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:

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.


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.

Changemaker Chat: Jon Elliot Ramer

Jon Eliot Ramer (born 1958) is an American entrepreneur, civic leader, inventor, and musician. He is co-founder of several technology companies including Ramer and Associates, ELF Technologies, Inc., and Smart Channels,as well as the designer and co-founder of several Deep Social Networks. Former Executive Director of the Interra Project, he is a co-founder of Ideal Network, a group-buying social enterprise that donates a percentage of every purchase to a non-profit or school.  Ideal Network is a certified B-Corp that was recognized as “Best in the World for Community” in 2012 by B-Labs. He is also the designer and co-founder of the Compassionate Action Network International,[an organization based in Seattle, that led the effort to make the city the first in the world to affirm Karen Armstrong‘s Charter for Compassion. Ramer is also the songwriter and lead guitarist in the band Once And For All.

How did you first become interested in social change?

My interest in social change has been a part of my life since I was a kid. I had the sense that things were out of balance; and then I learned that the only way they would change was if we did something about it. I never felt complaining was enough, I felt call to get involved, myself, directly.

How do you define social justice?

For me social justice means ensuring that everybody has an equal opportunity and a fair chance to participate as I do.  In the Jewish tradition there’s a phrase Tikkun O’lam which means to mend, heal and transform that world.  This has guided me through my life journey.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist?

My most exciting experiences as an activist has been watching our local Seattle efforts evolve to become an international campaign. Through the connectivity of the Internet, the realization and awakening to the fact that so many of us are engaged and wanting to participate in creating a world that works for all of us.

I had the good fortune to work closely with Paul Hawken and others in developing Wiser Earth which is now and was connected to his book Blessed Unrest.  Like Paul I was awestruck at the number of individuals, groups, and organizations around the world that are rising up and working for just and lasting change. These moments of insight and realization of our connectedness has been my most exciting experiences.

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

The most interesting project I’m currently working on is the Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest. This came as a result of a relationship the city of Seattle’s is building with other cities around the world in particular Louisville Kentucky and their mayor who’s a remarkable leader that challenged us and other cities to dethrone them as the most compassionate city in the world by performing more hours and acts of community service than they performed.

We are reframing the idea of survival of the fittest to be the survival of the kindest. I think is creative, and an inspiring “culture hack” that I consider this the most interesting project I’m currently involved with.  I think the notion of compassion, i.e. empathy into action, and the idea of starting from within is very much aligned with the vision for a better world that I hold and am pursuing. As I see it, this cannot happen from just the top down it requires the bottom up, outside in, and inside out.

What is your vision for a better world?

The vision that I hold is that the elders awaken to support the youth; and provide them with the air time to share their voice, opportunities and resources that are desperately needed to make the shift happen.  In this way we as a community get to coalesce together to turn what we have into what we need to create a better world.

I’m committed to working on issues related to “intergenerational equity” by working with youth and ensuring that indigenous voices can heard and appreciated. Here is the project we started called Young Partners in Development – Empowered Youth, Empowering Society.

Through an event we produced, the Seeds of Compassion, I had the good fortune to build a working relationship with a Hereditary Chief, Phil Lane Jr. He and I wrote a paper on Deep Social Networks and the Digital Fourth Way that lays out this fusion of social networks with ancient indigenous wisdom and science. You can find the paper here.

What are your plans for the future?

To be present and responsive to what comes my way like your invitation!

Pride, Prejudice, and Politics

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is greatly understood by those with whom he has not developed an intimate acquaintance. Elizabeth, in particular, finds him offensive until she falls madly in love with him and they live happily ever after.

Our pride and our prejudice stand in the way of compassion and understanding for each other, leading to a breakdown of our political system. We lack political and civil intimacy; these relationships are shaped by manipulative tactics and reactivity rather than dialogue and philia. We sometimes feel detached, hopeless, and bitter rather than meaningfully engaged and purposeful.

Let’s fall madly in love with each other through a shared sense of community. Let’s transform politics into a positive sum game. Let’s let go of our pride and prejudice. Let’s change the world by changing ourselves.

The Only One

No ‘rock video girl’ touched my heart so deeply as Jayzik Azikiwe, who starred in Dire Straits’  Skateaway video. When I was a little girl, I so wanted to be continually imbued with the spirit that she embodied: vibrant; independent; carefree; and confident. Just listening to that song now makes me feel fantastical.

This past summer, we had a Rock of Ages party the weekend that movie was released in theaters. After the movie, we went back to my house to overindulge in food and alcohol, perform karaoke (everything from the movie’s soundtrack songs to The Sound of Music), and watch old videos. I was a meticulous music video recorder for many years, and have a collection of nearly ten complete tapes full of videos – most of which are now available on YouTube. One of my sisters, who also loved the Skateaway video, looked up information about Jayzik on her phone as we watched the video.

I was fascinated to learn that her father was the first president of independent Nigeria. Like her father, Jayzik was also an activist in addition to being an artist. I learned that she really was very much like that girl in the video – but so much more. Sadly, I learned all of these things by reading her obituaries. Jayzik passed away in 2008.

I think I might write a book about her one day. Or maybe I could write something about her with one of my very favorite authors, Chimamada Ngozi Adichie.

Jayzik makes such dreams seem possible.

ILA Denver 2012

I am exceptionally excited to attend my first International Leadership Association (ILA) conference in Denver, CO next month. Not only will I have the opportunity to meet and learn from amazing scholars from all around the world, I am also going to participate in a panel discussion, present a poster, and facilitate a roundtable discussion.

For the panel discussion, I will be joining scholars from Virginia Tech, Nova Southeastern University, Murray State University, and Our Lady of the Lake University to explore appreciative inquiry. I will be discussing how to integrate an appreciative inquiry approach with Alinsky organizing principles for progressive social change work.

The poster will present the results of a preliminary study I conducted earlier this year. Using postcritical existential phenomenology, I explored how people experience a sense of liberation through social justice work.

In the roundtable discussion, we will uncover implicit meaning and expressions of power in everyday social justice leadership discourse. If this interests you, make sure you check out our Generative Language course next June.

I hope to see you in Denver!