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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.



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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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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Climate Change & The Human Quandary

Apr30

by: on April 30th, 2014 | 6 Comments »

I’m on my way home from Philadelphia and the annual meeting of The Shalom Center, where I have the privilege of serving as president. The organization has a long history of peace and justice activism, increasingly arcing toward peace and justice for the Earth, which is to say the healing of global scorching (as our beloved director Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls it), which also entails rebuking the broken spirits who profit from the planet’s suffering.

Last month, when Arthur was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, he pointed beyond human rights to The Shalom Center’s crucial work to heal and protect from the climate crisis: not just human rights, but the rights of the web of life on this planet, encompassing human and other living beings.

One of our chief topics at this year’s meeting was how to awaken Jewish activism on this burning issue. To date, The Shalom Center is the only organization grounded in the Jewish community that has taken this on as a central cause. We spent considerable time devising a new national initiative that you’ll be hearing about soon.


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“Realism” and Its Discontents

Mar27

by: on March 27th, 2014 | 10 Comments »

This has been a strange time in my little world: I’ve been traveling for work while my computer stayed home and lost its mind. I’m glad to say that sanity (i.e., memory, software, and general order) has been restored, and while I still have the sort of compulsive desire to tell the tale that afflicts survivors of accidents, I will spare you most of the saga.

What both journeys—mine and the computer’s—have given me is the opportunity to reflect on the workings of human minds, including my own. In particular, I’ve had a close-up look at the desire to believe, especially to believe the reassuring drone of those in authority.

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at Harvard that focused on some of the key ideas in The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future. I focused especially on the way Corporation Nation has consigned artists to a trivial and undernourished social role, instead of understanding artists as an indicator species for social well-being akin to the role oysters play as bio-monitors for marine environments. I pointed out how arts advocacy has steadily failed (e.g., President Obama asked Congress for $146 million for the National Endowment for Arts [NEA] in the next budget, $8 million less than this year, when he should have requested $440 million just to equal the spending power the agency had 35 years ago). Yet advocates keep making the same weak arguments and pretending that losing a little less than anticipated constitutes victory. There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes flavor to the whole enterprise, a tacit agreement to adjust to absurdity and go along with the charade.


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