Bifurcated Bipartisanship

I love being part of bipartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters. It fills my heart with joy to experience Americans crossing political lines to achieve common goals. Such was the intended spirit of the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition. Many years ago, I attended a fundraising dinner for this organization at the Shady Maple. At the time, I was a member of the state executive committee of Socialist Party-USA. I felt it was important to support candidates in my party, and others who were marginalized by the petitioning process in our commonwealth, to promote political participation. I put aside my personal political beliefs so that we could all focus on our common belief that all citizens, regardless of political party, should have access to the ballot in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, others in attendance did not pay attention when the introductory speaker reminded us of the need to put aside our political beliefs for the evening. I sat at the table with a few members of the Constitution Party and one woman went on and on about her feelings on various political issues – some of which I found to be offensive as a Jew and a Native American (not to mention as an American). I was given literature by another political party; I can’t remember which one because I recycled it upon returning home. While these experiences did provide some amusing conversation on the ride home, I was deeply saddened that it was so difficult for people to resist the urge to promote their party at a nonpartisan event.

I am grateful that I have never had such an experience as a board member or volunteer with my local League of Women Voters. I have had some other interesting experiences, but that will be another story for another day.

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.


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!

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.

From Nail Files to Geraldine: The Emergence of my Political Identity

My political identity is rooted in my social and cultural identities, my unique personal beliefs, and my lived experience. This political identity is emerging rather than fixed; over time it has evolved and expanded to encompass my deeper and broader understanding of the world in which I live.

My first political experience was campaigning for Guy Kratzer, who was then running for reappointment to Allentown City Council. My job, as a very young child, was to hand out nail files sporting his name to voters as they entered the polls at Muhlenberg Elementary School. I believe this was 1979, but my memory could be mistaken. I suspect that one of my sisters was a student in Mrs. Kratzer’s social studies class at Trexler Middle School at that time. My second memory is my father running for school board in 1980. In Mrs. Helwig’s kindergarten classroom that same year, I voted for Ronald Regan in a mock election. I didn’t vote for him because I supported his platform, but because brown seemed to be the most presidential color to me at the time (it was a color matching game). For the next few years, my political memory is limited to the occasional whimsical wearing of one of my J.D. for Mayor buttons.

In 1984, I feel that my political identity crystallized with the presidential election and my work to support Geraldine Ferraro for vice president. I was nine years old. In my elementary school class, again at Muhlenberg (apparently the epicenter of my political emergence), we formed teams based on who we would like to support. I chose Mondale/Ferraro because, despite the fact that most of my family is Republican, my parents were solid Democrats. I noticed generalized social and cultural differences between the Mondale/Ferraro group and the Regan/Bush group. This was the first time that I felt like part of a group, that I belonged somewhere in the social sphere. I felt as though I had arrived.

I especially loved supporting a woman for this important political position, which seemed totally natural to me. It never occurred to me that a woman could not do whatever the heck she wanted to do, or that she would be discouraged from doing so by others. While I didn’t appreciate the significance of this historical moment at the time, I am so grateful to have lived through it and to have been a part of it, even if only in a very small way. I cannot imagine who I would be if it were not for Geraldine Ferraro.

By the way, I think the official presidential color should be purple.

Broken Glass, Shattered Dreams, Becoming Whole

Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of freedom, courage, and dignity for all people. It was along a street named for him that mine were so unjustly stolen from me on what was supposed to be my first day of high school 23 years ago this week. Due to a combination of healthy teenage rebellion, bipolar disorder which at the time included hallucinations and delusions (possibly the result of 12+ years of consistent prescribed codeine abuse to treat my allergies), and the circumstances of my life, I ran away from home seven times that summer. I was quickly heading toward either a living or a literal death. At the moment my life was threatened and I was attacked, my soul left my body and did not start to return, albeit in little unrecognizable fragments, until at least five years later.

At a recent Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley training, the speaker lamented about a time when women were revictimized by the police. I lived through that time. The police suggested that I was raped by a friend. They scrutinized my clothing, suggesting that I provoked the attack even though I work a long sleeve shirt and long pants. The chief of police laughed out loud at me when I told him the perpetrator told me he was a cop. The detective told me he had a never-ending mountain of paperwork and that he didn’t have time to work on false reports. The police lost the evidence that could have been used in court. They manipulated my family into believing that I made the story up to get attention. They were skilled oppressors.

About 15 years later, I moved back to my home community after living in Philadelphia for the past six years. I started a job just down the street from the scene of the crime as an advocacy and outreach coordinator at a regional food bank. It was here that I both confronted my past and found my future. I passed by that awful place nearly day on my way to and home from work, a symbolically meaningful everyday act that gained significance over time. I was no longer a desperate teenager destined for death; I was a woman on a mission. I had the tremendous responsibility of advocating for some of the most vulnerable people in my community. People like me. I was excited about my work and felt truly alive. I realized that I lived so that I could be an example of compassion, hope, and love.

The police sent me a letter to tell me that they would put a copy of the emergency food resource guide I created in every patrol car in the city.

When I first thought of sharing this story on this blog, I felt a sense of personal shame. But really, I should feel ashamed that it has taken me over 20 years to share my story in a meaningful and helpful way. I feel ashamed that women and children are still at risk of being unsafe in my community. I am ashamed that people who suffer from mental illness are socially, culturally, and economically marginalized. I have a lot of compassion for people who are chronically homeless, addicted, or otherwise feel stuck in a tumultuous cycle. That was me. That is me. That is us.

Rethinking Utopia

In 1998, I lived in a 15th floor studio apartment in West Philadelphia. At my desk overlooking both lovely Fairmount Park and the city skyline, I created a never published website simply called Utopia. The vision for the project, according to the second home page I developed, was to empower and motivate young women and men to actively construct their lives and communities in order to exist more peacefully and harmoniously with themselves, others, and the environment. I promised readers to publish a quarterly journal entitled Utopia: An Overture of Peace and Harmony and to create a website that would: educate people about their rights, responsibilities, and human potential; distribute information that is helpful in cultivating compassionate, well rounded, and determined human beings; share experiences among each other so that we may learn and grow with each other; analyze psychological and social theories and discover how to apply them to get more out of our daily lives; enlighten with art, poetry, and prose; and provide an exchange for buyers and sellers of intellectually stimulating, ecologically sound, and socially responsible products and services.
With the exception of the last statement and the nuances of naivete, I am struck by the similarities between the aforementioned forsaken website and the relaunch of The Fruition Coalition this summer. Something deep within my soul, which I have repressed and redirected over the past 15 years, is yearning to be set free.

I am grateful for the many detours my life has taken since the initial conceptualization of Utopia: I have earned two and a half graduate degrees; helped to raise two lovely girls who are both now college students; and served the community as an executive director and in several other capacities. All of these experiences — indeed, all of my experiences — will inform the ongoing development of this and other projects. I am especially grateful for this opportunity to integrate my inner dreams, perhaps my soul purpose, with everything I have learned about myself and the world in which I live throughout my early adulthood. Still a work in progress, I look forward to reviewing blog posts from The Activist’s Muse, posts on Le Salon Utopique, and recordings of classes from The Fruition Academy of Social Imagination and Action in another 15 years to reflect on my journey and the person I am becoming.

Thank you for being a part of this journey. To Utopia we go!