Letter From New York #32

The shooting at the Aurora, Colorado premiere of the Batman movie Dark Knight Rises exposed violence like a tripwire. Moviegoers watching a graphically violent film were gunned down by a Jokerman who’d been studying mental disease before dropping out of his PhD program and accelerating his intake of drugs and slugging alcohol.

While we look to the guy with the gun, we’d do well to think about the conditions that gave rise to what happened. Watching an interview that Bill Moyers did this week with journalist Chris Hedges was illuminating. Here’s my very crunched down version of what Hedges says. The full transcript is here

In talking to Bill Moyers, Chris Hedges calls areas where individuals have no power “sacrifice zones.”

The political system is bought off, the judicial system is bought off, the law enforcement system services the interests of power. You see that in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia. By the time they left, there’s just a wasteland. Nothing grows. Some of the richest soil, some of the purest water, and these are the headwaters for much of the East Coast, You are rendering the area moonscape. It becomes inhabitable. And you’re destroying the lungs of the Eastern seaboard. It’s all destroyed and it’s not coming back.

That violence is visited on these communities. You see it played out. I mean, Camden, New Jersey, which is the poorest city per capita in the United States and always, the (top) one or two in terms of the most dangerous, it’s a dead city.  There’s no employment. Whole blocks are abandoned. The only thing functioning are open-air drug markets, of which there are about a hundred. And you’re talking third or fourth generation of people trapped in these internal colonies. They can’t get out, they can’t get credit.

What that does to your dignity, your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth. At one point in the 50s,(Camden) was a huge shipyard that employed 36,000 people. Campbell’s Soup was made there, RCA used to be there. There were a variety of businesses and they attracted, in that great migration, a lot of unskilled labor from the South, as well as immigrants from New York.  Because without an education, it was a place that you could find a job. It was unionized, of course, so people had adequate wages and some protection. And then — everything went down.

With the flight of manufacturing overseas, it’s all gone. Nothing remains. And that’s why it’s such a stark example of what we’ve done to ourselves, without realizing that the manufacturing base of any country is absolutely vital to its health. Not only in terms of its economic (health), but in terms of the cohesion of a society because it gives employment. And it really is about the maximization of profit, it really is about the commodification of everything, including human beings.

Hedges talks of a tiny village in Nebraska two miles from Pine Ridge called Whiteclay with four liquor stores that dispense the equivalent of 13,500 cans of beer a day with estimates of alcoholism as high as 80 percent and contributing to early death.

You build a kind of dependency which destroys self-efficiency. I mean, that’s what the old Indian agencies were set up to do. You take away the livelihood, you take away the buffalo herds, you make it impossible to sustain yourself, and then you have lines of people waiting for lard, flour, and you know, whisky. It’s a form of disempowerment. It’s a form of keeping people essentially, at a subsistence level, and yet dependent on the very structures of power that are destroying them.

We are watching these corporate forces, which are supranational. They have no loyalty to the nation state at all, reconfigure the global economy into a form of neo-feudalism. We are rapidly becoming an oligarchic state with an incredibly wealthy class of overlords.

Later, when Moyers asks Hedges about his effectiveness in his actions, Hedges says:

I look less on my ability to effect change and understand it more as a kind of moral responsibility to resist these forces.  And to fight to protect, preserve, and nurture life. For those who seek the moral life, there will always come a time in which they have to defy even institutions they care about if they are able to retain that moral core.

We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods of human history if there’s not a radical change in the way we relate to the ecosystem that sustains life.

The state is not responding in a rational way to what’s happening. If they had, they would’ve gone back and looked at Roosevelt. There would’ve been forgiveness of all student debt, 1 trillion, there would’ve been a massive jobs program targeted at those under the age of 25, and there would’ve been a moratorium on more closures and bank repossessions of homes.

And those banks and financial institutions that helped create the financial crisis would have been held accountable.

There seems a lot of truth in what Hedges is saying and yet I’m looking for a female voice and so I turn to Arundhati Roy, who affirms much of what Hedges says while analyzing NGOs and other organizations that are also influenced by capitalism and compartmentalization. In a piece called  ‘Capitalism, a Ghost Story’ Roy says,

In the NGO universe, everything has become a “subject”, a separate professionalized special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS – have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief.

Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could. Poverty too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor have not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal, and whose long term resurrection will come from Good Governance…

It’s true, I think, that the approach of many institutions, including many NGOs, can further reduce our wholeness and humanity by attempting to focus on an issue or a sector and thus inevitably compartmentalizing issues and lives.   We need to honor a holistic approach to movement building and to reclaiming the vitality and impact of citizen action.

One of my favorite new journals is called Democracy, A Journal of Ideas, edited by the brilliant Michael Tomasky. However, even in this journal, where women’s voices are regularly heard,  the Journal’s Board of Advisers includes only one woman and, of its 14 person editorial staff and editorial committee, only a couple are women. We’re only skating around the edges if we give gender a fragmented voice without embedding it in the structures and decision-making.

In these last few months I’ve been struck by three wise women doing their own great work in different parts of the world – India, Afghanistan and Kenya – and each advocating for the complimentary practices of gratitude, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.

Gratitude
Dr Kiran Martin is the founder of ‘Asha‘, which means hope in Hindi, as an organization working with slum dwellers in India to support them to achieve a better quality of life. irrespective of their background, caste or religious beliefs. Kiran’s latest newsletter is on the importance of practicing gratitude which she defines as “receiving a tangible gift or a gesture of kindness. As she says, “Gratitude is a way of life, a fundamental orientation.

It’s a conscious choice to focus on life’s blessings rather than on its shortcomings. We recognize sources of goodness as outside of ourselves, coming from others. There’s a distinction between a short term feeling, and saying that someone is a grateful person, someone who habitually looks at life with a gratitude focus.”

Forgiveness and love
Dr Sakeena Yacoobi, founder, the Afghan Institute of Learning and Board Member of the Global Fund for Women was so convinced about the power of love and forgiveness that she convened an International Conference on Love and Forgiveness in Afghanistan dedicated to these two practices and particularly celebrating the work of Afghan poets and musicians, especially Mawlana (Rumi).

Since 1995, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) has been helping Afghans to lift themselves above the devastation of war by providing education, training, health care, and health education. While delivering these services, the Institute has also been able to promote critical thinking skills and model and teach human rights, women’s rights, peace, democracy, and leadership in order to empower Afghans and to give them hope.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Rumi

Peace and Reconciliation
Dr Jennifer Riria, CEO of Kenya Women’s Finance Trust and Chairperson of the Tuvuke Initiative says this initiative was created to ensure there is a peaceful General Election in Kenya with over $2 million raised to support initiatives to make this possible. In her words

“Every Kenyan has a responsibility to work towards healing the nation, building national unity and cohesion, collectively, within and among communities and even within every homes.  Kenyans may not be in a position to affect change of political nature such as power, equity and governance, however, they hold the key to creating a cohesive society by respecting our differences … women were the most affected by the post-election violence, however, they are often excluded from conflict management and transformation initiatives …

There is need to proactively create a platform to…bring about reconciliation, national healing, peace, cohesion and integration in the country. We can make peace the currency for the 2013 General Elections.

 

These three women remind me of the words of my wonderful mentor, the late Dr Stella Cornelius, who said “Women are great peacemakers.”  Stella, who founded the Conflict Resolution Centre in Australia with her daughter, Helena, spent many years working on campaigns such as ‘Work for all who need it’ because she said it was a human rights issue – the right to the dignity of work. And so that shooting in Aurora is our invitation to ‘kairos’, a Greek word that refers to a time when conditions are right for accomplishing a crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment.

In contrast, what we’re seeing now is what Hedges has termed ‘the primacy and violence of materialism and profit over human dignity and human life. The exploitation of human beings accompanied by exploitation of natural resources.’

Aurora is the goddess of the dawn in Roman mythology and so let us embrace a new day with those qualities of love and forgiveness and peace and reconciliation and gratitude at the fore.

And let us also carry the fierceness of Chris Hedges and Arundhati Roy whose deep love for the world motivates them, as it should us all, to rise up for a better world and for the sanctity of all life.

If we are to find hope, it’s not enough to find it in the heroic actions of others, it must be in our own response to a call to fundamentally change the way we live our life.

This is kairos time.

Jane Sloane

Letter from New York #31

‘The arc of history is long…but it bends toward justice, Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968.

Last week, Josh grabbed my hand and drew me toward a street stand selling retro memorabilia where he’d found a mint condition copy of the June 28th 1968 Life Magazine issue that was showcased for its feature on ‘The New Rock Music’. However, it wasn’t this article that had captured Josh’s attention. It was a separate feature on Resurrection City, the shanty town that formed in the wake of Dr. King’s final call during his lifetime for those living in poverty in the US to rise up and make their plight visible. King’s ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech’ was a compelling vision that gave voice and hope to so many. “I remember being there as a little boy,” Josh said. “I was saying to my Mom, ‘I want to see!’ And this black man swung me up on his shoulders so I could see Rev. Ralph David Abernathy speaking.”

It seemed that many felt they were sitting on the shoulders of a giant that day as, so soon after Dr. King’s assassination, thousands of people from across the country made the trek to Washington to set up camp opposite the White House in a Gandhian form of non-violent protest.

photo by Jill Freedman Resurrection City 1968Resurrection City was, in the words of journalist, John Neary, ‘the home of the busted, not the boomers.’ Its 600 shanties covered 15 waterlogged acres next to the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool as a shambolic village sprawled out across the mud caused from eight inches of rain falling in six weeks reducing the 5,000 people who had made the pilgrimage and set up camp in a roughshod plywood and fabric shanty town to 500 people by the end of the second month. Neary went on to describe the scenes:

‘They came, a gaudy pauper’s army, from every state, on foot, in auto caravan the likes of which the country hadn’t seen since the dust bowl Okie days. In buses and by plane they came, some for thrills and a taste of life on the wrong side of town, but most of them to slam down a clenched fist on the federal desk and demand an end to poverty and violence, to demand a meaningful job for every employable person, an end to the hunger and malnutrition that scarred their lives. They wanted help, freedom, their human rights, dignity, a future, a chance for their kids, a modicum of happiness, all the things they didn’t have and so many other people did have in this nation of unprecedented plenty.’

When Solidarity Day dawned, so too did some victories on the back of Resurrection City. These victories included a Housing Bill passed by Congress; an extra $25 million for poverty relief; food stamps extended to a further 330 counties and welfare standards made as a national responsibility rather than a state responsibility.

A day after reading this Life Magazine article, I flew to Atlanta after attending a reception hosted in New York hosted by the Landesa Foundation which focuses on giving women in developing countries access to land. Women produce 50% of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of property – and even when they do own property, access is often negotiated by men thus keeping women dependent rather than allowing them to make their own decisions and enjoy their own economic independence.

From the heady electric energy of Times Square where I left the Landesa gathering, I arrived into a dusky night in Atlanta as I waited at the airport for my transport. It was as if a hush had fallen over the place, where the majority of faces were black and where I felt a distinct sense of being in a different world, shaped by different forces.  I was in Atlanta to meet key people from corporations and foundations who were supporting the establishment of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The vision for the Center is for it to be a world class cultural institution for the understanding of history in its civil and human rights dimensions in order to contribute to achieving a just and equitable world. The center will be a place inspired by those courageous and fearless individuals who gave their lives in the struggle for justice, to encourage the discussion and study of human and civil rights movements domestically and abroad and serve as a center for conflict resolution.

The process of imagining the center into existence began when the then Mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, commissioned a feasibility study to determine the viability of such a center and the steps required to ensure its success. Shirley Franklin led the effort to successfully raise the funds to build the center and to pay Marchase College the exhibit rights to exclusively display the papers from the 50,000 item collection. She also engaged 5,000 students as her youth committee and personally met with 2,000 of them to ensure they were active participants in the formation and thinking about such a center.

After a ‘ground breaking’ ceremony was conducted, a luncheon was held at the ballroom in the Atlanta Aquarium. The CEO of this new center, Doug Shipman, and Executive Vice President, Deborah L Richardson, were joined by Atlanta Mayor, Kasim Reed, Shirley Franklin and a host of other government officials, civic leaders and celebrities to celebrate this announcement of a phased construction and funding plan for this facility that will be debt free when it opens in 2014. Fundraising has now shifted to securing the dynamic programming to highlight the contributions of current and future struggles for freedom worldwide.

Jill Savitt, appointed as Human Rights Exhibition Coordinator, has a brief to establish relevance between the historical and contemporary human rights issues presented through the Center’s educational exhibitions. Speaking at this luncheon, Savitt reminded us all of what is happening right now in Darfur where African farmers and others, all Muslims, are being systematically displaced and murdered at the hands of the Janjaweed.  The genocide in Darfur has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people. More than five thousand people die every month. Syria too was on the minds of many of us where the violence and loss of life continues unabated. Let’s hope that, with the world’s powers calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, the worsening violence, which has so far killed an estimated 14,000 people, will be brought to an end.

During the lunch we learned that when the first conversations were being held with potential partners and sponsors regarding raising the funds to build the center, a group of women came forward and said ‘What about us? We want to play our role too, as women in the community.’ And so the ‘Women’s Solidarity Society‘ was formed and by the time of this luncheon they had raised $600,000, with a target of a million dollars. To paraphrase the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, when a small group of committed citizens decide to help change the world they are unstoppable.

In the sensaround environment of the Atlanta Aquarium, the venue for the luncheon, Beluga whales swam near me. I was transfixed by these magical creatures — like white creamy unicorns minus the horns — swimming in their watery world. The sense of them so close added to the profound sense of connectedness I felt in the room – an invocation of humanity and of the more-than-human world.

Bernice King, daughter of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, stepped up to the podium to honor her father and her mother, and to particularly herald the work of so many women in committing their lives to the cause of human rights, peace and freedom. She placed a copy of an autobiography of her mother in a time capsule that had been created to preserve key documents and fresh hopes of a new generation. Into the capsule went a small collection of King’s papers and speeches as well as the messages of hope from many of us in the room who were invited to write our own hope cards. Just as moving was a performance by the Atlanta based poet and playwright, Pearl Cleage who read an extraordinary poem she had written for the occasion.

From Atlanta I flew to Washington and I was present on a day when the Supreme Court voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care law. At a reception that night at the home of Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, she shared with us the excitement that so many at the White House had felt when the decision was announced. And she spoke of this decision being a step forward for women who would benefit significantly, as many women bore responsibility for the health of their families and their children.

So, I returned home to New York after a shape-shifting week, one that brought civil and human rights, legislation and regulation, into sharp focus. In the hazy heat of the city I watched a little boy try to fly his kite in the park across from where I live. A little girl was watching him nearby, standing with her own parents. He went over to her and placed the kite in her hand, holding the kite with her to show her how to fly it. As the kite flew up the girl let out a whoop and the boy let go of her hand as she ran to fly with the kite.

We will surely get to our destination if we join hands.’

Aung San Suu Kyi

 

Jane Sloane

Letter from New York #30

In his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel tells us a story about Michael Rice, a 48-year-old employee of Walmart, who in 1999 collapsed while helping a customer carry a television to her car. Rice died a week later, and an insurance company paid out $300,000 for the loss of his life. The twist was in who benefited from the insurance. It wasn’t Rice’s family, who didn’t get a cent, but Walmart. Neither Rice nor his family had known of this insurance policy taken out by Walmart, and his family was deeply offended by the policy and benefit. Rice’s family sued, and the lawsuit revealed that Walmart had hundreds of thousands of such policies; as do thousands of other companies, so that every time an employee died, the company collected a windfall. And that’s “dead peasants insurance”, or, as it is also known, “janitors insurance” – a type of investment on how long employees will live.

Another example of this process was the development of “viaticals”. These were insurance policies that had been taken out earlier in their lives by people who were dying of AIDS. The life insurance policies of these dying patients were valuable and so a market developed in which these policies were bought by investors, who would give the AIDS sufferer a lump sum and would pay for their care during the terminal illness. Then, when the patient died, the policy would pay out. The catch for investors was that the longer the patient lived, the less money they would make. “There have been some phenomenal returns,” said the president of one company that specialized in viaticals, “but there have also been some horror stories where people live longer.”

When we give over control of policies to corporations who are required to deliver a profit to shareholders, we contribute to the erosion of values and ethics on which our society is predicated.  Whether it’s paying a middleman to get you a ticket to see a doctor in Beijing, outsourcing a war to private military contractors or paying a city to be a storage dump for radioactive nuclear waste – when everything has a price tag, asks Sandel, what does it mean to both the scale of inequality as well as the corruption of values in doing something because it is intrinsically good or right?

I’ve been reflecting on this now that I’m up close in a city I love but that is heavily defined and influenced by Wall Street, with its focus on money markets and corporate profits.  We live in an age where progress is defined by increasing our choice of brands rather than what contributes to the sustainability of our planet.  The lack of connection between financial transactions made by brokers on Wall Street to people losing their homes on main street seems to define some financial traders’ disconnect to valuing a world of humans – I heard one trader speak recently of ‘ripping someone’s face off before they rip ours off’ – apparently a commonly used term on Wall Street.  This focus does at least raise questions such as ‘what is the quality of human interaction being cultivated by our economic system? ‘What contributes to the dignity of work rather than exploitation.’ ‘Does focus on money alone for self-interest impoverish our inner lives?’

A Hindu monk said to me recently that our desire for freedom and connection are two of the greatest human needs and I think he’s right.  I’ve seen that play out in my own life.  I listened as he talked of honoring the chain of human connection that binds us while also giving space for individual expression and journeying.

As I finished Sandel’s book, Josh called me over to Abington Square Park near my apartment to meet three new friends, a well known singer, a therapist and an environmentalist who met and bonded over the therapist’s sheep dog. We laughed and talked as people smiled and walked by, many having their own dog bonding moments.  A day earlier there was a gorgeous array of street fairs in the neighborhood where people planted spring bulbs along the streets in celebration of new life.

That night Josh played Shane Howard’s 2010 record, Goanna Dreaming and, as I danced, in my mind I was freefalling back to Australia to when I was driving across the Kimberley, windows down under a night sky feeling so connected to land and sea and sky, to dreaming country and singing spirits. Watching Howard’s YouTube clip, Back in Time, with its grainy haze of Polaroid shots capturing a blue Holden station wagon lit with friends, I was a teenager again wanting to pull on a pair of jeans, climb into a 1960s white Ford Falcon with my own dog and drive into the outback. “You come visit me again in my country, sista,” an Aboriginal woman from the Kimberley said to me recently at the Australian Consulate in New York after we’d swapped stories of people we knew in Broome, “come see me and my sisters and we’ll take you out bush.”

We carry these multiple identities – reader, Australian, Kimberley girl, New York resident, daughter, sister, friend, dog lover, humanitarian, feminist, global citizen — as we see-saw back in time. It’s true, I think, that the most control we have is over our own reaction to circumstances and to how we see ourselves.

In her profoundly moving memoir, Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright writes ‘I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies to all manner of life’s problems – personal social, political, global. I am deeply suspicious of those who offer simple solutions and statements of absolute certainty or who claim full possession of the truth.  Yet I have grown equally skeptical of those who suggest that all is too nuanced and complex for us to learn any lessons, that there are so many sides to everything and that we can pursue knowledge every day of our lives and still know nothing for sure.  I believe we can recognize truth when we see it, just not always at first, and not without ever relenting in our efforts to know more.  This is because the goal we seek, and the good we hope for, comes not as some final reward but as the hidden companion to our quest.  It is not what we find, but the reason we cannot stop looking and striving that tells us why we are here.’

So the night grows dark. As I type this I have on my rainbow moonstone, newly charged from the sea. I hope it will give me strength for the journey.

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

ee cummings

 

Jane Sloane

Letter from New York #29

A slip of an article appeared in the New York Times recently. It advised that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had commenced an inquiry into the Girl Scouts of America. The inquiry will be conducted by the Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

Apparently the bishops are concerned about ‘possible problematic relationships’ and ‘problematic program materials’ according to a letter from the committee chairman, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to his fellow bishops. This includes a concern that Girl Scouts’ materials shouldn’t contain links and references to groups such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the Sierra Club due to these organizations supporting family planning and emergency contraception.

The outcome of this inquiry will determine whether Scouts can meet in Catholic halls and whether the 25% of Girl Scouts who are Catholic can feel supported by their faith in being a Scout

How reassuring, then, to observe the journey that Melinda Gates has gone on as a practicing Catholic, where she is now making global family planning her signature issue, based on women’s needs. At present around 215 million women each year want to avoid pregnancy but aren’t using modern birth control.

Speaking about her commitment in Newsweek recently, Gates said:

“Every year, 100,000 women who don’t want to be pregnant die in childbirth. About 600,000 women who don’t want to be pregnant give birth to a baby who dies in her first month of life. I know everybody wants to save these mothers and babies. We’re not talking about abortion, we’re not talking about population control. What I’m talking about is giving women the power to save their lives, to save their children’s lives, and to give their families the best possible future.”

As to her own soul-searching, as a Catholic woman who represents the 98% of Catholic women in the US who do use modern birth control despite the teachings of the church, Gates said in Newsweek:

“I had to wrestle with which pieces of religion do I use and believe in my life, what would I counsel my daughters to do,” she says. Defying church teachings was difficult, she adds, but also came to seem morally necessary. Otherwise, she says, “we’re not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice.”

So now the Gates Foundation is co-sponsoring a Family Planning Summit with the British Government and UN Population Fund which will take place in the UK in July of this year. The goal is to raise $4 billion, which is what the foundation says it will cost to give 120 million more women access to contraceptives by 2020.

The same week as the articles on the Girl Scouts and Melinda Gates appeared, a full page ad ran in the Saturday edition of the New York Times. It was a letter  addressed to First Lady Michelle Obama from mothers in America seeking her help to stop fracking.

The gist of this letter was that scientists are only now beginning to address questions about the impact of drilling and, in the face of so many questions, these mothers said, ‘the benefit of the doubt belongs to our children, not to the things that threaten them.’ The letter went on to say:

‘We are guided by these truths, which we hold to be self-evident:

We know that water is life.
We know that methane is explosive.
We know that groundwater, once contaminated, cannot be cleaned up.
We know that we cannot shop for clean air.
We know that drilling and fracking operations require hundreds of truck trips per well and that many of these trucks haul poisonous chemicals.
We know that accidents happen.
We know that toxic injuries in pregnancy and early childhood have lifelong consequences.
We know that you shouldn’t break something that you can’t fix.

Our appeal is simple and fundamental to our role as mothers. We do not want children drinking milk from cows grazing on chemically contaminated pastures. We do not want children breathing benzene on school playgrounds. We do not want convoys of water and gravel trucks sharing the roadways with school buses. Nor with teenagers learning to drive. Nor with kids on bicycles. We do not want children used as subjects in a reckless experiment whose long-term consequences and cumulative impacts are not yet understood.

We do want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren an unfractured, unpoisoned world.’

What particularly struck me about these actions and stories is the rippling effect of girls and women standing their ground. Of Girl Scouts speaking their own truth to power and joining with organizations that affirm and extend that truth. Of women across the United States who say very publicly ‘enough is enough.’ No more fracking, and no more fracturing our families and our children’s futures. Of high profile, powerful women of faith saying no to teachings that result in women and babies dying in childbirth because women have no power over their bodies.

On Friday I attended a Women’s Forum luncheon at the Plaza Hotel that honored Arianna Huffington and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel for the Forum’s second annual Elly Awards. Aside from the gorgeous award ceremony for these two wonderful women, we saw an extraordinary video of women who had been supported by the Women’s Forum Education Fund. (www.womensforumny.org)

This fund supports women over 35 who have lost the opportunity to gain an education, and thus to assume their leadership potential, due to adverse circumstances or hardship. The video features some of the women who benefited from this fund and returned to college – “I’m a doctor today due to the Women’s Forum” said one woman; another spoke of being blind and moving to the US from Nicaragua where people with disabilities have no rights and, with support from the Women’s Forum, completing a college degree to work with people with disabilities; a woman who escaped an abusive relationship at gunpoint and a woman whose mother who refused to support her going to college.

One woman spoke of the effect this investment by the Women’s Forum had on her life: “A bunch of strangers said ‘we think you’re worth sending through school’” while another recipient of the Fund said “My gait is changed, my head is lifted, my shoulders are back, I became very proud…and I have the Women’s Forum forever on my resume!”

Yes to Girl Scouts making their own choices, yes to funding to support family planning, yes to truly clean energy, such as solar power and wind power, and yes to us all affirming women’s education, leadership and helping women to do what they most want to do in this life.

Today was a blue sky day and a blissed out blessed community soaking up the sun. Josh and I strolled over to Washington Park to bathe in the magic of a community of music-makers. For a while we watched a group of friends playing banjo, guitar and blues harp while nearby a little girl started dancing unselfconsciously. Everywhere people lounged and napped and picnicked and played – as if we’d all emerged from our winter’s nest.

From my tap tapping on this laptop, I can see that it’s a darkening blue sky outside. A couple are sitting on their rooftop opposite and below two men are walking their snuffling pet pigs – enormous – while the usual dog-walkers stop to gawk and their dogs venture up to the pigs’ for a nose-to-snout ‘hello’. It’s the kind of Charlotte’s Web moment that makes the village what it is and, as the night dips to a velvety black, I feel very, very lucky.

Jane Sloane

Letter from New York #28

You may have heard of a new Global Ambassador Award created by the Advance Foundation to recognize Australians with exceptional leadership qualities who are doing great work outside of Australia to benefit people globally. The Prime Minister of Australia is the Patron of the award and the Advance Foundation is funded by the Australian Government and Australian industry to support Australian expats through a global alumni network.

Well, guess what?

https://twitter.com/#!/Advance/status/193780647876235265

I won an award for my work with women and girls! In accepting this award, each awardee is asked to mentor a young person studying the field in which we work. For me, this translated to financial services due to my work with Women’s World Banking in providing microfinance to women in developing countries.

 

Jane Sloane, Advance Global Australian Award for Financial Services winner

Going through the applications from these university students, I was struck by the fact that there were no applications from women. When I asked the award administrators about this, they told me that no women had applied. I read the applications from young men who were so confident and focused and aware of the benefits of global networking and global mentoring in relation to great job prospects.

When I read applications from young women in the social innovation category there was more of a spectrum that ranged from those who were confident and assured to those who were anxious and concerned about how to gain the confidence and the ability to make their mark in the world. In the end I chose a young man to mentor in the financial services category and a young woman in the category of social innovation.

I was thinking about this as I re-read an article that has stayed with me for weeks. It’s an article on hazing that appeared in the April 12th edition of Rolling Stone magazine. I would describe hazing as ritualized degradation as a precursor to entry to an elite club within a college system. In this article, journalist Janet Reitman documents the hazing practices at Dartmouth College’s elite ivy college. This is a college that has seen its graduates occupy a sizeable number of the 1% positions including CEOs of GE, eBay, Freddie Mac as well as two US Treasury Secretaries, advisers to Morgan Stanley and billionaire oilmen.

Reitman’s article centers on a student named Andrew Lohse and his journey from joining Dartmouth, becoming a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity and a writer for Dartmouth Review to a kind of anti-hero when he fell from grace and later blew the whistle on hazing practices within the college.

In this article, a Dartmouth Professor, Michael Bronski, frames the culture in which Andrew Lohse found himself. “The fraternities have a tremendous sense of entitlement…their members are secure that they have bright futures and they just don’t care. I actually see the culture as being predicated on hazing. There is a level of violence at the heart of it that would be completely unacceptable anywhere else but here it’s just the way things are.”

While hazing is illegal in 44 US states, including in New Hampshire where Dartmouth College is located, it’s still a practice that is alive and well in a college in which long standing traditions are fought hard – it was the last college to admit women and, even then, only after extreme pressure. This culture of hazing continues despite the fact that, according to Reitman, 105 college professors at Dartmouth signed a petition condemning hazing as ‘moral thuggery’ and called for an overhaul of this system, the third attempt by college professors to see the practice outlawed.

According to Janet Reitman, around 25% of Dartmouth graduates find jobs in Wall Street and the finance and business sectors. In her article, David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Power Inc, says “one of the few dependable ways into the 1% is via these elite feeder systems, like Dartmouth. These schools are about their role as networked conduits to the top as much as they are about education.”

One of the frat brothers sums it up to Reitman. ‘Having a 3.7 and being the President of a hard-guy frat is far more valuable than having a 4.0 and being independent when it comes to going to a place like Goldman Sachs. And that corporate milieu mirrors the fraternity culture.’

Reitman details the induction new students have to Dartmouth culture through a five day wilderness orientation called ‘Trips”. Here, students kayak, hike, mountain bike their way over and around White Mountains ending up at a Dartmouth-owned ravine lodge where they enjoy communal dinners and games, and ghost stories read to them at night. At one point they are served Green Eggs and Ham and are read excerpts from Dr Seuss (the writer, Theodore Geisel also went to Dartmouth). And so the students revert to a kind of Boys’ Own/Girls’ Own childhood and, in the process, they are recast as a privileged member of the Dartmouth Tribe.

In Reitman’s article we follow the course of Andrew Lohse’s experience where he teaches himself quickly how to drink alcohol in order to be a regular Dartmouth guy where male Dartmouth frat students take pride in being able to drink six glasses of beer in less than 30 seconds (captured on YouTube). Binge drinking becomes binge vomiting and this becomes normalized at Dartmouth.

In order to be inducted to SAE, Lohse had to compete with other students to drink as much Mad Dog (13% alcohol) while blindfolded in a wood at night to the light of tiki torches held by his perpetrators. Better than some other applicants (‘pledges) who were subject to beatings and other students throwing up on them – or much worse. Binge drinking and vomiting then became part of ‘brotherly life’. In fact, according to Reitman, by the end of his pledge term, ‘Andrew Lohse had vomited so much that the enamel on his teeth had mostly burned away.’

In this culture it’s perhaps not surprising that Dartmouth College has the highest number of sexual assaults (15 per year) of any college in the US, and an estimated 109 incidents on campus per year. Nearly every female Dartmouth student who spoke to Reitman complained of the predatory nature of the fraternities at Dartmouth and the use of date rape drugs. One male student, Stewart Towle, told Reitman that he de-pledged in 2011 due to the number of practices he observed as dehumanizing. He told Reitman “There are always a few guys in every house who are known to use date rape drugs.” He tells of fraternities removing female students from their house before calling security so as to not be culpable. One female student found herself in hospital with an IV in her arm and bruises on her chest that looked like bites, having been invited to a fraternity for a drink. “To be very honest with you, I don’t really want to know what happened,” she said to Reitman.

So, what is the Dartmouth leadership doing about a situation that would be designated an emergency crisis in many other organizations?

Dartmouth’s College President is Jim Yong Kim and he’s just been successfully nominated by President Obama to head the World Bank. Kim was awarded this role over Ngozi Okanjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Finance Minister who has done so much to fight corruption in her country and who was highly qualified for the role.

Kim, an anthropologist, medical doctor and co-founder of the international NGO, Health Partners, recently committed to an intercollegiate collaborative called the College Health Improvement Project to study high-risk drinking, with a report due next year. “We don’t expect to have solutions,” Justin Anderson, a Dartmouth spokesperson, told Reitman, “but we will have tons of data and ways to measure the results.”

This research on high-risk drinking does not address the heart of the problem, which is the fraternity culture itself and the inherent support the fraternity system has from its highest leadership. According to Reitman, Kim is a strong supporter of the system and has suggested that fraternity membership may have health benefits due to people with strong standing friendships being found to suffer fewer heart attacks.

In a recent interview in The Dartmouth Kim denied his own power to change the situation. “I barely have any power, I’m a convenor.” Reitman claims that Kim met with Dartmouth alums and reassured them that he had no intention of overhauling the fraternities. “One of the things you learn as an anthropologist,” he apparently said, “you don’t come in and change the culture.”

In truth, Kim is one of the few people who is in a position to do just that. As the President of Dartmouth College, he is the one person to whom the fraternities are accountable, together with the rest of the Board.

As for Andrew Lohse, he was suspended from the college for a year on a cocaine charge although the student busted with him wasn’t suspended and went on to graduate. Stewing over the perceived injustice during his year of suspension, Lohse amassed evidence about hazing at the college and took it to the college administrators, effectively becoming a whistleblower on SAE and the college system. In response, the college informed Lohse that, based on the information he’d provided to the college, they were pressing charges against Lohse and 27 other members of the SAE that he named, all of whom have categorically denied the charges. And so, as Reitman points out, Lohse, who provided this information voluntarily, may end up being the only student who is punished for hazing.

Apparently Dartmouth does not have a policy where whistleblowers are given immunity if they alert the college to illegal acts practiced by students. While Lohse was compromised due to his own drug taking, anger and possible opportunism, the situation does still raise the question of whether Lohse’s allegations should be less credible due to his complex character.

Lohse is now writing a book and, who knows, this may force the hand of the college. Reitman interviewed Bill Sjogren, a 1967 graduate of Dartmouth. Sjogren became an alcoholic after learning to drink at Dartmouth and he now volunteers his time to counsel students with substance abuse issues. Speaking about the culture at Dartmouth, Sjogren told Reitman, “No one has physically died at Dartmouth, yet, but the system destroys the souls of hundreds of students each year. It’s just beaten out of you. For a Dartmouth kid to do what (Lohse) did, he had to have been broken and hit bottom before he could break the code of silence.”

It seems obvious from this article that institutionalized forms of power are not going to be changed from within. Whether the reason is an anthropologist’s lens or a plea of leadership impotency, those who benefit from such power, prestige and fortunes are not going to give it up easily.

From all that has happened in other countries, most recently and over the course of history, it’s clear that real change is going to occur through citizen action and agitating. Except in this case it’s not just citizens on the street fighting for democracy in their country, it’s not even just citizens globally aligning for a new world order where the power base swerves from the 1% to the 99%. It’s the need to advocate for a world where women are valued for themselves and their own talents and abilities. Not just as conduits (‘where a woman benefits, her family benefits and her community benefits’) but as human beings with all the gifts and potentiality inherent within themselves to recognize their value in their own right. A world where men value their own humanity enough not to seek to diminish others and, in so doing, diminish themselves. Where the men who have spoken out in this article, like Sjogren, Towle or Rothkopf, are held up as a model to other men, and women, of a life informed by ethics.

Without a values base and ethical lens to decision-making, it seems that corporate commitments become a free-for-all. Whether it’s News of the World adopting widespread phone-tapping practices or Walmart executives in Mexico normalizing bribery practices into the company’s corporate culture, without this values base and ethical framework, monetary reward becomes the only measure by which decisions are made.

As I type this, I note an invitation I’ve received from the Global Peace Initiative of Women to a day-long event in Wall Street next month called Re-envisioning Prosperity that will focus on the kind of changes in Wall Street culture that will lead to positive, systemic shifts that benefit our economic, environmental and social systems with a focus on equality and equity. This intentionality is certainly a start – so too is being a mentor to young men and women who constitute the next generation of decision-makers. While the changes that are needed call for a revolution, I’m reminded of the quote from Helen Keller that Stella Cornelius used to share with me:

I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.

Jane Sloane