Civic Perspective and the Cosmos

“‘Come!’ said Africanus, ‘how long will your mind be chained to the Earth?'”

Before setting out for Los Angeles, the scholars invited to the National Academy for Civics in Government read the Dream of Scipio. It’s about finding perspective. Where you look for answers shapes what you believe you know about the question.  Those chains can tie us down to the wrong question.

In a previous post, we turned to a contemporary space traveler to emphasize the point. From astronaut Michael Collins’s 1974 book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey:

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.

An update from this year’s National Academy is in the works. It’s all about how we see and what we know. It’s a three-week adventure of cosmic proportions.

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.


Write for Politicolor

If you believe political life has more potential than red vs. blue or even waving the red, white and blue, chances are that you have a story to share. Politicolor contributors believe we can breathe life back into our political community if we share the stories of what ordinary people are doing to make their corner of the world a better place and the ideas that have helped them believe it was possible. Or maybe even think it was imperative.

The Politicolor Pitch

The basic premise of Politicolor is that we can make it easier to see what active citizens do, how they push against opposition or the status quo and how they connect with allies, and that showing our work will improve the likelihood that our communities will overflow with good work.

At the very least, we will learn from one another and connect through the ups and downs of civic work.

My Pen by yaili,

My Pen by yaili,

The Details

We use the online writing platform, Medium, to write and share our work. It makes writing easy. It also makes it easy to collaborate with our editorial team. With those logistics covered, you can stay focused on the story you want to share.

If you have an idea for a story, take a look at our general call for submissions to make sure it aligns to one of our themes of civic storytelling. We accept these stories between the 1st and 10th day of every month.

We know it isn’t always easy to figure out how to write within those broad themes, so we’re posting monthly writing prompts. We accept stories responding to these questions between the 15th and 30th (or 31st) day of each month.

See? Really easy. We can’t wait to read your story.


Our Writing Prompts

February 2016: The Music is the Message

March 2016: Everyday Leaders (link added 2/15/16)

April 2016: Defending Civics in 272 Words (link added 3/15/16)



Detroit’s Hiedelberg Project: Questions of liveliness at the edges & organized complexity

It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.

A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:

Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.

Stuff Underfoot (photo by Kelly Fox)

The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.

On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.

I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.

A Clean Sweep (photo by Kelly Fox)

A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.

Haunting Dolls (photo by Kelly Fox)

We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.

I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.

Liveliness at the Edges

The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.

He suggested antagonists need one another:

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’

Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.

photo by Kelly Fox

Polka Dots (photo by Kelly Fox)

The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.

If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.

The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”

Recognizing Organized Complexity

Organized Complexity (photo by Kelly Fox)

The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.

Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:

As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)

This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:

Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.

The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against a Standardized Citizenry

This speech suggests our students are no more satisfied than we are with the regime of standardized testing. In the classroom, I once discussed this kind of success with my 8th graders. The reports had come in and we had done “outstanding” on the History test. Best in the district and as high as anyone else in the state. The Principal came to congratulate us and we enjoyed our success that afternoon.

The next day, however, we discussed how many questions students had to answer correctly to achieve this success. Less than 50%. They wanted to know why so little was expected of them. This is my concern… if we don’t find a way to resist the most virulent pieces of the testing regime, we’re robbing our students of knowing true success. Erica Goldson, Valedictorian at Coxxackie-Athens High School, knows this ugly truth too.

Her full remarks are available at America via Erica Blogspot. Here’s just an excerpt to show what she thinks of the success she achieved:

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker.

And, in the effort to partner criticism with constructive ideas, watch this short video from Professor Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard. He saw the dark shadow of memorization of facts with little understanding of concepts in his classroom and decided to do things differently. One of my favorite pieces in the clip shows students talking to one another about torque to identify the right answer to Professor Mazur’s questions. A young man asks., “how do you know that?” Our students need to know the answer to that question as well as to have the drive to ask it of themselves.

Without that question, what we know is shrinking each day and it’s happening in our classrooms too.

Bon Jovi Believes in the Power of We

The nightly news in Austin has been dominated by updates from Fort Hood. Perhaps it’s moments like this that justify that last story on the national news. The one about a long lost teddy bear or crazy cute animals at the local zoo. Tonight, however, that last story was more than a palate cleanser.

On the way to commercial, Brian Williams mentioned a New Jersey boy who was giving back. When he returned he introduced the story over top of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” The piece focuses on Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation and features 52 apartments it has made available for homeless and special needs families. In an easy conversation at the table in one of these new apartments, Bon Jovi struck a constitutional chord:

We have created a society of haves and have nots and there are political differences up and down any state’s borders. And we won’t bother to politicize this but the issue is that we are all in this together. And at the end of the day we’re supposed to be ladies and gentlemen helping other ladies and gentlemen.

Watch the clip below to hear Bon Jovi’s response to the prompt, “Forget the government. Can we fix the problems we have?” When necessary, Bon Jovi wields his celebrity to break the chains of bureaucracy and suggests solutions require WE THE PEOPLE.

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Taking Art to the Streets in East L.A.

This year’s National Academy experienced the potency of color and politics through a mural tour of east L.A. Ben Weber, a participant this year, arranged for us to meet Carlos Callejo at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Soto in Boyle Heights. Carlos’s enthusiasm for taking art to the street, “where the people are,” was something more than infectious. He had been one of the first muralists to work on this corner twenty years ago and we now huddled around the back of his car as he unrolled his plans for a newly commissioned mural. He believes his art can change the world—-for the people in the neighborhood who are often reflected in the images and for the world at large imagined to be in the audience.

Plans for an empty wall

Plans for an empty wall

We walked past plywood covered walls to the next street corner when Carlos found a muralist at work on the other side of the building. Willie Heron stood atop scaffolding working on the painstaking process of restoring a mural he had painted on the wall more than twenty years ago. He explained the ongoing struggle between muralists and taggers. He was using plywood to protect his work from taggers who now target murals as a means to preserve their own work. Heron’s original work was titled “The Progress of Man” and included images like nuclear bombs to illustrate the dual nature of those advancements–the capacity to create and to destroy.

Willie also shared how much more difficult it is now to bring his art to street corners like this. Work that once required little more than someone to donate the paint requires money for permits and the approval of city officials. Carlos shared how a young boy wearing a baseball hat appeared in the plans for one of his murals was later painted wearing a brown beret in a show of support for the Chicano movement of the sixties and seventies. Submitting their work to the city for permit approval subjects the message of the artists and the people they represent to approval as well. Carlos reminds us L.A. was once the mural capital of the world. That title has also given way to city ordinances.

Willie Heron restores his work

Willie Heron restores his work

The tour continued and included work added to the housing projects of Estrada Courts and the neighborhood’s recreation center. The images often utilize images of Aztec gods to represent a proud heritage and futuristic images evoking a vision for the people. It is easy to imagine the people passing by us on the street can see themselves in each image.

At Estrada Courts, Carlos shares the story of one his murals where he had to “cut the ambilical cord” and let the art take on a life of its own. He had included a reference to Air America Airlines in his work to speak to the large amount of heroine traffic making its way into the U.S. and neighborhoods like this via an airline covertly operated by the CIA. Neighborhood officials had required several revisions to the work when Carlos cut the cord. City workers appeared to paint over his work but the neighborhood’s residents rallied and blocked those efforts. Another mural on the block protested the inequity in Hispanic casualties during Vietnam. The Hispanic community comprised only 7% of the population of the time but 28% of wartime casualties. Carlos appears to enjoy the controversy but reminds his audience that they didn’t have access of the media so they took control of the message where they could. He believes conflict nurtures growth and he has lent his work to provoking progress.

Are images like these more potent than words? Does artwork using familiar faces or pointing to shared experiences provoke us in ways words can not? Click the link below to see more pictures of the tour and add your thoughts to the comments…

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