Op-ed: Lessons for Liberalism from Conservatives

Yesterday on the Rachel Maddow Show, Melissa Harris Perry, filling in for Maddow, called on viewers to join neighborhood associations or other organizations. She stated that civic faith is important among this nation’s great conributions to the world has been its distinct associational life” but in recent decades Americans’ participation in associational life has declined. “We are less likely to join bowling leagues, PTAs and even local political parties.” She cites this lack of associational connections to a decline in solidarity, trust and tolerance. Harris Perry was specifically speaking about the tragic shootings in Colorado over the weekend, but her arguments also have greater implications for traditional organizing models. Before transitioning to her comments on associations, Harris Perry was speaking about the time for “turning to faith” and prayer that many political candidates spoke of yesterday and extending this to a turning to associations. During the past few decades, not only have citizens turned away from various associations and political parties, but people have also largely turned away from places of worship. Many countries the world over, especially in Western Europe, similar reports of dwindling church attendance roll in. While many churches are shrinking, one type of church has been growing, those non-denominational churches with a distinct penchant for contemporary music and fiery oratory. These organizations are also a base for organizers on the right to organize protests on pick-your-cause. The more traditional mainline Protestant churches? Shrinking populations make for a difficult to organize base.  As such, the left does not effectively use spaces of faith to organizing and create lasting change.

In contrast, groups on the right utilize faith spaces (of differing traditions) effectively to make political statements and change. Through these means these groups are able to influence the public dialogue on a topic. Examples of such are anti-choice protestors or even the Westboro Baptist church. These groups are able to serve as very effective “rubber band groups” able to shift all discourse a little further to the right and occasionally wreaking havoc in our under-participated-in electoral system. Religious groups on the left and right both run thousands of types of social programs. These can range from counseling, addiction, job training programs, shelters and even clean needle programs. These types of charity organizations have been a foundation of the American church since well before the American revolution when churches served as pillars of the community providing most education and social services within each community. Now, the power of more than half of these faith based communities has dwindled. Be it from apathy, the dissaccosiation trend the country has been experiencing or such as simple fact as disparate experiences, few religious organizations on the left have effectively organized to make lasting change on one particular cause. The selection of a cause may be a problem, but I have personally witnessed many instances of group support of an idea and a total lack of willingness on the part of any single individual to spearhead these projects.

To be sure, the Episcopal Church of America has significant strides in this respect with their programs to LGBT rights, even urging Congress to do so. But sadly, there are other churches with national and international scope committed to combating injustices similar to the Episcopal Church, but these efforts are sadly disparate. Even within the Episcopal church I have seen hundreds of different types of social programs offered, but I have only twice seen diocesan cooperation on a specific project, and in these cases the projects were handed down by bishops.

Traditionally churches and other religious institutions have served as important sites for organizing. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X each had incredibly strong bases in religious communities, as have other leaders as far back at the American Revolution. Some organizations, such as many members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where I am working this summer, are organized from religious communities, meet in churches, or are comprised of many members of the same religious community. Can these faith spaces organize to work together and transform their influence into an effect? My priest will often bring up Episcopalians’ aversion to conversion of others due to the stigmatization associated with the aggressive tactics of fundamentalist evangelical groups, but do these desires to appear different hinder our ability to organize effectively? It seems that mainline Protestants have a lot to learn from their more conservative counterparts.

Tattoos, Title IX, and Total Apathy

I spent the last two weeks reading Rebecca Traister’s book in preparation to meet with her last Friday, and one section of the book in particular caught my attention. While I appreciated her commentary on the 2008 election, this election was before my political awakening (and before I was old enough to vote) so it was more of a history lesson than illumination of phenomena I experienced.

Traister’s book includes a lot of discussion of the Obama girl and Hillary supporter stereotypes as well as the implications for cooperation among feminists, but I believe that these generational differences are more pronounced than just which candidate to support. For example, Traister’s argument that one of the most pronounced generational differences between young feminists and pre-Title IX (my formulation, not hers) feminists is their view of the importance of having a woman in the Oval Office. She argues that many pre-Title IX feminists want to get a woman in the White House, while young feminists view this as an inevitability and would rather wait and vote for a woman whose politics they prefer to Hillary’s. In reflecting on this formulation of pre and post Title IX feminists, I thought of the many differences that appear to drive a wedge between second and third wavers (or whatever I am) including tattoos and piercings, issues of intersecting identities and views of women in leadership roles.

Firstly, the stigma associated with tattoos and piercings is among the most simple of issues that separate second wave feminists and third wave feminists. These feature prominently among younger feminist activists, but are highly stigmatized by older feminists, like my Mom and her friends. I don’t think I have a very solid understanding of the big-name feminist views on piercings and the like, but I do know my mom advised me in high school to never get tattoos or excessive piercings because these, especially tattoos, are highly looked down upon by women of her generation and older.

Another potential wedge separating second wavers and young feminists are that many of the most active young women in the Women’s Movement are also queer. Many of these women-identified folk are tattooed and pierced, or at least accepting of tattoos and piercings. I think that the choice to get tattooed and pierced is related to a rejection of traditional roles for women, and occasionally as a queer middle finger to unsupportive parents. I wonder if the gap in experience between queer or non-gender conforming women and straight, married, second wavers are contributing factors to the gap between young feminists and women like my mother in the second wave. This is not to say that all queer folk have bad relationships with their parents at all, but I am proposing that this gap lies in the differences among life experiences including experiences of homophobia in the third wave and the pressures of marriage and family still overwhelming women during the second wave. Is it that young feminism is doing a better job of including the experiences of LGBTQ folk than second wave feminism did including women of color? Many of the conversations we have in Moxie have to do with the intersectionality of oppressions, but I don’t really know whether or not these are conversations that second wavers had/have. Maybe they are? I’d like to find out.

Lastly, I was born 10 years after Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court and almost 20 years after Title IX was passed. I take women’s sports and women in leadership roles for granted. This is a wonderful world to have grown up in, but this experience does not lend me to being particularly worried about the state of women leaders. Traister cites numerous second wave feminists bemoaning the lack of participation of younger women in the Women’s movement but I agree with her (and Gloria Steinem’s) conclusion that this is a product of the hard won rights that second wave feminists won for them. The portion of the book that most caught my attention was Traister’s narration of the conflict between second and third wave feminism as the conflict between mothers and daughters. This formulation really struck a chord with me in that I feel it reveals a lot about the conflicting ideas about feminism that often arise between my mother and I. I cannot reflect on whether this portion of the book would be as appealing for a “mother” or second wave feminist to read, but I plan to suggest my Mom reads the book to find out. Whether this lack of action stems from a rejection of our mothers’ ideas of feminism, generational differences or simply an inability to perceive threats to our rights, there is still work to be done and apathy is a privilege for times of peace.

All of this leaves me concerned: will we be able to bridge this myriad of differences to continue to fight for Women’s rights, or will we have to lose ground before these groups will be able to effectively work together?

Stop Looking At Me

This week held an interesting combination of experiences for me. I have had a lot going on personally and financially so it has been hard to focus on the program exclusively. But, these experiences have heightened some aspects of this week’s topics in an interesting way. Last week we visited my workplace, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and I was really moved by the connection Julia made with Barbara, one of our organizers and a domestic worker, over her nanny who still works for their family twenty or so years later. Last week was also my nanny’s birthday, and it was really special to make contact with her again when we don’t get to talk much. We spent a lot of time talking about the ways that people with certain types of privilege, based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, education or what-have-you should align themselves alongside those with less privilege in order to bring about change. As a straight white woman I felt fingers pointing at me, and I agree that I should do my best to throw my support behind others with less privilege, or to use a politically charged word, the less-fortunate. Among these discussions I felt as though I were expected to join the Mink Brigade and hit the streets, but what if I can’t afford that mink coat? During these discussions priviledge is used in such black and white terms that while room for intersecting identities, there is less room for discussions about Money. That capital is intentional. I am not talking about the money in your pocket, but the families that make up the Moneyed Class. Honestly, of all of the types of privilege that I’ve been given I think that my education is the most powerful. The name Duke inspires real respect in most people. The fact that my mom went to Cotillion and taught me how to interact with moneyed people also helps. (Yes, I’ll admit that this is a benefit given to me by race. I’ll also point out that my only friend who went to Cotillion in school was black.)

One stop on our whirlwind tour was at the Tenement Museum and something that really surprised me is that we did not really stop to have a discussion about where our families were from and how they had gotten here. Some of us may not know, but I do know that my great-grandmother came through Ellis Island in its early years and very likely ended up in a small, dark apartment with her married sister, a lot like the one we visited. A few days later I had a conversation with someone in which I brought up the fact that my family has a cabin in the mountains, and she gave me a look. This is a look I know well, particularly when talking about the cabin. The “I didn’t realize you were Moneyed” look. Funnily enough, the tenement bedroom reflected the size of our “Master” bedroom, with my room being even smaller. If America would fall into another great depression the Bartleson-Marr family be well prepared by the laundry facilities available in the cabin, a wire basket filled with stubs of bars of soap and an old washboard. All of this seems to be working up to one point, namely, “Stop looking at me and own your own power!” Don’t try to take mine away but denigrating it as inherited privilege. My family and I have worked really hard for it and it depreciates more quickly than you can imagine with lack of use. Looks like yours discourage me from joining in the movement.

Smiles and Moral Superiority: Can you connect the dots?

Last week’s visit to Choices left me with a lot of questions about the silent masses of women who do not engage with the ongoing political battle surrounding reproductive rights, but still reap the benefits bought by their more political allies. I decided that I wanted to go back to choices as an escort, in order to get an idea of how bad the situation really is. Sunny and I decided to go together, along with two Duke alums in New York. We arrived in Jamaica Queens just after 7:00am on Saturday and as we approached the clinic we saw a big red pickup truck parked outside with two giant posters in the bed leaning up against the cab. One said “Choice” and the other Life. Each depicted graphic images of semi-developed fetuses and the scare quotes made clear what the designer thought of the term choice. We could see these posters even before the clinic, but we knew we were in the right place.

As we approached the door we were pleased to see there weren’t very many protesters around, but they did stir into a tizzy as we walked into the door.  We walked up to Frank, who was coordinating the escorts, and he told us he picked us out right as we turned the corner for escorts. We weren’t exactly sure what that meant since we were both of an age with many patients of the clinic, but perhaps we were not as phased by the images as patients facing this immediate decision were? This was the first sign that we held some sort of power. We had a brief orientation as to what the protestors would do, what we should do, and what to do when we spotted the “deer in the headlights look” which indicated a client we needed to escort. After this orientation, all of the escorts donned white lab coats and went outside to stand near the protestors. We spread out in strategic locations where patients tended to come from. I was positioned opposite this picture in front of the bus stop.

The protestors tried to talk to me, to tell me that I was a murderers, but I just smiled. I told them I wasn’t interested in talking to them, then continued to smile and ignore them for the rest of the day. As protesters rotated around to different posts, I would always respond to their first attempts to talk to me but I stuck to my guns and never said a direct word to them for the rest of their time at that post. One particular protester, a man of Caribbean decent, would pull people aside and try to turn them against me. He would say things like “Look at her, she’s wearing a white coat like a doctor, but doctors are supposed to protect us.” I responded by smiling and saying “Good morning” to the person he was talking to. It didn’t take him very long to realize that wasn’t going to work, and that made me inordinately happy. I felt like I was winning!

As the day wore on, sometimes people would turn to me and ask me questions. I would repeat lines about protecting patients from likes of the protestor across from me, and agree with them about how disgusting the images they held were. I heard a few ridiculous exchanges such as one local man who told the protestors we should just eat the unwanted fetuses. He specifically said, “I don’t care, put some ketchup and barbeque sauce on that shit and eat it.” (Disgust shared at that comment was probably the only time all day that I agreed with any of the protestors.) I only escorted about three patients in three hours, but I left the clinic feeling great. When I wasn’t escorting patients, I spent the rest of the time smiling at locals and even watching a shoe-store while its owner went to get a cup of coffee. I’ve worked in customer service (and with difficult people in general) enough to know that the more you smile, the better you feel. Just being nice to people, and showing them the love in your heart (not to mention feeling of morally superior to the crazies showing children pictures of miscarried fetuses) are great ways to start off your day.  Even after being forced to stare at pictures of dead Jews, lynched blacks and miscarried babies, I knew I had stood up for other women and that was something to be proud of.

Do You Care?

Sarah is a rising Senior who will be working with National Domestic Workers Alliance this summer. She attended their national care congress in Washington DC.

My New York internship with the National Domestic Worker Alliance started a weekend in May and in Washington DC—along with 450 care workers who would be chanting and singing before the weekend was out. It began like any conference with the stuffing of nametags, the folding of brochures, and working the registration table for early arrivals with other NDWA staff and interns. But, I spent the next day in my role as Childcare Coordinator. The childcare givers were all members of the NDWA and they weren’t just playing “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the kids.  They helped the children understand what was going on downstairs in the conference. They drew pictures of domestic work, brainstormed why it is important, and even wrote some chants—like my favorite, “From Alabama to Brooklyn, Frisco to DC, I respect domestic workers come join me.”

In the afternoon, I was able to sneak into parts of two break-out sessions: “Caring Across Generations: Policy Changes to Inform the Way We Care” and “The Growing Care Economy & What It Means for Our Organizing.” Testimonials detailed the dangers of working in the home and the difficulties of finding reliable care for the elderly. I learned all about the rapid rate at which the care economy is growing, and the economic power this change gives care workers. Most all of the conference sessions were conducted in multiple languages to ensure everyone could participate: Spanish, English, Nepali, and Tagalog.

The congress focused on empowering their members and later that day they partnered with National People’s Action to let Washington hear what the 99% had to say. Hundreds of members piled onto buses without knowing where they were going, a signature of NPA’s 99% Power Actions—their extremely disciplined and well organized protests.

We met up with NPA again the next afternoon at their national conference, complete with marching band! First, to the FHFA’s office to call for the firing of Ed DeMarco.

Then to Wells Fargo to protest the funding of predatory lenders and private prisons used to detain undocumented immigrants.

Last stop…the White House for pictures, singing and a few chants.

These 99% Power Actions let me connect to the members in a new way as many of them stood with loudspeaker in hand to tell their powerful stories. I learned that the heart of NWDA is about story telling, about educating workers, and about advocating for their rights loudly and proudly. Can’t wait for June!