Monday, December 29, 2008

2. Obama's "Radical" and Zen Houses

Last August, I had to make a decision. For reasons I explained during the primaries, Obama inspired me to want to work for his campaign, but the Zen Peacemakers (ZP) ministry training was about to start. I wagered my medium-term future with ZP and the Zen House movement because I believe that our nation’s hope for change cannot happen without hard work on the community level.

There was all this talk about change and community organizing surrounding Obama’s campaign, but let’s get beyond the rhetoric and take a look at what that will really mean. Obama’s success translating his community organizing experience and message into unprecedented forms of popular participation indicates a powerful opportunity. To understand the origin and future of community organizing in this country, this essay examines its “founder” and influence on Obama, Saul Alinsky (left) and his organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). As demonstrated by ZP founder Roshi Bernie’s (right) success in Yonkers, his Zen House model offers a promising contribution that parallels and expands upon the power of Alinsky’s approach. A series of classes with Roshi Bernie’s daughter Alisa Glassman, who is an organizer in an affiliate of the IAF, inspired this essay. I am in no way affiliated with the IAF. I write out of the sheer joy of being a nerd and weaving together various ideas as I understand them.

Alinsky subtitled his second book "a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals" to sound a wake-up call to the Weathermen and Yippies and encourage them to cut their hair, drop their joints and quit whining about Utopian fatasies. According to their webpage, while still non-partisan and non-ideological, the IAF today:
“has a radical belief in the potential of the vast majority of people to grow and develop as leaders, to be full members of the body politic, to speak and act with others on their own behalf”
This is achieved by creating interest-based organizations that create power for marginalized people to make demands and create solutions.

Obama internalized the skills and ethos of organizing while working for an affiliate of the IAF for three years during the 1980's. He taught Alinsky's methods (left). He told the Chicago Reader in 1995:
"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?”
During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s field organizer told Rolling Stone:
“We didn’t want to train volunteers, we wanted to train organizers.”
Conservatives argued that Obama’s association with Alinsky proves his hidden socialist motives while liberals already accuse that Obama’s campaign practiced astroturfing (faking grassroots).

Hillary Clinton turned down a job offer from Alinsky, about whom she wrote her undergraduate honors thesis, in order to go to law school. After the limits of community organizing frustrated him, Obama entered the legal system himself.

Nonetheless, as Obama reiterated his core message in his 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention accepting the nomination as presidential candidate:
“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves…Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can't replace parents…Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility - that's the essence of America's promise.”
Both sons of Easern European Jews, Roshi Bernie and Alinsky developed innovative methods for empowering the urban poor without relying on government. Born 30 years earlier, Alinsky made a name for himself organizing in Chicago in 1936 and founded the Industrial Areas Foundation there three years later. He eventually served as a mentor to the activists of the 1960’s and died in 1972.

Alinsky left the study of criminology to jump from city to city training organizers to confront the establishment. Bernie left engineering to train in Zen and eventually led his own Zen students to create the Greyston Bakery in 1982, innovating in social enterprise to create a dignified path off welfare. The bakery expanded into a network of organizations that serve Yonkers, NY called the Greyston Foundation. Committed to development on the community level, Greyston thrives and is studied in business schools.

In 1969, with the help of a big grant and at the age of 60, Alinsky established a formal AIF organizer training program. Turning 70 in January, Roshi Bernie is developing the Maezumi Institute with successor Paul Genki Kahn to train ministers and spread the model developed in Yonkers by creating Zen Houses. Alinsky warned that
“to assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics” (xxi).
For reasons that will be further explored in future posts, now is the perfect time for the Zen House movement to seize this unique historical moment and assist that reformation. The hope for change must be facilitated by proper institutions. In the same Chicago Reader article, Obama said:
"The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures...It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces--the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies... We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."
It is time for us to carve out a new path that neither relies too heavily on the free market nor looks to government to fix everything. The Zen House movement will not succeed if others are not inspired to support us. I encourage you to:
  • Apply to the ministry training
  • Donate money
  • Volunteer in the Zen Houses
  • Notify others of these opportunities
  • Keep reading this blog
  • Check out the links on this page
Either we solve these problems now, or we could just wait until our next life.

Coming Soon: :A post will explore compare/contrast the approaches of Roshi Bernie/ZP & Saul Alinsky/IAF in detail.

Works Cited
Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radials: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
De Zutter, Hank. "What Makes Obama Run?"
Chicago Reader. 8 December, 1995.

Dickinson, Tim. "The Machinery of Hope." Rolling Stone 1048. 20 March, 2008.
The Industria Areas Foundation Homepage “Who Are We?” About IAF. 16 December 2008. Industrial Areas Foundation .

Sunday, December 7, 2008

1. Vagabonding and the Three Tenets

Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe

While teaching in New York City, I got caught up in a debate about the direction of the school. Looking back, it seems like I pushed for progressive and democratic methods without completely understanding the institutional structures, relationships or nuances necessary for effective implementation. I hit a wall. I perceived ways in which my approach was bull-headed, both at work and beyond. Reflecting on how I jumped straight from high school to college to the work-force, I felt like I was rationalistically constructing a self-image like a resume for some time.

Inspired like so many others by Kerouac, I sought not-knowing through travel. Backpacking without an itinerary for ten months, I unlearned dependence on my materials comforts, social support and career benchmarks. I lived more simply and spontaneously. This made it possible for me to experience the second tenet, bearing witness.

Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world
The richest part of traveling was the friendships. Seeing my cousins in Argentina replace Bisquick with egg, flour and water surprised me. I connected with my mother’s culture there and with mountains and sweltered in an indigenous sweat lodge. I befriended local cartoonists. In Chile, I linked up with a group who scraped by working as clowns on the streets, sometimes sleeping on floors or abandoned lots, saving every peso. We traveled to Bolivia and reveled in festivals mixing Andean and Christian rituals.

I witnessed the mines of Potosí where the Spanish sacked the wealth centuries ago. Throughout South America, I listened to dreams of breaking the visa-barrier into the U.S. and nightmares of disappeared uncles and relocated families resulting from CIA-backed dictators. I was robbed four times. During Holy Week in Lima, Peru, I joined locals in the custom of visiting seven churches.

North of Lima, I volunteered at an ecological Hindu ashram in order to practice yoga. I explored aspects of yoga that went beyond the physical positions. I liked the Bhagavad Gita message of dedicating the fruits of your labor to God. I felt the joy and gratefulness of chanting mantras and performing reverences. I just could not swallow their intense devotion to one personality of God (Krishna), their hostility to outsiders and their obsession with strict rules. Over the course of my life, I went from being atheist, to agnostic to realizing that “belief” does not have to define my relationship with “God”. Staying at a Zen temple in Argentina, I felt more at home because the people were decidedly open-minded and practice and consciousness took precedent to belief and cosmology. I wanted to shave my head and convert, but I’ve been bald for years


Loving actions towards ourselves and others

By watching Ernesto Guevara’s trips in Motorcycle Diaries while planning my trip, I developed the intention to use my profession as a teacher as a way to give back to and get to know the people. I thought I could offer my services as a teacher of English. While I enjoyed one volunteer teaching experience, the path of a wanderer emerged more strongly for me during this stage than that of a volunteer. However, two unexpected loving actions did emerge.

First, as I felt more connected to local cartoonists, I shared their desire to express themselves in a cultural environment dominated by imports from the United States. I sought ways to reverse the trend and share their work with English-speaking audiences online: updating wikipedia, blogging, collaborating with an Argentine artist,reviewing the first Chilean graphic novel, and translating another work which will soon appear here.

Second, I joined the Zen Peacemakers.

(to be continued)