Privilege, Justice, and Sustainability

April 28, 2008

Over at My Moxie Life, Jacqueline writes about Why Food Isn’t My Politics (also mentioned at The Interdependent Web). She writes about how she and her family became vegetarian and…

Three years after that we moved to an intentional community in Missouri for a year. We, again wanted to experience living as lightly on the earth, community, and a back to the land ideal. It was while living with 70 other people from all walks of life that I began to shift my ideas about food…

What I began to realize was that food is only a choice for those who have the financial privilege to make that choice. It is an economics thing. If you come from a lower economic background or a definitive cultural background you will have food ideas around that. You MAY choose to break out of those ideas, but often, in the circumstances you CAN’T. You eat what is offered, and if you are lucky you are grateful.

It was the white middle and upper middle class kids that were offensively food oriented. THEY were making the RIGHT moral choice and they let you know in no uncertain terms that they were better because of it. Well, that screams of economic superiority, a bit of racism, and holier then thou attitudes.

These were CONSTANT conversations at East Wind while I was there and because of that tension and my wanting to understand where everyone was coming from I chose that food was something to be thankful for in whatever form it takes.

Education and poverty were more important to me then what someone served me at dinner.

So, we moved back to San Francisco omnivores… and have stayed that way.

I started to comment over at her blog, but the comment got a bit long so I thought I would post it here. I completely hear this idea that often liberals or other do-gooding folks go around being like, “Gosh, look at us. Shopping at Whole Foods, getting our vegetarian, local, organic food while we cruise around in our Prius. Golly, we are sure doing good by the world. Too bad there are those other people who are ruining the planet!” I know these people. I try not to be one. Probably I don’t always succeed.

So first, I want to affirm Jacqueline’s struggles with this issue and say that such struggles resonate with my experience (perhaps, um, too closely….). Yet, I think there are two important additional things to consider here.

First, I think we need to be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between “food politics”, and other (race and class or education) politics. Being attentive to the ways that our diet impacts the world around us – the natural world, humans, and other animals – is one important way to seek to live out our convictions related to compassion for suffering, non-violence, environmental justice, and human rights. Vegetarianism isn’t just all about saving the animals/lessening their suffering. It is also about trying to live more sustainably so that future humans have an earth to live on, and it is about being attentive to the ways that meat consumption, violence, the meat packing industry, immigration, race, class, food shortages, food riots, global warming, etc. are all related. Vegetarianism or veganism is, of course, not only way to address such concerns. But, I don’t see our food choices (to the extent that we have choices about our diet) as separate from bigger questions about justice, environment, class, etc.

Secondly, I struggle with the idea that if everyone/poor people/lots of people can’t do _________ (fill the blank with an attempt to be more sustainable/attempt at social justice activity), then it is a privileged thing to do and we are being too privileged/spoiled/snobby if we do this thing. I feel like this would apply to most volunteering, many if not most home energy efficiency measures, to many forms of education (expensive colleges/any colleges/many forms of homeschooling/private schools, etc.), buying organic/locally grown food, having the time and energy to grow a garden, driving a hybrid car, etc. The problem seems not to be that by doing these things (such as being vegetarian) we are not attending to the real problems like race or education, but rather that often our attitudes about our various “do-gooding” activities (like being vegetarian) are problematic.

The problem could thus be framed as the attitude that “We are doing the right thing (as privileged, liberals) while they (poor, others) are not,” rather then the problem being framed as the particular action we are taking (in the case of Jacqueline’s post, vegetarianism). If we look at it like this, the solution would not to be to stop doing action X, but to change our attitudes about action X.

For me, it is all about finding a balance between calling on each other and calling on ourselves to live as sustainably and justly as we can, while at the same time, being understanding that we can only do what we can do. I find it challenging, with vegetarianism, but also issues like hyper-consumerism, sexism, racism, classism, etc. to know how to best challenge my fellow humans try to live justly and more sustainably, while at the same time acknowledging the wide range of limitations to what each of us can do as individuals, families, communities, and countries. Certainly, to some extent, I believe all of us are called to call to humanity to be more just, more loving, less violent, and to live more sustainably, and to live out these principles in our own lives. But how much is too much calling? And how are we to do it without infringing too much on individual prerogatives, given that we cannot all do it all? And, are there different standards for calling upon fellow Unitarian Universalists, than, say, the general public?

Thanks to the post at Moxie Life for helping me to continue to grapple with some of these questions.


Hard Decisions in Mentoring

March 6, 2008

One of the young men I mentor has been having a hard time – went one year away to college but it was too far from home and too expensive (do you know how hard it is to be away at college when your family doesn’t have a car to give you or to come and get you with or spending money to give you?). Came back, took classes at a community college but had a hard time living with his mom, around all his old friends, having to work a lot to pay part of the rent to his mom, and such. It isn’t that it wasn’t do-able, its just that it didn’t work well for him. He isn’t Mr. Hero perfect, you know? Like a lot of middle class white kids, he’s bright, not brilliant, a hard-worker, but not a super-achiever. But many middle class white kids have parents to help pay for college. And parent who went to college and are familiar with the system. It is a hard system to figure out if you are the first one to do it and most of your friends aren’t doing it.

So, we’re brainstorming, talking, thinking about what to do and he says he’s thinking of joining the service.

What in the world am I supposed to say? It breaks me apart inside to think of him being in harm’s way. But it would sure make things a hell of a lot easier – we both agreed that the disciplined environment would be good for him. The job and plan would be good. The place to live would be good. Did I mention how nice it would be for him to have a job, training, money for college, and a plan and discipline?

Oh, yeah, except that that there is a war going on.

I don’t want people yelling at him or putting him in harm’s way. I don’t want him to have to be a soldier to make it in the world.

But who am I to get on my liberal high horse about the military and wars. Not that what I say is the be all, end all, but I do influence him and I don’t know what to do. Can I offer him money for school? Can ANY of the well-off “we love kids and Jesus so much” people at the after-school program where I met him give him money for school? Apparently they are paying off the mortgages of their McMansions and swimming pools in gated neighborhoods and buying new big video screen projectors for the new youth center they just built at church so no they can’t help, apparently.

I once made a really really bad call in advising one of my young mentees when he was only 16. Maybe a different approach on my part could have made a difference, maybe not, but the point was that I made a bad decision not recognizing the full weight of my opinion and the consequences of the situation.

Damn. I don’t want to do that again. And it is such a hard thing. Sure, college might/could work without the military. But it will be way harder and a clearly rocky path as the last two years have shown us.

But then again being dead or injured is sort of a bad option too.

Ugg. Again, no good answers. And none of those Jesus-loving, big-hearted, super-rich Christians who started this afterschool program around to help either. Sorry if I sound bitter. But for all the freaking electrical equipment they buy to recruit suburbanites to come to their megachurch, no one has ever suggested maybe super-huge scholarship fund (like the super-huge everything else this church has) for the kids in the afterschool program might be a good idea. Which would be real helpful right about now.


Checking In: Congregations, Cats, Anti-Racism Class, etc.

February 28, 2008

Ah, school and work are setting in. I’m dying to jump into the conversation on Unitarian Universalist-identified people who are not part of congregations, the limits of Unitarian Univeralist congregationalism, the exciting possibilities for broadening our vision of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, and the ways that this could expand our reach and ministry. Ms. Theologian links to the various posts here and also eloquently writes about why she is Unitarian Universalist but does not go to church. But, alas, I just don’t have the time to craft something worth putting out there – a lot of important things have already been said. (Come to think of it, I will refer readers to a 2006 post – A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World – about my call to community ministry and how I struggle with how that fits into a congregationally-based movement. Slightly longer. Written in third person – why? I do not know. Maybe just how I was feeling that day….)

In other news, our cat Murray is hanging in there. He changes all the time. But seems to not be getting worse (as of the past two days – but who knows).

I am teaching OWL (a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum – Our Whole Lives) and loving it. I was never a huge fan of working with teens. Not so much that I was against it, but I just never understood how people could think it was so awesome. Not that I am clamoring to be a youth minister now, but I “get” it much better how one could consider that as a career option or long-term volunteer option. I’m sure all people who work with young people and really like it think that they are working with especially impressive teens, but I actually think it is true in my case. And my co-facilitator is great too.

I have started five posts relating to the sexual purity movement, a NYTimes article on meat, “the hard work of being a peaceful presence”, and the GA brou-ha-ha (as Philocrities put it) but none have gotten done enough that I want to put them out there. I guess I will just have to resign myself to things being slower while classes are going on and chiming in on discussions a little late in the game.

Speaking of classes, I am taking one called Racializing Whiteness with an excellent instructor who presents ideas, but does a great job of not making everyone feel guilty and horrible (which was my fear of what it would look like) and leaves room for the exploration of issues rather than preaching some sort of party line about the only and right way to be anti-racist (again, this was a fear of mine). I am learning a lot. And now fear less nervous of saying something “wrong” about anti-racism work, since it can be (lest we all forget the brown bag controversy last year) a sensitive subject in our denomination. I think it will help me be more anti-racist (or, framed more positively, more just) in my own life and inform (in a positive way) my ministry and scholarship. Somehow it is a huge relief to me that it is a really helpful and meaningful class and that we have room to learn and grow and grapple with hard questions.

That’s all for now.

p.s. I just read Chalice Chick’s reasons she does go to church. It is super-good. A great compliment to Ms. Theologian’s post about why she does not go to church.


Sustainable Flowers

August 20, 2007

I wanted to send my sister flowers and she is even more into making sure everything is sustainable and fair to workers and environmentally friendly than I am, so I did some research and I thought I would post it here in case anyone else wanted possibilities for sustainable flower sending. In case you wonder if regular flowers are all that problematic, you can go here to read about it. I’m not trying to be alarmist and make everything into “an issue” but just trying to be more aware of ways I can be more gentle on the earth and its people, while also keeping in mind that everyone doesn’t have the economic or time resources to be super-vigilant. It raises questions for me about how we can make sustainable practices not just something UUs or well-off do-gooding upper middle class people can do, but change systems so that a range of people can be aware of and do these things.  Just some thoughts. Onto the companies.

Organic Bouquet http://www.organicbouquet.com/Index.aspx

California Organic Flowers http://californiaorganicflowers.com/

Diamond Organics http://www.diamondorganics.com/prod_detail_list/84#524

Well, I thought there would be more, but that is it for online stuff. It, of course, goes without saying that buying local is best and local farms/farmer’s markets often have a good selection.

p.s. Another link about buying traditional flowers http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/realmoney/articles/flowers.cfm

 http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-04-organic-flowers_x.htm


The End of Brown v. Board

June 28, 2007

This is so absurd and awful I can’t think of anything to say right now.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/28/us/28cnd-scotus.html?hp


What does it take for mentoring “at risk” kids to “work”?

June 25, 2007

So I have “mentored” three young men for the past twelve years. They rank in the top five joys and blessings of my life. I love them so much and think they are just so amazing beyond words. That said, it has been hard. Very very hard. For them. For me. These are my thoughts on that process and on the “afterschool tutoring”/”mentoring disadvantaged kids” trend that is quite popular these days. This is a tad long, but I think worth it, as it is one of the areas I am most passionate about and actually know a little about.

First a note on terminology: I put “at risk” and “work” in quotes because I’m not sure if either of those are the greatest terms to describe what I am talking about, but I can’t think of others that work better. I think we label inner-city and/or minority kids “at risk” and it turns them into Those At Risk Kids rather than just people trying to make their way in the world. That said, kids whose families are poor, kids who grow up in the inner-city, and/or kids who are part of a minority ethnicity/race, face a whole host of factors that stack the cards against them, and it is important to acknowledge that they are up against a lot that has really nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with the way our society is structured. I say “what does it take to make mentoring “work”?” because the whole idea of what is a “success” that has really “worked” makes it seem like mentoring is meant to churn our “good” members of society. This is a problem. I wanted the boys I mentored to be happy, safe, and feel loved, like most people want for people/children who they care about. Part of this is the hope that their criminal record would be non-existent or minor, that they wouldn’t have children earlier than they were ready, that they wouldn’t be involved in drug sales (one of the only lucrative jobs available to them with the sort of sucky inner-city education they got), that they could have a job that make them happy and feel secure, that they would find a partner they loved, etc. This is different than the grappling, desperate hope of preventing “those kids” from becoming criminals, which is the underlying message/goal of lots of inner-city mentoring/after school programs.

So, enough with terminology. I think you get the point.

The main thing I wanted to raise in this post is that afterschool tutoring programs and mentoring programs mostly serve the purpose of exposing privileged teenagers to social injustices. The best result of this is that they are more aware of these social injustices and aware that they are structural issues (and not because poor/minority folks are lazy or bad parents, etc.). This is actually important because I can’t think of any other way to get privileged people to understand their privilege, and to understand social injustice other than getting to know people different from them. Volunteer programs help with this and the good ones help volunteers reflect on this, and integrate it into their world view. The idea would be to produce volunteers who will be moved enough by their experiences to want to change the world.

What these programs usually don’t do is actually help the kids have any more stability in their lives, get better grades or be less “at risk.” I know that there are exceptions, but by and large, these programs do not actually help the kids. The best programs realize this, and instead do the programs with the knowledge that it is mostly about volunteers learning from communities, with a sometimes side-benefit of actually supporting those communities in the struggle for the justice that they deserve.

The programs mostly don’t work because, first, the schools that poor and minority kids go to are so bad that a little tutoring here and there by high school students cannot even begin to compensate for the inadequate education that kids from inner-city schools get. (How do I know this? The book Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol deals with this extensively, and I did the research for the book so I’ve poured over these stats and narrative accounts, and studies, um, a lot.)

Another reason they don’t work is because, there is a lot of talk about “loving the kids” and “building relationships” in these programs, but this doesn’t work if you volunteer for one semester, or even a year or two. As cute as the kids may be, “loving them” involves more than showing up once a week to tutor them. And they know it. Many kids from the inner-city have seen hundreds of people come and go, bearing gifts of bicycles, candy, fun games, parties, tutoring books (and often the message of Jesus). They are onto the game. They live it up. Play along. Hug you and smile, but they know that when it gets hard, the tutoring people aren’t around. Not when Dad goes to jail. Not when Mom looses her job, when the phone gets cut off, when the shots ring out.

Someone said something like this to me early in my conversion to Christianity when I was still trying hard to do everything everyone at my church told me to. They said, “Lots of people come and go in these kids lives. You need to be there for them.” So, when I got my first group of tutoring kids I decided, “Okay, these are my kids.” This is not to say, “Oh what a hero I am” but to say that mentoring can’t work unless it is for the long haul. Late night calls. Money transfers. Going out to Chucky Cheese even when you are so tired and just want to rest. Answering the hard questions and confused tears about why we are always stopped by the police – black kids with a white girl. Explaining to the people at ice cream store that we will not leave and you can’t just ban people from your store just because. Knowing when to be the tough big sister or when to just listen. Not having any idea what you are doing and needing to just keep going anyway. And explaining for the five millionth time why you cannot call each other gay even if you “don’t mean anything” by it.

Is mentoring some sort of answer? I would say absolutely not. It is great if you can do it. If you stick with it, love unconditionally, are willing to help financially, emotionally, even on those days when you are tired, and even when the mentorees make the ten thousandth bad decision (as most kids will do), it can “work.” It is the most rewarding thing in my life – the young men bring me more joy than I can put into words. I LOVE to laugh with them, and I am not a huge laugh-er. I think my presence and never-ending-even-when-it-seems-stupid belief in them has made a difference. But they still struggle SO MUCH because being poor in the United States is hard. Being black is hard. It’s like no matter how hard they try, there is often something else that just knocks them down. And there is only so much I can do, they can do, their moms can do. And my love and commitment to them hasn’t done much or even almost anything to change the system. And it has taken a whole lotta energy. I do it because I love them and they love me, but it is so so so frustrating to see that EVERY OTHER KID they know and I know from the tutoring program where I met them is not doing well. Pregnant very young. Shot. Jail. Abused. No decent educations. We sometimes go over the kids that we all knew, and we can’t come up with anyone doing well. It is depressing.

I don’t mean this to be some sort of authoritative article on mentoring or that I am some sort of guru. It is just that I don’t hear a lot of people sticking with the mentoring thing through elementary school all the way to college. It makes me upset to see mentoring programs that are all self-congratulatory and then don’t even have a long-term way to maintain contact with the kids. That is FINE if you don’t want to be in it for the long-haul, but if you want to make a difference, the long-haul is what it will take. I guess I am looking for more honesty about what these sorts of mentoring/tutoring programs can and can’t do for communities and their children. And honesty about what it really takes to make a dent in the numbing barrage of injustices that far too many children face every single day.

May we continue to do the hard work of love and justice wherever and however we can.

2000

meandtheboys.jpg

2007

june-07.jpg


Doing the Hard Work of Love and Justice: Where is energy best spent?

June 24, 2007

I wrote meditations and prayers for my internship congregation each week when I was the intern minister there.  One theme that came up over and over, for me, was to remind us what was involved and pray for what we needed to “do the hard work of love and justice.” The idea that it is important for us to remember that if we are going to talk about love and justice, as most UUs like to do, it is important to remember that it is about hard work and not just righteous talk or token actions. As I think about what it means to do this in my own life, I often wonder where my energy is best spent to bring about the most good. I know for me, it is often easy to convince myself that what I want to do, or what appeals to me the most, is the best use of my time, especially if what is appealing can seem righteous or really worthy.

All the hub-a-bub about General Assembly, and the not too distant brown bag controversy as had me thinking about what it means to be part of a faith, part of an association, and just what I want my life to look like and where I want to put my attention – how to live out my own call to do the hard work of love and justice.

I think it would be really easy for me to get involved in UUA politics (by this I mean both the important, good work of our Association, and also the somewhat jaded, gossipy politics). I could very easily be a snarky blogger making fun of all the unique and maybe less than common-sense seeming things that happen at GA and in UUism in general. In fact, I do this in my head more than I want, but I try to stop myself.  I think I could have written a scathing post on the whole brown bag thing. But I’m trying not to do this, and put my frustration, anger, and energy into those parts of my life and my faith that seem like they will make the biggest difference.* The question of course is what the best allocation of my time and energy is.
Not that General Assembly or language issues (how we talk about things, for instance, lunches where people need to bring their own lunch) aren’t important, but I am feeling more and more like there are a lot symbolic politics that I could really make a lot out of and that would be sort of fun and feel really important, but I’m not sure if that is where my time and energy should be spent.  And of course, there is the important question of being able to discern symbolic politics from actual important stuff that makes a difference in people’s lives (and makes a difference big enough to be justified, relative to the time and energy spent on it, since time and energy, institutionally and individually, is limited).

All that said, it also seems like one needs to keep one foot in institutional worlds, and bigger questions. I can be a bit leery of the potential for political correctness to run amok. But, then again, some people might tell me that using only male language for God is one of those areas, and what is all the fuss about? And of course, I would argue that it is an important area to be attentive to. Maybe all that happens at UUA headquarters in Boston is not earth-shattering, but certainly some things that happen there and some of what happens at our General Assembly is really important.  The question is how to manage my energy and time – how much can I/should I/must I give to these things that are sort of scarily appealing to jump into, yet at the same time, softly whisper to me that this is not where my energy should go? I think it is so easy to criticize what is not going right or well. It is so much harder to do something different that wouldn’t be make-fun-of-worthy.

Just some reflections on this. No conclusions yet.

*When I talk about making the biggest difference, I don’t mean to imply that UUism is some sort of big social service agency or something that is meant to change the world via our Social Action Committees. For me, I feel like my connection with the divine is, in many ways, through bringing about the kingdom of love/god here on earth. I feel a call to unconditional love, which in some way, I feel emanates from the divine to the world’s beings. This is not meant to be Elizabeth’s Spiritual Treatise on Divine love, but just to clarify that unconditional love is a guiding force in my spiritual journey, which, for me, translates to reducing the suffering of others in both spiritual and material ways, thus the whole thing about “hard work of love and justice.”

**Side note II: This is not to be some sort of broad criticism of snarky criticism or critique of things in general. I think sometimes it is good and needed and constructive. Sometimes it can just be too much, too frequent, and mean. This is mostly about my approach to things.