Friday, October 19, 2007

We should develop the three key areas already in existence. Decide on what we wish to do about funding? Look for ways to collaborate with other organizations and interest groups in our community. Decide on whether we wish to grow our numbers?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Recap for October 14, 2007

(Note: at the end of today’s notes is a charge for next week’s discussions)

We began a little late today, and welcomed four new first-time members. A standing round of applause for yesterday’s So Just festival. “Everybody held it down, and everything came together.” We gave thanks to our So Just organizing team and participants.

Today we heard Stephen’s story.

One of the topics we discussed was the book, Deep Like the Rivers, by Thomas L. Webber, about education for the enslaved in the American South. You can read a review of it here. (This link is a bit cumbersome as users must have an affiliation with a participating library to access it easily, but the review said Webber argued that “by creating and controlling their own educational instruments the slave quarter community was able to reject most of white teaching and to pass to their children a set of unique cultural themes.”)

We also discussed some dimensions of privilege. Many kids will notice things that seem fair or not fair, and usually the frame of reference for fairness is, fair or unfair for us. Experience in educational justice and social justice issues, actually doing the work of it, enables us to broaden that base for asking about what is fair and unfair. Many of the people at the Conversation share a hope in the power of one person acting.

As noted last week, we are going to talk today about meta-talk, talk about our own processes and goals. Yesterday, at So Just, is an example of some talk that was going on becoming a real thing. Conversation members were encouraged to revel in the moment and appreciate what can happen when we see words transformed into a social event, and to see them transformed into something that was not there before.

Sometimes words take a while to come around to create something. We were reminded of the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court gave legal cover to a system of segregation. Justice Harlan said, “I dissent,” and predicted the decision would haunt the nation. And more recently chief justice of the Court, Rehnquist, wrote when he was a law clerk in 1952, "Plessy vs. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed." (see this discussed here. Rehnquist’s memo presaged today’s Court, which has effectively moved back to that stage, even more so than when this article was written.)

He shared a document laying out the vision of the Conversation. Part of the document recounted the history of the Conversation. In a grand bit of irony, a church that was an early home to the group, which was reading King’s Why We Can’t Wait, pretty much went through the same processes King described among the church leaders of Montgomery. The church spokespeople were uncomfortable with the discussion of race, and, were squarely on the side of the Conversation. If a group talks about race once, they are easily labeled as “just about race.” And being so-labeled, a group is marginalized. And, several people in the church came to the pastor and said they wanted to get rid of that group. (People who don’t have a copy of Why We Can’t Wait and wish to read a copy of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can read it online here.)

Discussions of fairness are easily dismissed because they are construed as discussions of race.

The stories were told to affirm that the Conversation has collected its share of bruises, and that we should look around at it now—the group has endured these and keeps its commitment to keep going, and will as long as it continues to find a good answer to the question—are we relevant? And, many of us ask others to come around with us Sunday mornings—it is worth doing, and worth sharing.

“Come with all you bring, and you flavor what we become.”

One point raised: At the Conversations we call ourselves residents of the area, not just citizens—because the status of citizenship is, historically, constricted for many people, and still is. (Conversations members might be interested in Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals.)

At the Conversation, “when you are spouting trivialities and think they are profound, your friends will wake you up.” Supporting each other is a big part of what we do. And sometimes we will have sharp disagreement in our conversations, and bruised egos. But the model we follow has to be a willingness to hang on and continue to engage.

A few things going on here: The education focus group is active. The first annual So Just happened yesterday. Redeeming the Vision will be this coming January 20, 2008, at Urban Grace. We continue to be interested in schools, in individual teachers. We have a number of things developing, such as a possible forum on the relationship between Jewish and Black community groups interested in social justice.
We opened the topic, “Who would you say we are?”
• A group of people that get together to talk about relevant things that are happening, and we are able to talk about all the isms that do not go over well at other groups. One member shared an example of getting censored at another group for doing this.
• A place to gain strategies and courage so that we can bring up justice at other places. We are a think tank, in a way. We generate ideas, and we generate groups that act. We can be seen as evolving toward a strategy and action group, in addition to talking about them.
• This is a support system, a place to explore the things that are uncomfortable, but it is a comfortable place to be uncomfortable.
• There are many in the room have been educators, and have worked with community groups. And the Conversation is a presence more people want to know about.
• Conversation and action are part of a dynamic that feed each other.
• We are a community, people coming together to be a community.
• We are a group of people who have found a safe place to engage in intense dialog about cultural content that we need to address. It is difficult to even talk about the dominant assumptions, and to integrate the conversations into the way we live.

We broke up, every two tables no more than 5 people, with the charge to answer the question: What can we become?

Report from One group
• The question of becoming—hey, wait, it is a dynamic and open thing. It is a good thing to become what we are, this open thing where people can come in, become a part of this, help with the projects and come up with new ones.
• It would be good if we were able to pull together key phrases from different faith traditions that address the themes we address and maybe push us in some direction.
• The Conversation can be a place where people from just about any tradition, and teachers from them, the kids and parents, can come into this group and get sustenance, from burnout to being rekindled. We have a lot to offer in this direction.
• This group started reading a book, and it would be good to do that again. Study something that is going to speak to the work we are doing. This is not a call to do only that, but it is something I value. And we should remember that group that started off by reading a book kept it together, and the community reading of the book built a shared understanding that is very valuable. We could schedule that for a period of time, some designated meetings.
• We reiterated the value of the personal stories, and noted several dimensions of their value.

Another group report:
• talk is action, and we need other action to spread the message about justice
• we like the intimate interaction, and we need to share that with public officials
• a place to find some common ground
• to work with the youth piece of it, be a safe environment where we can develop this and come up with actions
• We don’t want to spread everyone too thin with additional actions.

Another Group
• want to be strong, a place of transformation
• to be able to tell the difference between the truth and the lies
• to change our stories
• close gaps, find community together
• a place to encourage and empower people
• to keep fear from having power over us
• encourage others to attend, educate each other, and be a place where we can take refuge from the loneliness
• a social change agent

Another Group
• We should be a spawning ground for members
• We can be a group that learns across difference, a learning about African American history, learning how different cultures can help us figure out the world
• We want to continue to be a place where we are not afraid to discuss white privilege.
• Churches usually have a common text, and the common text here seems to be the collection of individual stories, and we must continue this. We become footnotes in each others stories, make them all richer.

Another Group
• We don’t do away with the wisdom texts, and incorporate them into what we do.
• We should be more of who we are, a safe space, a think tank, and a role model.
• We can become more present in the community, in elections, at the school board
• We can prepare ourselves more for hostile conversations.
• Be resilient under stress
• A place to find our voice.

Another Group--Intergenerational focus
• be a verb, not a noun.
• Be a community resource for folks interested in racial justice.
• sponsor the 2008 youth summit
• allow development and opportunity for each person to lead
• become more intergenerational, more diverse, explore more formats for encouraging youth participation, maybe one later in the day, try the storytelling there.

Another Group—characteristics of The Conversation
• revolutionary
• think tank
• affinity group—a small group of activists who work together on direct action, are nonhierarchical and work among trusted friends, a community organization that is decentralized, having a shared concern, a flexible ideology
• culturally competent

Responses to what we heard.
• “I am not an agent.” Be careful about identifying people who disagree as ‘agent.’
• It is good to support everyone—one noted that the support for women is not always strong in our institutions, for example.
• We appear to largely agree on what we are about, with a lot of new ideas.
• Good thing to connect to the younger people, too.
• We each enter The Conversation at different stages of the group, at different stages of our lives.

In preparation for next week’s Conversation:
Each of you, please post one programmatic idea to the blog. The question to address: What are some of the activities you want us to engage in.

Recap for October 7, 2007

One Conversation member is starting an amputee support group, and will be telling us more about it at the project develops—which appears to be imminent. She told us about a chance meeting with a person who has resources and a desire to do exactly that. Big round of applause at the story.

Another member read a draft letter addressed to the chair of the Tacoma School Board. The letter emphasized the need for a superintendent search that emphasized the right skills and experience at meeting the District goals to real ALL students, to involve the public in the process. We discussed the perceptions of people attending the last Board meeting, and several reported an unease at the lack of critical Board questions about important issues raised. Someone raised the possibility that the Board is moving slowly toward a search process, and that a safe option would be to retain the current acting superintendent. Remember a previous acting superintendent was invited in to pour oil upon the waters, and stayed for most of a decade. We discussed the importance of being active on this.

Conversation members are reminded that the schools group has published a website that keeps track of some of their conversations, at

It might be a good idea, said one Conversation member, to have the Conversation devote a session to keeping us all informed of the various projects members are working on. Projects that have a community impact may need to consciously build political coalitions—with unions, with community groups, and so on—and to self-consciously build a public information campaign to get the word out and put pressure on the institutions that need to change. At later points in the Conversation others referred to this as a model worth emphasizing—perhaps we should devote a session to it—perhaps next week.

One member observed “this school board is weak, and we should not let it rebuild things on the same shaky foundation,” suggesting there is a real danger that Board members should be pushed in the direction of action. We heard another report from someone in the study session before the last Board meeting who said it was apparent the Board considered the current acting superintendent as here for the long haul. Oh, oh. It appears there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the Board will back off from its search for a new superintendent.

We also discussed the tone and content of a letter passed around to the Board. Several Conversation members expressed a desire to sign a stronger letter, and the group that composed the letter reported on their discussions of the issue.

One observation, coming off the self-described state of the school board group connected to the Conversation as a group of people who care about schools, or words to that effect: the Board should be aware that something is up, should be concerned with power emerging in the community, and should from time to time be shocked out of its complacency. For example, the actions that contributed to the departure of the previous superintendent were one phase, and many of the people who took part in that let others know they are in for the long haul. Key people involved in that are currently working on school board issues. It was recommended that we allow ourselves to be comfortable with the occasional chaos that might come from a demonstration, and also keep up the work of political organization.

One Conversation member talked to us about disproportionate minority confinement (DMC)—“a condition that exists when a racial/ethnic group representation in confinement exceeds the representation in the general population.” [At times our conversation also used DMC to refer to disproportionate minority contact, since the issue is wider than confinement.] For example, African-Americans age 10-17 yrs old make up 11% of Pierce County residents of similar age, but they are 30-35% of those in detention, and they stay in jail longer than others. All children should be treated equally in the juvenile justice system, disparities in detention is in part the result of processes that are widely considered to be neutral—and so the group described in this talk is working to draw attention to policies that produce DMC. The group understands the need to generate accurate and reliable data, and the need to get people involved who can be effective in affecting decisions in institutions (prosecutors, judges, police, mental health officials, school officials, counselors, and so on).

African Americans in high school get expelled from the Tacoma schools at three times the rate of whites, suspended at two and a half times the rate of whites, and for junior high school the disproportionate rages are two and a half times the expulsion rate, and over twice the suspension rate. In the juvenile justice system in Pierce County sees African Americans get rearrested at three times the rate as for whites.

This is obviously a call for looking at DMC. We heard the ways the group works on these problems. One thing they worked on was alternatives to detention—so found and came up with ideas that police, prosecutors and courts could buy into. They were able to get the state legislature to fund some projects, mostly for the kids who need help and are not accused of crimes against others.

Conversation members might be interested in an article in today’s New York Times, Week in Review section, on this very issue. The article describes the problem, asks when DMC becomes a constitutional issue—but unfortunately is not very critical. It suggests, at the end, that many of the actions that lead to DMC are “unintentional,” by which the article means the officials are not aware of how their actions produce DMC. The article also places the discussion in the context of the present federal court system—where judges increasingly do not recognize racial segregation, even segregation by law, as being a constitutional problem.

Conversation members talked about some of the details of policies that contribute to DMC, such as the need for telephones in the home for certain alternatives to detention to be applied, another example of how many rules treat poor people differently. (Newer technology for at-home monitoring alternative to detention relies on cell phone technology, which has kept lots of kids out of detention. This requires that governments spend money on such technologies.) We heard many examples of the way programs unintentionally lead to DMC. Each program needs to be tested, tested, tested, pay attention to outcomes, and assemble the evidence & bring it to the attention of the group that can do something about it (recall the mention above of the committee that involved prosecutors, judges, police, mental health officials, school officials, counselors). One member emphasized that the agencies that are represented at such inclusive tables may not themselves have paid much attention to disproportionate representation. One example was glaring. Best-practices inventories emphasize the importance and different outcomes that emerge from all-white vs. relatively diverse organizations. Cultural competency is not automatic.

One member observed that a group of assembled policymakers, administrators that are responsible for state programs dealing with juvenile justice, are overwhelmingly white. Other members of the Conversation shared that this is common.

We heard several examples of how the laws have become more punitive, and the default presumption on kids that don’t go to school, or kids that are mentally ill and disruptive, is to lock them up as irresponsible—yet this strongly contributes to DMC. One institutional feature we heard about was the October surge in expulsions—so the school district gets budget credit for the kid, but then the kid is expelled, and state money does not follow the kid to help finance needed services. And such kids fall far behind in the accumulation of credits, in preparation for the WASL, and the increased likelihood that such kids will run into the police. One member described working with such kids, and made the point that there are almost no services for them right now. The other side of the laws becoming more punitive is that money for services is drying up—for example, there is a dire need for a full-time halfway house for school-aged kids on the street, but the barriers to funding, licensing, and getting a site for such a facility are so high. IT IS DISCOURAGING. There sure is a lot of work to do. Several members present described the discouraging experiences they have had. No easy answers, but one member encouraged them to ‘set their face like flint’ and be present, and speak up, at these institutions where policies are made. Members were encouraged to join the group,

One member described the school system as being designed to cull out 30% of the students. It is designed this way, it produces this outcome. The leader of this discussion is part of an organization works precisely with those 30%. Several members emphasized that this is unacceptable, and that we need to hear that from the School Board.

What is it that we need? What if the Governor of the State of Washington was here. What would you tell her? Ideas from various members
• the people assembled at the table have to have experience that enables them to connect to the kids, to understand the situation that produced the situation kids find themselves in.
• Bring parents in
• Equity
• restorative justice involves kids and parents
• full time counselors, nursing, full time safe place for kids and parents also open evenings
• legislation to support small schools
• timing of schools ---adolescents not awake til 9:00
• no kicking kids out for no reason
• deinstitutionalize the racism in the schools, we kick out 30% and feed them into the prison system.
• I think we need fabulous breakfast served, so many kids need it.
• We need two adults in each classroom.
• Make things smaller, stop having 6 periods where teachers have 150 kids they deal with, have more block times…. make 6th grade elementary again.
• Accountability—teachers, administrators, schools are allowed to continue worst practices. And coupled with that we need a support system to help those who change those outcomes.
• Several people mentioned the importance of having parents and families involved in the ways we address this.
• One person asked, Who is making money off of the poor?

There is a list of things people want. OK, how do we get there?
• Parents need to be involved, but we organize the world of work to make that difficult for some people—especially those who have low income jobs and often more than one job. This is a tough one—at least, the agencies that officials DO have control over can change and make flexible hours possible.
• More money needs to be spent on serious job training programs, to give more folks chances to earn the incomes that are associated with more political participation.
• Make it easier to vote—reinstate the vote of people who have been in jailed, and make registration easier or automatic (half of the people who did not vote, but could have, in the last two presidential elections had moved in the previous 18 months).
• Individuals can examine their values, there is so much to do, we can each clarify our values and decide what piece we can take on to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy—and show up ready to work on the piece you have chosen as important.
• We could give parents some kind of tax break for involvement in after-school programs, and perhaps a voucher system for supporting after-school programs.
• Every classroom can have an adult assistant, and make sure there sufficiently diverse people there.
• It is possible to have the adult assistants be decently paid, select many from the students who are precisely the people who have not succeeded, have them in a work-study as part of a college program. Get them on the road to a degree while they can be helping in the classrooms.
• small class sizes, and have teacher pay linked to results in this regard.
• Foreign languages taught from the first grade.
• Teach citizenship and civic education, and problem-solving/negotiation skills.
• No school should have more students than it was designed to have.
• Teachers need to have cultural diversity classes.

Now, what you willing to do?
• work with a group that has picked one of these issues.
• Go to the league of Women Voters, and the ACLU, to help pay the debt of released felons.
• Work through my music to advocate, and also through a community group that does this.
• I’m going to make the group I’m part of more powerful, figure out what it is we can do to be more effective.

This simple exercise suggests we need to push our thinking on this—before you get to the roadblocks, there are commitments you can make.

The Conversation wants to support these commitments to action. They are important. We also want to celebrate the life of the mind, too, and not let action discourage us from taking hard looks at the world. We need to nourish ourselves, and feed whatever it is that keeps us engaged.

Dexter said “We need the activist arm to be pushing us, but I would like an activist arm that is not a blunt instrument, an activist arm that is not easily dismissed.” Alton McDonald has done some work—he is a non-attorney who shows up to be a voice for African Americans arrested for various things. He found a place for himself, he takes action. Good example for us. Let us not buy into the all-too-common duality between theory and practice. It is not one or the other, we need to have a balance between our Conversation and our actions.

We heard from So Just, they got some publicity, they are calling in the pledges, and if there are others who can contribute or want their business cards put into the paid advertisement, now is the time. They could really use $500. They are applying for Grant funding next year. Most important, bring people, show up yourself. It is important to have 100 people here Saturday, at 11. Be there.

Redeeming the Vision this year will be Saturday, January 20, 2008, at Urban Grace, probably at 2 pm.. Tuesday, Oct. 9, and every two weeks thereafter, 6pm @ UPS, is the planning committee schedule. All are invited to be part of the planning group.

Emails will remind you of the upcoming fundraiser for United for Peace of Pierce County.
We are planning a February forum, perhaps at Kings Books, on the possibilities for partnerships in the civil rights communities. That program is in the process of being planned, stay tuned for more.

Pierce College Nov. 29 will have Michael Eric Dyson speaking. Call the Student programs office at Pierce, charge will be $15.

Recap for September 30, 2007

Both notetakers were absent this week. A permanent hole in our archives. :(