One Bright New Voice for Justice

Migrant Crisis

My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism

 

Looking Globally at Death – & Life

Buda-conf.5In Japan the shift from Buddhism to secularism is complicating life and death. Ireland has launched a nationwide effort to encourage end-of-life planning. A Celtic Storyteller now based in Canada draws on her training as a nurse in helping people through illness and grieving. And at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK, one researcher/textile artist explores the intricate usefulness of cloth in the mourning process.

These were a few of the insights into end-of-life issues around the world shared at a recent Inter-Disciplinary.Net global conference in Budapest, Care, Loss and the End of Life. The conference provided a perfect excuse – once the abstract for my own paper was accepted – for this writer to take off several weeks for a memorable trip to Paris, Cologne and (eventually!) Budapest. The latter two ancient and wonder-filled cities I had never visited. More on travels later. This essay is a severely abbreviated commentary on a remarkable event, and explanation of the absence of any other commentary in this space over recent weeks. (The digital world does seem to have kept right on turning without my assistance.)

Inter-Disciplinary.Net was founded in the late 1990s by Dr. Rob Fisher, who gave up a tenured position at Oxford (not something many people would be inclined to do) to devote his entire and considerable energies to bolstering the “interaction of ideas, research and points of view that bear on a wide range of issues of concern and interest in the contemporary world.” The recent conference was the second global Inter-Disciplinary.Net event this writer has been privileged to attend, and they seem just to get better. As with more than a decade of conferences on end-of-life (and several other) issues, Care, Loss & the End of Life was organized and run by Nate Hinerman, PhD, Dean of Undergraduate Programs at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.  The following brief glimpses into end-of-life matters in other countries are summarized from three out of nearly two dozen presentations.

ancestor altar

Tomofumi Oka of Sophia University in Tokyo spoke on “Making Peace with Grief Through Indigenous Wisdom: A Case Study of Japanese Family Survivors of Suicide.” Oka illustrated his presentation with clips from Japanese films (thankfully with English subtitles) showing several Buddhist altars to departed relatives. The tradition of ancestor worship that has for generations been part of Japanese culture, Oka maintains, was helpful both in confronting death and in dealing with grief. As the country has become increasingly secular, though, the business of helping survivors through the grieving process has been turned over to nonprofits that are largely funded by the government – and Oka is dismissive of their usefulness. “You join a group of other survivors, talk about your loved ones for a while until you are ‘graduated’ into another course in which you’re supposed to get on with your life,” he told me. “The nonprofits don’t know what they’re doing, and the system just doesn’t work.” Japanese Buddhists seem to have it better.

One of the most moving presentations was titled “The Materialisation of Loss in Cloth,” given by Beverly Ayling-Smith. An award-winning textile artist and researcher, Ayling-Smith illustrated her presentation with images of burial cloths and related textiles, including some elegantly ethereal images of shrouds. “Cloth has its own language as curator Julia Curtis has written,” she comments, “‘. . . fold, drape, stretch, stain and tear – it signifies an emotional range from intimacy, comfort and protection, to more disquieting states of restriction fragility, loss and impermanence.’ It is this range that allows cloth to be used as a holder of memories of events, experiences and people.”

This storyteller bonded early in the conference with Celtic Storyteller Mary Gavan, whose mastery of the oral form is both challenge and inspiration to a practitioner of the written form. Gavan grew up “as a Celtic storyteller tramp,” delighting in the ancient tradition as she heard it from grandparents and friends across Scotland and Ireland. Her presentation was told as story from her two personal perspectives: community palliative care nurse and Celtic Storyteller. It served as a vivid demonstration of how effective the well-told story can be in communicating and understanding the complex emotions brought to bear at the end of life.

Buda-conf.3

There were many more: perspectives on loss and grief offered by participants from Turkey, Spain, Norway, Slovakia and elsewhere, and one mesmerizing – if not for the squeamish – illustrated discussion of an anonymous 15th century Middle English debate, “A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms.” On that latter, presenter Martin Blum of the University of British Columbia Okanagan read the ancient text “not only as a contemplation of the transitory nature of life, but also as an affirmation of life.”

Which was, in effect, what this conference managed to achieve: pulling together diverse global perspectives on death to create a giant affirmation of life.

 

 

 

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

Setting Patterns: Defaulting to Justice

Nishioka with the writer
Nishioka with the author

“You know why we drill?” the Lt. Colonel said; “to establish a pattern.”

That brief story was told recently by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, keynote speaker at a conference that was all about establishing patterns – possibly changing them for the better. Well, about patterns and a few other things. But the business of pattern-establishment is particularly relevant. “In a time of crisis,” Nishioka says, “you will default to your pattern.”

Soldiers drill interminably so they can take their rifles apart without thinking. Nishioka suggests that others of us might install default patterns to create peace and bring justice. An associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Nishioka was speaking at a church retreat, to a Christian audience. But the message is universal. “All three major Abrahamic religions,” he points out, “Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have a core belief in peace and justice.” Add the followers of decidedly peace-loving Buddha, and one would think there should be a little less war and injustice on the planet.

Nishioka maintains that one person can make a difference. He tells the story of a seven-year-old girl whose father had been taken from their California farm by the F.B.I. one night in 1942, and who was waiting with a crowd of other Japanese Americans for buses that would take them to an internment camp. Her mother, in the rush to pack what the family might need, had forgotten to bring anything to eat or drink. The girl wandered off looking for something for her hungry little brother, and found a lady handing out sandwiches and juice. “We are Christian Friends (Quakers),” she explained, “and we think what is happening to you is wrong.” The girl lived through three years in the camp, where her father soon joyfully joined them, and through hard years and several moves after the war ended. She managed to enter college, where she met and fell in love with a young Japanese-American man. They married, and raised four sons who all finished college and/or graduate school, one of whom is now a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. On the top of his list of people he’d like to meet in heaven, Nishioka says, is the lady who gave his mother sandwiches and juice.

But back to patterns. Quakers practice patterns of quiet and tranquility, reinforcing their persistent efforts to right injustice. Yogis practice meditation. Buddhists chant. Practitioners of almost all religions repetitively recite creeds as a way of establishing patterns of belief and action. In California we have earthquake drills designed to instill a default pattern of Drop, Cover and Hold on. School children, sadly, are drilled to take cover in the event of an assault. If your default pattern is ingrained enough, you might even be able to grab your cellphone and passport on the way out the door when the house catches fire.

What if large numbers of us altered our driving pattern just to let that jerk in the next lane break into the line ahead? Road rage deaths would nose dive. Or we could default to smiling, as Jaden, the incredibly precious six-year-old Georgia orphan is trying to make us do. Or we could default to justice: trying to create better lives for those less fortunate, those without power, those who need sandwiches and juice.

It is possible, Rodger Nishioka suggests, to change the world, one person, one pattern at a time.

 

 

Celebrating the Iran Nuclear Deal

nuclear cloudsThe mood was sheer celebration. “We’ve moved the boulder in the road,” said Joe Cirincione; “this model can be useful for other work.” Moving the boulder, a distinguished group of speakers repeatedly explained to the small, celebratory-mood audience, will lead to a safer world for our children and grandchildren, a world “where nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.” He was speaking of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, U.K., France, Germany and representatives of the E.U. – runs to approximately 159 pages, very few of which this right-brained writer has read. But I absolutely trust Joe Cirincione.

Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that works to bring about a world in which our children and grandchildren might live without the threat of being blown to bits by a nuclear bomb. A really attractive idea. (Ploughshares Fund was founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, a remarkable San Francisco woman this writer was privileged to know in the decade before her death in 2006.) It was at a small gathering of Ploughshares supporters that Cirincione and several others – who have not only read the entire 159 pages, but helped write them – explained the details, and the impact, of the Iran deal to us, our grandchildren, and the world.

Many of the details are beyond the technical comprehension of most lay citizens (and more than a few of the politicians whose knee-jerk opposition has little to do with the safety of our future.) They include things like requiring that Iran reduce its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to 6,104 over the next 10 years, giving up its most advanced centrifuges while using only their older model. Then there is the business of how far the country will be allowed to enrich uranium: no more than 3.67 percent, which will be okay for power plants but is far below the level needed for weapons. Iran also agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.dove of peace

These extraordinarily complex details were part of a conversation between Cirincione and Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association at the event. Davenport was among the outside experts traveling to Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere to help work out the agreement – “and knows more about the Iran deal than anyone I know,” Cirincione remarked, and spoke of the long, often painful path toward its success. Davenport said she could usually tell right away how some negotiation went – discussions that often ran into the small hours of the morning – by the expression on someone’s face.

We should all be smiling today.

 

 

 

ISIS: What’s In A Name?

Islamic State flag

Remember when Isis was just a Greek goddess? The goddess of – among other things – health and wisdom?

Not many people today would know the goddess, but there are few who don’t know ISIS. According to a new CNN/ORC poll, people in the U.S. consider ISIS a greater threat than Iran, Russia, North Korea, China – or probably even the economic woes of the earlier Isis’ native land.

In an effort to increase understanding of the situation, Celia Menczel of San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club Middle Eastern Affairs group recently assembled a panel of experts to discuss the issue in both human and political terms. Moderated by Media Analyst Dina Ibrahim, the program was titled The Islamic State. Panelists included Honorary Consul General of Turkey Bonnie Joy Kaslan; Kurdish human rights activist Karaman Mamand; University of California, Davis Professor Karima Bennoune, author of the irresistibly titled Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here; and Jordanian academic Maher Kalaj.

Panelists were invited to give a brief overview of their perspectives. This unfortunately was an impossible assignment; though several panelists made valiant attempts, it turns out that expert views and insights on the Islamic State simply cannot be condensed into ten minutes – if, indeed, a day. The issue is too vast, too complex, too fraught and too weighted with centuries of conflict.

But on one issue there was emphatic agreement: ISIS is not a state.

Kaslan led off her summary with that declaration, and concluded by stressing the importance of this distinction: ISIS, ISIL, SIC, IS, Da’ish is many things, but not a state. Among the many things it is? A terrorist organization; an amorphous group of men who commit unspeakable acts of violence and brutality; a sprawling movement that condones and conducts beheadings, kidnappings, mass executions of religious groups, absolute subjugation of women.

A state, most would argue, involves more than territorial control – which ISIS surely has, in constantly shifting areas – and more than the declaration of power. A state exhibits some degree of care and concern for its people – and the rest of humankind.

Many diverse elements of the troubling terrorist movement were illuminated by members of the distinguished panel, but this was perhaps the key:

Whatever ISIS is, it’s not Islamic to the vast majority of believers in Islam…… and hopefully it will never become a state.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict in One Fast Hour

Foreign Affairs 101:

Ukraine_Majority_Language_Map_2001
Ukraine Majority Language Map

If it’s possible to condense the incomprehensibly complex Russia/Ukraine conflict into one coherent hour, Matthew Rojansky can do it. Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on the region, proved that in a recent presentation at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. A listener who blinked could miss a paragraph, but Rojansky’s fast-paced illustrated lecture had most of his audience too engaged to blink. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the presentation.

Yanukovich estate
Yanukovych Estate

For openers, Rojansky explained that Ukraine, under now-deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych, was “a society absolutely primed for revolt. A few years ago,” Rojansky said, “I moved to Kiev with my family, (finding) Yanukovych one of the most corrupt politicians in history – and that’s saying something.” Illustrating his point, Rojansky showed slides taken during his time in Kiev including views of some of Yanukovych’s perks: a heli-pad; a palace with gold, jewel-encrusted design, 3-lane bowling alley, billiard room, private floating pirate-themed restaurant reported to have cost a few billion dollars – a rather definitive picture of excess. Rojansky also mentioned the stuffed lion guarding a corridor leading to the nail salon and spa, and a collection of exotic cars and animals. It was not just personal excess, he said, “there was government corruption on a grand scale.”

By the fall of 2013, Ukranian citizens were tiring of this. A peaceful protest known as the Euromaidan began in the square Rojansky and his family could see from their apartment window. “It was surreal.” Public sentiment favored closer connections to Europe, Rojansky said, but Yanukovych instead signed an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Thus began the increasing protests fueled largely by social media, with help for the needs of Euromaidan solicited via constant Facebook postings.

Matthew Rojansky
Matthew Rojansky at the Commonwealth Club 3.6.15

Initially, Rojansky explained, the movement was not political. But also thanks to social media – Twitter users began receiving messages letting them know they were registered as protesters – things quickly changed. And on January 16, 2014, the dictatorship laws were passed: No protests, no groups, no gatherings. The movement against abstract corruption became ‘Yanukovych Must Go.’ Things came to a crisis when someone gave the order to fire and all-out shooting began. Despite the European Union intervening to broker a deal in late February, Yanukovych escaped – with boxcars of treasure – though leaving behind the exotic animals still being cared for on his former palatial estate outside Kiev.

Soon came the time of “the little green men” in Crimea, a significant chunk of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Rojanksy explained that there have always been Russians in Crimea; the little green men wore Russian military garb minus the insignia, carried Russian weaponry, but Putin at the time denied they were sent by Russia.

Donetsk airport
Donetsk Airport

By May of 2014, Rojansky said, regions of Ukraine that are heavily Russian-speaking began to hold referenda to break away – not to become independent, but to become part of Russia. Things accelerated significantly with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in July, 2014, and the ground war began. “This was not World War II,” Rojanksy explained, but guerilla warfare with terror tactics, firing on civilian buildings, the destruction of the once-beautiful Donetsk airport. “This is insane stuff.”

As to what Mr. Putin wants out of all this? Rojansky listed three main points;

1 – Domestic politics are life-or-death. If the idea that when regular people take to the streets life gets better catches on, Russians might say “What about us?”

2 – Putin has a major image issue. He’s the tsar. He is never wrong. There’s God, and then there’s the Tsar.

3 – Geopolitics are important. If Russia and Crimea get together, Putin’s bargaining power is greater.

Rojanksky characterizes Ukraine as being between a rock and a Russian hard place. The hard place is boosted by the fact that half the people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many more watch Russian TV with its decidedly nationalist fervor.

For now, Rojansky says the wise course is “Don’t show up giving out cookies. Get observers on the ground as fast as possible, and eyes on the ground on the borders. Watch to see if sanctions are working.

And in the very long term: “Ukraine matters. We have to help Ukraine defeat corruption. Things we can do include letting Ukrainians come here, and knowing about the region.” In the end:

“There are no easy answers.”

Disclaimer: This writer knows as little about Russia and Ukraine as a few long-ago college courses and one unforgettable trip from Moscow to St. Petersberg might suggest. But listening to Matthew Rojansky’s take on the current situation is enough to convince one to pay attention.

 

 

 

Bold Hope for the World’s Poor

Map_of_the_world_1998

A Solution to Poverty?

If governments can’t solve world poverty, and nonprofits can’t make serious dents in it… can the private sector be the answer? With the help of you and me and major investors?

Mal Warwick thinks so. Warwick, co-author, with Paul Polak, of The Business Solution to Poverty, spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about their conviction that the long-term solution to the ongoing tragedy of global poverty lies in coming up with answers that will pay off. Not just to suffering individuals, by helping lift them out of poverty, but to investors by turning a profit.

Warwick’s audience included a variety of interested individuals familiar with much of the work already being doing by nonprofits whose funders tend to seek reward through humanitarian success rather than financial return. But major infusions of capital, Warwick maintains, will be needed to continue building the ladders people everywhere will need to climb out of poverty’s depths, and that will require – business solutions.

As a shining example, Warwick cited the treadle pump. It is a human-powered device, inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use, which enables farmers to multiply the yield of their land and thus, in many cases, raise themselves and their families out of poverty. It works as a business solution on a number of levels. Factories needed to manufacture the pump were set up in villages, providing employment for people there, village shops distributed them, workers were employed to drill the wells and financial institutions made loans for purchases.

The problem, Warwick says, was with marketing – radio, TV, newspapers and traditional advertising methods weren’t available. The solution? Roaming troubadors and a Bollywood movie.

Among the facts Warwick brought to light were: One billion people lack access to electricity. One billion people lack access to safe water. One billion farms are without irrigation. The 20 million people lifted out of poverty between 1981 and 2006 by international aid programs, Warwick says, are only a drop in the bucket to the numbers who continue to suffer.

“It’s possible,” Warwick says, “to create brave new companies” with the lure of “reaching at least 100 million $2/day customers.” Some of those companies already at work include Australia’s SunWater which is developing a variety of safe-water solutions, several businesses working toward turning organic waste into affordable charcoal briquettes, and SpringHealth, which is addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water.

If governments and nonprofits can’t solve global poverty, can businesses? It might take all of the above – plus you and me, ordinary citizens.