Blue Glitter

In the Allentown School District, there were very few Jewish students. When I was in 4th grade, I was very fortunate to have a Jewish teacher. She knew that at Christmastime, I would prefer blue glitter to red and green.

When she gave me that blue glitter, it made me feel really special. I felt as though she understood and appreciated my difference.

I don’t always think to give people their metaphorical blue glitter. It can sometimes be difficult to sincerely express love of a person and her or his difference, especially when that difference is not shared. Blue glitter can make people feel singled out, objectified, and patronized. But, carefully applied, blue glitter can be very beautiful.

 

Changemaker Chat: Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer is a New York-based educator-activist-author, co-editor of the two volume Africa World Press series Seeds of New Hope and co-author of Guns and Gandhi in Africa, and editor of PM Press’ Let Freedom Ring. He is the War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator, and UN ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his introduction to Guns and Gandhi in Africa, wrote: “Sutherland and Meyer have looked beyond the short-term strategies and tactics which too often divide progressive people . . . They have begun to develop a language which looks at the roots of our humanness.”

How did you first become interested in social change?

Growing up, my dad was a teacher and teacher’s union chapter leader, and my mom was active in community-based social service projects. But neither were very activist oriented beyond that; they gasped as the television images of the war in Vietnam were blasted across the screen, but attended no demonstrations. For me, when I was a senior in high school, and co-editor of my school newspaper, I began to look at some of the political issues facing my age group. Foremost amongst these was President Carter’s re-institution of registration, the first stage in the process of drafting people into the military. We ran a poll of students (who were, of course, overwhelmingly opposed), and an editorial, and then – when my high school sweetheart broke up with me the day before graduation – I plunged into the only thing I found consoling: political work! That summer, the Democratic National Convention was held in my own home town of New York City, and I volunteered to help get a four-star mother (someone who husband and son had been killed in Vietnam) nominated for vice president, just so she could give an anti-registration speech. We got enough delegates to sign, then on the final night the organizers somehow got some press passes so that those of us who had worked the hardest could view the convention from the inside. On that fateful night, it did not matter that I was sitting in the far-away seats at the top of Madison Square Garden. The sitting President of the United States was right there before me, giving his acceptance speech to run for a second term. When he mentioned his policy of registration, a grouping of us booed him, an act heard by millions on national television. The idea that after only a few weeks of social change activism I could boo the President on national TV seemed too good to be true. I wondering what I could do if I remained active for a bit longer!!

How do you define social justice?

For me, social justice is defined by people’s empowerment–a constructive space filled with equal opportunities and equity, with a communalism that suggests not simply that people should “live and let live” but rather “live and help to live.” I was taught that by an old leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, so I guess it is important to say that social justice includes an end to all colonialism and neocolonialism, and end to imperialism, an end to racism, sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy. But for me, it also means an end to militarism and the violent ways in which we treat one another–both personally and structurally through poverty created by capitalism and the drive for unchecked profits.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist?

This is a tough one; I have had so many. Could it be when, weeks after the above-mentioned experience, I decided to become a public draft resister, refusing to register when I turned 18. At the press conference, I was greeted by a sweet little lady who was feeding me apple strudel and asking how I was. Turned out this woman, who emceed the press conference, was none other than celebrated author Grace Paley! I met Abbie Hoffman within the year, and ended up doing some secretarial work for him. It became clear that the “left” was much smaller than I could have imagined, and I would end up meeting many very inspiring people over the years: from Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, to Assata Shakur, in exile in Cuba; from my mentors Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party leader Mawina Koyate, and Puerto Rican human rights elder Luis Nieves Falcon; from my partner and companero Meg Starr to all my comrades in Resistance in Brooklyn; from so many icons of the War Resisters League and peace studies communities…I am always excited about meeting the wonderful people also working so hard to re-shape the world for the better. Perhaps the experiences I’d have to rate as most exciting are the countless creative demonstrations, from when the huge puppets of Bread and Puppet Theater led one million of us into Central Park for an end to nuclear power and arms in 1982, to when hundreds of us blockaded the Liberty Bell to demand that the jailers Let Freedom Ring for death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, to just a year ago, when I went with my 11-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to a street action in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street. They are all my most exciting, along with all the ones still to come.

What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?

I spent three weeks in South Africa this past July and August helping put together a new network, now calling itself the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network. Along with the War Resisters International and other groups, we will be putting together a major Pan African gathering in 2014. Building up for that, across the African continent and throughout the Diaspora, is the most exciting thing I am currently involved in.

ALSO, I am proud to be part of growing efforts to shine special attention on two prisoners who deserve and demand immediate release. One is Russell Maroon Shoatz, serving close to forty years behind bars, with over thirty of them in torturous solitary confinement. If the US is to even come close to living up to its image of “justice for all,” it must unconditionally release old men who are in prison largely due to the fact that they joined the Black Liberation movement (Panthers, etc) in the late 1960s. Though he is convicted of various “criminal acts,” no common criminal spends this long in solitary or behind bars. The fear is that, once prisoners like Maroon are released, they are going to do what Mandela did when he was released: lead revolutionary movements for massive and radical change. We know, of course, that movements are made by more than just leaders, and our social justice movements must be at least string enough to help these warriors of past struggles get out of jail before they die.

Similarly, the case of Oscar Lopez Rivera, in jail for the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the US government’s control of his Puerto Rican homeland, must be given full immediate attention.

What are your plans for the future?

A book I have been working on for six years, as co-editor and contributor, is about to be released. We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America contains a foreword by Cornell West, after-poems by Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez, and a host of amazing essays by scores of activists. So I will be doing some work to promote that book, which Maya Angelou has graciously said “is so needed” at this time. More information about the book, including how to order it, is here: https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=433

I am a full-time teacher, and also a full time (or as much as is left) father, and I take those two responsibilities very seriously, as a central part of my commitment of working for a better world.

L3: Internalized Privilege and Oppression

A lot of what we think and do stems from our subconscious feelings and beliefs. These are influenced by our experiences and personality as well as our understanding of our social position – past, present, and future. Social hierarchies influence the opportunities that are available to us and others as well as our perception of those opportunities. We may also hold beliefs about the types of opportunities that ought to be available to ourselves or others based on social position.

Think about the social groups to which you belong. These groups may include gender, age, religion, nationality, ethnicity, occupation, or income. For each group, list stereotypical beliefs that have been revealed to you through either personal experience or the media. List opportunities that have been opened and closed to you and others like you as a result of your group affiliations.

Carefully examine how you feel when reviewing your list of prejudicial and discriminatory beliefs and practices. Do you feel angry? Sad? Proud? Think about how these feelings have infiltrated and influenced your subconscious reasoning, morphing your self-concept and restricting your behaviors.

Being unintentionally prejudiced is a part of human nature. As a middle-aged woman, I would feel silly walking around in a miniskirt. Even though I am a beautiful person and I am just as hot, both literally and figuratively, as your average 35-year-old (I wrote this two years ago), it would be considered distasteful, if not disgusting, for me to reveal myself in this way. This benign example illustrates just one of the many, many collective social rules that preside over our thoughts and actions.

As a woman with fair skin, I can freely enter and walk around most stores. I once visited a store with my 16-year-old African American G-ddaughter to buy her a keepsake from our vacation. We were meticulously followed as we browsed through the store. We both entered the store with a different expectation of what the experience might be like based on our social group membership. Although we had visited hundreds of stores without incident, I am certain that every time there was had been an underlying fear and anticipation of what might happen on her part without a second thought on mine.

Without even realizing it, we both continually manifested internalized oppression and privilege related to shopping over the years. It did not have a significant impact on our lives. In many other instances, internalized oppression and privilege can interfere with our ability to successfully interact with others and fully participate in social activities.

We have the ability to choose to accept or reject these limiting beliefs. We also have the ability to reposition our group both internally and externally to more appropriately reflect both reality and the group’s collective hopes for the future.

As leaders, we should work both to equalize social systems so that all have access to opportunities to do what is meaningful to them and to heal our personal relationships with the social structures that have effortlessly included or systematically excluded us. Transcending barriers such as these leads to more inclusive, healthy organizations and communities.

Social+

Being carbon neutral is great, but I would like to suggest that being social positive, which we might cutify by writing Social+, is even better.

Social+ goes way beyond being carbon neutral. People who are Social+ also:

– consider the human impact of every decision they make

– are actively involved in their communities

– express kindness and compassion toward others on a daily basis

Similar to carbon neutrality, social positivity can be assessed  by reviewing our daily, weekly, monthly, and annual activities to determine if our net social impact is, indeed, positive. I know that on some days, I may be Social-; this may even out if considering my activities over a period of time.

What Social+ activity did you do today? Are you Social+ this week?

Progressive Activism and Cute Shoes: Mutually Exclusive?

I was once a proud member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). While a student at Allentown Business School, I worked in two factories at night, along with other jobs, while also working two full days at a nursing home over the weekend.

The first factory was a union shop. My job was to press collars for ladies’ suits. When that work ran out, my job was to use a seam ripper to undo bad work. After that, I was laid off. It was a fairly nice work environment. There was good lighting and even a snack machine. My supervisor was a little scary, but she rarely stayed as late as I did. It was usually just me and the custodian when it was time to lock up the building.

But factory work is seasonal, and after just a few months I was laid off. I then got another factory job; this was not a union shop. My job was to cut apart knitted ski masks using a table saw. The lighting was terrible, it was extremely hot, there was no ventilation, and I felt lightheaded most of the time I was at work – not a good thing when a saw is so close to your fingers! I quit after just a few days. I felt guilty about doing this, but also knew that I was not strong enough to do such difficult physical work.

Both factories paid the same. It was a piece rate, which I was never able to make (which means I was paid minimum wage). But the difference in working conditions was amazingly different. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the union, but I am sure that helped. At the union shop, I would have worked for as long as I was able, or at least until I finished school. The pay was not good, but I was given flexible hours to accommodate my school schedule and the environment was pleasant. The other place was just awful. I really felt like I was going to pass out most of the time that I was there.

Yet, I am sure that these working conditions were much better than those in offshore locations where workers, many of them children, are paid very little. It makes me feel sick to think that millions of people in the world have so few options for their life. It makes me even more sick to think that the reason these people are trapped in this economic system is a result of American demand for cheap clothing – and lots of it.

While it is no longer possible to find clothing bearing an ILGWU label, I do try to appreciate the hard work that people put into the clothing that I purchase. I am not at all against offshoring; in fact, I think as a privileged nation we have a responsibility to help other countries develop their economies so that they can be self-sufficient and sustainable.  But this is not what we usually do. We take advantage of less fortunate countries and their citizens in order to strengthen our own economy.

Resisting gluttony is hard, especially when everyone else seems to be doing it without question. But do I really need another pair of shoes?

Shoes are particularly problematic for me. I love them. I often say to myself that I am going to reduce my consumption of shoes and limit those that I do purchase to vegan varieties. I did good this summer. I didn’t purchase the new Dansko shoes that I really, really, really, really wanted. But I know that one day I will purchase a pair of shoes, or some other item of clothing, that I don’t really need – and one that might have been created in a factory with deplorable conditions.

As a consumer, I have a certain amount of power. I can vote with my pocketbook by only supporting companies that align with my values. But I am only one person, and my consumer power is quite limited. It would be far more effective for us to channel our energy – that which might otherwise be spent perusing the new fall collection online – into collectively influencing corporate practices and public policy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could walk into a department store and know that everything offered for sale is made by a company that values its employees and the environment?

I have actually thought about the possibility of starting such a store. I think it would be fun, but with other projects lined up I just don’t have the energy to make it happen right now. In the meantime, I am taking a lot of notes to capture my most innovative ideas for this project. Perhaps one day you will join me at the grand opening of this store!

Typology of Activism

Activism can be classified according to many characteristics. Based purely on anecdotal and intuitive evidence, I believe there is a positive relationship between the proactivity of a strategy/tactic (independent variable) and the sustainability of the change that results (dependent variable) Whether or not this is accurate, I do think that it is helpful to organize activism according to these variables as such:

Four quadrants are created based on whether strategies/tactics are reactive or proactive and whether the changes sought are short-term or long-term. I started to think of a name for each quadrant and fit examples into each, but this became problematic. It is difficult to “fit” complex activism into such neat categories. Nonetheless, this chart may be useful as we evaluate the fit between our actions and goals.

Based on my earlier thesis, I placed proactivity on the y-axis and length of the change sought on the x-axis. This suggests a movement toward more proactive strategies to result in longer-term social changes.

In my experience, much progressive activism is reactive; it is based on an external stimulus rather than internally driven. Applying the Pareto Principle, perhaps about 80% of progressive activism is reactive and defensive. I think we should begin with the vision of the world we want to create and start building it – rather than erratically undoing the work of oppressive systems and the people who benefit from them.  Let’s shift 80% of our activism to proactive, offensive strategies to realize long-term, sustainable change.