Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Root Causes" vs. just roots

I was attending the BYM Peace and Social Concerns Networking Day on Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Sandy Spring Meeting is a beautiful surrounding. The gathering was a spirited and passionate group of Friends who vary greatly in where they focus their passions and social justice efforts. Among the issues: Israeli/Palestinian conflict (with an leaning toward Palestinian rights); mental health services; Muslim relations and understanding; peace scholarships; and environmental laws and policies. Among the various actions: prayer vigils, letters to Obama and elected officials, petitions, education and awareness events, and relationship building efforts (notably between Friends and Muslims).

Among the discussions, there were a few things about the process that struck me. First, there were two Monthly Meetings that seemed to reflect where my own passions are - that all things are interconnected. One of the Meetings started their report stating that they were "all over the board", as they see our current path (globally) is unsustainable, using the concept of "peak oil" as an example. Having this vision of the world - that not only is reducing fossil fuel consumption a good idea, but is a harsh reality that will happen whether we want it or not - influences the way one sees all the other issues of the world. We have an infrastructure that depends on fossil fuels for existence - our homes, our cars, our economy - and we have not made the paradigm shift needed to move away from this. The result is an increasingly volatile geo-political environment as pipelines for oil are extended deeper and farther into more hostile environments of all sorts. This view can do two things: bring a greater sense of clarity of what we need to change in our lives, and make many of the other social justice efforts seem like "window dressing", sort of like fiddling while Rome burns.

Second, there was one Meeting's committee that was not looking at topics, but process. It was considering the extent to which it can nurture individual leadings, serve as a source of education for its members, take on issues as a committee, and reach out to others on common causes. Basically, this committee seems to be considering how to do things more holistically, and how it can get the "most bang for its buck" in terms of energy. I personally think that this is one of the most important things that we can do as Friends. Minutes, epistles, and prayer vigils are fine things, but they are also actions that place the responsibility for problems and how to fix them on someone else, somehow conveniently elevating our own lives and lifestyle above reproach.

This leads me to another thing that has stuck with me from this meeting: a discussion of systemic and root causes. I think it is real easy for people to regress into a highly intellectual discussion about the "root causes" or "real problems" of the world that tend to accomplish very little other than perpetuate blame while fostering a sense of powerlessness. For those of us on the left, this tends to boil down to terms like "multi-nationals" (including banks) and "oligarchies". I am in no way denying that these are not fundamental to our challenges in working for a more just and egalitarian world, but, in pontificating about "them", we are in denial of how we who live in comfort and have thrived off the backs of the disenfranchised for centuries have been beneficiaries of these institutions. We can talk about root causes as if there is some linear cause/effect formula in play, but I prefer to just see that the roots of all we face are deep, connected and have been there a long time. Moving to community banks will not end homelessness - we are going to have to drastically change how we live. I don't mean "we" in a euphemistic "them" way, I mean "we" as in you and me. In fact, I would say that our ability to sit in comfort and talk about the big problems of the world, while our actions are whittled down to pointing out where others are flawed is a form of oligarchy in itself.

I juxtapose this with the main speaker we had that morning. Nathan Harrington is a young man who has started an intentional community in southeast DC while working in some of the more challenging school districts (currently in Prince George's County, MD). His story is full of courage and humility, a gentle balance of following a moral compass with meeting his own needs. He readily admits that finding a home in southeast DC was as much driven by affordability as motivated by conscience. But the entirety of the story is simple: he is bearing witness, and is a vehicle for consciousness. In doing so, I believe he sees more clearly the nuances of social trauma as it has played out over the centuries, and how painstakingly slow the work of reconciliation and sacrifice will be. It is his radical example that I hope to inspire in the real work of the Peace and Social Concerns committee as the real justice work of Friends.


Richard said...

Brad -

Very insightful observations and comments. It was my first taste of Networking Day, and made many connections for me. You touched on my big three take-aways: Nathan's courageous journey, sustainability, and "root causes".

We may have different experiences with root causes. For you this phrase seems to signal a tailspin into blame and powerlessness. I have had radically different experiences in my consulting. Perhaps "lever" is a better descriptor for what I mean. A good example for me is our society’s predilection for continuing to build bigger and more secure prisons. I’m disinterested in the true “root causes” of crime and “blaming” those who created them This is a fruitless sideshow. However, I feel strongly that some careful analysis can yield clues that might hint at actions we can take to mitigate the conditions that breed crime. Levers. Like school breakfast and lunch programs, high-school to elementary school mentoring programs, and so forth.

I believe fervently that true change comes from seeing the injustice and shortcomings of the present condition, having a clear and compelling vision of the world as we know it can be, and having our hands on a few levers that can begin to move things in the desired directions.

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Hey Rich -
re. "root causes/levers", it's probably a matter of semantics, but I think it is also a matter of visioning. For me, no doubt it is important to have an understanding of the bigger picture both in the present time and historically, but I also think that this must be done gently and with a strong sense of doubt. Some of the best minds have been behind aid and support efforts (in schools, for example, but also in international aid programs) and we have seen routinely that these efforts have fallen way short of the mark because often we project our own expectations, think "if it were me...", lack an anthropological understanding, and don't have the strong relationships to really hear.

It's a good conversation to have, especially when we can move it to creative action.

Richard said...

Brad - "Strong sense of doubt" and "creative action" are concepts we can wholeheartedly agree on. Look forward further discussions.