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Every Sunday my eight-year-old daughter asks, “Is today a Navigators Day?” She loves church and Children’s Religious Education, but the best Sundays of all are the weeks she puts on her green kerchief and goes to Navigators. She wouldn’t have those if it weren’t for Nathan Harris.

Nathan started coming to our church three years ago when he and his then-seven-year-old daughter, Sage, were new to the area and looking for a community they could call home. They found it at our church, and what they didn’t find ready-made, Nathan helped create. He started a unicycle club, and we soon saw UU Unicyclists all over the parking lots and paths of the church. He learned about Navigators USA, a bias-free, co-ed scouting program, and asked our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, how to go about starting a chapter. It wasn’t long before Chapter 42 was born, and my daughter and a dozen other kids were camping on the church grounds, hiking, learning how to split wood and build a fire, geocaching, cooking, sending up rockets, you name it.

Now Nathan is about to leave the area. He doesn’t want to; he likes his job as a school psychologist in East Palo Alto, the church community, the friends he and his daughter have made. But the rent on their tiny apartment–he calls it “the hotel room”–is rising by 10%, and he can’t find anything else.

When he moves away, someone else will have to co-lead Our Whole Lives (OWL), our sexuality education program for middle schoolers in and beyond our congregation—or maybe we won’t be able to find a replacement. Someone else will have to lead the five-mile hike, if they can keep up with an energetic bunch of 7-10-year-olds. Sage’s friend who looks so much like her that we call them doppelgangers will have to say goodbye to his twin.

This has happened in our church more times than I can count. Someone who is a small-group leader, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a singer in the choir, a Board member, reluctantly pulls up roots and moves to somewhere with affordable housing. It happens to property owners, though more often to renters; it happens to professionals like Nathan, though more often to those with lower-paying or part-time jobs. They want to stay, and we want them to, but they can’t. Our public policies are forcing them to leave, hitting our community with loss upon loss.

In our church, our big annual fundraiser is an auction of goods, services, and hosted events. An auction makes a great fundraiser. It makes a terrible system for delivering the necessities of life.

Yet that is how we sell and rent housing: to the highest bidder. And the highest bidders around here have such deep pockets that those who manage to offer what the seller is asking have little chance of winning the bid. Think of all the times you’ve heard of a would-be buyer offering considerably more than was asked, yet losing out to someone who could pay cash. And renters: when has your rent gone down, or even simply kept pace with inflation? In the past year, Bay Area average rents have risen over 14%. Those of us who didn’t get a 14% pay raise, such as Nathan: where are they supposed to live?

The answer we’ve given is clear: they’re supposed to go away.

And when they’ve gone, who will be the psychologists in our schools? Who will be the teachers, the police officers, the store managers, much less the gardeners, the cooks, the janitors? Who will create our scouting programs or volunteer in our schools?

With our housing-only-for-the-highest-bidder system, we have made our community increasingly hostile to anyone in the mere 99%. That is not sustainable for our families, our earth (many people burn fossil fuels for 20 or more hours every week driving to work here from their affordable homes in the Central Valley), or the quality of life of our communities.

These market forces aren’t all to the bad, and in many times and places, they have served most people. They aren’t serving us. They are ripping us apart. We need cities to stabilize rents and preserve enough housing that’s affordable to the people who make our communities run—who are our communities.

My daughter was hoping Nathan would teach her to ride a unicycle. She’s got a few more weeks to learn. Then he and Sage are off to Sacramento. I wish them luck. And I wish us luck too. But we’ll have to make our own luck, by summoning the political will to make some changes, now, before the next Nathan and Sage are driven out of our lives.

Note: I wrote this in May, 2015, and submitted it as an op-ed piece to various newspapers in our housing-strapped region. I’m sure many other local communities, from workplace teams to PTAs to altar guilds, experience similar losses and stresses as their members are forced to be transient, but alas, none of the papers chose to run it. So here it is, a bit past the time. Nathan and Sage are now settled in to their new lives in a home they can afford and that has a lot more space; our loss, Sacramento’s gain. Someone else will have to teach Munchkin to ride a unicycle, if they know how.

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Shopping inspires all sorts of ethical questions for me. For example, is there a special place in hell for people who spend $425 on a lace t-shirt in a world where they could use that money to feed a hungry family for a month? And if so, am I going there too for spending $65 on a jacket? There’s a line between conspicuous consumption and possessing nice things. I walk it uneasily. I would love to hear how others weigh these choices.

 

Two years ago I wrote about the call for an increase in the minimum wage in San Jose from $8 to $10. It eventually passed, with excellent results, as reported here in the San Jose Mercury News: “unemployment was reduced, the number of businesses grew, the number of minimum wage jobs expanded, average employee hours remained constant and the economy was stimulated.”

The article doesn’t answer a question raised by a commenter on my earlier post: with the minimum wage still so far below a living wage, especially for workers with dependents, does this do anything to reduce the need for social services? I would really like to know. Wouldn’t it be something to pay people a living wage instead of letting their employers pay them poverty wages and then leaving the taxpayers to make up the difference (or fail to, since social services are rarely adequate)? We’re a long way from that, but it’s good to see successes like San Jose, especially as the argument is made yet again that an increase in wages will doom the economy–at least, if those wages go to the lowest-paid workers.

Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.

Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,”  and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:

“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”

That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.

Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.

You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?

If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.

I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.

Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.

She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.

Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog.  “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.

That’s the minimum wage in Santa Clara County, California, where “the self-sufficiency standard for two adults, one preschooler, and one school age child is $77,973.” So if both of those adults both hold down two minimum-age jobs, they can attain self-sufficiency. (Data from the Insight Center for Economic Community Development, via Step Up Silicon Valley.)

Minimum wage stagnates while the cost of living rises

Setting the minimum wage far below the poverty level is one of the biggest pieces of corporate welfare we Americans fund. Instead of businesses paying people a living wage, they pay wages at which a full-time worker–or even two full-time workers–can’t support a family, and the taxpayers step in to fill the gap with welfare programs. Or, more usually, the gap just stays a gap.

Some San Jose State students who were working at a community services center started wondering why so many people who had full-time jobs were still coming into the center for help with food, rent, and other necessities. Once they investigated, the reason became obvious, and they took action. They and a coalition of other organizations in the city–and its county, where my congregation is also located–started to press for an increase in the minimum wage, from the current $8 to $10.

If you’re in Santa Clara County, please send this letter to the San Jose City Council, which will be considering the $10 minimum wage at a meeting next Tuesday. Better yet, sign the letter and go to the meeting. And even better than that, sign the letter, go to the meeting, and send a donation to Raise the Wage San Jose. If you’re elsewhere, you can look up your state or city’s minimum wage–in many places, it’s no higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25–and multiply it by 2000. What annual income are folks are expected to live on in your area? Do you think it’s feasible?

I’m off to the PICO National Gathering of Clergy, in New Orleans. I’m hoping they will make specific reference to the Occupy movement and ways clergy and faith communities can work either directly with it or pulling alongside in the same direction. Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA), the PICO-affiliated faith-based-community-organizing group to which my congregation belongs, has been working on economic justice issues since its founding, and they often overlap with the issues raised by this movement.

Just last summer, PIA leaders were putting together a presentation on the banking crisis and its connection to our communities, including actions we could take, such as asking our cities to take their money out of the bailed-out banks unless those banks agreed to certain behavior toward the people of the city. We could see the connections, but we were really worried that others wouldn’t and therefore wouldn’t be interested enough to show up. I mean, banks. Yawn. Now people are talking about banks all the time. Several weeks ago, I was in line at a grocery store in Palo Alto and the woman ahead of me and the checkout clerk were chatting about moving their money into a credit union. Interesting cross-section of classes, there: chances are, as it’s a pretty upscale grocery, the woman in line has a lot more money than the checker, but they were united.

So the community is concerned about these issues, and making connections between their money as depositors and what banks do as lenders, and likewise, between what banks do as lenders and the housing misfortunes of their neighbors and communities (and maybe themselves). Part of what PIA does for me is help me see myself and members of my congregation as community organizers. That implies a lot of skills that I’d like to hone.

There’s a lot of good writing out there about what the Occupy movement is about. Did someone say we need a unified voice? Did the people in Tahrir Square have a unified voice? The international reports gave the boiled-down story as “Mubarak must go,” yes, and most of them seem to have agreed on that, but they had plenty of disagreement about what else and what next. Social movements only look tidy from a distance. So the writers don’t all agree, but it’s fascinating to watch them converge on the key points. Here are three short pieces, clear and thoughtful.

A few months ago, Doug Muder wrote an essay about how the Tea Party had it backwards but could turn it around by replacing the word “government” with the word “corporations.” “They know they’re under somebody’s thumb, but they’re confused about whose thumb it is,” he wrote. “So when they strike back, they swing at the wrong guys.” When, the next month, people began occupying Wall Street, it struck me that someone had at last said, “Right, let’s turn it around and put that same energy into acting on the real sources of our problems.”

One Word Turns the Tea Party Around
, Doug Muder

The Buddhists, bless them, remind me to have care and compassion for the entire 100%.

Occupying the Present Moment: Why BPF Supports the Occupy Movement

And Lemony Snicket is Lemony Snicket. Joy and I have been trading favorite lines from this piece. At the moment mine is “There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself.” (I said I had compassion for all 100%, not that I couldn’t be sarcastic about any of them. And the Buddhists and Snicket are united on this point: we none of us created our situation all by ourselves.)

Thirteen Observations Made by Lemony Snicket While Watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

Like Muder, I think the Tea Partiers are on to something, and I’m very hopeful now that a lot of people seem to be running the right way. A full 55%, in a poll I read this morning, think inequality is a significant problem in America; only 21% see it as no problem or not much of one. ABC News is running a story, “Should You Join the Credit Union Boom?” The reporter’s answer: yes, probably.

Earlier today, Egyptians marched from Tahrir Square to the US Embassy in solidarity with Occupy Oakland. The circuit is complete and the power is ON!

If you’re a little closer than Egypt, say, in the Bay Area, please read this:

1. There will be a tent called the “Sacred Space Tent” that will be the clearinghouse and meeting place for clergy related info and events. The tent will be interfaith and non-faith welcoming. It will have a very high flag or other identifying markings. It will be staffed from 8 AM – 10 PM by a clergy person of some faith tradition. If you are interested in helping staff this group show up early to sign up for a time slot.

2. All Clergy should gather at the Sacred Space Tent a half hour before the three march times (9 AM, 12 PM and 5 PM) so that we can all march together and multiply the effect of our presence. Those meet-up times at the tent are:
-8:30 AM
-11:30 AM
-4:30 PM
These are very important meet-up times and should be spread as widely as possible through all of your networks.

2.5
Another opportunity for people of faith at the General Strike (held in the Interfaith Tent):
Wed. 11/2 – 1:30 – 3:30 pm: What is Wise Response? A conversation about ongoing faith-based responses within Occupy Oakland.
The General Strike on November 2nd is only the beginning. How can faith-based people participate in this ongoing movement of resistance? Join Spring Washam with East Bay Meditation Center, Dawn Haney with Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and others to have a conversation about how our practices and teachings can strengthen Occupy Oakland.

3. There will be trainings going on all day Tuesday, Nov 1 for anyone (clergy, lay, etc) who wishes to learn more about non-violence and how to embody the principles of Gandhi and King in the actions that we will be participating in on Wednesday.

Finally, we ask that you not only come on Wednesday, but that you bring as many people with you as you can, spread this information through all your networks and contacts!

My inner organizer is not thrilled with the “General Strike” part of the event. I appreciate the sense of history that made Occupy Oakland call for a General Strike today, but I suspect that the last General Strike in the US–in Oakland, in 1946–had some more organization behind it. People do not just walk off the job in massive numbers because a small group suggests it the week before, even when they sympathize with the cause. It takes a lot of planning and consultation: for example, with labor unions. So I doubt the strike will be widespread, though I’d love to be surprised.

In any case, my concern is not that a strike is a bad idea but that the Oakland protesters and the wider 99% movement will feel deflated if there is little response to the call for a strike, even if by every other measure things go well. But I don’t think they should. I will consider the day a success if a couple of thousand people show up and we get good press.

I was strongly tempted to be there, but I have prior obligations at home and decided instead to devote a chunk of today to supporting the movement in a couple other ways. One, the Palo Alto Police Department was involved in the October 25 clash between police and protesters, and tear-gassed the crowd. As a Palo Alto clergyperson I want to speak up about this, so I’m writing something to send to the paper. Two, I’m eager to take the movement to other places besides the streets. After all, people can’t live on the street forever–many of us, fortunate enough to be employed–can’t protest in that way for more than a few hours here and there–and the point of the movement is not to camp out but to press for needed changes in every way we can. I’m going to call together some of the folks in my congregation and the community to suggest some other actions.

And I’m so thankful to everyone who went to Oakland today, with particular gratitude for colleagues (hello, Jeremy Nickel, author of the above call to clergy) who are organizing and staffing the interfaith clergy presence there.

Here’s Alan Grayson with an excellent articulation of the issues.

ETA: Today I’m also going to take the necessary steps to move all my money to the credit union I joined several months ago. I’ve kept my old checking account for complex and boring reasons, but it’s time to move. It will feel good to be investing in my neighbors and businesses in the Mission, via an organization whose purpose is to help its customers, not put money in the pockets of faraway speculators. For a long time I figured there were no credit unions I was eligible for, but it turned out that I could join this one simply by virtue of my address. Here’s how to find a credit union you’re eligible for.

#5 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel:

I love how entrepreneurial people are in Mexico.  An old woman will spread out a sheet on the side of a road and sell jewelry; a house in our neighborhood seems to have a perennial yard sale going.  Lots of people who most likely have other jobs will earn a little extra by putting a table in their doorway in the morning to sell bread, pastries, jello, and juice to people on their way to work and school.  (Once I saw a guy drinking a raw egg & Tres Coronas sherry.  *shudder*)  One place right around the corner from us has been a great place to pick up a muffin on our morning walk to the munchkin’s school.  A couple of hours later, the table is gone, to reappear the next morning.

photo by Joy Morgenstern

One thing that makes this possible is the marked lack of permit requirements.  On balance, the lack of regulation in Mexico is a bad thing.   I’m sure lots of children die here every year from riding on their parents’ laps in the front seat of the car (there is a seatbelt law for kids, but clearly the cops don’t enforce it).  For that matter, I’m sure lots fall out windows, going by how flimsy our screens are, and in the US a house would not be legally put on the rental market, thank goodness, with the 18-inch gaps in the stairway railings ours here has (we filled them in with rope).   I’m sure Mexicans get very badly hurt from situations like the uncovered manhole I walked by (not, fortunately, into) that didn’t even acquire any warning cones until it had been that way for several hours.  In California, no one without a commercial, inspected kitchen can produce food for sale, while here, eating a paleta (popsicle) the vendor made with his tap water is a good way to get amoebic dysentery, even  if you’re a native and accustomed to the germs.  But the silver lining of Mexico’s laxness is pictured above.  I’m watching my weight, but I’m going to have to have one more of those chocolate-chocolate-chip muffins before I leave.

But first: Why should we do anything about SB 1070?

Something missing from quite a lot of the UU conversation on the topic, as we rush to sort out our urgent move-General-Assembly-or-not question, is what exactly is wrong with this law. We shouldn’t take it for granted that UUs are unanimous, or anything close to it, in their opposition to SB 1070; we have to make the argument. There are actual Republican UUs, beleaguered minority though they are, bless their persevering souls, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of UUs who are liberal on most matters are conservative on immigration. I also don’t think the man we overheard after a sympathetic-to-illegal-immigrants service at the San Miguel UU fellowship was all that unusual. “These people don’t pay taxes,” he grumbled. (Sure they don’t. When they go to Costco, the checkout worker squints at them, says “You look Latino,” and rings up their items without sales tax.)

We UUs have our share of Libertarians too, and I’ve already heard from a few self-described Libertarians (some UU, some not) who don’t see any problem with SB 1070. The fact that someone can call themselves Libertarian, and yet approve of something so close to pass laws, speaks to the intellectual bankruptcy of the libertarian movement, whose concern for freedom seems to have dwindled to an obsession with “property rights” and minimal taxation–but I’m impressed to see that at least the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party has written a blog entry opposing it.

So what is wrong with a law that is, after all, essentially saying “We don’t think the federal government is doing enough to enforce its laws, and we’re going to do more to enforce them”? For starters, three things. Read the rest of this entry »

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