Sunday, May 03, 2009

Conversation Recap for May 3, 2009

We welcomed two new participants on a sunny morning.

Sid shared the story. We discussed our involvement with the public schools, and were asked to consider: how will we look back and describe what we did, knowing what we do?

We were visited by Chris Van Vechten, who is considering a run at the Tacoma School Board next year. He described his experience in public schools, a difficult time that he was able to turn around (three cheers for arts programs in the schools). He graduated from University of Puget Sound. [For some family background, he referred us to a book about his grandfather, Remember Me To Harlem,” ed. by Emily Bernard, from Knopf.]

One particular issue he is interested in in what we define as more important or essential subjects in class. He is also interested in looking at developing a school that focuses on preparation for trades, perhaps on a model like SOTA or SAMI.

He has been campaigning for about a month. When he asks people what needs to be done in their schools today, he hears a variety of things—which means a ‘one size fits all’ approach to improvement is a bad idea. He believes that schools at present very poorly serve students. One broad concept: schools need to be better connected to real life.

We had a broad discussion of the purposes of public education. Some participants shared elements of an answer, and offered the advice that the words need to be said (describing the real outcomes of the present school system), and that plenty of people won’t like it.

One participant compared the Tacoma public utility board’s experience in the drought at the close of the last century. It was an opportunity to be influential on the board beyond the formal rules and procedures. The school board might be a place to think about this—the work of getting others to change the way they see their basic responsibilities and resources is long and hard.

In discussing the achievement gap, several participants’ questions and suggestions encouraged a more specific, experience-based account of what can be done to make a difference. One participant suggested that someone (how about one of us) assemble a list of what we know can be done right now about the achievement gap.

And there was a generous sharing of humorous observations.

The assembled participants offered some broad recommendations about focusing a campaign. The advice from this group has to include the idea that one person can make a big difference. Frame the campaign—this whole thing has to change, and it starts with me.

Keith have a presentation about food security—he used the term “food dictatorship,” by which he means the commercial control of plant genetics. Commercial organizations have been able to patent organisms since the landmark Supreme Court in 1980, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a 5-4 decision.

He showed us a video on Youtube, Frankenfoods. See it at

This raises some very interesting questions about the ownership of life.

Keith focused on the idea that the justice issues of food security can be addressed by going down another path—dealing politically with distribution issues. The trend right now is to develop food via patented products, which require farmers to enter into feed production of a particular design—they have to earn or borrow a certain amount of money to buy the patented foods, the fertilizers they need, and so on. The model is that property rights extend to all facets of the food cycle, and that all is for sale.

Anyone interested in the rules that apply to use of the “organic” label on your food, see the agriculture department web page on the issue:

A good example of an interest group that keeps track of these questions (such as the link between genetically modified organisms and organic food), and has a rich website, is Their argument about a moratorium on GMO’s is at

There are alternatives to the current model of developing and selling food. Those interested in this may want to check Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Both are well-written, carefully argued, and available in paperback. Each include some practical answers to the question, What Can I Do About It? Several participants raised broad issues that, they said, would be good to connect with practical steps we can take.

One participant noted the seedsavers movement. See

People interested in the story of the Canadian farmer and Monsanto, you can read details at wikipedia:

A recommendation: Stolen Harvest, by Vandana Shiva, and Water Wars, by the same author, are very good on these topics in a more global setting. See also Monocultures Of The Mind.

• Steve & Kristi play at Rhapsody in Bloom, this coming Wednesday, the 6th.
• On the 9th, a StopLoss Event, Coffee Strong Coffee House. All day event.
• Thursday, June 11, is the night of that Little Theater public event involving some members of the Conversation, save the date.
• Conversation meets May 17, at rehearsal hall of Broadway Theater.