Two white guys walk into a lunch meeting…

Reflections, Social Work, Things I Take For Granted3 Comments

It didn’t seem like only two white guys in the room. I had happily volunteered to share my experiences with strengths-based assessment working with homeless teens during the first group question, and the facilitator had asked several follow-up questions. After that, the other white male in the room introduced an interesting ethical dilemma. I had what I thought was an important comment to make that would have resolved the dilemma, but at that precise moment I realized that for most of the discussion white guys had done most of the talking and yet we were less than 10% of the room.

So I didn’t offer my thought. And nobody said anything similar to what I was going to say. So a potentially valuable discussion point was missed.

There are a hundred reasons why white male voices like mine dominate even in rooms where we are a tiny minority, and none of them have to do with the value of our opinions. I’ve been trained my whole life to speak up just as much as everyone around me has been trained to believe mine is the voice of authority. If I want to, I can just say random things I think might be true, and people lean in to listen as if I must have studied this extensively.

So over the years I’ve had to learn to reel it back in–to create space for other voices that can’t speak over mine, because they’re not comfortable doing so, or because when we speak at the same time people choose to listen to me first. I think this is a vital, if meager, step toward relinquishing some of my unearned privilege. Granted, I still can speak whenever I want to and know that people will listen, so it doesn’t really adjust the balance of power in the room so much as it’s just a considerate thing to do.

But it’s difficult when I kept my lips sealed over the solution to that ethical dilemma, and nobody else had anything to offer but expanded analysis on why the situation was so tricky. It is possible that in not wanting to take up too much space in the discussion, I denied the value of my experience and perspective. If that’s true, then perhaps I just psyched myself out of sharing something important. But then maybe, like those around me, I’m over-valuing my own opinions.

It’s tricky to know how to act in these situations. It’s easy to shut up and let others speak when I would just be talking out of habit with nothing substantive to add, although I do still struggle with that habit. But it’s especially hard to shut up when I don’t know if I’m taking something away from the group by holding back. The question is, if I hold my tongue to contribute to a more inviting dialogue, am I doing something of higher importance than sharing my thoughts? And if my thoughts are actually worthwhile, should I exploit the unearned deference others lend me in order to share them?

SorenTwo white guys walk into a lunch meeting…


Reflections2 Comments

Knowledge of self is a double-edged sword; wielded properly it cuts through illusion and ploy, while incidentally it slices the threads of easy kinship. He who would seek the light of self must expect neither company nor encouragement in the shadow of a society that does not know itself. If he can endure isolation and doubt, the seeker will find that fulfillment of self rests upon the twin virtues of honesty and integrity. By this time the inward search has enlivened the questioning impulse such that he cannot help but turn his inquiries outward. What the seeker finds is often deceitful and fragmented. If and how he reconciles himself with his society is the true mark of his being.


The Worst Thing About Being Broke

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The last time I got a parking ticket was when I was still struggling to make ends meet. As I ripped it violently off my window, I growled out, “Why are you trying to fuck with me?”

I’m usually a very calm person. But there’s something particularly upsetting about being broke.

It’s not the constant juggling act of which bills to pay immediately, which to save for next pay period, and which to let go to collections.

It’s not the constant scare of walking around without health insurance.

It’s not the inevitability of unforeseeable setbacks that will guarantee you never get caught up.

It’s not any of the numerous ways in which being broke limits your options. It’s that always living with limited options gives you a persecution complex.

These experiences make you feel like a victim. To have enough to survive and yet never feel like your head is above water makes you begin believing that the world is trying to toy with you. Your circumstances start to feel like your identity, so any inconvenience becomes an insult.

This mindset is an involuntary response to the situation. Cynicism, apathy and anger are the coping mechanisms of the dispossessed.

And I was just pissed because I was overqualified for the job I was working. I’ve barely waded my feet in the deep waters of class oppression. So I can’t even imagine how disenfranchised I would feel if I thought I would be stuck in wage-labor for the rest of my life.

SorenThe Worst Thing About Being Broke


Reflections3 Comments

I’m a case manager for homeless youth. I make a joke of a salary, work long hours, and have to wrestle with bureaucracy at every turn just to accomplish simple tasks. Yet, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. This is not because I’m a selfless person, it’s because the positive impact I observe in the lives of these kids is worth more to me than a good salary. There is nothing noble about this; I’m simply pissed off at society for its injustice and coping with my privilege-guilt by working with an underprivileged population.

Volunteering for a nonprofit is often seen as the apex of noble sacrifice. Having recruited, trained and managed over a thousand volunteers, I can tell you the key to forming a successful, ongoing relationship between a volunteer and an organization is not to assign tasks that are extremely helpful to the organization’s mission. The key is to provide them with tasks that provide an immediate sense of personal accomplishment, regardless of actual impact.

Those without the time to volunteer often donate, but in the age of internet transparency, they usually view this donation as more of a purchase. They want to know exactly what they’ll be buying with their donation. So nonprofits make up little sponsorship packages and translate arbitrary dollar amounts into some sort of tangible impact. Your $50 helps provide GED training and testing for one homeless teenager fleeing domestic violence. Actually it melts into a pool of unrestricted funding and the nonprofit does whatever they want with it. And they need that autonomy, but the truth doesn’t make you feel special when you send in your check.


The Problem With Protesting

Discourse2 Comments

The problem with protesting is that the very act reinforces our subordinate position when what we are attempting to do is seek redress for injustice caused by subordination. To protest is to petition a greater power to make a change that we cannot make for ourselves. So when we protest we are openly acknowledging our impotence and reinforcing the structure that caused the very same problem we are seeking to address.

This is not to say that protesting is totally without merit. If a body of authority can see that a sufficient percentage of its constituency feels strongly about something and is then persuaded to make a choice that we consider good, then good was done. This can be a useful strategy for calling attention to an issue, or pressuring a government or company into changing a harmful course of action. But that mostly just constitutes harm reduction; it does not address root issues, and it does not empower us.

If the problem lies in the fact that power is centralized within a very small number of individuals and corporations, then the solution cannot be to validate and reinforce that power. The solution must be to siphon power away from the elite in order to empower communities. Ideally we would not need to protest, because in a situation where we possess real autonomy, we would only be protesting ourselves.

This world is not ideal, and I am not arguing against protesting so long as that remains true. It is an absolutely vital strategy for harm reduction, but that is about all it is. We cannot call it a day after we hang up our picket signs any more than we can say a tissue is the cure for influenza.

So how do we set about siphoning power?

SorenThe Problem With Protesting

Judgment Is a Waste of Time

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It came to my attention that my previous post implied that middle-income folks who fill their free time with leisure have an equally valid excuse for neglecting activism as lower-income folks who simply don’t have the time because they are so busy surviving.

I did not intend to imply that.

Lower-income folks have no good choice in the matter. Survival is hard work when society seems to obstruct you at every turn. Simply working multiple, low-wage jobs to raise a family would be work enough if one didn’t have to simultaneously contend with all the social and economic booby traps that lie in wait for low-income people. There truly is not time outside of working, parenting, keeping appointments, and dealing with constant surprises to engage in activities of privilege like activism.

The middle-income folks are in a much different situation. They have more flexible work schedules and shorter hours. They can afford babysitters. They have the privilege to choose how to spend their time. So where low-income folks are unable to participate in activism, middle-income folks are unwilling because they value leisure more than justice.

With that said, do you think it’s going to be any easier to convince middle-income folks to give up their leisure time than to convince McDonald’s to keep its wages up with the real cost of living?

I don’t. And I don’t want our strategies for social change to be predicated on the vain notion that we can convince people that they are wrong and we are right. We can point to middle-income leisure and call it complacency and then point to low-income struggle and call it survival, but look: both groups are responding to the rewards and consequences built into their environments. Low-income folks struggle because they need to. Middle-income folks engage in leisure because they can. These are all normal people responding normally to their environments, regardless of how unfair the stratification is.

If you want to judge the middle-income folks, call them selfish, and argue with them to convince them to use their unearned advantages to the benefit of everyone, you’re going spend all your energy on that and never accomplish anything else. I’m not trying to absolve anyone’s complacency, but I’m saying it’s a waste of time to try to convince people to not be complacent.

So if our strategies for social change aren’t rooted in trying to convince other people of things to mobilize a base of support, then where are they rooted?

The conclusion of my previous post was this: it doesn’t matter how valid people’s reasons for being busy are, we’re all busy and that’s the situation we’re in. Treating activism as an auxiliary activity is problematic because doing so marginalizes low-income folks who don’t have time for auxiliary activities and also fails to engage complacent middle-income folks — in other words, the vast majority of the country. By designing strategies for social change that account for how busy everyone is, we can kill two birds with one stone and skip the part where we spend the next decade arguing before we get anything done.

This raises two issues: how do we work with people’s time constraints, and how do we design strategies for social change that can be implemented without a large support base?

SorenJudgment Is a Waste of Time

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Classist Bullshit, or, Why I Forgive You For Skipping That Protest

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Sometimes I don’t realize I’m wrong until I hear myself speak.

This happened recently as I was throwing out tired rhetoric about how serious social change won’t happen until enough people realize that rising up is in their own interest. I was echoing what someone told me at an activist meeting once: “This country won’t see real change until the middle-class fully realizes what’s at stake and gets involved.”

Peddling this well-disguised nonsense, I think I had actually convinced my audience, but I had to interrupt myself in the middle of this speech, realizing that everything I was saying was complete bullshit.

Intuitive lies can be the most crippling, because they sound so damn reasonable at the outset that we don’t investigate as thoroughly as we normally would. That activist’s claims are reasonable too if you don’t dissect the underlying assumptions.

She had gone on to explain that low-income folks don’t have the time or energy for activism. You know, Maslow and shit. And what we would come to call the 1%, well they don’t have a vested interest since they’re benefiting from what most of us call injustice.

So what she was saying is that activism requires time and energy separate from what we do with the rest of our days. She was saying activism is an auxiliary activity, something we tack on to a well-balanced life but don’t ask of those struggling to simply get by.

Well, that ain’t gonna work.

I won’t disguise my privilege, but I’ve also been in situations where the only way I avoided eviction was by running myself into debt. In that time of my life, I had absolutely no time or energy for any kind of activism.

But, hold up, who does have time for activism? As I sit at my keyboard typing this, it’s 1:58 AM, I have to work in the morning, and I just finished a 15-hour shift. I barely have time to keep up with commitments to myself like writing and exercising; I certainly don’t have time for your protest.

Okay, perhaps I’m no exemplar of middle-class life. But all the people I know who actually stick to an 8-hour workday and make two to three times as much money as I do, they’re even busier than I am! They have gym memberships, dogs that need to be walked, dance classes, children to care for, vehicles to pick up from the shop, dinner to cook, and let’s not forget game night. They’re not coming to your protest either.

And the 1%? It would take ages to list all their sins, but sloth wouldn’t be among them.

Nobody has time for your damn protest.

That activist thought she was being sensitive to low-income folks by absolving them from the social responsibility to work for change. But she didn’t absolve them — she marginalized them. She basically said if you’re too busy struggling to survive, then you’re not going to be heard. And that’s okay if we’re analyzing how things are, because it rings true, but it’s not okay if we’re brainstorming how things should be.

So this concept of activism as an auxiliary activity? Throw it out. Nobody has time and we need strategies for social change that account for that. And this middle-class savior crap? I won’t settle for paternalism for lack of ingenuity.

But if activism isn’t an auxiliary activity, what form does take?

SorenMaslow’s Hierarchy of Classist Bullshit, or, Why I Forgive You For Skipping That Protest

5 Things That Won’t Change After the Revolution

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1) Food. It might not be Twinkies and KFC, but we all need to fill up. Whether it’s genetically engineered headless chicken meat grown in the labs of agribusiness megacorporations or local, organic meats and vegetables so fresh they still have dirt on them, we’ll still be coming together over meals.

2) Community. In the post-Facebook world, will we tell stories by the fire, or communicate telepathically with cybernetic implants? Either way, we are social creatures and we need each other.

3) Transportation. We might walk barefoot across a post-apocalyptic landscape or hop in a flying car piloted by a computer chip, but one way or another we have places to go and people to see.

4) Commerce. Whether bartering with precious metals or making automated purchases with subdermal RFID implants coded with our bank information, we all want things we can’t produce for ourselves.

5) Politics. Whether the parliament of a socialist democracy, an autocratic madman backed by a robot army, or a neighborhood council using modified consensus, someone or something has to make decisions about how we all live together.

The basic areas of human activity won’t change very much even with sweeping changes to the overall landscape of society. We’ll still eat, sleep, and get up every morning to do some sort of job, even in a world that is barely imaginable through the lens of today’s perspective. What we do is fairly constant. How we do things, however, is the mark of the age, and developments here are the foundation of all social change.

So I want a program for social change that says this: don’t stop doing the things you already do, just do them in a new way. What benefits do you think this approach might offer?

Soren5 Things That Won’t Change After the Revolution

Social change needs to be fun

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Walking to a cafe the other day, I saw a poster for a community budget hearing, and thought to myself, That is exactly the kind of thing I should be excited about! But I really wasn’t excited. When I think about sitting through a meeting like that, I imagine being very bored and having very few opportunities to speak up.

Maybe this is my problem. Maybe changing the world requires adapting to lengthy, boring meetings where people tip-toe around the issues. Maybe progress is mostly a product of patience.

But I don’t think so. I don’t think changing society requires us to change people. People are working just fine: they’re responding to the costs and benefits in their environment. A community budget hearing costs hours of a person’s life and offers no tangible, observable benefit. The average person walking past the same poster I saw is going to quickly decide it’s a waste of time.

And it’s precisely average people that are going to propel any durable social change. The task ahead of us is not to figure out how to push everyone we know into what we consider to be the best tactics, it’s to create tactics that have natural appeal to everyone we know. In other words: social change needs to be fun.

Can you imagine if activism didn’t feel like a chore?

SorenSocial change needs to be fun

In 2013, Let’s Figure Out How to Start

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Society is not what most of us wish it was.

We have these conversations about what everyone else should do and how things would look different if we were in charge. A lot of us leave it at that, but some of us get out and try to work for change.

We work for mission-based organizations. We donate money. We volunteer on political campaigns. And yet, very little changes.

This is because the only strategies we know are harm-mitigation strategies. We don’t have any clue how to actually change society. All we know how to do is throw band-aids over some of the deeper cuts.

In 2012, we argued over the importance of food stamps, and most of us agree they are essential to a humane society, but they only address symptoms. We renewed our cries for gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook–and, oh, how we need it–but that won’t make us a less violent people. At the eleventh hour, the Senate passed a fiscal cliff deal geared toward the middle-class, but it won’t reverse increasing class stratification.

Working to mitigate harm is necessary to make society livable. But it’s only half the strategy: we have to address root causes. So this year, let’s get proactive. Let’s stop reacting to the bad things and start talking about how we can create some good.

What do you think are the root causes we need to address?

SorenIn 2013, Let’s Figure Out How to Start