Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Paying Attention to Economic Injustice

Like a good liberal, I woke up this morning listening to NPR.  There was a piece about Clarence B. Jones, one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington that is being commemorated this week.  He echoed one of the persistent themes that, while there has been much progress over the past 50 years, there is much to "the Dream" that is as yet unfulfilled.  The reporter states: "From his book 'Behind the Dream', Jones writes as long as there's a need for a legal category for hate crimes, police officers 'pulling over African Americans because they're driving cars considered out of their financial reach,' and people 'selling their houses because too many black families have moved in,' the dream remains diluted, tarnished and unfulfilled."

Now, I would never deny that these are certainly true and important, but I do see these as largely middle and upper-class issues that ignore the deeper economic injustices that are playing out.  As long as we dance around the fact that the overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of people in prisons, unemployed, in underfunded schools, and with higher rates of poor health indicators are people of color (including Native Americans), and as long as poor people across the board have unequal access to opportunities as well as protections, the dream is unfulfilled.  And as long as people like Jones and entities like NPR neglect these facts, the dream will remain unfulfilled. 

I see the injustice in the wealthy corporate executive who is either a black man or a woman and receiving less than his/her white male counterpart, but it's at the other end of the economic spectrum that we need to be serious about if we are to break the cycle.  It's great to have models of success to break stereotypes, but if we don't address the education and nutrition issues.  It's great to ride my bike by the White House - as I was yesterday - and see all the black leaders getting out to attend a function.  But to also attend a regular breakfast as I did yesterday morning, consisting mostly of poor black people who seem to be left out of the Dream, reminds me of the real work to be done. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pine Ridge, 2013: Reflections of power, privilege, peace and service

“Welcome Home.” 

This was how Dwayne, one of our hosts in Wanblee, greeted me.  This was my fourth trip to Wanblee and it is becoming a spiritual home of sorts.  It is becoming an important annual ritual that takes me out of my routine, and brings old and new acquaintances together in a deep and spiritual way.

This year, we had a great few weeks helping Earth Tipi work towards a model of sustainability on the Rez, and reconnecting with friends as we helped prepare for the Sundance.   We created a space to practice what we preach, and to work through the physical, emotional and interpersonal challenges in a safe, loving and trusting environment.  Through conversation, action, silence and reflection, we practiced grace, putting the ego aside. We went as way opened. 

One of the openings was a mud volleyball game at the Eagle’s Nest District Pow Wow.  Our $50 entry fee
made way for a filthy four games of fun and laughs.  We ended up winning the $100 pot, and contributed that to the local youth program.  Something else happened that gave pause for reflection and consideration.  While playing, some of the local youth threw mud at us, at times with rocks mixed in.  One of our players got hit in the eye.  We asked the kids to stop.  They didn’t.  We asked some of the adults to intervene.  They did, but the kids returned and continued sporadically. To the credit of the Workcampers - and perhaps to the credit of the pacifist teachings that come from Quakerism - there was no consideration of reacting with violence or in-kind.

Over the next few days, we had some conversations about this experience.  We struggled to overcome our egos (“Why would they do this to me?  I’m a good person, and I’m here to help”), and as we did, we got to deeper conversations. For example:
·         We often find it understandable and excusable for an oppressed and abused community to exact revenge (a la much of what I hear about Palestinian violence against Israelis as “understandable”).  However, when we represent that power, and find ourselves vulnerable, it feels very different.  The fact is, we have benefited from oppression and exploitation.  Our experience this day was a taste of what many Lakota feel every day – especially when they venture off the Rez.  It was a real eye-opener about power and privilege.
·         In talking with Dwayne about this situation, he affirmed that we acted in the right way.  We did not have the leverage to do more – other than leaving the game, but we were having too much fun.  We could have yelled at the kids, but that would have further agitated the divide.  We were already the outsiders.  But Dwayne also said that if he were there, he would have come down hard on the kids and the adults.  As a member of the community, he could. 

We often talk about Quaker Workcamps as opportunities for experiential learning.  I learned more about power and privilege because of this.  And I am affirmed that change comes from within.  We were the outsiders, but because of how we were in this game, perhaps when we return we will be a bit less so.