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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



Inauguration Celebration Oration

Nov18

by: on November 18th, 2014 | No Comments »

NOTE TO READERS: My essay “Living Into The Questions,” leads off the Americans for The Arts’ blog salon about “The Beauty in Change: Considering Aesthetics in Creative Social Change Work.” Please read it and let me know what you think!

This is the talk I delivered last night at Bowery Poetry in New York City, on the occasion of the inauguration of the first twenty-two members of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture‘s National Cabinet.

It is my honor and privilege tonight to welcome and inaugurate the first twenty-two members of the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), a citizen-led, policy-oriented leadership group whose members have made themselves experts not just by studying, but also by living the relevant knowledge.

We’re still building the Cabinet. Unlike typical presidential cabinets, we don’t ask one member to represent the entirety of an interest or issue – a secretary of defense, a secretary of state. We recognize that it takes the awareness and wisdom of people from many parts of the nation, many types of work, many cultural backgrounds, to bring the necessary knowledge to a subject as complex and encompassing as the public interest in culture. And it will take even more of us to activate the shift that needs to happen now, from a consumer culture to a creator culture, from a society swamped by fear, isolation, and competition to one based in equity, empathy, and interconnectedness.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about the Cabinet’s work, then introduce you to these remarkable individuals, some of whom are here tonight.

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Post-Election Letter to A Friend

Nov5

by: on November 5th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Here’s the note a friend sent me on Facebook late last night:

Arlene, now that the midterm results are in, how can the dreams/predictions that you make in your recent books The Wave and The Culture of Possibility come to fruition? How can Citizens United be overturned and democracy be given back to the people?

My dear friend, what a good question! I am sorry for the suffering it reveals, suffering that is widely shared this morning. I woke up with five possible answers jostling their ways out of my brain. I hope one or two of them may help.

1. I never make predictions, but I do write and speak about possibilities. As sad as many of the election results turned out to be, no single phenomenon (such as a seven-seat gain in a midterm election) forecloses possibility. Indeed, the very same information can be given two opposing meanings, depending on what else happens. We know that when a paradigm shifts – when an outdated worldview begins to be edged offstage by a new and more powerful understanding – those who benefit most from the old order tighten their grip. How many times in history have we seen such darkness before something new dawns?

A friend who works closely with elections told me last night that given which seats are up for re-election in 2016, it’s almost a certainty that Democrats will regain the Senate then. That’s his prediction (I don’t make them, remember?). But if two years down the road everyone who is crying this morning wakes up in a celebratory mood, will the nature of reality have shifted? Or just our ideas about it?

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Happy Blog-iversary (and A Half) to Me

Oct25

by: on October 25th, 2014 | No Comments »

I forgot to notice that this past May was the tenth anniversary of my blog, which I started in 2004 to coincide with the publication of my novel Clarity. It has a small but devoted following. And if you’re interested, you can buy it used for a song. I still think it would make a good movie…

I started thinking what I might have learned in this decade-plus.The first thing that came to mind was this: people have been calling me an optimist for most of my life, but I didn’t accept it as one of my true names until quite recently. Partly, that was about expanding my definition of the word. An optimist, I now believe, is someone who sees great possibility in the human project (not someone, as I once supposed, who is certain that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, pace Voltaire).

Still, I don’t totally get this about myself. I grew up in a world of low expectations and lower hopes, where adults understood themselves as refugees from and survivors of history, and I was regularly counseled not to want too much. I asked my husband to help me think about it: why, with my history, am I an optimist when so many others who have walked similar paths are anything but?

His answer made perfect sense to me: “Because you’re all about changing things. You have to believe it’s possible. A person can’t be as oriented to change as you are and be a pessimist. What would be the point?”

True dat.


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Ferguson: Generations and Expectations

Oct17

by: on October 17th, 2014 | No Comments »

This past weekend, activists streamed into Ferguson, Missouri, for Ferguson October, a “weekend of resistance” comprising actions and events organized by Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and other partners “to build momentum for a nationwide movement against police violence.” Protestors marched and staged civil disobedience, shut down commerce, and draped banners from freeway overpasses. Activists posted an open letter that began this way:

Here in Ferguson, our community has come to know terror on American soil. A public slaying so gruesome it harkened images of the lynchings from the most heinous moments in history, for young and old to see.

This is a moment of great beauty and meaning, in which those who desire a nation of justice and love are rising to summon it forth. Some carried a mirrored coffin in a ceremonial procession to the police department, calling to mind the Shinto version of The Golden Rule: “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”

What will come of this?

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Call to Creative Action

Aug28

by: on August 28th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

The work of artists and creative activists can help to create a cultural democracy that prizes diversity, practices equity, and brings a deep respect for human rights to every aspect of civil society. Therefore, the people-powered U.S. Department of Arts and Culture calls on all artists and creative activists to join in the movement to demilitarize the police and bring justice to victims of publicly funded racism.

- USDAC Call: Creativity for Equity and Justice

USDAC call to action

Credit: USDAC

For the past two years, I’ve been working with other volunteers to build and launch the USDAC, “the nation’s newest people-powered department, founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change. Radically inclusive, useful and sustainable, and vibrantly playful, the USDAC aims to spark a grassroots, creative change movement, engaging millions in performing and creating a world rooted in empathy, equity, and social imagination.” We need volunteers, so please help if you can!

This week, appalled by the deluge of racism and violence flooding the news, we issued the USDAC Call: Creativity for Equity and Justice. Recognizing that racism, the denial of human rights, and official violence are all cultural issues, an amazing group of artists and activists (just click the link to see names like Judy Baca, Lucy Lippard, Gloria Steinem, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Peter Coyote, Brett Cook, Lily Yeh, and dozens of others) called on all of us to

Join together in affirming to all public officials and policymakers that a culture of punishment cannot stand. We join together in applying our gifts to the public gatherings, organizing campaigns, and policy proposals that will support positive change. We stand together with generations of creative activists in communities across the nation who have been envisioning and working toward a world of equity and safety for all.


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Non-Negotiable Rights

Aug20

by: on August 20th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

gender roles equality

Are men and women really different? Does it even matter? Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Haabet

Have you noticed how easily people fall into passionate disagreement over points that matter far less than the heat they generate might suggest? I see it all the time. Last week my blog shared ideas and observations en route to speaking at the Women’s International Study Center’s inaugural symposium. The Symposium was excellent. Everyone was so smart, thoughtful, and articulate, I thought the building might levitate. But even with that much brainpower in the room, two points of this kind impressed me.

Are women better? Some speakers suggested that equal rights for women were justified by the differences women would make: that surely, women would bring different values and energies to workplaces, institutions, and the halls of power, and that would be a great improvement for everyone. These differences often turn on conventional gender types: women would be more collaborative, less belligerent. They would bring a softness and kindness. They would value relationships more and competition less.

Maybe. Maybe not.


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We, Thee & Me

Aug12

by: on August 12th, 2014 | Comments Off

I’ve been researching women in the arts and culture for a presentation next week at the Women’s International Study Center’s inaugural symposium. There’s ample information online, and it all tells an unsurprising story (if you’ve been keeping your eyes open).

Credit: Creative Commons

There’s more arts work by women out in the world, and also more work that depicts women as objects for others’ pleasure or service. Compared to a few decades ago, there are significantly more women in galleries, museums, orchestras, theaters, and so on, but nothing like a proportional representation of women in the population. At the upper levels of prestige institutional culture, women are scarce: one conducts a major orchestra, a handful head large dance companies and museums, fewer than half as many get museum and upscale gallery shows as men, etc. There’s more activism all the time, with organizations in every cultural sector working on inclusion, representation, and education to even the score. (There’s a good selection of links at WomenArts.)

Perusing the numbers, my mind leaps to a black-and-white conclusion that men, the gatekeepers, keep women out. But a report done a few years ago on gender bias in theater keeps nagging at me. Some of the findings illustrate the logic of entrenched bias. There are more male playwrights and they submit more scripts, so ipso facto, more scripts by men will be produced. To change that, you have to tinker with the supply side as well as the decision-making process: how to get more women to write and submit scripts — that isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact (albeit more gradually than the pace of change I would like to see), more women become active in each cultural field every year.

But the finding that nags me is this; in a blind study of scripts (the same script was submitted to comparable theaters, half under a man’s name, half under a woman’s), women’s plays were ranked lower in terms of quality, economic prospects, and audience response. The thing is the lower rankings were delivered by women. That’s right. Female artistic directors and literary managers ranked the script lower when a woman’s name was attached, while their male counterparts ranked the woman’s script the same as the man’s.


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Israel, Palestine, and Us: The Peace That Passeth All Understanding

Jul28

by: on July 28th, 2014 | Comments Off

Facebook has been a forest of assertions and denunciations this week. Maybe it’s the company I keep, but almost everyone is posting links at an accelerated rate, and the subject of this battle of citations is Israel-Palestine.

I spent a remarkable amount of time reading blogs and essays, but still, I was able to consume only a fraction of this material. The volume was such that I could have begun reading each morning, pausing only to sleep, then rolled out of bed and continued till bedtime the next day. The vast majority of posts came from people who, like me, live thousands of miles from the Mideast and, like me, have almost no direct knowledge of the situation. In fact, the intensity of posting seemed to escalate with distance, with people who live here in California screaming at each other with even more force than those who live in the region.

I have no doubt that horror and compassion played key roles in people’s desire to speak out. But they don’t tell the whole story. I think there is another story written between the lines of people’s posts, and that has to do with why, when, and how we rebuke injustice, which of the many outrages oozing from wounds in our social fabric seize our consciences and feed our righteous certainty. I am thinking of our own responsibility and the way it can seem to shrink as others’ culpability grows.

I started looking up the numbers on the U.S.’s own wars. You can’t find one authoritative number, but Wikipedia has an extensive list of sources and estimates you can check out yourself. They led me to put the total for Iraqi civilian casualties in our wars of 2003-2011 at about 100,000 (the UN estimated the number of war orphans at nearly 900,000), plus about 40,000 soldiers, military police, and insurgents. Approximately 4500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq, including deaths from causes other than combat. I have been thinking about our numbers, a ratio of “our deaths” to “their deaths” that is even more overbalanced than Israel-Palestine, not to justify but to understand how we come to normalize such moral calculus.


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Belonging, Purpose, Pleasure

Jul20

by: on July 20th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

I’ve been trying to find the right words.I think they might be “belonging,” purpose,” and “pleasure.”

Remember in the first Clinton campaign, when the candidate became famous for a sign that summed up the essence of his message: “It’s the economy, stupid”? I’ve been trying to find a few words that do that for the big message I feel impelled to put out into the world.

Here’s what I keep coming back to: It’s all about belonging. We want to be seen and known. We want to be acknowledged for our place in the community and our contributions to it. We want to feel connected and respected. We want to see ourselves in sites of public memory; to know our histories are not forgotten; to have a stake in our common future.

Credit: Creative Commons

This is a world of multiple participation, multiple belonging. None of us is encompassed by one type of belonging. For many people, the core of belonging is about a specific place on the land. If that doesn’t matter to you as intensely as it matters to my friends who grew up on ancestral lands in Indian Country or Appalachia, for instance, consider how much it matters to those you hear about in the heartbreaking news from Gaza.

Belonging is plain language for “cultural citizenship,” in which everyone feels at home and welcomed in his or her own community, in which the connection, acknowledgement, and respect I just enumerated are fulfilled.Our need for social healing can be seen in the vast numbers who have the legal status of citizens, yet lack full cultural citizenship because those with more social and economic power treat them as inferior (or at least dismissible), devaluing their contributions, reinforcing a state of otherness with material and spiritual consequences that are the opposite of belonging.


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On Safety and Umbrage

Jul7

by: on July 7th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Credit: Creative Commons

Have you been reading lately about “trigger warnings? “These are alerts to those who find themselves in a college classroom or other public setting, warning them that some of the material they are about to experience may upset them. The idea is that those who have had traumatic episodes – assault, for instance – might experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder if they see or read depictions of powerfully similar and evocative experiences. A piece in the New York Times back in May mentioned The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Greek mythology as possible “trauma triggers” identified by on-campus advocates of “trigger warnings.” The article has by now acquired nearly 1400 comments, and the conversation still seems to be picking up steam.

When I first read about this, I was reminded of my induction into gender politics many years ago. I fell in love with someone who lived in a collective household, so I moved to Portland to live with him. I had been an activist for years, but mostly in other realms – pro-peace, anti-draft, civil rights – where feminism had made incursions but was still insurgent. I’d read some of its primary texts and participated in discussions with other women, influencing my own life, to be sure. But still, nervous at my initial vetting by some of the women of the commune, I made a major faux pas: the word “chick” was still in current use in my corners of San Francisco, but in the commune, when I referred to “this chick,” it dropped like a bomb.

It only took one bomb for me to get the point. Like many children of immigrants, I’m good at picking up and internalizing the customs of the country. So I quickly learned some of them – how to talk and how to dress, things like that. But I balked at others. In a discussion of pre-teenagers, the thought-leader of the household corrected me: I should refer to “junior high school women,” not girls. (I never heard anyone say, “It’s a woman!” upon learning of a baby’s birth, but that doesn’t mean it never happened.)

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