Thursday, September 22, 2011


With the National Conference on Citizenship being held at A.S.U. this week, it seems a good time to write about the future of citizenship, something I explore each semester in "NLM 160: Voluntary Action and Community Leadership," an introductory nonprofit class I'm teaching for the second year at Arizona State University.

My class is mostly full of 18 and 19 year olds, with a smattering of older students.  When I was asked to teach this course, I was charged with the hope-filled task of exciting my students to the power of volunteerism to change the world, so much so that they want to remain volunteers for the rest of their lives.

Although power of participation in the political realm is not the only volunteerism we will study this semester, the first thing we read in this class is Russell Dalton's "The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics."

In other words, they're reading about themselves.

Before I share more of what Dalton has to say about this generation of citizens, I want to describe my class.  To start with, it's large.  This semester I have about 60.  One semester, I had maybe 75 students.

It's very enlightening to have a large class.  Even though, looking around the room, checking their dress, their backpacks, their cell phones and laptops and mp3 players, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that these kids are all cut from one mold, one of the first things we discover in this class is just how different we all are.  Learning about our differences, yet seeing ourselves as a community, is the very stuff of democracy.

One of the semester's first exercises asks the students to circle each demographic they fall into on a chart containing an assortment of categories touching race, gender, ethnicity, religion, athletic ability, attractiveness, weight, sexual identity, disability and more.   I use a slightly edited chart borrowed from Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin's text, "Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice."  As I called each of the 30 or so categories, students who are willing to self-identify are invited to rise.  The complexity of our class make-up became clear.

The exercise always pushes the envelope.  While a few students will decide not to acknowledge one or more of their demographic identities, most do.  We discuss the ways each of these demographic categories creates opportunities and privileges, and the ways in which each category might create obstacles.  For example, being Latino creates rich cultural opportunities, but some of my Latino students say they find it intimidating to live in Arizona after the passage of SB 1070.  

The exercise gives us a chance to talk about identities we can't hide.  We can hide our sexual identity, but we cannot hide the color of our skin.  We can hide our ethnic background, but we cannot hide our gender.  

The exercise also gives us an opportunity to explore the concept of labels.  The demographics chart asks students to identify themselves as Black, White, Native American, Hispanic, etc.  I always ask these students, after they're standing up, whether they are comfortable with the labels on this chart.  Labels are a touchy subject, and racial labels have changed many times in my own lifetime.  When I was small, "Negro" was still a politically correct term.  I believe "African American" is still currently politically correct, but sometimes my students say that they don't relate to the "African" part.  They feel American.  Pure and simple.  It's my understanding that "Native American" is still politically correct, but some of my students in Arizona prefer to refer to themselves as "Indians."

At some point along the line, I changed "Hispanic" to "Latino" on the chart because so many of my students with Spanish-speaking origins rejected the term "Hispanic."  Often, the Latino students want to be recognized for their family's country of origin, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina.  Cultural pride is alive and well.  This year, one of my students said he did not prefer the term "Latino," and wanted to be called "Hispanic."  Labels are very personal.  We prefer to select our own.

Oh, and of course, after hearing this discussion, my "White" students want to point out that their skin isn't white.  And that the term "Caucasian" doesn't really apply either.

"The Caucasus are somewhere near Russia, right?  My family is from Italy."

I have discovered that many students are remarkably brave.  One semester, a woman stood to the term, "gender queer."  While my students expect me to know everything, I had to screw up my own courage to admit I did not know the term's meaning, and to ask this woman to define the term for us.

Similarly, a small handful of students will stand up to the term, "overweight."  The first thing I notice is that this makes the rest of us uncomfortable.  It feels like some sort of public humiliation, because being overweight is considered a character flaw in our country.  But students have been given express permission not to stand unless they wish to.  And, some students who clearly are overweight do not stand up.  The students who stand want to stand.  They do not want to be invisible just because of some media image of acceptability.  Over the semesters, some students have commented that they have shaken off the norm, have come to love and accept themselves.  These words are refreshing, and free the rest of us from our embarrassment.  Later, it will turn out that the ability to speak them aloud is also freeing for the student who does.

This year I have a deaf student who does not stand up when I call the category, "disabled."  He sits in the front row where he can see two signers, looking at me intently, maybe challenging me?  Had he kept his head down, his gaze averted, I would have known that he did not want to talk about this.  But his bold stare told me otherwise.   I turned to him and ask him, "You look like you want to comment.  You've chosen not to stand.  I'm interested in whether you'd like to talk about your choice."  Through his interpreters, he eloquently explained that he does not see himself as disabled.  He does not let his condition get in the way of his achievement - ever.  He is as inspiring as E.T. jumping through the moon, or Lance Armstrong taking an impossible hill.

This year, I am surprised by a young woman who stands up for "Other" and says she is an orphan without a family.  She has been in and out of foster homes.  There is one foster family with whom she still spends holidays, but they don't feel exactly like parents.  She tells about her determination to get an education and to help others whose stories are similar to her own.  The class is very hushed for this story.  Most of us cannot imagine a world without some sort of family, at least one caring parent.

What does all this have to do with citizenship and civic dialogue?  My students walk into the room thinking they are part of a pretty homogeneous group.  As they hear each other's stories and begin to look at the world through widely differing eyes, they are readying themselves for civic dialogue that is empathetic, compassionate, and more inclusive.

One of the ways I make a conversation about diversity safe is by speaking out loud what other people only think - speaking in normal tones and with obvious curiosity.  As the instructor, my speaking makes it acceptable for others to talk about issues that our society generally considers taboo.  I learned this skill not in diversity class, but while raising my daughters.  I forced myself to discuss sexuality in the same tone of voice I discussed weekend activities, food preparation, art projects.  This made sexuality a safe and "normal" topic of conversation.  My goal:  later, when my daughters needed to discuss sexuality, I hoped it would be easier for them to raise the subject.  Today I have a similar goal in mind:  to make it easier for my students to dialogue about differences respectfully.  To realize they should not make assumptions.  To be brave enough to ask the questions that are on their minds.  

As the stories of identity flow, the bravery is contagious and more are told.  They are fascinating.  We start to run out of time, and I tell them we need to wrap up.  Several students say, "You forgot to call out the religions."  I do it in a rush.  Several stand when I say "Other."  I ask, "What is your religion?"  A couple of them say atheist or agnostic or secular.

Three say they are Catholic.  I say, "I wish we had time to discuss why you did not see yourselves as Christian.  I'm Jewish," I tell them, "and you all look alike to me."  They laugh.

After class, I take attendance by asking students to put their names on a piece of paper, and also to write down the most important thing that they heard this day.

Later, at home, I read their attendance slips.  One student says, I learned from the overweight student that it's ok to like myself the way I am."  Several students say they are amazed by the determination and attitude of the deaf student.  A couple comment on the incredible strength and drive of the woman who is also an orphan.  Many say they really enjoyed hearing all the stories.   They report respect and new understandings.

An overweight student writes, "Thank you for making it safe to talk about my weight. I've never done that before."

My gender queer student says it was good to be asked about herself.  These girls make me cry.  They all - all these students - make me proud to teach them.

~ ~

Now we have a good idea of all the ways we are different from each other.  In the reading, we now explore, through data sets analyzed by Dalton, how despite our differences, they share similarities with their generation that distinguish them from their parents and grandparents before them.  They are learning that their generation is not less engaged than their parents' generation.  Rather, their generation is differently engaged.  Sometimes, when we talk about this, I fantasize about playing Chicago's Teach Your Children Well.

According to Dalton, the younger generation practices what he calls "civic engagement," or a more personal, hands-on, less political approach to activism.  They volunteer in their own communities, they help neighbors, they join social networks.  They feel these activities have a far greater impact than voting.  They believe this is the better way to make a difference, while communicating with distant officials feels rather, well, distant.  They don't really believe older people will hear or understand them anyway.

Their parents' and grandparents' generations, by contrast, are more "duty" oriented.  They vote.  They support candidates.  They call their elected officials when they don't like policy.  Stuff like that.

On another day early in the semester I put up big sheets of poster paper, each marked with a different activity that might be associated with good citizenship in the United States.  Activities like,

Regularly Vote In Elections,
Accept Jury Duty Willingly,
Always buy American,
Never Break the Law,
Report a Crime if I See One,
Plan To or Do Serve in the Military,
Buy Green Products Whenever Possible,
Help Other Americans Less Well Off than I Am
Volunteer Regularly
Work on Political Campaigns
Take Active Leadership Roles
Form Your Own Political Opinions
Never Evade Taxes
Keep a Watch On Government
Help Those Worse Off Around the World
Join Community Groups

I ask my students to come up to the front of the class, where I have a selection of sticky dots, in Red, Blue, Yellow and Green.  I have them take a sheet of dots that most closely represents their political affinity.  Red if they most closely relate to Republican, Conservative or Tea Party ideals.  Blue if they most closely relate to Democrat, Liberal or Progressive ideals.  Yellow if they think of themselves as most closely aligned with Independents.  Green if they see themselves as "something other" or do not want to reveal their preferences.

I ask them to walk from poster to poster, putting a colored dot on only those posters that they feel strongly about, that speak strongly to the way they live their lives.  I tell them we are doing living research, and to group their own dots with other dots of the same color, so that we will easily be able to see our results.

When we finish, we are surprised to find that, in fact, very few of my students feel strongly about voting.  Few of my students feel compelled to report a broken law, or to obey the law themselves a hundred percent of the time.  Almost all believe in helping others less fortunate, whether overseas or at home.  A majority of them already volunteer.  Maybe a third try to Buy American.

I stop the conversation to get on my soapbox about the double-duty of buying American.  It helps maintain jobs, and it also reduces our carbon output because overseas transportation is a high carbon activity.

This semester, only three of my 60 or so feel strongly enough about military service to dot it - similar to the results in prior semesters.  This stops the class short.  We talk about taking for granted that there will be an army to protect us.  We wonder whether this class - as diverse as we now realize we are - is truly representative of today's young people.  Someone asks whether there is a correlation between wanting an education, and avoiding the military.  This is a great question, and I can't answer it.   Several students have family members who are in the service, and they speak of supporting the soldiers, but not the military.  The three students who do, have, or plan to serve in the military speak in defense of their choices, and the students ask them respectful questions.

My students are passionate about their views, but also intellectually captured by the explanations they give each other about their differences.  High levels of dedication to volunteering, helping a neighbor, being active in clubs and groups, buying green products, forming their own political opinions bear out some of what Dalton is telling them in their readings.  It proves to me that these students are far from disengaged, even if most of them don't vote regularly.

When the time comes to end the discussion, it is difficult to stop them.  Later, in their attendance statements, they will let me know, even the ones too shy to speak out in class, that this exercise was an eye-opener.

"Those dots really laid it out.  You can't fool yourself about what's happening in my generation after you see that."

Before they leave, I am upfront about my bias.  Both brands of citizenship play important roles in a healthy Democracy.  However, I would like to convince them that voting makes a bigger difference than they think it does.  I hope - if there's one thing I can change about their view on political activism this semester - it will be to drive home the importance of exercising their vote as a powerful tool to give voice to their generation's deep concern for their fellow human beings.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why should I pay more taxes than some lazy good for nothing?

Leonard Burman

I am sorry I worked hard and took risks big time and now have capital gains. Why should I pay more taxes then some lazy good for nothing who cant show up for work on time and hold a job. And I can move my capital easily where i can get a more favorable tax situation. Problem with most economist like you is they live in academia and not the real world. What this country needs is one tax rate for all Americans and not the cureent tas rates that tax success and risk. W/o investment job growth is stagnant or worse and GDP tanks. Federal, state and local spending just isnt there to bail the economy out. And govt spending is inefficient and riddled with corpuption. Stop taxing success.

I applaud you for working hard and taking risks. However, a lot of the difference in income is due to luck. I'm paid way more than my dad because I had great parents and was smart enough to get a lot of education. Other people aren't born with those advantages. I'm perfectly happy to pay higher taxes so that hard working people without my advantages can get a break.

I lifted that segment from a Washington Post Q & A about the impact of Capital Gains tax with Leonard Burman, because the question captures the baseless hatred of one American for another - a divisive hatred that threatens to tear our country apart.  Americans who espouse it appear to be mindlessly buying into a blame theory that tosses the pain associated with our current economy at the doorstep of the less fortunate.

Burman, a Daniel Patrick Moynihan Professor of Public Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, an affiliated scholar at the Urban Institute, and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and senior research associate at Syracuse University’s Center for Policy Research, handled the question very deftly.  

Though his answer satisfied me, I doubt seriously it caused the caller to do anything other than scoff at Burman.

To read the rest of the Q&A, which was more focused on tax policy, click here.

You may not believe, as Burman does, that much of personal financial success is due to luck - lucky to have a set of parents who value higher education and make it available to their kids, for example.  Someone else might feel he or she is totally self-made.  I know a man whose parents brought him up in a modest blue collar household.  My friend is shrewd, figured out how to build a small empire, and is now a wealthy man.  Clearly, both scenarios exist.   The truth, however, is that the vast majority of Americans have rather modest means at the same time they have an excellent work ethic.  

Check this assortment of careers and the national average salaries that go with them:   

$22,000 - line cook, window glass cutter
$28,000 - ambulance driver, hair stylist
$34,000 - administrative assistance, warehouse worker
$40,000 - academic adviser, aircraft electrician
$60,000 - advertising account exec, entry aerospace engineer
$85,000 - software developer, real estate appraiser
$100,000 - dean of business school, regional sales manager
$150,000 - human resource director, research fellow

You can check out the national average salary rate for nearly any job you can think of by clicking this sentence.

Now tell me, do you believe your hair stylist, cheerfully listening to your problems despite being on her feet all day, is a laggard just because her annual salary might be under $30,000?   

And about manning those huge professional restaurant stoves till sweat pours off you like water?  Does that sounds lazy?  

And I want to believe the fellow driving the ambulance is intentional, caring and fast!   

At these salary levels, the hairdresser, the ambulance driver, the line cook, the warehouse worker are likely to be struggling to achieve a full life - full in the sense of achieving all the basics Americans want, from health insurance to mortgage payments to little league and dance lessons for their kids.  It's not hard to imagine that these Americans may feel squeezed - like there's never quite enough.   

Clearly these people are not the "lazy, good for nothings who can't show up for work on time and hold a job,"  Burman's caller assumes people without adequate means must be.  And they are the people assisted by a progressive tax structure.  

My worry is that a large chunk of American have bought into the Ayn Rand mantra - we are all equal in opportunity simply because we were all born in America."   The wrong-headed correlary: Those who don't manage to get ahead of the economic treadmill must be lazy.   This invokes a blame mentality that pits American against American rather than focusing us on collaboratively solving our nation's economic woes.  

Woe unto us if we do not open our eyes to each other's reality, be there for one-another as fellow Americans, even in our approach to the tax code.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lifting Up the Holy Sparks: Healing From Within

I accidentally pulled up this old post from my other blog, EcoCurious, written before I decided to separate my writings by topic into multiple blogs.  As I read this post, I barely recalled writing it.  But, here we are, just this side of Rosh Hashana, and the beginning of the Jewish Holy Days, and I cannot but think I was supposed to reread it.  And possibly reshare it. 

We began by talking about kosher wines, and how they could possibly compete in taste if the method of koshering wines involved boiling the grapes, but somehow my friend Mike Altman and I veered from that to whether the Jews believe in an afterlife, and from that to the mitnagdim and the hasidim, two competitive Jewish sects that lived in Europe during the 18th Century. The mind does wander. 

The mitnagdim were traditional Jews, and the label, "mitnagdim," means "opponents," I believe. The thing they were opposed to was the sharp rise of new hasidic sects under a Jewish mystic affectionately called "The Baal Shem Tov," or "Master of the Good (Divine) Name."

The fight between the mitnagdim and the hasidim (which means pious) was, from time to time vicious. The crux of the fight was the primacy of mind versus heart as the path to God. The mitnagdim were very traditional, and stressed the intense study of Torah and Talmud (a Jewish text containing a cross-generational discussion among learned Jewish scholars enabling later generations to continue to learn from earlier scholars). Their founder, a rabbi from Vilna called the Vilna Gaon, had supposedly learned to recite the entire Talmud by seven years of age, and was said to have studied 18 hours daily. Over the years, it became custom for rich men to wed their daughters to prominent Torah scholars, and then to support the son-in-law's family so he could continue his studies. In poorer circumstances, wives sometimes worked to support the family so that the husband could forebear from work in order to continue to learn.

Of course, I wasn't there, but stories about The Baal Shem Tov say he offered Jewish mysticism to the masses as a substitute for intense study. He did this because many of the people realized they would never be in a position to pursue the sort of intense dedication to study that mitnagdim rabbis said was necessary for a true and meaningful relationship with God.   The Baal Shem Tov roused his followers through music, dance, meditation, stories of miracles and other rituals into spiritual states, similar in effect to the sufi whirling ceremony or the sun dance ceremony of certain native american groups. 

The mitnagdim believed that the Ba'al Shem Tov's ideas would cause Jews to cease to pursue the texts, weakening the very foundation of the religion over time. Mysticism, for the mitnagdim, was to be limited to the very few truly righteous among them. In fact, the practice of mysticism among the mitnagdim was almost cultish, in a Free Mason sort of way. To participate, one had to be very learned, righteous, married, over 40 and have a sponsor/teacher. The feud was, in some cases, truly bitter.

There are still descendents of the two groups. I may be wrong, but I believe Aish, a strong Jewish outreach organization, has its theological roots in the mitnagdim, while the Lubovitch, a sect of hasidim with an outpost in nearly every city and on nearly every campus, are descendents of The Ba'al Shem Tov. Interestingly, these two groups today have nearly identical goals - reaching out to Jews who are somewhat lost or disconnected from Judaism - and have moved closer to each other theologically, as the study of the texts has taken a more prominent place in the Hasidic teachings. Even so, Aish, like the mitnagdim of the 18th Century, eschews mysticism for all but a select few, while the Lubovitch still make the rudiments of mysticism available in the form of stories, music, meditative practices, to all.

I give you this little bit of Jewish history because one of the more entertaining things (to me) about my own brain is the way it often connects seemingly disconnected things.  Below, I've shared with you a talk given by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist. Several years ago, she suffered a stroke that basically disabled the left lobe of her brain, and left her functioning about 95 percent from her right lobe. The distinction between her left and right brain functions, as she describes this in the video, strikes me as much the same as the distinction between the mitnagdim and the hasidim.  The left brain ties the mind to the concrete and the rational, while the right brain "dissolves" into the broader universe in an intense, loving and spiritual way.  Jill Bolte Taylor, in describing her right brain experience, uses terms like peacefulness, euphoria, and "at one with all the energy that was." By the same token, she could not intellectually separate herself from her surroundings, could not identify or hold onto the meaning of words against the background noises in the space she physically occupied. Meanwhile, the five percent of her left brain function that remained kept abruptly emerging into consciousness long enough, in what she thought of as a "wave of clarity," to say, "hey, you've got to pay attention; something's wrong, you've got to get help."

Ultimately, she experienced these feelings of "expansiveness" and "enormity" and "peacefulness" as nirvana. And further, she realized that the right brain held the key to peace among humankind, if only we could work on harnessing it. But, aha! We need the left brain to do the harnessing and directing. 

Bear with me while I explain the connection between the mitnagdim and the hasidim, Jill Bolte Taylor's left and right brain functions, Judaism, and world peace.  LOL (that's "laughing out loud," Mom).  Yes, it's all connected. 

At some level, I see in all this a metaphor for what it will take to accomplish human peace-making and even saving the planet from our greedier selves. Clearly for believing Jews, connection to the Holy is a key tenant of our religion. Our "job," as Jews, is tikkun olam, or healing the earth (that includes its occupants). An incredible Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria (1524 - 1572) explained the creation of the universe as an intentional creation by God, who previous to the creation existed as formless energy. God, according to Luria, wanted more - maybe needed more - and so created the physical world.  Metaphorically (it has to be metaphorical because otherwise how could we, simple mortals, grasp this?), God's creation is a "physical vessel" into which God poured Divine energy to bring it to life, so to speak. The problem is that the physical is no match for the energy of God, and the energy burst the vessel, spewing shards of vessel everywhere. These shards are imbued with sparks of Divine, the same Divine that was poured into the vessel, attaching themselves to the shards upon shattering. These shards became  material matter (remember, we are metaphoring), but because they are imbued with the sparks of Divine energy, they are also "of God" and holy.  It is our human job to live life in a way that enables us to gather these shards and "liberate" the sparks of holiness within them, to lift the sparks up to their former holy selves, so to speak. This is the task that, by another name, we call tikkun olam, or healing the world.

The urge to liberate and lift the sparks, while having genesis in the spiritual/mystical, must be actualized physically. Liberating and lifting the sparks can take many forms.  One such form of physical actualization is taught in one of the central prayers of the Jewish liturgy, the Ve'ahavta, from Deuteronomy 6. I wrote here,,  about the connection of the Ve'ahavta to tikkun olam/healing the world, but in a nutshell, the passage tells us that we need to keep all of our physical senses and abilities focused on the game all the time. The relevent passage is here:

"5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; 7 and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates."

Healing in the natural world is both physical and spiritual.  As a physical act of healing, it might manifest as something like cleaning up an environmental spill.  As a spiritual act of healing, one might empower a child to believe in her talents.  Sometimes, an act of healing can be both physical and spiritual, like when we participate in micro-funding programs that enable the poor in third world countries to become small-time entrepreneurs, giving physical sustainance, power in the material world and a spiritual lift for both the lender and borrower. In other words, these mystical concepts have very powerful real-world repercussions. Like Jill Bolte Taylor realized when she acknowledged that she needed her left brain to harness her right brain, it is important to realize that tikkun olam requires not just the mystical, spiritual urge to liberate the sparks from the shards and to heal the world, but the concrete teachings of the texts, like the Ve'ahavta, to help us know how to act.

 Jill Bolte Taylor, by sharing her experience, seems to be offering us a kind of a knowledge gift from God, a living, scientific proof in Taylor's experience that healing the world is entirely possible - because the spiritual healing capacity is within us all - and if we can figure out how to harness it - peace is within our grasp.  To get the full possibility and power of what I mean when I say this, I urge you to listen to Jill Bolte Taylor's talk.

More about The Baal Shem Tov:
More about the mitnagdim:
More about Isaac Luria's Kabbalah:
Hasidic Stories: