May 25th, 2020
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.” —Grace Lee Boggs
Thinking for Ourselves
In the last six months Michigan has experienced two potential nuclear disasters. Both were due to rising flood waters. In late November the Revere Dock collapsed, spilling unknown amounts of limestone and aggregate materials. In the course of the investigation of his spill, it was discovered that the site also stored nuclear waste material, forgotten by the most recent owners. The Environmental Protection Agency has since found uranium, lead, toxic chemicals and heavy metals in water samples at the site.
This week the entire city of Midland was flooded as two dams burst under the pressure of rising water. Midland is the home of Dow Chemical and one of the most toxic Superfund cleanup sites in the country. The site also contains a nuclear research reactor.
As the waters rise and carry these surface contaminants down into the rivers and Great Lakes water shed, shorelines are eroded and the underwater sediments stirred up. Allen Burton, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan explained,
“You worry about the speed of the current, this wall of water coming down the river,” he said. “It just has a huge amount of power.”
In both cases, officials assure us there are no radioactive effects. Thus far the water from Revere has been contained, and the nuclear plant was shut down due to the Coronavirus.
Even so, everyone knows that the flood waters are carrying the wastes of centuries of industrial poisons. We also know they are carrying the oil from the engines of the newest cars, now under water, the chemicals stored in homes used to clean and protect them from bacteria, and the untold toxic materials used in businesses, manufacturing centers, schools, and churches. We all know that the Fermi plants are just down river, watching the waters rise. And we know that Fermi has the worst safety record in the US.
Flood waters, like the coronavirus, remind us that we are all connected. They warn us that we cannot return to” normal.” We need a completely different way of thinking about our responsibilities to each other, the earth and the waters.
This new way of thinking is not likely to come from our officials. They continue to deny reality, especially in Detroit. Here Mayor Duggan and Gary Brown insist water has been restored everywhere. Yet two weeks ago we delayed the Riverwise editorial meeting, as one of our members stood out side to stop a water shut off of her 95 year old neighbor. This week volunteers gathered at churches to distribute water to people who do not have it in their homes.
At the heart of this contradiction is the insistence by the city that people need to contact them to get their water restored. Placing the burden on people who have been shut off, and may not even know of the restoration efforts, comes from a deep disrespect of those who could not afford high bills, and from a lack of fundamental understanding of government responsibility. It also comes from the fact that the city keeps poor records, and hides those from public view. As a recent article in Michigan Advance explained, the numbers kept by local governments are murky.
Charlotte Jameson, program director of legislative affairs, drinking water and energy at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), says Michigan’s deregulated reporting system makes it almost impossible to know exactly how many residents are still living with their water shut off…It’s incredibly difficult to know what is happening at any given water utility because they’re regulated at the local level…So there’s very little access to data, very little transparency in terms of how utilities do rate making, very little transparency into their operations, who they’re shutting off and who they’re not, why they’re shutting people off. We just don’t have that information.
What we know is that we need a comprehensive, thoughtful, and visionary approach to the waters that sustain us. We also know that the values of the past that cast water as a resource to be used and tossed away, that limits access to it by the ability to pay, and that denies our deep connections, are ideas that are killing us. It is time to craft a way of living that begins with the basic understanding that water is a human right and a sacred trust. There is no other way to ensure our future.
Covid Could Be Death Sentence We Don’t Deserve
Disability Justice, Community, & Intentionality
Honoring Stacey Park Milbern #StaceyTaughtUs
Stacey Park Milbern passed away on May 19, 2020, her 33rd birthday. Her friends, community, and family — people she met and people who longed to meet Stacey immediately began telling their stories, #StaceyTaughtUs. Her first of many many memorials included a virtual celebration with over 500 registered guests on Zoom with a 150 car parade throughout Oakland, CA with ASL (American Sign Language) and live captioning. This growing collection of stories demonstrate how much people want to fight like hell, while building the world that centers the lives of disabled, queer, and BICOP. She lived in the possibilities of what it can be. She not only practiced living in the “beloved community,” she lived it. Every #StaceyTaughtUs story is evidence of that.
My brother, Micah Fialka-Feldman is who he is for many reasons (as we all are) — but when he connected with young disability leaders — they shaped my brother (and therefore our family’s story) in powerful ways. He saw his disability as an identity with history, pride, community, activism, and brilliance.
Stacey Park Milbern was one of those shapers. Stacey got “it.” The “it” that says people with intellectual disabilities must have their voices and presence at the disability justice table. The “it” that says we must, both, live in and for a reimagined world — where the lives of disabled people are dignified, honored, and supported — in a beyond capitalism, racism paradigm. The “it” that says we must always be learning, thinking, questioning, in conversation with our communities. The “it” that says we can not use a lack of familiarity with difference to stop us in for getting together. That’s what Stacey taught me.
Micah was introduced to Stacey and her deep demand for creative justice when Micah attended the National Youth Leadership Forum, a national disabled led youth leadership project, in the early 2000s. This National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) connected him with other disability activists around the country. Micah, excited by his deepening understanding of his own identities shared this growing knowledge with our family. Given connections to various disability organizations (including NYLF), our family worked with the Allied Media Projects to see how disability justice could be brought into the work of the Allied Media Conference which had recently moved to Detroit in 2007. Stacey and a cross-section of disability organizers worked with AMP to make Allied Media Conference creatively accessible and weave in workshops and themes about disability justice. Years later, this eventually led to the first ever Disability Justice track.
Stacey reflected on this collaborative work in a December 2008 NYLF Newsletter. “I have been thinking a lot about an event I went to this summer, the Allied Media Conference (AMC)…It was amazing to see young people taking the city in their own hands. Through the AMC, I had a chance to really get to know an NYLN member, Micah Fialka-Feldman. He welcomed me to Detroit. Since I was new to the AMC community, he made sure I always knew what was going on. He made sure I had what I needed to participate. Conference organizers told me about how Micah and his family had worked with them to make sure that access wouldn’t be an issue for anyone. As a result, many disabled people attended the conference. Disability issues were on the table. Unlike other events, many workshops focused on integrating a disability analysis into broader social justice work. It was a transforming experience for me. I owe a lot to Micah for it…[then she described Micah’s lawsuit to sue Oakland University for housing discrimination]… I hope you will join us in talking about what access really can mean and how it can change how we interact with the world.”
Stacey continued to be connected to visionary activism in Detroit and the work of Grace Lee Boggs as she grew personally and politically. As Catherine Kudlick, Professor of History and Director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University wrote, “She was a co-founder and promoter of Disability Justice, a second wave of the disability movement that combats the disproportionate negative impact of ableism on people of color, queer, trans, and others who are multiply-marginalized. She called out and showed with each of her projects — and indeed with her very existence — the benefits that come from abandoning capitalism’s narrow definitions of who has worth. For example, last fall when the claims of activists proved true in the face of PG&E’s bungled planned power shutdowns, Stacey organized grassroots relief and protests. With the arrival of the pandemic, the Disability Justice Culture Club, which she ran out of her home, took on even greater significance and reach. In April, she partnered with Longmore on some of the pathbreaking work she was doing as co-chair of the Crip Camp film impact campaign!
Stacey wrote in 2009 an article titled, “On the Ancestral Plan: Crip Hands Me Downs and the Legacy of Our Movements,” I speculate that Grace Lee Boggs is loving the conversations happening right now about disability in the context of what it means to be human, and as Grace’s friends the Fialka Feldmans said to me last week, would ponder that the reason to add disability justice to social justice is not just because it’s another element of diversity or representation, but rather because disability justice (and disability itself) has the potential to fundamentally transform everything we think about quality of life, purpose, work, relationships, belonging. As a new colleague Ria DasGupta said in a meeting about cripping college campus this week, “we can no longer afford add and stir politics.”
Catherine Kudlick continued, “Stacey came to all of this from her perspective as a biracial Korean-American queer woman who arrived in the SF Bay Area from a southern fundamentalist Christian upbringing. She was forthright, demanding, focused, all while being unnervingly vulnerable with a giggle that could cut through every kind of bullshit. She never lost sight of the biggest goals, all while making you feel like you were the most important person in the world.”
Too often our movements work in silos. Too often we speak about intersectionality but leave out the voices and bodies of those most marginalized. Too often we speak about what the government isn’t doing. May you honor Stacey by building a bigger table, with chairs of various sizes, empty space for chair users, virtual spaces for folks who can’t physically be at the table and with a belief that by making access radical and intentional, our world will grow into beautiful possibilities.
To learn more about what #StaceyTaughtUs check out this syllabus of videos and articles written by her.
If you did not know of Stacey Park, take time to sign up for one of Crip Camp’s Virtual Camp Series each Sunday. Stacey’s vision and force are behind the themes, the speakers, the accessibility, the outreach of it. You will fall in love with the possibilities of a future that centers disabled lives.
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Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
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May 18th, 2020
Close to Home
The failure of the federal government in the face of this global pandemic has created a space for protective, positive actions at the state and local levels. Across the country governors, mayors, and city councils have been stepping forward to respond in thoughtful and innovate ways. The orders to slow the spread of the virus came from governors, with Gavin Newsom of California, Jay Inslee of Washington and Andrew Cuomo of NY offering early, forceful actions with stay at home orders, closing businesses, and providing real, concrete information to people. Michigan joined the effort with aggressive shelter in place strategies as we suffered tremendous losses of life.
Mayors and local governments also moved swiftly to enact a range of policies that acknowledged our collective interdependence. In so doing, they highlighted the narrow cruelty behind business as usual. Rent collections halted, utility shut offs and water restoration policies were quickly put in place. Jail house doors were opened as thousands of people were set free. Evictions and debt collection stopped. As one activist in Kansas said, “We’re winning stuff that last week sounded radical.”
The success of these policies provoked the anger of the President, his administration, and right wing forces across the country. We have seen the petty withholding of protective gear to punish states critical of federal incompetence and armed protests in state capitals, demonstrating the violence inherent in those who would protect power and privilege.
These clashes are framing the contours of the choices ahead of us. In one way or another, the US Empire, long in decline, is falling apart. The failures to provide for the most basic security of life is evident. However we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, we can no longer evade the question of how to organize ourselves for the well-being of our communities, our families and the places that sustain us.
The actions of our governors are already reflecting a regional sensibility. Governors in the northeast are coordinating plans for reopening, as are those on the west coast. Here around the Great Lakes, conversations are evolving that are not only coordinating re-openings of sate economies but discussing strengthening regional ties and production.
For more than 50 years radical thinkers have been challenging us to undo the scale of life required by empire. In 1973, E. F. Schumacher published his influential book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.” At the same time members of the American Indian Movement, inspired by their earlier success occupying Alcatraz, took over the Pine Ridge Reservation. These events accelerated a growing understanding of ecology and indigenous wisdom, providing the context for the North American Bioregional Congress a decade later. These congresses, which convened over nearly a 30- year time frame, argued for a rethinking of our political ecology, based on the laws of nature and the needs for sustainable life.
Thomas Berry, who described himself as a geologian, and advocated for a deeper understanding of history and evolution to inspire us to the “great work of change” was quoted in the original call to congress, saying:
“So now we experience a moment when a change of vast dimension is demanded… A period of change from the mechanistic to the organic, from an oppressive human tyranny over the planet to the rule of the earth community itself, the community of all the living and non-living components of the planet, that neither the nation states nor western civilization has ever seen before.”
This is the moment to do the kind of radical reconstruction of our relationships that is essential to protect our people and our earth. It is a reconstruction that has to be rooted in the values that best reflect what we know makes life meaningful, productive, and joyful. We are learning that the decisions about what matters to us, are best made close to home.
moment to do the kind of radical reconstruction of our relationships that is essential to protect our people and our earth. It is a reconstruction that has to be rooted in the values that best reflect what we know makes life meaningful, productive, and joyful. We are learning that the decisions about what matters to us, are best made close to home.
Contradictions Among the People
In 1963, the year of the Children’s March in Birmingham, the year of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the year Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit and later in Washington DC, the year Malcolm X gave his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech at Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church, James Boggs published his first book, The America Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook. James Boggs courageously challenged all concerned activists and thinkers to move from the declining Labor Movement to the rising freedom movement and black power movement because of the qualitative transformation of consciousness as well as the technological revolution creating a permanent underclass naming the outsiders.
Today, 2020, we are again in a Revolutionary period (Epochal Revolutionary Period) with great opportunities, tremendous obstacles and a growing counter-revolution. In the 1950s and 1960s, the White Citizen Councils were holding onto the Jim Crow South, and today a strong minority of white Americans want to make America great again. The veil of American Racism was pulled back by MLK, Malcolm, the Black Panthers, SNCC and so many others. Along with the Movements for Black Lives Matter, Occcupy, Me Too, the Global Climate Justice, Immigrant, Disability and Transgender Movements, it has been the barbarism of racial capitalism under the rhetoric, organizing and leadership of Trump, that has been become a national debate thru his call for a return to the 1950s or 1920a. This is a defining moment for all of us. It is a spiritual & visionary struggle as well as a material one. In the conclusion of “The American Revolution,” James Boggs he says:
In the 1930s, the problems were relatively simple. All that was required was that the poor struggle against the rich, who were the capitalists and whose failure was clear and obvious.
Today in the 1960s, the struggle is much more difficult. What it requires is that people in every stratum of the population clash not only with the agents of the silent police state, but with their own prejudices, their own outmoded ides, their own fears that keep them from grappling with the new realities of our age. The American people must find a way to determine policy in all spheres of social existence—whether it is foreign policy, the work process, education, race relations, or community life.
The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.
I have highlighted this paragraph because, too often radicals are comfortable challenging the 1% rather than challenging each other to build a true national movement.
Grace Lee Boggs extended this revolutionary vision into our troubled times with her 2011 book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. The chapter titles capture the peril and promise that confront us today: the opening chapter is “These Are the Times to Grow Our Souls,” and the book closes with “We Are the Leaders We’ve Been Looking For.”
It is with this foundation that I share this brief video to encourage conversation, challenging myself and others as we engage in theory and practice to answer the questions:
What time is it on the Clock of the World?
How do we create power, influence power and take power?
What does it mean to Change Ourselves
Get Your copy Books – American Revolution and The Next American Revolution at Books at Boggs Center Store
May 14th, 2020
Thinking for Ourselves
For many of us, the new-found effort to base decisions on data is a welcome change from ideologically driven pre-pandemic politics. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun insist they will continue to work with experts and provide fact based, data driven approaches to decisions, especially about reopening the economy.
The contrast between states embracing data for decision making and the increasing denial of even the existence of data by the Trump administration is stark. This week the Trump administration is shifting strongly toward denying the seriousness of the pandemic.
The New York Times reported on an idea circulating in the White House that death figures are being exaggerated by Democrats for political gain. This idea has been surfacing for a few weeks on right wing blogs, news, and talk shows. It is gaining increasing momentum as pressures for reopening the economy intensify.
The ideas of false data are not spontaneous. They are being advanced by ideologically driven groups that honed their arguments and propaganda strategies in climate crisis denial. Familiar players include the Heartland Institute, Exxon Mobil, Phillip Morris and the Mercer Family Foundation. The Times reported, “It’s the same individuals. It’s the same modus operandi, the same organizations and the same backers,” said Michael E. Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “Right-wing conservative interests that are benefiting from the Trump presidency obviously want to see a continuation with the Trump presidency.”
Here in Michigan the usual right wing advocates have been behind the protests in Lansing. The Michigan Freedom Fund, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the DeVos Family Foundation are recycling old arguments, even reenergizing the chant to “Lock her up,” aimed at Gov. Whitmer. Nationally, they are pushing pandemic denial.
This assault on data, presented as science, is dangerous for many reasons. Chief among them is that it can lead those of us who respect real science to the conclusion that data is a substitute for judgment. It is not. Data has its limits. It can give us a picture of what is happening, why something is happening and, at its best, predict what might happen. But information is not the same thing as wisdom.
Just days before the announcement of a State of Emergency, Gov. Whitmer said the “public health data” did not warrant an order to put a moratorium on water shut offs. She invoked scientific reasoning to support an inhuman policy. This, too, is a well-worn strategy of those who support policies of power and control.
Science can teach us many things and help us understand our world. But it does not tell us what we value, what we need to protect, whose lives matter, and what choices will nurture the creativity of our children. The questions we face now cannot be answered by facts. They must be answered in the context of the values and visions we embrace for our future.
As we resist Trump’s efforts to destroy science and welcome the pledges by governors, mayors and councils across the country to “look to the data” as they make decisions, we need to remember that our choices will not be made for us on some objective standard. Our choices will reflect the kind of world we want to create together.
Rethinking Health Disparities Messages
When I graduated high school, I was fascinated with electronics and decided that I should study to become an electronics technician. One of the first things you learn in an electronics lab (other than getting shocked can hurt, a lot) is electricity always follows the path of least resistance.
Materials like copper and gold are far more conductive than rubber or plastic because the former offer far less resistance to the free flow of electrons. In that way, electricity is not so dissimilar to the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the world right now – both are prolific in mediums that put up little resistance.
The virus thrives, with sometimes fatal consequences, in the bodies and communities of people that can’t put up much of a fight (due to weakened immune systems and other underlying conditions).
The similarities stop there.
In the case of electricity, materials and objects that offer little resistance are a matter of innate physical properties. With COVID-19, the frightening disparities we observe in the ability of some human bodies and communities to resist the virus are far from innate – it is something almost totally within society’s control vis-à-vis socioeconomic factors.
There is no shortage of stories and messages in the news and on social media reminding us that no one has been hit harder in this pandemic than Black Americans. According to NPR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 33% of all COVID-19 hospital patients are Black, though only 13% of the U.S. population is Black. In Michigan, Black Americans constitute 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths, despite representing only about 12% of the state’s population.
These stories and messages, called “disparities messages” in scholarly literature, rightfully sound the alarm on a very dire situation with grave consequences. However, while sounding the alarm is the compelling and ostensibly dutiful thing to do, it has several counterintuitive effects.
According to recent research, disparities messages can negatively impact health outcomes in both the target audience and the group(s) considered to be at lower risk. In the case of Black Americans, Black people may flat-out reject and simply not believe the information being disseminated, especially in the absence of anecdotal evidence.
In the case of White Americans, it may encourage them to not take an issue or crisis seriously (even openly rebelling against efforts to mitigate a crisis) and it stokes the flames of old racist ideas and pseudo-science that conjure people of color as physically inferior, even biologically squalid.
Disparities messages can also add to the cumulative stress associated with the stigmas and hurtful myths racial and social minorities endure. Research has shown that messages highlighting Black-White health disparities often simply piss Black people off and are generally discouraging.
Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, exacerbated feelings of animosity and discouragement in Black America when he very pointedly highlighted the disparate impact of COVID-19 on people of color in America and asked Black people to “do it for your big momma” (perpetuating the “mammy” caricature and other racial stereotypes), urging compliance with social distancing measures.
The goal of all public health messages is to persuade the public to comply with guidelines and recommendations designed to keep everyone safe from infectious diseases, preventable ailments and injuries. Indeed, some groups are more at-risk for certain diseases and other health issues than others.
However, all health messaging must strategically align to achieve the overall goal of promoting public health safety across the entire nation. News stories and targeted disparities messages about COVID-19 and other public health issues are no good if they ultimately offend and discourage the target audience, while providing traction for misinformation and hurtful propaganda among lower-risk groups.
We know that COVID-19 and certain preventable diseases disproportionately affect Black America.
We. Know. That.
What we need to know more about is what we all can do, collectively, to deal with COVID-19 and reduce the prevalence of poor health outcomes for all Americans. That will require less focus on health disparities and more focus on equitable solutions that are inclusive and non-partisan.
One other lesson I learned in the electronics lab is the flow of electricity generates byproducts such as heat. Even if a material or object is not a conductor of electricity itself, it can be damaged by the heat of electric current nearby. Given the myriad indirect consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, what’s understood does not need to be explained.
Johnny Ricks is president and principal consultant of JL Ricks & Associates – Marketing Communications. email@example.com – 313-550-6088
From my front porch