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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.

Imitating Realness: Art and Authenticity


by: on October 23rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

The older I get, the more I interrogate my own critique of the new-new thing. Even the quickest retrospective glance reveals cultural history as a kind of ping-pong: the oldsters are appalled by the youngers, and when the youngers grow old, they are briefly surprised at finding their parents’ words emerging from their own mouths. Then they get used to it, and the generations roll on.

So take this with a pinch of trepidation, or at least a grain of salt, but I’m feeling more and more fed up with what seems to me to be a wildly misguided and rapidly emergent impulse in art and commerce, which is to hold nothing sacred, to mount an imitation of realness in which both art and authenticity are left lying on the studio floor.

Take the case of the canned parrots of Telegraph Hill. In San Francisco, that rocky North Beach neighborhood is famous for its wild parrots, tended for many years by musician Mark Bittner. He was profiled in Judy Irving’s lovely 2003 film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and in Bittner’s own book of the same name.

Recently, some young entrepreneurs opening the kind of trendily unspecific shop which seems more and more ubiquitous as San Francisco becomes increasingly unaffordable decided to intrigue passers-by with a display of cans labelled “Boiled Parrot in Gravy.” The display alludes to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, of course, and the contents were carefully chosen to reflect the shop’s aspirational brand as described by the filmmaker/graphic designer who created the installation: “a curated modern general store for the neighborhood, with a creative, craft and art focus … it’ll be sort of a neighborhood clubhouse, with a retail angle.”


Breaking The Gentlemen’s Agreement


by: on October 16th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.

These words were spoken by Senator Bernie Sanders during the first Democratic Party debate among presidential candidates who hope to win the party’s nomination. The Washington Post has made a full transcript available online. In it, the word “billionaire” appears 13 times, all of them voiced by Sanders. Here’s another sample:

I am the only candidate running for president who is not a billionaire, who has raised substantial sums of money, and I do not have a super PAC.


My Collective Cultural Imagination Road Trip


by: on September 30th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

My husband is driving this noisy 16-foot truck filled with his studio materials and tools to our new home in New Mexico. A month ago, we caravanned southeast along this same route: part one of the move, our worldly goods. If I’ve been MIA (and I surely have), that’s why – packing up, moving, unpacking, all the arrangements attendant thereto, and fulfilling my work obligations have consumed months. For the first time in ages, sitting in the passenger seat, I have the mental space to ponder instead of only to plan and execute.

I’m writing from that stretch of I-5 heading south dotted with a legion of wind turbines. They’re completely still today, ranks of stately sentries marching into the distance. They fool you. Varying in size from gigantic to merely large, they make it impossible to know whether they signal distance – perspective – or stature.

Which goes to the heart of what matters most.What kind of society do we want? One in which bigshots control the frame, or a society of equals who happen to be standing in different places?


Dare to Live The Future Now: Be An Emissary


by: on August 31st, 2015 | Comments Off

Do a little thought experiment with me. Imagine we’re sitting over a drink in your favorite place, but it’s 20 years from now. Instead of the dystopia mass media tell us to expect, look around: it’s the future we wanted to inhabit!

“Think about how it would have been back then,” you say, “if we’d only known we had the power to accomplish all this.” “Yes,” I reply, rolling my eyes. Then we click our glasses and burst into ecstatic laughter.

Take another breath in 2035, then come back here for a minute, because there’s something we want to tell you: we do have the power.

Do you want to live the future now? Just a couple of clicks and you’ll be signed up as an Emissary From The Future in #DareToImagine, the next National Action of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I have the honor of serving as Chief Policy Wonk), taking place all across the country from 10-18 October 2015.

Why #DareToImagine? Imagination is our birthright, but too often, we’re persuaded to believe our voices don’t count or that the future is determined by a powerful few. Social imagination is a radical act, restoring personal and collective agency, shifting dominant narratives, and affirming that all of us make the future. When we have the audacity to dream in public, when we begin to unleash imagination and turn it into action, we can move the world.


Imaginings Roll Out!


by: on May 25th, 2015 | Comments Off

Over the next six weeks, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I have the honor of serving as Chief Policy Wonk) Cultural Agents will host Imaginings in 15 different towns and cities across the nation. Most of these vibrant, art-infused, highly participatory community dialogues have their own event pages on Facebook other or other sites; click the links to learn where and when. (And scroll down to read about the 2014 Imaginings to whet your appetite for more).

As a new people-powered department, we knew we wanted to engage a broad public in collectively envisioning culture shift. In 2013, when we dreamed up Imaginings as the centerpiece of the USDAC’s local community work, we tapped into a powerful shared realization: everything created must first be imagined. It’s a radical and essential act to imagine a more just, vibrant, and creative society; and even more so to act together, making our shared dreams real.

Across the cultural landscape, powerful dreamers everywhere are tapping into this same deep truth. Just two quick examples: the young organizers who formed Dream Defenders in 2013 to “develop the next generation of radical leaders to realize and exercise our independent collective power” chose a fierce and evocative name for their work. Earlier this spring, when Black Lives Matter called for voices to “help imagine a world where black life is valued by everyone, our rights are upheld, and the beauty and power that is our blackness is celebrated,” they called their action “In a world where Black Lives Matter, I imagine…..”

In every part of the country, in every condition and culture, countless people are imagining the world we want to inhabit. Here at the nation’s first people-powered department, we are doing our part. The Harrisonburg, VA, and Fort Lauderdale, FL Imaginings have already taken place. Look for-on-the ground accounts as Imaginings unfold in the USDAC blog.


Field Office Annals, Part Two: Engagement, Vision, and Play


by: on May 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

This is the second in a two-part series based on interviews with two founding Cultural Agents in the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I hold the title of Chief Policy Wonk).(To stay current on everything this great project is doing, enlist as a Citizen Artist: it’s fun and free.)

Jess Solomon in Washington, DC, and Dave Loewenstein in Lawrence, KS, are the first two USDAC Cultural Agents to open Field Offices, USDAC outposts that serve as focal points for local cultural organizing and connecting-points for participation in National Actions. (See part one of this series to learn why they started Field Offices and what they’ve been up to ever since.)

One of the USDAC’s foundational ideas is that the local and national feed and support each other. For example, through local Imaginings, communities generate visions of the futures they desire, and those help to shape policy and program ideas emerging from the National Cabinet. Those can then be tested at the community level, with local experiences making national policy stronger, and vice versa. In this model, policy is rooted in lived local knowledge, not abstract ideas or expert credentials.

Obviously, this works best with a strong local network. Imaginings are part of that, and so are National Actions like the People’s State of The Union, with thousands of community members across the nation taking part. The network of Field Offices is just starting to add a layer, with Dave and Jess showing the way. They’ve already learned a great deal about how to engage people, how to self-organize, and what not to do, and they are happy to share.

When we spoke last month, I asked them what drew people in their communities to the USDAC.


Field Office Annals, Part One: Filling A Need


by: on May 11th, 2015 | Comments Off

When I applied to be a Cultural Agent and read the fine print about hosting an Imagining, I was already thinking about what was next because often times we have these events, they feel good, you get people excited — and then what? I really didn’t want to perpetuate that pattern.

Jess Solomon, Cultural Agent, Washington, DC

I couldn’t imagine here in Lawrence bringing these folks together, getting them all riled up and then saying, “Thank you for your input.” That’s not my style. It’s a small enough town that I think people expected more.

Dave Loewenstein, Cultural Agent, Lawrence, KS

The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, where I have the pleasure of serving as Chief Policy Wonk, has just launched weekly blogposts. (To stay current on everything this great project is doing, enlist as a Citizen Artist: it’s fun, free, and vital.)

In April for the first in this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the USDAC’s founding Cultural Agents, Jess Solomon from Washington, DC, and Dave Loewenstein from Lawrence, KS. Both signed on with the USDAC early in 2014 and organized inaugural Imaginings last summer.

On her website, Jess describes herself as Chief Alchemist at Art in Praxis, “Art + Culture At The Center of Strategy, Design and Community.” Dave’s website describes him as a “a muralist, writer, and printmaker.” And I will just say that everyone who knows either of them admires their energy, warmth, and prodigious abilities.

Dave and Jess opened the USDAC’s first two Field Offices – ongoing USDAC focal points for local cultural organizing and connecting-points for participation in USDAC National Actions such as this past January’s People’s State of The Union.


Ethelbert Miller: A Sustaining Presence is Forced Out and Everyone Loses


by: on April 20th, 2015 | Comments Off

On 3 April, the powers-that-be at Howard University laid off eighty-four staff members, including E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center, who attended Howard and went on to serve the university community for more than forty years.

Ethelbert is a literary activist of wide-ranging commitments and honors: he chairs the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Policy Studies; he is a board member at The Writer’s Center and editor of Poet Lore. He’s a former Chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the author of many books of poetry and memoir. Dearest to my heart, he serves on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture with the title Minister of Sacred Words, offering radical love and generosity of spirit in all he does.

I’m going to suggest what all this may mean (and give you contact information to protest), but first, I’d like to share an excerpt from a letter Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote to the newly appointed President of Howard, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick. Betts is a much-lauded poet and memoirist, a former prison inmate who credits Ethelbert with the critical and well-timed caring that enabled him to flourish. You owe it to yourself to read all of his letter, reprinted at Split This Rock.


My English Teacher’s Son Won the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award


by: on April 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award this week. I have nothing to say about the book, since I haven’t yet read it. The writer’s name gave rise to my subject. Reading it released a memory rush that’s been cycling just behind my eyes ever since.

The author’s father, Gordon Lish, trails a huge reputation for his days as a fiction editor at magazines and publishing houses, for his own writing, and for his teaching at Yale and Columbia- as this Guardian piece attests. He’s also famous for flat-out pronouncements and slash-and-burn editing (most cited: excising half the words from Raymond Carver’s early stories, bringing Carver both success and ambivalence, as detailed in this 2007 New Yorker article.

I met Lish half a century ago in a high school classroom in Millbrae, California. He was one of two teachers whose kindness helped me survive four years as a strange, arty, activist teenager in a suburban world I found entirely incomprehensible. Both teachers are inscribed in my memory because they were the first adults I met who looked at me and saw something other than an annoyance or a perpetual misfit.


Class Suicide and Radical Empathy


by: on April 10th, 2015 | Comments Off

Last Friday, on the first night of Passover, I was asked to share a teaching on Moses, who led our people out of slavery in Egypt. A friend suggested I share it with you:

The idea that always arises for me when I think of Moses and many other leaders of spiritual or political revolutions is Amilcar Cabral’s concept of “class suicide.”

Cabral was the revolutionary socialist leader of the national liberation movement that freed the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. “Class suicide” describes the act of dying to the privileged class of one’s birth – for instance, by taking a step with no return – and thus sacrificing one’s own privileged position and power in favor of full identification with the oppressed.

In either political or spiritual history, a large proportion of such trailblazers were born into privilege. Siddhartha was the son of chieftain; Mao Zedong was the son of a wealthy farmer; Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Confucian scholar and magistrate; Gandhi’s father was the chief minister of a princely state and Gandhi himself received law training in London. And Moses was raised as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s house.

Clicking my way through a Google search for Cabral’s term, I happened on the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a freeborn African-American abolitionist and author born in 1825. Her life story is pretty remarkable. One of her books was Moses: A Story of the Nile.