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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.

TV Family Values


by: on February 4th, 2015 | Comments Off

My big TV-watching time is in the mornings while I exercise. I save up episodes of series I’d never give 100 percent of my attention, usually detective shows (and never medical ones). But there is one family drama in my queue: Parenthood. Yesterday morning I caught up with the final episode. As the characters’ lives fast-forwarded through the finale, my tears started to fall.

A week or two ago, my husband sat beside me for a few minutes of the show and found it dismissible – a gaggle of entitled, self-involved, affluent, and attractive parents and siblings: who cares? I could quibble, arguing that it’s not plain vanilla. Two of the three adult children have mixed-race families, and the other one has bootstrapped her life as a single mother with two kids after leaving the spineless, addicted rock’n'roll wash-up she married. One grandchild has Asperger’s, another was adopted after his imprisoned mother gave him up, a third is a lesbian, a fourth has just become a single mother, pregnant by her PTSD-addled boyfriend.

But I know what he meant: they all somehow manage to be perfectly dressed and groomed in their perfect houses.They talk mostly in Hollywood quips, arch and clever. The family name – Braverman – sounds Jewish, but they have been entirely purged of ethnic identity and for that matter, of much personal history predating the show. They are in each other’s lives constantly, exhaustingly, and all of them love each other in a fierce unconditional mob-sized revel that I’ve only experienced in drama. No matter what the trial, no matter how halting the lead-in, every challenge culminates in a heart-to-heart that heals all wounds.


Another Kind of Spiritual Practice


by: on January 30th, 2015 | Comments Off

It’s easy to think of spiritual practice as something separate from ordinary life: the time one spends on a meditation cushion or chanting prayers or sending praise songs into the world. But for me these days, the most powerful spiritual practices are things I seldom put in that category. Is facilitating a discussion a spiritual practice?

Last weekend I was the lead presenter in a series for public artists working in community offered by the city of Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta. I gave a talk and led a couple of workshops for an engaged group of artists, students, administrators, and educators. I like the way Dawn Ford, the Public Art Program Coordinator, has gone about helping local artists become more engaged in public practice.

At day’s end, a number of participants came forward to thank me, which always feels good. Several of them paid me a compliment I am often privileged to hear: “I learned something,” one woman told me, “from the way you called on people and responded to their comments during the discussions. Your face stayed the same no matter what they said.”

I discovered I had a knack for this a few centuries ago as a young arts activist in San Francisco. Things would get contentious, people would take polar positions, and somehow it fell to me to try to create the container that could hold opposing sides and find some resolution that respected them all. It was an epiphany festival. I could see that I liked some people and disliked others, agreed with some assertions and rejected others. I had just as many personal preferences as everyone else in the room. Inside my head and body, the jostle of winners and losers kept right on making a commotion, but a different inner voice rang louder and truer.

Now I think of that voice as godlike.You know what I mean: not omnipotent and patriarchal, but regarding every person as beloved, the way a good parent loves her children. I could hear what each person was saying – the specific content of each message, including the edges that invited conflict. But I could also sense something of the joy or pain, the yearning or striving that colored each attempt to communicate, regardless of message. That voice told me to hold each person’s words in the same light, as part of a brave and beautiful persistence to care and connect despite all the rejections we may have experienced, all that may have been done to us. At first I thought of it as a game I played with myself: could I root myself in a position of fairness and enabling, of respect and mutuality?

But then something magical happened. I fell in love with that voice. I started genuinely wanting each person to speak his or her truth and the love infused my gaze and my capacity to listen. Now, so many years later, I’m not consciously doing anything when I facilitate a meeting. It reminds me of many years ago, when painting rather than writing was my medium as an artist. I painted a great many portraits, and when someone sat for me, my former feelings about that person fell away. Spending hour after hour sitting close, gazing at another’s face, breathing the same air, letting the stories flow: the word for the feeling generated by that experience was the same: love.

No matter what the context, this unbidden love – this grace – is a form of spiritual practice. I only have one endorsement, but I think it’s pretty compelling: if it works for someone as full of opinions and preferences as I am, it can work for anyone.




by: on January 16th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Today’s my birthday. When my husband asked what I wanted, I told him I wanted to feel young for a day. Spending the day in bed would have been one way to get my wish, but this is not what I had in mind: here we both are, in the grip of hacking colds. As I lie here, an adolescent spirit keeps whispering in my ear. I keep thinking about a feeling that animated much of my youth – and indeed the Sixties youth movement of which I was a part: outrage at the hypocrisy of power, whether in the little world of school and family or the big world of states and nations. Be careful what you wish for!

Huge crowds gathered in Paris on Sunday for a solidarity march with victims of the previous week’s terrorist attacks on the wildly offensive satire publication Charlie Hebdo and on patrons of a kosher supermarket. The victims were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, and along with phalanxes of world leaders, there were pictures of marchers declaring the unity of all faiths. Thousands of people tweeted and posted an image of a Jew and a Muslim arm-in-arm wearing signs that read “je suis juif et j’aime les musulmans” and the reverse.

Many of my friends responded with links to commentary and cartoons calling out the hypocrisy of world leaders whose symbolic gestures in support of free expression contradict their own actions – detaining, torturing, and killing journalists in their own countries, for example.

World leaders criticized for support of Charlie Hebdo #NousSommesHypocrites

Credit: @DanielWickham93 / Rich's Monday Morning View


I Just Don’t Know


by: on January 11th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

The physicist Niels Bohr said it very well: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”It occurs to me that prediction is just a short sidestep from analysis. Saying what you think will happen has got to be grounded in some interpretation of whatever is happening now. Maybe Bohr should have said this too: Analysis is very difficult, especially about the present. The problem is, it takes a rare human to being to admit that he or she doesn’t know what may happen, and rarer still to admit to not knowing what it all means right now.

I’ve been sending myself a long chain of links from people who have something to say about the assassinations in New York, Paris, Yemen (if you haven’t seen it, here’s the roster of targeted assassinations), and the NAACP bombing in Colorado. Many commentators are certain in their attribution of causes, which drives me a little crazy whether or not we share a general worldview and values. My problem is the persistent category error that confuses correlations with causes.

It happens I’ve been listening to Think Like a Freak, the recent book by the Freakonomics duo, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I love this stuff, not because I always agree with the authors, but because learning about the pitfalls of the human brain is one of the most empowering forms of study I have found. Especially in a time like this – when there is so much to mourn, so much to feel enraged about, and so much opportunity to feel small and powerless in relation to the changes needed – I take a good deal of comfort from understanding that inside my own skull, where I control the means of production, there are things I can do to improve my own perception, judgment, and therefore action.


The Year of Whiplash


by: on December 31st, 2014 | 2 Comments »

I spent decades denying I was an optimist before copping to it, and now – instead of trying to live the label down, I find myself trying to live up to it. I’d say this year has left me with an acute case of whiplash.

Turn my head one way, and I see activism at a height I haven’t observed since the Sixties (which lasted into the mid-Seventies, by the way). The humongous People’s Climate March in September, the colossal outpouring of sadness and rage at state-sponsored killings of black people: impressive, overwhelming, and even in the face of the devastation being protested, encouraging.

But when I turn in the other direction, it takes a powerful act of will not to be dispirited by the hardening of the hearts of entrenched power. I hear myself saying that I can’t understand how a human being can remain unmoved at the sight of broken-hearted parents consumed with grief at the deaths of their children, at the sight of the fear that evokes in other parents’ hearts.

But really, I think I do understand it. Those with hearts of stone put bereaved parents and dead children in a category marked “other,” marked “less than,” refusing to see the life-spark that mirrors their own faces in the eyes of others. I have been writing for years about the Golden Rule, the universal exhortation to avoid doing to others what would harm ourselves. This is from an essay I wrote for an art exhibit on that subject by Bay Area artist Beth Grossman:

In Deuteronomy, and in Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations, the Hebrew bible’s references to the pupil of the eye are almost always translated as “the apple” of the eye, symbolizing what is most precious, most in need of safeguarding. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,” reads Psalms 17:8.

Literally, though, the Hebrew text reads “bat ayin,” “daughter of the eye,” greatly resembling the English word’s Latin original, pupilla, a diminutive for child. Why? When we gaze into another’s eyes, the etymologists say, we see our own image in miniature reflected there. The Golden Rule is inscribed in the apple of each person’s eye.

Although all spiritual systems exhort us to follow The Golden Rule, I’m not foreseeing a Kumbaya moment in which we all reach across the very real barriers dividing society to join hands. I think there is a price of admission to the full human community that many are unprepared to pay, thinking their special privileges deserved, perhaps, or at least dearer to themselves than justice and compassion.

On this new year’s eve, I want to offer some words from myself and others that may help to diagnose our whiplash. As Gandhi said, “A correct diagnosis is three-fourths the remedy.” And then I want to tell you about something that gives me hope.


Cultural Equivalence and Implicit Bias


by: on December 9th, 2014 | Comments Off

The demonstrators who are stopping traffic, occupying public spaces, and marching through busy shopping streets want to disrupt business-as-usual in the hope of awakening conscience and action.The tags for every demonstration at Ferguson Response tell the story: #WeCantBreathe, #ThisStopsToday, #JusticeforEricGarner, #JusticeforMikeBrown.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area – specifically in Berkeley and Oakland, two centers of activism – there have been incidents of vandalism, arrests, tear gas lobbed by police into crowds (and sometimes lobbed back). These loom very large in mainstream media coverage, of course: if it bleeds, it leads. They loom large in some people’s minds too. I’ve been hearing concern expressed that these demonstrations will discredit the movement for justice: if they turn violent, some have said, they lose moral force.

I want to parse that response because it reveals something about embedded cultural attitudes that are part of the problem. How do we become aware of and correct for racist frames that have shaped our perceptions and attitudes? Let me see if I can help to break it down.


Broken Words


by: on December 4th, 2014 | Comments Off

I fear a new racial climate change and global warming. There are no more poems left for me to write. Every word is now broken in my hand.

E. Ethelbert Miller

I’ve been a fan of the proposal to make police wear body cameras, but yesterday’s decision not to charge New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner has reminded me to question my own confidence in documentary truth.

Since the decision came down, protesters gathered in Times Square, Columbus Circle, and other locations, often chanting Garner’s last words – “I can’t breathe.” People staged a die-in in Grand Central Station. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio talked about educating his black son about the dangers he faces at the hands of police, and told constituents that Attorney General Eric Holder had assured him that the federal government would investigate the violation of Garner’s rights. At the Ferguson Response site, you can find demonstrations planned across the country under the banner #ThisStopsToday. Color of Change is calling for federal intervention, and many others are taking action.

You see, even without body-cams, there is video of Eric Garner’s arrest and killing that provides better information about what actually happened than a body-cam could. And still, the Grand Jury on Staten Island (the only Republican-dominated borough, two-thirds white) failed to indict.

I should have recognized the flaw in my own thinking, as I’ve pointed out similar lapses so many times. We sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if people only knew how bad things were, they’d support necessary change. But in these times, many people know and act as if they don’t.


Inauguration Celebration Oration


by: on November 18th, 2014 | Comments Off

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.


Post-Election Letter to A Friend


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?


Happy Blog-iversary (and A Half) to Me


by: on October 25th, 2014 | Comments Off

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.