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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.



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 | No Comments »

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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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 | Comments Off

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 | Comments Off

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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