Lessons from the School of Radical Change: Notes of a Slow Learner


The link at the end of this post will send you to one of the best pieces I have read on the maturation of an activist. For me, this essay by New Orleans activist-writer John Clark is up there with Michael Harrington’s autobiography and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s memoir of her participation in the 1960s-1970s social movements, which includes her time spent around New Orleans. I’ll also add Diana di Prima’s second memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman and Sonia Johnson’s story of her excommunication from the Mormon Church for her feminist activism in From Housewife to Heretic.

John Clark is a legend among those of us organizing around direct action, liberation, and social ecology – and not just here in Louisiana. As a matter of fact, it was his name that made my acquaintance with the great Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft in San Francisco in 2006. I had gone out there with a few Louisiana fishing families to gain them some new long term buyers of their products while our state was still in shock and its people mostly still evacuated. While out there, I contacted a few names in movement work working on place and equity, including Peter and Judy’s Planet Drum Foundation. Berg’s name was already known to me for his guerilla theater (a term he coined in l963) work in the 60s through his amazing Diggers and before that, with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but I knew nothing of his Planet Drum efforts until I read about it in one of Gary Snyder’s books. Once I investigated their site, it seemed a great fit for recalibrating my own post-disaster framework and so I sought them out. They immediately answered my email and invited me for lunch in the Mission District, taking me on a tour of community places, and then to lunch where they gave me gifts of wooden utensils and an envelope of Peter’s poems.

The pair asked after Clark, who I had only met once or twice, but of course, knew from events around town and through our shared workplace, Loyola University. That Clark connection led me into a deep conversation with Peter and Judy over a few hours where they listened to me describe the conditions we were facing in New Orleans. Peter finally said to me, “Well, it seems to me you just need to keep agitating, keep eyes on it, keep being there. Shout about it, cry about it but be there.”

The truth was,  I was thinking about possibly bolting from New Orleans for a short time to recover my own equilibrium and peace. Their conversation and the reminder of Clark et al being back home doing revelatory work rekindled my desire to stay in New Orleans, in my little FEMA trailer on the bayou.

Additionally, John’s writings have helped me define my own world ethic and opened the door to knowledge a little wider, connecting me to writers that I would not have found on my own. As an autodidact, I rely on the informal and relational to find my education and so I was surprised as anyone to find a university professor as one of my wells of knowledge.

This piece is a reflection of his time agitating, shouting, crying and being there around the American Alligator region of Turtle Island.


A visual of the American Alligator region


Perhaps the most decisive turning point in the transformation of my perspective on radical change occurred in 2005, when I experienced the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation of much of New Orleans in the flooding, and the corporate capitalist and structurally racist re-engineering of the city in the post-Katrina period. I learned the most important lessons from participation in Post-Katrina grassroots recovery communities.  I learned to appreciate more deeply the meaning of crisis and collapse. I learned about the role of trauma in personal and group transformation. I learned that another good criterion for assessing groups is the extent to which at crucial moments they put aside everything that is merely habitual and inessential and respond whole-heartedly to the greatest and most vital needs.


… I decided a few years ago that it was necessary to leave the university where I taught for decades, and to start working more directly, full-time, for the process of social and ecological regeneration. I started a project called La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, situated on what has now grown to 87 acres at Bayou La Terre, in addition to having programs in New Orleans, to help pursue this work. I have learned from the early stages of the project that it is urgently necessary to find a small community of similarly motivated people who can work together, in order to make this undertaking a success.

I have become preoccupied with the question of how, given the actual conditions in the world, we can break with, and then overcome, the capitalist, statist, patriarchal system of domination, and prevent global collapse, while at the same time creating a free, just, and caring society.  I have learned that it is necessary to focus carefully on the question: “What is the decisive step?” or perhaps more accurately, “What is the decisive process?” A few years ago, in a book called The Impossible Community, a work that was very much a product of the Post-Katrina experience, I argued for the need to address at once all the primary spheres of social determination. These include the social institutional structure, the social ideology, the social imaginary, and the social ethos. I concluded that to achieve this goal the most urgent necessity is the creation of small communities of liberation and solidarity, of awakening and care.


PM Press – Lessons from the School of Radical Change: Notes of a Slow Learner



“UnfairBnB” from Antigravity Magazine

I disagree with the writers’ stance that airbnb is the chief cause of rentals to be unavailable to residents. As someone who believes in the informal economy, I have used it quite often in my travels. Almost all of the airbnb places where I have stayed have been people’s homes with an extra set of rooms for guests or a mother-in-law house. Many of the folks have raised kids who are now off at college and want to share their home still and so I have met some wonderful people and felt safer being in a neighborhood than staying in a large corporate hotel often found in a industrial park without access to local business or any where to walk after the work day is over. And as someone who has been a renter in this city for over 30 years, it is my contention that it ain’t airbnb that has stopped rent controls or that reduces the number of rentals for residents, but the corporate infrastructure that encourages profiteering on home flipping or corporate rentals without any management oversight, as well as the inability of the city or state to enact a post-disaster punishment for those who delay their repairs for no reason except that they own too much or refuse to pay for good repairmen to get it all done right in a reasonable time. Let me be clear-I am not identifying those folks who STILL wait for payments or are fighting bureaucracy, or have been ripped off by unsavory workers as the problem because the system is also weighted against them to work in favor of those connected and ruthless profiteers. Also, slumlords or invisible homeowners who abuse airbnb.com probably abused Craiglist, or the TeePee classifieds, or any other short or long term term rental situation that has benefited other neighborhoods or visitors who want to be good citizens and keep their property kept up and rented. Outlawing airbnb.com is not the answer; the answer is more likely direct action among citizens on rental property rules and protecting renters rights along with good homeowners rights. Too many short term rentals in one block IS wrong, but is not the stem issue, I believe.
The writers’ assertion that the bike lane along Esplanade is a white stripe of divide is so foolish that is shows that the basis of the article is far-fetched, and badly researched. The percentage of New Orleanians that do not have regular access to automobiles has always been a large number (over 25% before the federal levee breaks) and for anyone who gets around before the sun is entirely up will see more working men using those lanes than porkpie wearing hipsters. As one commenter points out, the complete streets approach to adding the lanes is based on adding the chosen and researched lanes when the streets are repaired. That St. Claude was outfitted before Esplanade and that these lanes act as a traffic calming device for regular people to cross the streets or to check for a bus are important points of which the writers seem unaware.
Honestly, the issue with short term rentals is one that should be discussed in each neighborhood but to identify neighborhood associations as the savior that the city has not been is as foolish as his bike lane bashing; My opinion is that these organizations are often protectionist home owner associations and do almost nothing for renters. I left a longer comment at the end of his article and would recommend that folks peruse some of the thoughtful comments left by others on there as well.

UnfairBnB: What Unlicensed Short-Term Rentals Mean for New Orleans – Antigravity Magazine.

Gentrification and its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans

I’d like to call attention to this thorough piece by one of my absolute favorite thinkers in New Orleans: Rich Campanella, geographical historian and bike riding New Orleanian.
Gentrification is the opposite of community; it is the warning bugle call from those who used to wear armor and thunder into your town on horses, trampling the less fortunate and sticking their flag on your home. It’s war and those of us who want a city and not fake facades aren’t going quietly.
As you can see, my definition of gentrification is entirely negative and has to do with the imposition of new values and traditions on top of existing ones. It also is entirely tied to the commodity of place, and the dollar value rather than any other.

Love Rich’s analysis of N.O. gentrification in this piece (which sparked a very lively discussion for months around town) even though I don’t necessarily agree with his timeline. Gutter punks as the start of gentrification? I don’t think that group has anything to do with this topic) and then hipsters second? I’d say hipsters come much later in the game, maybe right after the gentry actually. The use of bourgeois bohemians is spot on (as is their attendance at the farmers market on Saturdays!), but where are the up and coming artists (who sometimes become the gentry by the next generation) or the gay urbanists or even the temporary natives who land in gentrifying spaces when they first come?

Gentrification and its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans | Newgeography.com.