Go find some trouble ;)
It’s that time of year: self-reflection, family drama, holiday shopping, oh my…
I know, at least for me, the holidays sharply show how different my life is
From how I thought it would be.
But I love it nonetheless.
Not because it’s all there is, but because of how those moments defined by grace
Still make me smile and cry, all at once.
1. Community service would be a tradable commodity.
2. Homelessness would not exist.
3. Health care would be free.
For the record, I consider myself a pragmatist, not an idealist. Pragmatically I know that, no matter how grand or modest the pursuit, both good and bad will result from it. There will always be unintended, unforeseeable consequences of systemic change, and there is never a point at which you can unequivocally step back and say, “Yes. We’re done. We’ve arrived.” Nevertheless, pursuing big ideas nets big impact, so my approach is to think big and dream big; go big or go home. Combined with diligent, dedicated work and incredibly creative strategies, big ideas are how systems start to change.
Our current economic system is floundering. Stagnant unemployment rates–7.8% in the U.S. for December 2012, and 9.8% in California during the same time–have spawned expert conversations about the reality of structural unemployment. Even if we wait for the global economy to rebound, for the Great Recession to yield to a boom cycle, there will not be enough jobs to support the global population of the 21st century. In the words of local nonprofit-slash-tech-startup, Samasource, “There is a global shortfall of 1.8 billion formal jobs.”
In 2001 Bernard Lietaer, a premier international expert on monetary systems and the global financial industry, predicted the economic crisis that started in 2008. In his book The Future of Money, he warned against increasingly risky speculation by giants of the financial industry. He argued that, based on the underlying principles of our modern financial system and the erasure of jobs inherent to the Information Age, complementary currencies must be developed to fill new and changing societal needs. With daunting issues such as climate change and water rights, the 21st century has already been marked by an acute awareness of our limited material resources. With the ceaseless information and exploration available through the Internet, however, we are also acutely aware of the unlimited capacity of human ingenuity.
As people, as workers, as family members, time is our most valuable human resource. With high unemployment, now some of us have a lot more time and with a wealth of skills and experience behind it. Add the context that, according to Paul Hawken in his seminal work, Blessed Unrest, grassroots responses to injustice have generated over one million organizations worldwide dedicated to sweeping social change. Within those organizations are people practicing thousands of new ideas about how we work, how we trade, and how we construct our communities. They’re building complementary economies. This confluence of events means we have a unique opportunity to invest our newfound time in experimenting with emerging economic and social change models. And we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because there are already incredible local organizations where we can contribute, observe, and feed our capacity for invention.
Some of these organizations, like Samasource and Juma Ventures, are blending the best of nonprofit and for-profit principles to address systemic poverty. Some, like time banks throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, are testing formal complementary currencies as Lietaer recommended. I love learning about these organizations, because it’s inspiring to see the ambition of the tech world work alongside grounded, purposeful human service. And the more people know about these groups, learn from their experiences, and bring further innovation to these models, the more diverse and resilient our economy will be.
So, to bring it back (and add on, of course) to my original statement, in my wildest political and economic dreams:
1. Community service would be a tradable commodity.
2. Homelessness would not exist.
3. Health care would be free (including reproductive care and education).
I’m betting on the successes and failures from pursuing my first ‘big idea’ to inform the solutions for the second two ideas. I’m counting on my Millenial peers to further the social frontier by learning through new types of work. I’m trusting in the talents, passions, and visions of our communities to generate new solutions that don’t just address current problems but fuel future innovation. In short, I believe in the capacity of human ingenuity to solve unprecedented global problems.
Our material resources–natural and financial–may be dwindling or unsteady, but our human intellectual resources cannot be exhausted as long as we continue to use them. We desperately need a more resilient economy, and I absolutely believe we have the resources to build it.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” -Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788
“A social movement that only moves people is a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” -MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 117
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is a touchstone of modern United States history. American children learn the story of MLK as one of triumph, of arrival at an American promise land of finally-delivered equality to long-suffering communities. That’s the abridged version, anyway. In reality, King’s infamous Dream of desegregation, of racial equality measured by economic equality, is pitifully underrealized in the U.S. today. As one example, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet, and it is also segregated to a disturbing degree. (See the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point, Japantown as compared to Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights for details. Same goes for Oakland compared to Berkeley; East Palo Alto to Palo Alto.)
Even before his assassination, Dr. King enumerated the challenges of fighting for lasting equality in a scathing indictment of the American mainstream:
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood…but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform.” -MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1968, p. 4-5
Unsurprisingly, King’s more complex philosophies are rarely quoted or brought up in The Civil Rights Story. It’s clearly in part because he’s truly radical in his articulation of justice. I also think it’s because his pronouns–such as “God,” “Negros,” and “Man”–can trigger intense discomfort in 21st century politics.
Most notably, King’s spiritual commitment and the Christian doctrine that founded his political activism seem misplaced in today’s ideological spectrum. Though they use similar vocabulary, the lunacy of today’s religious political activists– i.e. Michelle Bachman, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin–are nowhere close to King’s expressions of compassion and equality.
“There are three dimensions of any complete life…: length, breadth, and height. The length of life… is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.” MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 36-37
For present-day progressives, I wonder if King’s reliance on ‘God’ to define a fulfilling human life makes his broader point harder to swallow? Has the pervasiveness of his Christian philosophy in his writings contributed to a highly abridged version of his legacy? Does it freeze his message in time, deeming it a distant relic, isolated from today’s brand of highly polarized politics?
“[M]an is a being of spirit. That is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.’ Man has rational capacity; man has a mind; man can reason. This distinguishes him from the lower animals. And so, somehow, man is in nature, and yet he is above nature; he is in time, and yet he is above time; he is in space, and yet he is above space. This means he can do things that lower animals could never do. He can think a poem and write it; he can think a symphony and compose it; he can think up a great civilization and create it.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 17
As you can see, categorizing King based on today’s political standards gets complicated pretty quickly. In his written works, King reveals ideological loyalties that seem contradictory today: he’s both rational and spiritual, a modern philosopher and a devout practitioner. Within one argument, for example, King calls out the failures of America and the ‘West’ in manifesting its ideals by invoking a disembodied, God-like voice. Then, later on the page, he alludes to American Exceptionalism as a sound basis for pursuing justice:
“Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization, ‘You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your…brothers in Africa and Asia’…[and] It seems I can hear a voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…’ But, America, you have strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this, a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.’ ” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 29-30
I love reading King’s written works because 1) he’s a brilliant writer, and 2) they beautifully embody the natural contradictions of the human experience. His ideas and words soar above linear history and the limits of human nature, yet his vocabulary is surprisingly anachronistic, shaped by and for his unique moment in time.
His teachings, his actions, and the timeliness of his powerful vision established MLK as a leader of his era. But his overarching message rings true in any time: challenge what you see, challenge what you know, and challenge injustice with radical compassion until freedom and equality are both the letter and spirit of the law. His ability to express the richness of a pluralist existence resonates with a growing realization about our global fate:
“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people…cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 48-49
With that last sentence, it’s clear to me King’s legacy isn’t just a frozen moment, and it isn’t just a speech at the Lincoln Memorial or a ‘triumphant’ struggle for Civil Rights. His words indeed sparked a revolution, because he didn’t just move people, he moved them (and their kids) to an unprecedented breadth of social activism that we’re seeing flourish in our networks.
“It is true that these elements [the marching, the confrontations, the protests] have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the soil.” MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 116-117
With the advent of the Internet, we’ve rediscovered our collective potential to propel social change. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that well over one million nonprofits, NGOs, social enterprises, and grassroots community groups founded in the last twenty years constitute “the largest social movement in human history.” These organizations are part of King’s legacy, part of the kind of hope, resilience, creativity, and community building (and celebrity fundraising) that he led through Selma and Birmingham.
We’re in a time when we desperately need to regenerate ailing systems, to solve pressing global problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his divinely human beauty, the Hercules of progressive social change. But beyond leading his contemporaries, Dr. King also enriched the soil of political activism for the growth of future generations. Based on Hawken’s research, I think King’s nonviolent leadership and radical compassion did indeed start a revolution. I also think this is just the beginning, just the initial fruits of his reign.
I can’t wait to see them multiply.