Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for the ‘Seeking’

My Two Cents on Getting Involved in Movements and Activism

December 07, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Photo of sign that says Occupy Everywhere and Never Give it BackEven before Trump was elected, more people were asking me for advice on getting involved in something besides electoral politics. After all the questions and chats, I have a few thoughts to add to my earlier post for the Newly Disillusioned.

Take Care of Yourself

I know it can seem selfish and that advice about “self care” has become eye-rollingly ubiquitous. But if you cannot take care of yourself, then you are no help to anyone. If you drive yourself into the ground and need people to pick you up off the floor, you are taking them away from things they could be doing to make things better. If you are in a constant stream of bad relationships (romantic, friend, colleague, comrade…), then you are sucking energy away from yourself and everyone else. You will hurt more than help if you are overflowing with unexamined rage, prejudices, and privilege. None of us will ever be perfect, or perfectly able to take care of ourselves, but personal responsibility and self awareness are prerequisites to useful action.

Help Those Closest to You

The mindset of just “take care of your own” and screw everyone else is part of how we got into this mess. At the same time, if you cannot be relied on to help the people you love, how can anyone rely on you for anything? Besides, when you know someone well, you are in a better position to understand what they might need. When you “help” people you don’t know, it often goes terribly wrong. (Hello nonprofit industrial complex. I’m talking to you.) All of us will need help and support at some point. All of us will get sick, lose loved ones, and have our hearts broken. Most of us will have times where it is a struggle to just get by. We need to be able to rely on each other so that life’s tragedies don’t derail us completely. The more we can rely on each other, the less people can control us through fear of destitution.

Expand Your Circle

Just make sure that those closest to you are a diverse enough group that you are also supporting some of the most marginalized people in our society. Our society is so stratified and segregated that many people don’t have any relationships outside of their own race, class, age, physical ability, religion…  Poor people tend to know poor people. Professional/managerial class people tend to know other people like themselves. The further down you are on our societal hierarchy, the harder it is to be able to meet your basic needs. If all the college-educated professionals are only helping each other, we have a problem. For those of us who have had it relatively easy, sometimes the best thing we can do is make it possible for someone else to fight the system that is crushing them.

Let People Help You

I have an amazing group of friends who are all loath to “burden” anyone with their problems. I get it. Taking care of yourself is important. There are always people out there who have things worse than you do. Everyone seems to have so much on their plate. How can we possibly ask more of them? The thing is, we cannot succeed without functioning support systems. And we cannot have functioning support systems if the most reliable people are never willing to ask for help when they need it. Mutual aid requires that we all be willing to both give it and receive it.

Work with People You Like and Trust

It is tempting to think that people who show up for the same protest or organizing meeting have the same values you do. It is tempting to think that people who seem to share your principles can be relied on when it really counts. But experience has taught me that is not the case. Sometimes it is the conservative friend, the one who thinks your actions are foolish, who bails you out after. If you get involved in movements and community groups, you will meet all kinds of frustrating people. There will be racist, feminist women and misogynist, anti-racist men. There will be elitist union reps and homophobic environmentalists. There will be people who say lovely things and show up for every protest, but cannot be relied on to do anything that doesn’t come with fame. Take stock of who you know and what they are trying to do in this world. Think long and hard about who you really think would have your back in an emergency. Keep those people close.

Do Things With Joy

I have a tendency to do whatever needs to be done. Agendas? Sure. Meeting notes? Sure. Collecting money? No problem. It isn’t a bad thing. You don’t want to be the person who is never willing to do grunt work. There are far too many of those people already. But if you find no joy in what you are doing, then you will not keep at it long enough for it to make a difference. We are all so busy. We all have to spend so much of our lives on obligations, especially to our paying jobs. The best way to make sure that our extracurriculars are successful is to make sure that they bring us the joy, community, and sense of possibility that we all crave. There are so many things wrong and so many ways to be a part of trying to change them. It may take a while, but you can find something that won’t feel like another job.

Small is Big

When something newsworthy happens, there is an immediate effort to start identifying the charismatic, (usually) male leader who supposedly brought it into being.  When we hear about the bus boycott, we hear about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We don’t hear about all the people who worked at their job, took care of their family, and then put in just a little extra driving carpools or knocking on their neighbor’s door. We don’t hear about the thousands of people who really make things happen in small ways. Heroic figures can be inspirational, but they can also be paralyzing. If you think any effort needs to be fame-worthy or it is worthless, then you won’t do anything. Besides, the fame seekers are often motivated more by ego and savior complexes than anything else. Don’t undervalue the little things. The little things are more important than they might seem.

In Short

There is no end to the struggle for justice. It isn’t as though, if you can just get through a few hundred sleepless nights, we will arrive at utopia. If you really want to work for a more just world, then you just signed on for a lifetime job. We don’t need more people who make speeches all day and leave the child rearing and cooking to someone else. We don’t need more people who burn themselves out after six months and contribute to the constant churn in our organizations. We need strong, grounded people who take care of themselves and others. We need collaborative, organized communities that provide foundation and protection. So just start where you are at, find good people, keep your ego in check, and try a little something.

Dipping a Toe Back In

October 16, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

toe-in-water-772773_1280You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately. It has been hard to prioritize. It isn’t just the full-time job or that I am prioritizing framily and community over the solitude needed to write – though those things play a huge role. It is also because I started to wonder why I was writing.

What I love about writing is how it helps me think things through. It forces clarity and brings up questions I didn’t even realize I had. And I like thinking things through publicly on this blog…sometimes. When it was good, people helped me to see things that I had not thought of. I found a lot of kindred spirits, some of whom became friends that I cherish.

But sometimes I let myself get sucked into debate with people who were not trying to grow or build anything. Sometimes I found myself wasting time being the female opinion for dudes who weren’t really capable of even attempting to see things outside of their own experience. Sometimes I wasted precious time on haters and trolls who just liked to stir up shit. It is so easy to get caught up in other people’s agendas –  to wake up and realize you just spent days, weeks, or months being responsive to everything except the things you most want and most value.

I want to write again, but I’m going to be careful to use this blog for the good parts – finding like-minded people, finding people who want to work on similar things, opening a conduit for information about the areas I’m working on, and having genuine discussions with people who have different experiences.

To that end, I thought I would share some of the things I’m working on (or planning to in the very near future).

  • A book on Grand Juries
  • A creative/community space that is child friendly
  • A DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) media project
  • Making things (I’m painting again!)
  • Starting a Diaspora pod (or some other alternative to Facebook/Twitter that isn’t for profit)

The grand jury book is the first priority. If any of you know folks who have served on grand juries or have some expertise in that area, please ask them to get in touch with me at mel (at)

So what have you all been up to?


Some Thoughts on Voting for the Newly Disillusioned

August 03, 2016 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.

I get it. I’ve been there.

I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.

Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.

The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.

  1. Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
  1. Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
  1. Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
  1. Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
  1. Act
  1. Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
  1. Rinse and repeat.

That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.

But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.

It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community –  than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.

Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?

Where are the Men Do-Gooders?

August 05, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

I signed up to be a literacy tutor with an organization here in DC.  The program requires a half day training class.  Looking around at the other trainees, I noticed a huge gender imbalance.  Sure enough, the trainer soon confirmed that, while 55% of the learners are male, only 22% of the tutors are.

There are similar discrepancies in my day job.  Ever since I switched from for-profit to non-profit work, I have been surrounded by mostly women.  (Of course, there has almost always been an old white guy running the place, but that’s a subject for another post.)  This isn’t just a fluke of my experience.  Seventy percent of nonprofit workers are women.

Then last week I read this article about volunteer vacations.  Apparently, about 70% of volunteer vacationers are women too.  So I did a little snooping on volunteer rates overall.  Nationwide, about 10 million more women than men volunteer.  And they put in 4.6 billion hours to men’s 3.5.

An even bigger discrepancy is in what kinds of volunteer work men and women do.  While 20% of our volunteer time goes to tutoring and teaching, teaching doesn’t even show up in the top volunteer categories for men.  Instead, almost 19% of men volunteers are volunteering in the “professional/management” category, a category that doesn’t break the top spots for women.

Workforce participation can’t completely explain it.  While it is true that men have a higher workforce participation rate,  most of that difference is with women who are married or separated and most likely have children and all the work that goes with them.  And studies show that women who both work and have kids do more housework and get less sleep while their men get more free time.  Besides, none of that would explain the massive discrepancies in the nonprofit field or certain types of volunteer work.

This is particularly interesting to me because I have found my life has become oddly gendered.  In my day job and my volunteer work, I am surrounded by women.  But in my interactions with other anarchists and atheists, I am surrounded by men.  That is particularly true whenever something involves theoretical masturbation or high profile, confrontational actions.

So what gives men?  If you’re a man, do you volunteer?  Doing what?  Any theories on why men are so much less likely to do unglorified, unpaid/low-paid, but imminently necessary tasks in life?  (Note:  I am highly prejudiced toward nurture over nature, so if you try to make a nature claim, back it up with some studies please.)

Learning to Listen

June 14, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

To all my anarchist, libertarian, or other other friends who sincerely want to convince other people to change their way of viewing things.

Sometimes, we really need to just shut up and listen.

We spend way too much time making elaborate philosophical arguments, talking about theory, interpreting hundred year old texts, or writing treatises on whether or not Somalia is anarchy. Most people do not have the luxury or inclination to spend their time on that.  And the more time we spend on that, the more out of touch and absurd we will seem.

Now, if you are someone who wants merely to feel intellectually superior, maybe you don’t care.  But those of us who would actually like to see real change need to care.  We need to understand other people’s  experiences, how they interpret those experiences, what values they hold, what symbolism is meaningful for them, why they believe what they do.

In order to do that, we need to shut up and listen to them.  And I don’t mean that half listening thing where we just wait for an opening to argue.  And I definitely don’t mean waiting until you can pull some dead philosopher’s words out your ass to intimidate them.  I mean just listen until you understand. Value people’s experiences.  Respect them.

Now I will shut up.

Liberalism and Disempowerment

May 24, 2010 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking, Stratification

By now you have surely heard about Rand Paul’s interview with Rachel Maddow.  Paul slimed around for twenty minutes trying not to admit that he does not support the provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal for a private business to discriminate.

On Rachel’s next show, she had a segment on why Rand Paul’s views were so important to get out in the open.  You can watch it here.

Around minute 6, Rachel made the claim that the civil rights act “ended, for example, Woolworths lunch counter practice of only serving white people.”

Actually, no it didn’t.  Four college students – Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond –  took it upon themselves to take that lunch counter.  And a whole lot of other people sat at that counter day after day until Woolworths changed their policy.

You can watch a segment about the Woolworth protest here (excuse the hokey, travel channelish soundtrack).

It wasn’t government action that integrated Woolworth’s, it was direct action.

One of the most frustrating things about the liberal narrative is that it gives presidents, congress, and the supreme court credit for things that they have no business getting credit for.  Elites did not lead the way.  They did things kicking and screaming, if they did them at all, after massive mobilization by everyday people.

And the worst thing is not even that people like Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond don’t get credit for what they do.  The worst thing is that the liberal narrative makes it appear that our only option is to vote every four years and spend the rest of the time screaming at our television screens.

It makes you feel powerless.

But we aren’t any less powerful than Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond.  They didn’t wait for the government to ride in on a white horse and save the day.  They didn’t sit at home watching Tweedledee Democrat and Tweetledum Republican play political ping pong.  They made it happen.

Want jobs?  Take over a factory.  Neighborhood school an underfunded prison that isn’t teaching you shit?  Start your own damn school.  Pissed that banks are raking in millions while they foreclose on people’s houses?  Put your body between those houses and the sheriffs trying to evict those people.

And the next time someone tries to tell you that those benevolent politicians swooped in and saved black people, remind them who the real heroes are.

Putting “I” Back Into Your Vocabulary

May 14, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Considering the amount of people who seem to do nothing but talk about themselves on their blog, Facebook or Twitter accounts, you may think I’m crazy for suggesting that we don’t have enough “I” in our lives.

But hear me out.

How many times have you heard people bitch about the anonymous “they” that should have taken care of some problem.  Why haven’t “they” shoveled the sidewalk?  Why didn’t “they” help that poor person?  How are “they” going to protect me from the other “they.”

We’ve been trained to be that way, of course.  And our language is perfectly set up for avoidance of responsibility.  You don’t have to say “I broke it.”  You can say “it broke.”  No responsibility here.

During this winter’s snowmaggedon in DC, a local blogger complained about an incident with DC police.  There was a very drunk man walking in the road and falling down.  The blogger flagged down a cop.  The cop did nothing.  The blogger was upset that the cop wouldn’t even check to see if the guy was o.k.

Why didn’t the blogger just check to see if the guy was o.k.?  Great to be a concerned citizen, but why does concern only go so far as to try and get someone else to do something about it?

We’ve all gotten so accustomed to thinking that someone else will handle things that we aren’t using our common sense or common decency.  I understand the hesitancy.  Changing means taking on responsibility.  It means putting yourself at risk.  It means learning how to deal with difficult people.

But the alternative is handing your power over to people who may or may not ever try to use it to help and will often use it to hurt.  So how about a little less “they” and a little more “I” or , even better, “we?”

Guest Post at Womanist Musings

April 02, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Seeking, Stratification

One of the blogs I follow religiously is Womanist Musings.  Renee always makes me think.  This week she had a guest post by Kola Boof that set off a bit of a kerfuffle.  Renee then challenged her readers to respond with their own post, which I did.

Below are links to all the posts (and comment streams), the last being my guest post.

With a couple rare exceptions, all the comments on here have been respectful.  But I still want to take a moment to request that, should any of you decide to jump in, please be constructive.  Don’t be like the nasty person who actually made a death threat.  (I mean for fuck’s sake.)

Dishonesty About Race – An American Social Reflex

The Third Eye Report: Israel vs. Palestine

Re: Kola Boof

On When to Speak

Step One – Understanding

March 08, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

On Saturday night, I went to a friends birthday party.  The party was at a club in Temple Hills, Maryland.  Temple Hills is 85% African American.  It took the bfriend and I three tries before we found a cab willing to take us there.  (FYI – It is just outside DC and an easy 10 mile drive.)  When we finally did find one, the cabbie spent the whole drive telling us what a dangerous place it was.

On Sunday, I attended A Continuing Talk on Race (A.C.T.O.R.) at Busboys and Poets.  Ironically, this month’s guest was Rawn James, Jr.   He was there to discuss his new book, Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation.  The group discussion centered around exactly the kind of de facto segregation in 85% black Temple Hills or 79% white Santa Cruz (where I lived the six years before moving to DC).

And on Sunday night, I listened to Womanist Musings on blog talk radio.  The subject was bridging the divide between women of color and white feminists.  Renee asked, as she has been asking for some time, how we can more effectively work together.

Divisions, and how to work across them, have been on my mind a lot lately.  Two recent posts have been about collaborating across the divide and focusing issue by issue.  But I think I may have gotten ahead of myself, because we are unlikely to work together successfully without first understanding one another.  And in order to understand one another, we have to listen to each other.  Too often, we aren’t even putting ourselves in the same room, much less having conversations.

I’m not talking just about racial divides.  Political affiliation, economics, geography, religion, food, education, philosophy, music, clothes, cars, books, heroes, villains…  We seem to have a nasty tendency to let small differences (and not so small differences) become impassible chasms.  Sometimes the divides are rooted in prejudice and fear.  Sometimes, like one participant on Sunday admitted, it is just the ease of being with people you know and understand.

We are all (to some degree) uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.  It may be easier to live in a neighborhood where everyone looks the same or to only get news from people who think like you.  It’s easier to shut out the things that challenge or offend.  It is easier to stay within your comfort zone than to risk exposing your ignorance or exposing yourself to other people’s ignorance.

But we can’t always just do what is easy.  And insulating ourselves only ensures that we stay uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.

To be clear, we all need safe spaces.  We all need friends, family, and neighbors that we feel comfortable with.  We need people who know us well enough to overlook a bad day or a stupid statement.  We need places where we don’t have to navigate the daily minefields inherent in a society that is so separate and oppressive.  And the more a person feels the weight of those minefields on a daily basis, the more they need that space.

But we also need safe spaces for crossing the divides, because those minefields will not disappear on their own.

So expose yourself to different people and different ways of thinking.  If you are liberal, follow some conservative or libertarian blogs.  If you are white, follow some black blogs.  If you are a man, follow some women’s blogs.  Don’t be a troll.  Don’t read people just to find fault with them.  Don’t look only for opportunities to debate.  Look for opportunities to find common ground.

Get out there and make yourself uncomfortable.  Talk to people that you don’t normally talk to.  If you live in New York, spend time in Oklahoma.  If you live in Minnesota, spend some time in Miami.  If you’ve never left your country, do it now.  And I don’t mean go stay in a resort where they make sure you are not exposed to anything even mildly jarring.

If you look, you will find other people who are willing to put themselves out there, even when it is uncomfortable.  You will find people who will take the time to understand where other people are coming from and to explain where they are coming from.  You will find people willing to be open and honest no matter what kind of abuse or ridicule they suffer for it.  You will find people who create safe spaces, virtual and physical, that make the conversations possible.

Thank those people.

Cherish those people.

Be those people.

I strongly suspect that, if we focus on understanding each other, collaboration will follow.

Issue by Issue

February 15, 2010 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking, Stratification

Political parties and broad categorizations have warped the way we think about issues and problem solving.

We may think that we cannot work with a conservative on anything.  But which conservative do we mean – the Christian conservative from Focus on the Family or the follower of Buckley?  We may think we cannot work with a liberal on anything.  But which liberal do we mean – the liberal, gay man who wants low taxes and small government (but also wants to marry his partner) or the liberal, homophobic union member who thinks larger government can protect him from his boss?

People attach themselves to a certain label based on what they perceive that label to mean.  But that is often not going to be what you think it means.  Pro-life is a good example.  A recent survey found that 51% of people identified as pro-life.  Now to me, that means anti-abortion.  When I hear pro-life, my first thoughts are of rape and incest and putting women’s lives at risk.

But closer inspection of that poll reveals that only about 22% of respondents thought abortion should be illegal in all cases.  So the label pro-life tells you that a person thinks that some abortions performed are wrong.  And while 42% of those surveyed identified as pro-choice, only about half of those think abortion should be legal in all cases.  So the label pro-choice also likely means that the person thinks some abortions performed are wrong.

Not only does our political system encourage us to focus laser-like on those issues that are most divisive.  It discourages any meaningful conversation about what those labels actually mean to the people who embrace them.  And that is just one more thing that keeps us from being able to work together on those issues that we do agree on.

People are understandably skeptical when I speak of working together with “the other side.”  Self-described liberals or progressives, for example, usually bring up white supremacists or Christian extremists or just the people who still think Dubya was a good president.  But they miss the point.

We need to stop looking at the entirety of people’s beliefs and start focusing on the issues – one issue at a time.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has done an exemplary job of this.  Ethan Nadelmann found that his fellow liberals were not always his best allies in the fight against drug prohibition.  So he has gone about building a coalition of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians who all think the drug war is a bad idea.  Nadelmann will appear at the CATO institute on one day and the NAACP on another.  And DPA is happy to show that even many seemingly ideological enemies agree with them.

DPA’s “big tent” is one of the reasons why there is such movement right now in the area of drug policy reform, especially regarding marijuana.  And they show us that people on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can work on an issue without compromising their ethics and with a lot of success.

So instead of trying to find the overarching category or political party that you perceive to be closest to your set of beliefs, why not focus your energies on an issue?  Or two issues or ten issues.  A web of groups, each focused on a clear issue with clear goals, has a much better chance of success than large groups of people who have to spend all their energies trying to be all things to all people.

And there is no telling what unexpected benefits we might realize from these kinds of issue based coalitions.  Perhaps the interactions might change some participants views on other issues.  Maybe nobody would change their ideas at all, but would walk away with a deeper understanding of what “the other side” really thinks.  People who work together toward a common goal, even those who don’t like each other, will often develop a mutual respect.  And mutual respect would be a very good start.