from Portland” perform as the headlining act of the 92y Soul Jazz Festival. What was most amazing about last night’s performance, wasn’t the reaction to Spalding’s new music, but the new appearance (or persona) of the artist herself.  

Spalding is a world-renowned vocalist, bassist, and composer whose melodic voice and compositions have a growing and dedicated following of fans. Her sound is soulful, melodic, diverse, and honest. I’m not totally familiar with Spalding’s work, but from what I’ve heard, I’m intrigued and fortunate to have had the opportunity to be exposed to her new material last night. 

Spalding, like most celebrities, has a distinct image. Elvis had his hair and swaying hips. And Sinatra was rarely without cigarette and cocked fedora. Invariably, the public begins to associate certain character attributes, codes or images to these popular figures - Spalding is no exception to these rules and customs of our celebrity culture.

Instead of enjoying Spalding’s powerful and moving set, the audience was consistently distracted by this “new Spalding.” Throughout the show, I was approached by over fifteen members of the audience (no exaggeration) who honestly believed that the performer on stage was “not Esperanza Spalding!”  

Admittedly, Esperanza was workshopping new songs (e.g., some of my favorites were “Shine,” “Vanishing Point,” and “Funk the Fear,” which did seem to awaken the crowd from its self-induced shock). Accordingly, the material was unfamiliar to even her most ardent of fans. Also, someone introduced her to the crowd at the start of the show under a pseudonym (which I didn’t catch, but heard later from my colleagues and some patrons.) Needless to say, this “new” Spalding wasn’t so new that you couldn’t appreciate her work as her work. She still played the electric bass with the same elegance, ease, and expertise that only Spalding can achieve.

What happened last night was Spalding, the artist, workshopped a new image and sound that her fans were not ready for. Perhaps Spalding’s transition was not as dramatic as Bob Dylan moving from acoustic to electric guitar, or the Beatles remaking themselves as "the Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band." This is the artist challenging the comforts and conventions we hold over them and expect them to adhere to. Think of David Bowie’s transition to “Ziggy Stardust,” or even Beyonce’s “Sasha Fierce.” Spalding was moving her fans outside of their comfort zones and by doing so, scared them. 

Most surprisingly was the obvious and unmentioned - power of the afro (or, in this case, lack there of!) Yes, Spalding appeared last night sans afro, with straight hair, parted straight down the middle. She wore thick, neon-green “hipster” specks. Spalding’s striking, beautiful afro has become her unofficial trademark. So when her fans saw her hair straightened-out and shiny it shocked them. At first, I thought it might just be a thing that old, white people couldn’t get over and were somehow confused by. But when older black women started approaching me, insisting the woman on stage was “not Esperanza Spalding!” I started to really feel like the joke was on the crowd and that Spalding was really onto something smart.   

Spalding not only challenged the comfortable codes of celebrity culture last night by changing her appearance, she also forced her audience to look beyond her hair and the unsaid racial associations this hairdo inspires. Spalding may have arguably angered and offended some of her fans, but she got them talking. I for one think she looks great with either hairdo, but I can understand the implicit message this type of code-changing signifies to a large part of Spalding’s audience and American society as a whole. 

Judging from last night’s performance, Esperanza's new music held the crowd’s attention enough for them to sit through the set, even if many of them honestly thought they were seeing someone entirely different. What one could also tell from last night’s set that Esperanza Spalding is an artistic and musical force to be reckoned with and she is not just out to please, but to challenge us. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

William Gary (1967 - 2013)

William Gary was sitting at the security desk of 66 West 12th Street, eating dinner from a Tupperware container the last time I saw him. He looked up at me with his usual beaming smile and then extended his strong hands out to mine to greet me with a sincere handshake and wholesome pat on the back. William Gary was a strong man, who seemed to radiate enough strength and assurance to pick others up, he inspired us and gave us a reason to smile and feel good about coming to work and school. He made everyone at the New School feel welcomed and respected. 

“Have a great holiday Gary. You spending it with your son?” I asked.
“Sure am.” The doting father of a 10-year-old-son said smiling and waving at me for one last time… 

A week later, William Gary, 46, would (according to the Free Press) “suffer from a neck injury while lifting weights. The injury led to an allergic reaction to his medical treatment.” 

When we all returned from the Thanksgiving break, it was the bad news of William Gary’s death that welcomed us back to The New School, a grim replacement to Will's infectious smile and hearty laughter. For the first few weeks, the lobby was filled with tears, somber faces and hugs. The memorial table would blossom with flowers, cards and candles. Before Will's funeral, The administration of the university set up a GiveForward Memorial fund to help support his son. 

The outpouring of emotions and gratitude to this great man’s life, exemplify how important it is to always treat each other with civility, decency and respect. William Gary escorted students into the building when they may have needed assistance, he got to know our names and faces - rarely needing to ask anyone for their identification. As New School President, David Van Zandt stated in an email to the university, “William Gary exemplified what it means when we talk about ‘community.’ 

As we recall back on this year of 2013 in which we lost our dear friend, William Gary, we should try our best to continue living up to his positive and empowering example.

We miss you Will. With love and light to your son and family. 

Richard Wortman Jr. (1929 - 2013)

Richard Wortman was born into the Great Depression and grew up through the Second World War. As a young man, he became a member of the 101st Airborne Infantry in the Army during the Korean Conflict. Needless to say, Richard Wortman knew a thing or two about frugality and efficiency. “Waste not, want not” were words he often reminded boys of assigned to student home “Union” at the Milton Hershey School. Mr. Wortman (as we were expected to call him) taught us a lot – respect, character, accountability and manners. 

When I met Richard Wortman, I was an adolescent with an entitled chip on my shoulder and little respect for authority or rules. I thought, like many boys, only narcissistically about myself. I also (foolishly…) thought I could get around Mr. Wortman and his pesky rules; however, what I didn’t fully recognize at the time was that Wortman had already dealt with hundreds of punks like me – I was nothing new to him or his wife, Margaret, who had been house parents at the Milton Hershey School for over two decades.

Although I only lived in Mr. Wortman’s “Union” house for a couple years before he and Marge retired to their home in Middletown, I learned many valuable life lessons from them: hard work, honesty, discipline. I recall that Mr. Wortman would wake us every morning for chores at 5 a.m. His shoes were already on, shined and sparkling, like his eyes, which even at that early hour were also alert and vigilant to our every move. Or, “non-moves” for that matter - during chores, Wortman patrolled Union house to ensure none of us were derelict of our duties (e.g., taking a nap instead of cleaning the shower stalls.) 

Some might have called Mr. Wortman a bit of a “ball-buster” in that he was tough as nails and had no patience for nonsense or bullshit. Some may say that Mr. Wortman “gave us too much work and chores... Don’t you remember him making us do yard work on his new retirement home in Middletown?” I do recall working on yard work at Mr. Wortman’s home; however, I also recall him paying us for that work (modestly of course, but enough to ensure we recognized the value of an hour of our time and energy.) I also remember him driving us to the movies, buffet restaurants, the mall, etc.    

Mr. Mortman also knew how to have fun and had a sense of humor (usually safe, but too often, embarrassingly  about one’s heritage, e.g., Polish, Puerto Rican, etc.) Needless to say when Wortman wasn’t taking us on some sort of adventure, he would be sharing stories and jokes from his life at dinner. While listening to those stories around the table, I learned about respect and that our time spent around a table could be shared as a family (no matter whom you sat besides.) Of course, for many of us at the Milton Hershey School, this was our family. 

I remember the moment my opinion of Mr. Wortman changed from being a “ball-buster” to a leader: it was when I saw this strong and seemingly unbreakable man break – Mr. Wortman cried. When I saw him cry it was because “his boys” had failed him. (I will not go into the details of the situation itself, but it entailed some boys in our house being expelled for bullying.) When I saw Mr. Wortman cry, I realized that just below the tough shell was a man with much experience who truly cared about our future. He wanted us all to be great men and spent his life ensuring that this “next generation” would be as strong as his “the greatest generation.” Yes, he held us boys up to some high expectations, but they were fair and just ones that our world would do well to uphold.

Mr. Wortman wasn’t perfect (and of course who is?...) but he was a disciplined leader who loved his family (whom my condolences are with) and hundreds of boys whom he influenced and guided throughout his life. Richard Wortman’s memory and example will live on through the lessons he taught us all.

MHS, Union ‘97 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

On David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project”

Two years ago, this page was inspired by the social activism of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “We are the 99%!” was heard throughout the streets, college campuses, and shockingly, the pop culture and fashion industries. Working only a few miles away from, then occupied, Zuccotti Park afforded me the opportunity to experience lectures, workshops, and assemblies happening throughout the city. Although I never physically occupied the space itself, I did visit and joined in on forms of civil disobedience, most memorably the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 2nd. However I never clashed with police, nor pushed the limits enough to be hauled-off to jail. Not that that should ever be the goal; after all, what honest change could a busted head or time in jail bring to the movement?

Back then I was, as I am still today, working from paycheck-to-paycheck within a jaded, apathetic, and emasculated “professional managerial class.” Incapable of disengaging ourselves enough from the apparent comforts, conveniences, and pleasures associated with “Western” capitalism, we are unable to offer-up any real alternatives to the current social contract. So we find brief solace within the satisfying and fleeting illusions around us. Accordingly, like much of the American “left,” I left the real work of OWS to those more passionate, committed individuals with nothing to lose. These activists should be commended for at least trying to bring real change to this inequitable and, presumably, “democratic” society.  But instead, we mock the activists, while obediently working, laughing, and prattling-on about the same trivial, banal topics that constitute this hollowed-out and often meaningless existence. And yes, the status quo continues to be sustained as an oligarchic and exceedingly untouchable corporate elite continues to make record profits off suffering. 

What if we had contributed more to OWS? Or if the message itself had been effectively communicated to a wider audience? Would our world look and feel any different? Such questions are not explicitly asked in David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement,” but through his recounting of the early days of OWS, they are arrived at implicitly. Graeber takes his readers back to the beginnings of the movement, which the writer himself played a role in organizing. 

Before Adbusters posted a call to #occupywallstreet (i.e., “bring tent”), Graeber describes a New York activists scene “hit hard by the ramifications of 9/11.” One where “the level of arbitrary violence police were willing to employ against activists ratcheted up unimaginably; [for instance] when a handful of unarmed students occupied the roof of The New School in 2009, the NYPD is said to have responded with four different anti-terrorist squads, including commandos rappelling off helicopters.” 

I recall arriving to work that day and feeling like I had walked onto the set of “Dog Day Afternoon.” The police presence was absurd and almost laughable if not so frightening. Four city blocks became “frozen zones”-no one could go in or out. The subsequent videos of police pepper-spraying and attacking unarmed college students quickly became a public relations nightmare for the university admissions’s office and Board of Governors (who must have, at some point, questioned former President, Bob Kerrey’s decision to give Ray Kelly and the NYPD a green light on the aggressive operation.)

Student activism is a vital, healthy component of any vibrant, creative and socially just university. As an alumnus and working administrator of said university, I recall being angered and disappointed by former president Kerrey’s heavy-handed response to the student protesters. Admittedly, the students could have found more effective means of communicating their concerns of a lack of transparency and involvement in university decision making to the wider community, but I cannot find anything to justify the thuggish force used against them. 

Graeber also sympathizes with the student activists that occupied The New School, and later, those in Zuccotti Park, as a generation “of Americans who were born in the late 1970s [and] is the first in U.S. history to face the prospect of living standards lower than their parents. By 2006, this generation received lower wages and less benefits, were more indebted, and are far more likely to be either unemployed or in jail.” This generation has, according to Graeber, “had every reason to feel they’d done exactly what they were supposed to do according to the rulebook-and got worse than nothing.” Agreed. But hasn’t every generation had its fair share of complaints and perhaps “worse than nothing” is a bit hyperbolic? After all, what makes the mounting problems and broken promises of generation Facebook so unique? I recall hearing people calling the occupiers “whiny, spoiled, privileged brats.” Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the real reasons this group came out in such force: crushing debt, income inequality, a decade of war, the environmental crisis, the list could go on... Graeber’s book is inspiring in that it should actually allay any concerns that this generation has somehow just been “lazy,” or not worked hard enough. It is not about a lack of initiative, this generation is facing a lack of resources and opportunities like no other and, very likely, it will only get worse.  

Graeber’s most stinging assessment is toward the POTUS, and rightfully so. Obama would not be in the White House if it were not for young voters (likely some within OWS.) Yes, Obama could also have done more. “No part of the system was shaken up.” Graeber writes, “Obama robbed [this generation] of precisely the thing he so famously promised: hope-hope of any meaningful change via institutional means in their lifetimes. If they wanted to see their actual problems addressed, if they wanted to see any sort of democratic transformation in America, it was going to have to be through other means.” 

Fortunately, the ‘other means’ this generation embraced were non-violent (well at least from OWS’s side of the street fight) and even more significantly, created a place for people to experience genuine democracy in all its frustrating and messy glory. As anyone who has served on a committee or to an OWS "general assembly" can attest, reaching consensus to move decisions and actions forward is often a tedious and slow process, especially in large groups. But as with anything so important, it's rarely easy.

What Graeber also does through his retelling of OWS is guide readers to reconsider the way we organize our social lives. He writes, “Consensus is an attempt to create a politics founded on the principles of reasonableness.” And further, that genuine deliberation “requires the ability to listen well enough to understand perspectives that are fundamentally different from one’s own... It means viewing democracy as common problem solving among those who respect the fact they will always have, like all humans, somewhat incommensurable points of view.”
OWS succeeded in showing America how difficult real democracy is to achieve and maintain (something the “Founding Fathers” were also leery of fully embracing.) The movement exemplified the realities and potentialities of anarchist ideals to establish “a world based on equality and solidarity, in which human beings would be free to associate with one another to pursue an endless variety of visions, projects, and conceptions of what they find valuable in life...with only one proviso -they would be limited to ones that could exist without anyone having the ability to call on armed men to show up and say, ‘I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told.” 

Such a world may be labelled ‘utopian’ or impossible to achieve, especially with the lack of imagination and commitment from those either fortunate enough to be coddled by, or just tethered to the comforts and confinements of capitalism. Despite never fully achieving a full-scale world-wide revolution (at least not yet...), OWS did succeed in directing more of our national conversation to consider the dehumanizing and degrading affects of debt, the realities of economic inequality, imagining new definitions of “wealth,” and challenging the practicality of our very notions of democracy itself. 

Instead of regretting not doing enough two years ago, we must admit that these problems and frustrations have not gone away and will not until the current dehumanizing structure is subverted. Until then, we remain on a crash course to collapse. Our only chance is to continue to take the message of reasonableness, equity, social justice, consensus building, and democracy itself into our lives and communities so as to change our basic conceptions of how this society functions. Perhaps with some more concerted efforts, we can establish a better world, before it is too late...

"Education is Our Basic Right."

As I walked up Lexington Avenue on my way to my part-time job at the 92y, I reflected on the day I had already had at my full-time job at The New School: meetings, mostly vapid conversations, excel sheets, emails...I was tired. I just wanted to go home, drink a beer, and watch the Giants (lose to the Bears.) However, by the time I got to the building at 92nd Street and saw the CNN trucks, NYPD vans, and metal barricades surrounding a corralled crowd of ticket-holders, I picked-up my pace and found my second wind. I flashed my staff card and brusquely walked through the metal detectors. Everyone would be scanned by security. Bomb sniffing dogs roamed the lobby, bags were opened, upper-lips stiffened. 

International correspondent, Christiane Amanpour would be arriving within the hour to  interview the defiant and heroic sixteen-year-old education advocate, Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

“What?!... You don’t know who Malala is? Disgusting!” A snide, fashionable upper-East Sider snapped in an entitled and sardonic tone as she pushed her way past a scruffy looking hipster trying to find his way to the T.C. Boyle lecture (also happening on the same night, but in the auditorium on the second floor.) “How can you not know who Malala is?! It’s just disgusting!” Despite the woman’s overreactive objections to the young man’s ignorance, she was right - How could you not know who Malala was? 

A year ago, on Oct. 9, 2012, a masked gunmen jumped into a van carrying Malala and other girls on their way home from school and asked the same question - “Who is Malala?!” When the Taliban terrorist discovered which one of the girls was the outspoken activist and blogger, he shot her in the face. Thankfully, Malala awoke a week later inside a hospital in Birmingham, England, where she gradually regained her most vital resource - her voice.

While Malala healed, we learned more about the struggle for women’s rights in Pakistan. The world also saw yet another example of the weak, violent, and cowardly methods the Taliban terrorists will take to silence the pursuit of free-inquiry and knowledge. 

The international outpouring of sympathy and anger to Malala’s attack was immediate. Madonna dedicated her song “Human Nature” to Malala at a concert in Los Angeles on the day of the attack. Angelina Jolie and Laura Bush both wrote separate op-ed pieces. (Jolie would later go on to donate $200,000 to the Malala Fund for girls education.) A few days later, former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, would visit Malala in the hospital and launched a petition with the demand that by 2015 no child should be left out of school. 

This past summer, Malala spoke at the United Nations on July 12th - her 16th birthday. The UN designated the event as “Malala Day.”  At the UN, Malala spoke about her attackers saying, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born ... I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I'm here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists." 

Malala’s international stature is almost surreal. This week she has appeared on the Daily Show, was awarded Europe’s top human rights prize, and was one of the likely contenders for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is now more than an individual, she is (as she herself admits) part of a larger cause. When asked by Christiane Amanpour how Malala deals with continued threats against her life, she bravely explained that “even if the Talib was to kill me, they cannot kill this cause, which will live-on long after Malala.” 

Those who attempt to criticize Malala as a symbol of “western interventionism” miss the fundamental point, which is the human right of education for all. Although the attack was widely condemned, invariably some fringe groups have fantastically gone so far as to claim the attack against Malala was staged by the CIA so as to further justify drone strikes against Pakistan. Thankfully, Malala would deflate these conspiracy theories by reasonably confronting (Nobel Peace Prize recipient) US President Barack Obama on Friday about stopping his use of drone strikes in Pakistan.  

I believe the Nobel Peace Prize should have awarded the prize to Malala instead of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Then again, with all Malala’s talk of pursuing a political career and persistence to get her voice heard, there is a strong likelihood that this little girl (who is so wise and mature for her age) will one day receive the prize for her truly noble and courageous efforts to speak-out on behalf of the under-represented and oppressed people of the world who lack the means of acquiring a true education. 

Before Malala left the 92y on Thursday, she told the crowd “I am never going to give up... they only shot a body, but they cannot shoot my dreams.”