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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.



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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Plutocrats and Plebeians

Jul2

by: on July 2nd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Credit: Creative Commons

At dinner with friends recently, the subject of rents came up.It’s a big topic around San Francisco, because an influx of new money (from hi-tech, mostly) and other factors have made that city a landlord’s delight. When they moved out of their two-bedroom apartment, our friends told us, the landlord raised the rent a thousand dollars, to $3800 a month. “It was nothing fancy,” they said, “hadn’t been updated in years, an ordinary middle-class neighborhood.” The new figure was almost exactly the San Francisco median rent for a two-bedroom this year and a little below the corresponding average as of last month: $3898.

My friends had heard of renters offering well over the asking price – more than double the average in one case – to be sure of getting a place that was otherwise undistinguished but came with parking or a good location for errands and walks.

So that’s my main quibble with Nick Hanauer’s rather remarkable screed on Politico, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats.” In this “Memo To: My Fellow Zillionaires,” Hanauer makes an eloquent (and perhaps disturbing to its intended recipients) plea for what San Francisco and Seattle have deemed a livable minimum wage, $15 an hour.


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Pro Bono Blues

Jun27

by: on June 27th, 2014 | No Comments »

Have you noticed? Money changes everything. Almost daily, I get into conversations about compensation and fairness. Sometimes I even start them. But whoever starts them, by the time they get going, there’s always so much gray area that I have trouble finding my way to daylight.

I’m interested to know what you think. Let me share a few stories and a few questions that may cast some light on the subject.

Work or play? I work with many other artists who care about social justice and planetary healing and want to do our part. We get asked to contribute in various ways. Will you perform at our event? Will you donate a piece to our auction? When everyone is being asked to contribute – not just artists – that can feel just fine. But often that’s not the case. The people who mastermind the event, who set up and run the tech, who create the advertising, are being paid, but the artists are asked to volunteer.

This difference reflects some real challenges for those who wish to give art and culture their true value, those who understand that artists’ creativity is needed to surmount overwhelming challenges, to nourish our collective resilience, social imagination, and empathy. It seems to reflect the popular notion that artists are having too much fun for what they do to really be considered work: Sure, I’d like to sing and dance all day and get paid for it too. It devalues artists’ contributions, ignoring what we now know about the ways that stories, images, metaphors, and participatory actions can change more minds than the wonky work of white papers (which is almost always compensated). It seems to short-change organizing strategy itself, treating artists’ work as mere embellishment rather than a powerful path to change. These are hard attitudes to alter, because they are deeply embedded in the common culture. What would you do to transform them?


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Here We Go Again: Cultural Equity in San Francisco

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2014 | No Comments »

An enduring pattern has been inscribed on the struggle for cultural equity in this country. Those who get the biggest share of funding – them that’s got, as Billie Holiday put it – pay lip-service to fairness for those who get crumbs – them that’s not. But lip-service is generally the only currency they are willing to shell out. The haves counsel patience: Show up as members of the team, they say. Be part of the united front at budget hearings, go along with our program, and you’ll get your reward by and by.

Credit: Creative Commons

In San Francisco, people are tired of waiting. In March, the Budget Analyst’s Office released a study on allocations by Grants for the Arts (funded from San Francisco’s hotel tax revenues) to diverse arts organizations – those serving primarily people of color, ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. The findings show that the proportion of funding to these groups has remained steady for 25 years. For example, an average of 23 percent of the pie has gone to people of color (who now make up 58 percent of the city’s population, a figure that has been rising steadily since Grants for the Arts was first created), and 77 percent to largely white organizations.


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Go Come Back: Culture Is A Bridge and a Fortress

Jun20

by: on June 20th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Did you ever have something that generated feelings of pride and shame simultaneously, depending on your viewpoint?Something you wanted to share but also wanted to hold close? Something good you didn’t trust to others? I remember a friend who grew up in a northern California Pomo family telling me that her grandmother instructed her never to teach basketry to non-Indians, because they would not use the knowledge for good. Whether you agree or not, you know what she was talking about, right?

Credit: Creative Commons

I grew up in a household where the adults used Yiddish as a secret code.We kids learned a few words that were part of everyday home talk, but without being told, we knew never to use them in school. In fact, at a certain point, I told my grandmother not to make me any more chopped liver sandwiches, because my lunch-mates teased me so unmercifully about them. But I always regretted not knowing the language. Later in life, I even took Yiddish classes. But by then I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and I never became fluent. My husband grew up in Hawaii speaking Pidgin at home and among friends, and Standard English in school. When we visited there recently, he began teaching me a bit of the language. It delights him to hear me trying out my new knowledge, however badly I stumble. But both of us understand that even when my facility improves, there are reasons to keep it private. It will be our secret code.

Broke da mout: incredibly delicious. Dat saimin so good it broke da mout.

Though linguists don’t generally characterize them the same way, it seems clear to me that Yiddish and Pidgin (of which there are many varieties, for example, Nigerian and Filipino as well as Hawaiian) are what are called “Creole” languages, hybrids of other languages that enabled people to communicate across cultural barriers. In Hawaii, plantation workers from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea, and indigenous Hawaiians needed to understand each other, first in the performance of their work, and then in transacting commerce and community. In the Hawaiian language, Pidgin is called “ʻolelo paʻi ʻai,” “pounding-taro language.” In Europe and North America, the Yiddishes spoken by Ashkenazi Jews are hybrids of Near Eastern and European languages written in Hebrew characters: traces of German, Dutch, even French and Italian remain.


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Running Nature’s Numbers

Jun2

by: on June 2nd, 2014 | 13 Comments »

I love to poke around arguments – my own and others’ – finding all the blindspots, or at least wearing myself out trying.

credit: Creative Commons/Aaron Patterson

I like thinkers who question orthodoxies.When I wrote about Braungart and McDonough back in October, for instance, I was impressed with their questioning of sustainability as a goal (why set the bar so low?). I admired their way of working with manufacturers to create “cradle-to-cradle” products, without toxics and with effective ways to “upcycle” all organic and technological nutrients into something of equal or greater value. Their explanations of how this could be both good business and good environmentalism – and why the punitive, restrictive, more conventional approach was a tough sell – made sense to me.

But just as often, I’m surprised at how little the questioners seem to question their own assumptions.Last week, in the shade of an Ironwood on Anini Beach, my husband read me D.T. Max’s recent New Yorker profile of Mark Tercek, who came from Wall Street to remake The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Tercek’s outlook can be summarized by one of his favorite slogans: “Investing in nature is a great deal.” He believes in numbers, not stories.


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Skin in The Game

May28

by: on May 28th, 2014 | 9 Comments »

I am slow to anger, but it really pisses me off when people prescribe for others some purportedly virtuous (or at least dutiful) behavior they’d never embrace in their own lives.In the financial sector, they call it “skin in the game.” Have you risked some of your own money on the advice you are doling out to others? If not, you have no skin in the game. This sound principle applies to many types of activity: the healthcare or housing programs that politicians approve for low-income families would not be substandard if their own ethics obliged them to accept the same provision for their own families. They would have skin in the game.

The current case in point:when Miya Tokumitsu published “In The Name of Love” in Jacobin early this year, she set off an avalanche of links, reprints, and citations. I was busy, so I ignored all the messages telling me to read and respond. But now, on vacation with time to think, someone sent me Gordon Marino’s exegesis of the same idea, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love,’” recently published in The New York Times. My internal barometer hit the roof.

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Racism Stunts Your Growth

May23

by: on May 23rd, 2014 | Comments Off

A new study correlates racism with reduced creative capacity. Those holding strong prejudices, such as beliefs that inferiority is an essential quality of other races, rely on “rigid, categorical thinking” that “might actually cause people to become unimaginative.”

I could have told them that.

Back in the 80s, I was involved in a consulting project with the South Carolina Arts Commission.The brief was to address “burnout” in small-town arts organizers, who’d tended to lose heart and retreat despite the state agency’s willingness to provide more than a modicum of funding and assistance. But “burnout” turned out to be a euphemism for banging one’s head against entrenched and often unacknowledged racism.

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On Being A Sore Winner

May5

by: on May 5th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Before dinner last night, my husband thought the asparagus I was preparing to grill were too wet, that the baste wouldn’t stick.I doubted it, but I dried them off. He then proceeded to add explanations and persuasions to his case for dryness.

“Sometimes I think you’re a sore winner,” I told him. “It’s not enough that I do it your way. You need me to say you were right too.”

“Why stop halfway?” He laughed, and so did I.

I am a person of many aphorisms (which they say is a characteristic of autodidacts; proverbs are mnemonics). Of all that I use, my favorite is that epigram of Voltaire’s which is generally translated into English this way: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

It’s not that I don’t have high standards, or like to be right. Believe me, I know more than a few people who would be willing to testify to my relentlessness in that regard. It’s just that I want to take satisfaction along the ever-upward path to never-attained perfection. If every milestone is merely a sign of incompletion, life lacks spice.

I’ve been thinking about this with respect to the National Basketball Association and Donald Sterling. I don’t follow sports except when a new racism flare-up erupts into the media (as in this past November’s Miami Dolphins brouhaha) – although that happens often enough these days that I’m beginning to get the team names straight. These moments draw my attention because questions of racial justice get raised and debated in all sorts of places they aren’t often heard. The culture at large gets involved, a good thing in a society that sometimes has the temerity to bill itself as “post-racial.”

For my fellow Martians, here’s the scoop: Sterling, a vastly wealthy attorney and real-estate developer, owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. He has a long track-record of ethical transgressions, including massive fines for discrimination in housing. He also has a multiracial girlfriend who recorded a remarkably racist conversation between them, then leaked it to the media. Sterling talked about the players on his team in the way a plantation owner might talk about sharecroppers. This set off a firestorm of response, including a condemnation from President Obama. Within a few days, Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, announced that Sterling was banned from the league for life; he was also fined $2.5 million, the maximum allowable. The Los Angeles NAACP withdrew the award they were about to bestow on Sterling; UCLA rejected a $3 million gift from the zillionaire.

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