Sunday, January 30, 2011


I have been taking a virtual tour of some member museums of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and asking myself how they relate to state power in the countries where they are located. (All images from their website.)

First, a bit of background information. The Coalition is "a worldwide network of 'sites of conscience' -- historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies." The Coalition started in 1999 with nine founding members (such as the Tenement Museum in New York City, the District Six Museum in South Africa, the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh, and others), and now includes 17 accredited sites, and nearly 250 members. These museums, parks, memorials and other sites use their own legacies of injustice to support human rights and justice struggles today. 

For example, the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh memorializes the 1971 murder of as many as 3 million Bengali people by Pakistani government forces, and the subsequent creation of a democratic government. Among other programs, the museum sponsors a "Mobile Museum," and engages young people to collect eye-witness accounts of the events of 1971, which it then deposits in its archives. In so doing, the Museum prompts a critical dialogue on genocide and state power -- and cleverly involves young people in the expansion of the historical record. 

One of two sites in South Africa, Constitution Hill is the location of a the notorious Old Fort Prison, better known simply as "Number Four," which held many now-famous South Africans, including Nelson Mandela. The photo at right (credit: Oscar G., from the ICSC website) depicts a former prisoner speaking with a visiting school group. In a powerful re-imagining of the place, it is now used as a Constitutional Court, as well as an educational center on the country's politically repressive past. The site offers so-called lekgotla -- public, non-hierarchical dialogues to decide on matters of social importance -- on citizens' constitutional rights and responsibilities. To my mind, it's remarkable for being such a strong program in so relatively new a democracy. 

The governments in both these sites would seem to benefit from the historical interpretation provided at these museums. Both countries decry the (genuinely) bad old days, and tout their current freedoms. However, in some other sites, the relationship might be a bit more uncomfortable. Take the Gulag Museum in Russia, the site of a notorious Stalin-era labor camp called Perm 36, which was later turned into a prison that held political dissidents of the Soviet regime, right up through 1987. In a country where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continues to take action against free assembly and a free press, the Gulag Museum may serve as an embarrassing display of the similarities between the old and new regimes. Or perhaps the museum relegates the terror of the Gulag labor camp system entirely to the past, thus presenting no challenge to present-day Russia or its government. Or maybe it successfully challenges visitors to make such connections for themselves. I'm not sure. Alas, barring a sudden windfall of cash, for now I can only visit the museum's website, rather than the museum itself.

A recent story by Kate Taylor in the New York Times presents questions that are relevant to any history museum that deals with social injustice. Taylor writes that the staff of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015 on the National Mall, is "grappling with fundamental questions about the museum's soul and message. Among the biggest, of course, is: What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. ... Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?"

That last question especially -- how the story ends, and what it points to in today's society -- is a critical one for all museums, especially these "Sites of Conscience" that have as part of their very mission to address the legacy of injustices in their countries. (The National Museum of African American History and Culture is not a "Site of Conscience," at least not yet.) These museums and memorials would seem to be most necessary -- and least tolerated -- in countries with repressive governments. But even in the freest of countries, the question still stands: how does the story we're telling relate to the official story?

Sunday, January 23, 2011


A few week's-end items I've had my eyes on.

BAVC'S "THE STREAM": First, the most excellent Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) has a series of short videos called "The Stream," each of which profiles folks who have used "story-driven technology to inspire social movements." Examples include documentary films and Second Life projects on Gulf Coast rebuilding, Middle East peace, and more. You can also listen to audio versions of these profiles with a free PRX account.

L.A. GANG TOURS: Here's the promotional video for "L.A. Gang Tours," a Los Angeles bus tour of sites related to street gangs, such as the LA County Jail and the Pico Union Graffiti Lab. As this video segment from the local NBC affiliate says, the tour operators use the tours as a way to increase the peace, but some say it's exploitative. A similar debate erupted around the bus tours of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I can see their point, only the difference here is that the LA bus tour is run by former gang members, and profits are used for job and community development. Whereas the New Orleans tours were run by a tour bus company, and I believe it was only under pressure that any of the proceeds were donated to local nonprofits. 

BROADCASTR APP: I'm looking forward to trying out a new website and phone app called "Broadcastr" that launches next month. Essentially, Broadcastr aims to do with the human voice what YouTube does for video, or Flickr does for photos. As reported in this New York Times story, "Users can upload audio and 'pin' it to a geographical location. When you visit a location either physically or with your web browser, you will be able to listen to stories pinned to that spot." In partnership with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Broadcastr is uploading thousands of audio clips related to 9/11, so users will be able to hear stories from witnesses, firefighters, and others while visiting the World Trade Center site or other related spots in Lower Manhattan. I think it's a fantastic idea, and I'm excited about how anyone will be able to upload audio and create their own tours and other projects. I'm sure media artists will use the app in creative ways.

"TELLING STORIES TO CHANGE THE WORLD": I've been reading an anthology called "Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims," edited by Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox, and Kayhan Irani. One of the chapters is on the Hudson River Playback Theatre's "Immigrant Stories" project. In the "Playback" theater method, people in the audience will tell stories from their lives, and then Playback actors will act out those stories. As Jo Salas writes in her chapter on the project, "An atmosphere of exploration and discovery develops as voices are heard and responded to in spontaneous theater. The actors, like the tellers, step into unscripted and uncharted territory with each story." (p 110) And as the website of the International Playback Theatre Network adds, this form of theater is in "direct service to healing relationship, communication and understanding between people." The book has some really sharp essays I'd like to write about at more length later on.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! (Photo from this Seattle Times page.) Following are a few lengthy quotes from Michael Eric Dyson's incisive book "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr." (2000, Free Press.) In a brilliant final chapter, Dyson looks at "The Burden of Representation" -- the mythology that has grown up around King, and what he means to us symbolically today. Dyson cites sociologist Charles Payne, who wrote, "Taking the high drama of the mid-fifties and early sixties out of the longer historical context implicitly overvalues those dramatic moments and undervalues the more mundane activities that helped make them possible -- the network-building, the grooming of another generation of leadership, the sheer persistence.... The popular conception of Montgomery -- a tired woman refused to give up her seat and a prophet rose up to lead the grateful masses -- is a good story, but useless history." (Page 300) 

"The late Nathan Huggins, while agreeing with [Bob] Moses and other critics that one must emphasize organizations and movements, warned against viewing the people who participated in the movement as 'interchangeable parts. You cannot remove Martin Luther King from that picture and have the story happen more or less the same way.'" (301)

"Ella Baker has famously said that 'the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.' In many ways, she is absolutely right. Truly, without the raging urge to be free that tore through Southern black breasts in the fifties and sixties and without the apparatus of social transformation that gave King a vision and a vehicle to realize his desire to serve, then he would have gotten nowhere. But as Richard Lischer reminds us, King's unique genius helped to make the movement: 'But the Civil Rights Movement did not "make" King any more than the Civil War "made" Lincoln. Admittedly, like Lincoln, King was summoned by events he did not initiate and exposed to conditions he did not create, but his response was so powerful an interpretation of events that it reshaped the conditions in which they originated.'" (304)

"We must rebel against the varieties of amnesia that compete to reduce King to an icon for the status quo or a puppet of civil and social order. We must combat corporations like the ones he fought for the last four years of his life that seek to turn King into a commodity. We must insist that instead of making commercials to celebrate his life, these corporations pay their workers a humane wage in honor of King's vibrant memory. No amount of mythology will make King any larger than he was, for he long ago surpassed the need to be immortalized by the feeble romance of distorted memory.... He is a hero who loved America so much that he became full of rage and anger for our failing to treat the least to the best our nation can offer, whether that meant money or enough space to live without cramped ambitions or stunted hopes. We have attempted to make King in our own image, but he is, as historian Vincent Harding reminds us, 'an inconvenient hero.' Even from his grave, King challenges our desire to manipulate his image since that desire feasts on ethical laxity, a failure of nerve to do what is right in favor of doing what is easy and familiar." (305)

"King was great because, as he liked to preach, he was willing to serve. His life continues to speak to all of us because he is the truest bellwether of our moral possibilities.... His example is timeless because his energy is boundless, forever present through the renewing kinship of memory. We can claim his brand of heroism by fully and honestly embracing the cantankerous differences that unite us in our constant pilgrimage to America: With King as a guide, we can discover America again, and set off to conquer nothing less than the ignorance and fear that keep us from and not with one another." (306)

A few other links: King's bio, photos, and acceptance speech on the Nobel Prize site. And here's a site on MLK with videos, speech transcripts, and more. Here's the website of The King Center. And this is the Gandhi-King Community for global peace with social justice in a sustainable environment, free to join and take part in the community's offerings.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Just a few things I've come across this week, or thought to post about.

GLBT HISTORY MUSEUM: First, I'm excited about the opening, this past Thursday, of the GLBT History Museum at 4127 - 18th Street in San Francisco's very queer Castro District (photo from the museum's website). A project of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco, the museum is the first of its kind in the United States, and only the second in the world (the first was the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which has a description of their permanent exhibition in English here). Drawing on the Society's large archive of documents, photos, audio and video recordings, ephemera, and other materials, the opening exhibit in the main gallery is called "Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating GLBT History." As the curators say in a statement, the show "offers a kaleidoscopic view of nearly a century of queer experience in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It does not form a single narrative; our history is too varied and unruly to be limited in that way. Instead, we bring together multiple stories, sometimes interlinking, sometimes isolated, sometimes in conflict." (You can also watch my short video about the GLBT Historical Society's archives here.)

RECOLLECTING ADAMS: This 2009 series of short animated videos from artist Marianne Rodriguez Petit is ridiculously well done. (The still image above is from episode 5.) In each of the 15 short episodes of "Recollecting Adams," one narrator from the town of Adams, Massachusetts tells stories from the lives of their families and town, and Marianne has beautifully animated these stories in different styles. As the website aptly says, together these stories "paint a rich portrait of the history of immigration, the mills, the Church, town life, and more, across generations." Dip in at random, or go through the whole series in order. Whatever the case, the series is gorgeous and well worth watching. 

KING LIAR: Lastly, here's something forwarded to me by Richard Ackoon, a painter from Trinidad. It's Lord Nelson's famous calypso tune "King Liar," about a lying competition in which the three top fabulists try to out-do each other. In other words, the song is a story about people telling tall tales. Calypso music started in Trinidad in the early 1900s, and is largely a form of storytelling, says Richard. His claim is backed up by no less an authority than the all-knowing if poorly-sourced Wikipedia, which says that calypso became a way of spreading news around Trinidad. I had a little trouble understanding the singer's accent, and if you do, too, you can read the lyrics here. Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011


The article below is copy-pasted from Sojourner's Magazine. It was adapted from a presentation by Marshall Ganz at Sojourners' Training for Change conference in June 2008. Marshall Ganz is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. His work on "public narrative" has been adapted by many community organizers and, oh, at least one recent successful presidential campaign.
The Art and Craft of Social Change
By Marshall Ganz

I grew up in Bakersfield, California, where my father was a rabbi and my mother was a teacher. I went to Harvard in 1960, in part because it was about as far as I could get from Bakersfield, which was the terminus of the dust bowl migration that John Steinbeck made famous in The Grapes of Wrath.

I got my real education, however, when I left Harvard to work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I went to Mississippi because, among other things, my father had served as an Army chaplain in Germany right after World War II. His work was with Holocaust survivors, and as a child the Holocaust became a reality in our home. The Holocaust was interpreted to me as a consequence of racism, that racism is an evil, that racism kills. I made a choice to go to Mississippi.

I also was raised on years of Passover Seders. There’s a part in the Passover Seder when they point to the kids and say, “You were a slave in Egypt.” I finally realized the point was to recognize that we were all slaves in Egypt and in our time that same struggle from slavery to freedom is always going on, that you have to choose where you stand in that. The civil rights movement was clearly about that struggle. It was in Mississippi that I learned to be an organizer and about movement-building.

I went to Mississippi because it was a movement of young people, and there’s something very particular about young people, not just that they have time. Walter Brueggemann writes in The Pro­phetic Imagination about the two elements of prophetic vision. One is criticality, recognition of the world’s pain. Second is hope, recognition of the world’s possibilities. Young people come of age with a critical eye and a hopeful heart. It’s that combination of critical eye and hopeful heart that brings change. That’s one reason why so many young people were and are involved in movements for social change.

THE INITIAL CHALLENGE for an organizer—or anybody who’s going to provide leadership for change—is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention. Often that breakthrough happens by urgency of need. Sometimes it happens because of anger—and by anger I don’t mean rage, I mean outrage. It’s the contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Our experience of that tension can break through the inertia and apathy of things as they always are.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.

ALL STORIES HAVE three parts: a plot, a protagonist, and a moral. What makes a plot a plot? What gets you interested? Tension. An anomaly. The unexpected. The uncertain and the unknown. A plot begins when the unknown intervenes. We all lean forward because we are familiar with the experience of having to confront the unknown and to make choices. Those moments are the moments in which we are most fully human, because those are the moments in which we have the most choice. While they are exhilarating moments, they are also scary moments because we might make the wrong choice. We are all infinitely curious in learning how to be agents of change, how to be people who make good choices under circumstances that are unexpected and unknown to us.

In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story. That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self-doubt, and love over isolation and alienation.

HOW DO WE recapture that power of public narrative and learn the art of leadership storytelling?

A leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called. Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.

We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person. And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach. In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives.

The second story is the story of us. That’s an answer to the question, Why are we called? What experiences and values do we share as a community that call us to what we are called to? What is it about our experience of faith, public life, the pain of the world, and the hopefulness of the world? It’s putting what we share into words. We’ve all been in places where people have worked together for years, but there’s no us there because they don’t share their stories. Faith traditions are grand stories of us. They teach how to be an us.

Finally, there’s the story of now—the fierce urgency of now. The story of now is realizing, after the sharing of values and aspirations, that the world out there is not as it ought to be. Instead, it is as it is. And that is a challenge to us. We need to appreciate the challenge and the conflict between the values by which we wish the world lived and the values by which it actually does. The difference between those two creates tension. It forces upon us consideration of a choice. What do we do about that? We’re called to answer that question in a spirit of hope.

Our goal is to meet this challenge, to seize this hope, and turn it into concrete action. After developing our stories of self, then we work on building relationships, which forms the story of us. From there we turn to strategizing and action, working together to achieve a common purpose, learning to experience hope—that’s the story of now.

I LEARNED IMPORTANT lessons in Mississippi that underlie the art and work of organizing.

All the inequalities between blacks and whites were driven by a deeper inequality—the inequality of power. Paul Tillich taught us that the work of justice requires power, and for power to become justice requires love. All three are intimately related. We cannot turn our love into justice without engaging power. Justice is not achieved without struggle. It’s not achieved without mobilizing power. Organizing is about mobilizing power.

The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and 1956 was an example of turning individual resources into collective power. To resist the segregated buses, the black bus riders refused to pay the fare to the bus company, and they refused not as individuals but as a community. By withdrawing that financial resource from the city of Mont­gom­ery, they turned an individual resource into collective power.

Gandhi taught us that most systems of power are based on interdependence and require some degree of cooperation between those who are exploited by them as well as those who benefit from them. Communities get organized because there are people among them who are skilled organizers, who are skilled leaders.

Leadership is about enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. When there’s certainty, when you know what to do, you don’t need leadership. It’s when you don’t know what to do that the art and creativity of leadership matters. It matters even more in enabling others to work together to achieve a common purpose in the face of uncertainty.

One way to look at leadership is reaching down to mobilize the resources of a constituency and turning them into goals consistent with that constituency’s values.

We start with the skill of relationship-building, the story of self. Then we develop the skill of motivation or the story of us. Third, the skill of strategizing, the story of now. And fourth, the skill of action.

Learning skills and practices is not like learning a formula; it’s more like learning how to ride a bicycle. You can read 10 books about it or listen to someone lecture about it all day, but how do you really start learning to ride a bicycle? You get on. And you fall. That’s how you learn practices. That’s how you learn organizing.