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

 

https://loyno.academia.edu/JohnClark

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Another Gulf Is Needed More Than Ever

From Activist Cherri Foytlin:

Feeling a little low. If I’m to be honest with myself, it’s probably exhaustion mostly. But, I’m also worried about my insurance, and FEMA, and my community. And everyone is feeling the stress of being displaced in our own dwelling. We still have three rooms left to pull the carpet out. Water is STILL leaking from the walls. The rest of the floors may need to come up too. Furniture and a mattress had to be thrown away… Don’t get me wrong. I am proud that my six amazing kids, and an unofficial seventh – Logan, have been helping, each in their own capacity. And our neighbor Christine came over to help, and my nephew lil’ Dylan too. And I’m sure you know Karen has been incredible! I’m super glad that there has been no rain since this morning… It’s just that, I’ve worked really hard to provide for my kids, ya know? We all work SO hard. And ya, we’ll survive it, and for sure many others are a lot worse off… but, damn… ‪#‎thestruggleisreal‬

Postscript: Do not send me money. If you would like to make a donation on me behalf to ‪#‎AnotherGulf‬ week of action, I’d appreciate that. All previously planned events are a go, and I think we need it now more than ever.

https://www.crowdrise.com/another-gulf-is-possible-resistan…

My take on RBG’s take on Jane Jacobs and New Orleans

Post in The Lens by urban critic Roberta Gratz:

http://thelensnola.org/2016/04/09/what-would-jane-jacobs-make-of-our-post-katrina-transition-from-death-to-life/

 

My response, first posted on a friend’s FB page::

I always appreciate Roberta’s take on things, even though I think that she (and The Lens) sometimes rely on a narrative that is preservation precious, meaning it focuses on historic corridors and “worthy” buildings over a real housing criticism. Her exultation over the neighborhood corridor boom is a bit odd when in New Orleans, neighborhood mom and pops simply never went away and were just brought back after the levee breaks whiter and trendier than before. (I often feel like too many people still have a vision in their head of a return to the halcyon days of Main Street America, circa 1950, and expect city hall to deliver us a version of that, even though our lives and shopping have changed completely. That thinking limits the potential of old corridors and gives tacit approval to keep them empty until someone can redevelop them as before rather than re-imagining storefronts as low income rental units or as rooms for unhoused population or shared workspaces or (gasp) even green space where buildings were before.)

However, Roberta was spot on in her early assessment of the new hospital zone – about it being a developers boondoggle and about offering retail at ground floor and not about a better hospital than Charity.  She is right about the code busting happening at City Hall: the new CZO is a joke. A form-based approach to zoning would be much more appropriate to our city than what we got. The argument about streetcars is sort of lame, as the Rampart line going to Poland was stymied by the railroad and not by local policy or willingness, and the lack of public transportation is a deep and long problem that is not typified by that type of investment which is clearly for the visitor.

Of course I am annoyed by her ignoring the French Quarter, my neighborhood, which is still a neighborhood and pound for pound the most active, diverse and mixed use area in the city in any 24 hour period; yes we have millions of visitors in our midst, but also have a somewhat steady population since K (and the changes correlate to the Orleans Parish census), more residents than the Marigny, or Bayou St. John or some other areas. We got our problems and some of them like development (or an over emphasis on festival culture!) are getting worse like every other area, but don’t dismiss us just ‘cuz that is the “supernative” thing to do when talking about New Orleans!

Since she was a many-times return visitor who then bought a home (although I think she may have since sold it) I am surprised at her toss off of the short-term rental issue. It seems to me it requires a thoughtful approach by thinkers like her, as she must know that it has allowed many homeowners to keep their house here and to do repairs and new residents to decide where to buy, and so when used well by principal homeowners, this system can be a boon.

And of course, this is so right and what I try to do in my work: “Jacobs did not try to dictate how things ought to be; she wasn’t prescriptive..Local wisdom, she found, is where the best ideas for change take root. They don’t come from political leaders, planning professionals, developers or credentialed experts.”

 

(another  response I posted the same day to a VCPORA story in the Advocate on lower population in the Quarter since 2000):

First, according to the Data Center, the numerical changes in our FQ neighborhood correlate to the dip in the entire parish. Second, those changes have a lot to do with the love affair planners and neighborhood associations have with encouraging massive single home renovations over incentivizing real mixed use. And the resident and business associations allowing heavy trucks in by just paying a small fee, actively discouraging bike or scooter parking, allowing film and festival culture to take over our area constantly are part of the problem residents have to overcome. Here are some things associations can do right now to swing the pendulum the other way: work to incentivize rent controlled apartments by offering tax breaks to those homeowners who have little used property (including upper floors of commercial buildings, especially on Chartres, Decatur and Canal), walk to find and fine those who hang key boxes on their gate that indicate illegal STR units, create a citizen reporting app to allow FT residents to file complaints immediately and directly about code violations and stop focusing on tshirt shop raids and instead seek out amenities that residents care about.

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards

Roberta is an acclaimed urbanist who has published three previous books on the subject, including most recently The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Her writing has also appeared in the Nation, New York Times Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. She previously served on the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission and currently sits on the Sustainability Advisory Board for NYC. She splits her time between New York City and New Orleans.

2015 Publication Date- Preorder at your local New Orleans bookstore

2015 Publication Date- Preorder at your local New Orleans bookstore

By the way, my friends were the ones that had the sign with these words up at their place in MidCity; it was not graffiti as termed by the photographer of the original image. Instead it was carefully written on the back of an election sign for Marlin Gusman and situated on the most prominent corner of their building, with the aim to urge neighbors to stay and the powerful to be warned. I got back to town to first clean out my apartment on October 9, 2005, sickened and broken-hearted by what I was seeing on my way in from the airport. When I got to my place (across the street from theirs) I saw their sign and laughed out loud and thought to myself, “Oh we’re going to be okay.”


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