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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.



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

Apr20

by: on April 20th, 2015 | No Comments »

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.


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

Apr16

by: on April 16th, 2015 | No Comments »

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.


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Class Suicide and Radical Empathy

Apr10

by: on April 10th, 2015 | No Comments »

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.


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Passing the (Star)bucks

Apr3

by: on April 3rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

My favorite epigram is from Voltaire: the perfect is the enemy of the good. I like the way it encapsulates a deep truth, that nothing is perfect, that fault can always be found, that often doing one’s imperfect best is what matters.

Sometimes I feel really discouraged that so much of the U.S. progressive movement operates on a countervailing principle: if it isn’t perfect, don’t do it.

Case in point: as anyone who follows even a bit of social media knows by now, Starbucks, the coffee-shop giant, launched a “talking about race” initiative and a short time later, cancelled it.


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A Story of My Heart

Feb10

by: on February 10th, 2015 | Comments Off

Let us forge a state of union
A place where every child is
A child
Where you see me and I see you
I mean really see each other as extensions
one of one another

—From People’s State of the Union commentary by
Makani Themba, Minister of Revolutionary Imagination,
U.S. Department of Arts and Culture National Cabinet.

I haven’t the faintest idea how to sum up the more than 500 stories uploaded to the People’s State of the Union website since late January. They came from story circles – a hundred people in a church basement or a handful in someone’s kitchen – organized in more than 150 places around the U.S. They came because people resonated with the USDAC’s assertion that “democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” Because they know the stories that reveal the state of our union. Because – despite falling through the many rips in our social fabric – they believe in democracy and they want a say in how it unfolds.

I could say that a huge chunk of stories are about yearning for our stated ideals to be true, true enough to live into all day, every day. I could say that another huge chunk is about standing together despite the many discouragements unchecked power and privilege have put in our path. I could say that they speak of hearts broken by disappointment, and hearts remade by beauty and the hope of resilience. I could say that they demonstrate a powerful desire to share truth, risking vulnerability to find common ground.

I could say that the stories taken together prove that the quintessential act of art – turning one’s experience into something shapely that can be shared – is also the quintessential act of healing, the medicine we need. But I think I’ll let Luis J. Rodriguez say it with a few lines from the sonnet he wrote for another part of the People’s State of the Union, the Poetic Address to the Nation:


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TV Family Values

Feb4

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.

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Another Kind of Spiritual Practice

Jan30

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.

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#NousSommesHypocrites

Jan16

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


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I Just Don’t Know

Jan11

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.

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The Year of Whiplash

Dec31

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.


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