Doing poverty well: How to actually deal with clutter

I’ve run across at least a dozen blogger responses to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series on fighting clutter for a less stressful lifestyle. Several of these have already pointed out that the show is deeply classist.

I’m not going to belabor the point. It is. Getting rid of everything you haven’t used recently and assuming you can just buy one later if you need it is a choice only viable for the economically privileged. Berating people who don’t currently have or recently didn’t have that privilege for “clutter” is classist. And environmentally unsustainable to boot.

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

I’m sure the show and its advice is helpful to some. There are people who senselessly horde or acquire stuff without planning or a focus on reusing and upcycling. There probably are middle class people who have a lot of junk they really legitimately don’t need and will never use. The show may well be helpful to them and might result in less stress in their lives.

That’s a good thing and if there was any indication of compassion or understanding that we don’t all have this luxury, I wouldn’t be even mildly irritated at the show. It’s the support of the bubble of privileged comfort that some in the western middle class, which is actually in the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people, dwell within that bothers me and a few other bloggers. The show doesn’t mention that it is only designed for a very select group, because some in that group don’t feel comfortable when they are reminded of their privileged status in the world. It’s just a thing you don’t say if you want their approval ratings..

The show irritates those of us who stumble across it, but don’t fit into its demographic. And yes, some of us have a broad definition of the word “family” when it comes to both the dinner table and Netflix family passwords and thus some of us occasionally have Netflix.

But I digress. This post isn’t so much about the show as it is about solutions for the rest of us.

You see, clutter is a problem for those with modest means. In fact, it is likely to be a bigger problem for us than it is for the middle class.

First, let me define “us.”

Some will rightly complain that I’m not “poor enough” to talk about doing poverty well. I live a reasonably comfortable lifestyle after all. My children have never gone to bed hungry, except for those couple of nights when they went on strike from regular food in a desperate bid to force a one-hundred-percent noodle, ketchup and candy diet that simply didn’t pan out with Mama bear in the kitchen. So what am I complaining about?

I’m not. Complaining, that is.

My family lives well below the US poverty line in a middling Eastern European country, where we’re actually pretty middle class. I grew up more genuinely poor and in my twenties I went through some winters where cabbage and potatoes were really all I could afford. But my point isn’t to bemoan “poverty.” I, in fact, hold that if most of the world lived close to our consumption level, we could be environmentally sustainable and comfortable enough.

My goal isn’t to become wealthier but rather to live better with what we have. And dealing with clutter is part of that. My solutions are just different from Marie Kondo’s.

When you live close to or below what has been arbitrarily (but in this case handily) designated as the US poverty line, you are in a situation where you can usually buy one small item that you need at a time or save up for a larger item, but you can’t simply acquire what you need when you need it. If you have lived this way for long, it is unlikely you “throw away” anything that isn’t actually useless. You most likely have a running mental list of those who could use, recycle, upcycle or re-enliven something you no longer want.

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

You may well store a lot of things that you don’t need immediately. Your first thought when finding an odd castoff mechanical part is more likely to be, “I wonder what this could be useful for?” than “Why is this old thing still around?” You plan and save and put together what you need.

And there’s another thing. Your entertainment is more likely to be self-made. You don’t go on distant vacations. If you go on vacation, it usually requires a lot of stuff—like tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and so forth. And if you don’t go on vacations, you have other interests, many of which entail making things, which requires supplies and equipment.

Your job likely also requires supplies. You likely fix clothing, cars, furniture and other things when they are broken rather than throwing them out, which means your home may well have the necessities for sewing, auto work and carpentry. You are actually more likely than the middle class to own your own cement mixer, sewing machine, towing cables or power saw. I own all four. Lacking a home of your own, you may not own these things, but you very likely own a sewing kit and a set of tools, no matter how makeshift.

And all these things are clutter when piled up into a small home, apartment, car, backpack or whatever you live out of.

Does that mean you should take Marie Kondo’s advice and get rid of anything you haven’t used recently and then every object that does not give you joy. The toilet plunger would be top of the list for me… and how would that go?

The worn-out clothes I garden in aren’t comfy old favorites. They are very specifically, clothes I hate that I expect will be torn and dirty beyond repair in a rough season or two. My cracked mismatched dishes don’t bring me joy. The set of nice dishes brought out only for holidays and adult company do. And the reason they are still nice and joyful is that we don’t use them for everyday.

Nope. That method isn’t going to work for dealing with our clutter.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I live in a small, compact house. There isn’t an inch of space that isn’t in planful use. I run a business out of my home that requires me to meet clients in my home daily. My home has to be neat and tidy. Local social norms require it for such a business. Beyond that, I’m ninety percent blind and a pile of junk is truly a problem for me to wade through. Things need to have places.

But all the above still applies. I cook all of my family’s meals from scratch because instant food that won’t kill you is expensive. Thus I have a fully stocked kitchen and a jam-packed pantry. I also have a vegetable garden and that means I have a shed full of tools and supplies, window sills full of seedlings and a cellar and freezers full of produce.

My business requires extensive teaching supplies. I also have kids and they have stuff. We live hours from the nearest English-language library, so we have our own library shelves, particularly full of children’s books. Modern technology has meant some slimming of our bookshelves, DVDs and CDs but subscription services cost money and reference books get used a lot around here.

Beyond that, there is my mental health. Like most people in my situation, I don’t have relaxing vacations or spa treatments or even weekends away. I have interests instead. I study medicinal herbs and recently I’ve taken up candle and soap making. These also require stuff—materials, supplies and storage space.

So it goes for many of us. I go through my pantry regularly from top to bottom every six months and reorganize a bit every month or two. I am always weeding through clothing hordes, swapping out tattered and laundry-shrunken clothes for clothes from the hand-me-down network or bought at an amazing second-hand shop we hit on a trip two years ago that finally fit my kids.

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

My kids each have a few drawers for the clothes currently in use. There are are also three bins in their closets that contain clothes. The lowest, easiest-to-reach bin contains still-useful, only mildly tattered clothes that are too small for my kids. These are fed back into our hand-me-down network on a regular basis. The second bin contains off-season clothes—winter clothes in summer, summer clothes in winter. The final bin contains the hoard of clothes that don’t yet fit my kids. Most of these are a year or two from fitting but a few particularly nice bits are being hoarded for a distant future.

That’s how I handle clutter. Or at least it’s one example.

Mostly handling clutter well when you live the way I do means organization, labeling and taking periodic inventory..

I have bins for tools, wire, glue, rope, rubber bands, nails, small boxes, plastic bags, art supplies and plenty of other categories. The skeptical will inevitably remark that there is a lot there that we will never actually use. It’s true that about a third of it eventually gets cycled out when its usefulness is determined to have been overestimated. But all of these things are things acquired free, extremely cheaply or by mistake, as everyone sometimes acquires things. We don’t seek them out but when they come in, if they might be useful, we store them rather than fill the landfill.

Once I observed a middle-class American doing an art project and gaped in surprise at the clean-up, which was apparently routine. Not only were the drop clothes not washed and hung to dry. They were simply bundled with all the scrap material inside and tossed into the garbage can—unused paints, barely opened glue tubes, brushes and all. In my world, only a few stray scraps would have ended up in the garbage, and even then only if they couldn’t conceivably become confetti, decoration for children’s projects or… fire starter.

Yup, there’s a bin for tinder as well, containing candle drippings, soiled wax baking paper, nutshells and paper scraps free enough of chemicals to be deemed compost-safe once burned.

The crucial thing is to be able to find what you need when you eventually do need it. That’s where storage systems, labels and bins come in. Last year, I had what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my class. I got to design my own work space and actually see it built. The photos in this post are from my new space, which features many small shelves and storage compartments. Some of the storage has doors to cover it. But much of it does not, in order to allow quick and handy access.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

I learned valuable organizational principles during this process and here is my advice to rival Marie Kondo’s.

Before you shop, always take inventory and organize:

  • Categorize items by type and label clearly.

  • Store categories near where they are most used. Have at most two places where the same category is stored. (Glue may be in the wood shop as well as the office.)

  • If an item has a single use only, store it with the items used with it rather than with it’s type. (Gardening sheers are stored with gardening things, not with scissors.)

  • Use up one package or container of a material as much as possible before opening another, even if it isn’t convenient. Recycle or re-purpose the packaging.

  • Be creative in finding storage space. Not everything must be stored in heated rooms of your home. Building raised beds or hollow kitchen benches with lids for seats will often dramatically increase your storage space. If you are able to build your own shelves, carefully plan out what you need to store where and plan the depth, width and height of shelves with the storage containers you have and are likely to have in the future in mind.

  • While building a separate pantry or walk-in closet may seem like it significantly shrinks your living space, if you can line it with shelves and store what you need inside it, it will significantly decrease clutter and increase the usability of the space you have.

  • Designate a storage space for repourposed materials like boxes, bags, building scraps and paper supplies. Containers which the given material won’t quickly overflow out of are ideal. When space is limited, consider carefully the storage needs of given materials. Paper boxes must be kept in a dry place, but heat and cold don’t matter. Cans of paint can tolerate occasional moister but cannot tolerate great differences in temperature or any frost. Some materials, like cloth, are susceptible to pests.

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

Getting rid of things you don’t need

  • Certain types of supplies tend to accumulate more quickly than others. Cardboard boxes and water-proof bags (usually plastic up until recently) are essential for many activities and expensive to buy when needed. They can accumulate quickly, depending on your activities. Keep a supply of a dozen smaller boxes and several larger boxes. Keep a plastic bag full of plastic bags of similar size. If you have more than that and don’t need them for a specific reason, recycle those that are getting tattered.

  • Keep spare parts together. If you really have the skills to use a spare part to fix something later, it is okay to keep spare parts which are in good condition. Recycle parts that are damaged or which you would not be able to use given your skills and tools.

  • Fix broken tools when possible. If it is not possible to fix a tool, it is best to separate it into materials to be recycled.

  • Store craft, cooking and gardening supplies well, usually in air-tight containers. Don’t throw out half-full packages unless the contents are damaged. If the packaging is damaged, repackage and store for later use. If the material itself is damaged, dried up or spoiled, dispose of it in the most conservationist way possible.

  • The hierarchy of disposal should be: 1. Repair/reuse/repurpose, 2. Channel to those who can repair, reuse or repurpose in your network, 3. Give to charity, 4. Use as or give to others for animal feed, 5. Use as compost, mulch or construction material, 6. Burn as fuel, 7. Breakdown and recycle, 8. Landfill. An item that you don’t need or can’t use starts at the top of the hierarchy. You assess its possibilities for usefulness and put it in the first category in which it can be truly useful.

  • The upper part of the hierarchy is focused on disposal which will benefit someone else. Some of this may be actual charity. Much of it is not charity at all. One of the key elements of doing poverty well is to have a hand-me-down network, and hand-me-downs are not all clothes by far. Lettuce scraps are a welcome hand-me-down to a chicken owner or gardener.

  • There is often not a direct return of the favor but those who give into such a network also receive when others have a surplus or an unneeded-but-still-useful item. I calculate that about 30 percent of my family’s food supply comes free or very cheaply from our network and it is all top quality organic products. This is one of the main reasons I can claim to live quite well below the US poverty line. As a result, not a day goes by when I don’t find myself considering if an item or materials I need to dispose of could be used by someone else in my network.

  • The other methods in the disposal hierarchy get as much residual use out of materials as possible and minimize both the costs of acquiring other materials and the harm to the environment. There is a stereotype that poor people don’t care about environmental issues. Sometimes people have been misled to misunderstand what “environmentalism” means, but people of modest means are also more vulnerable to ecological disruption, whether we are urban or rural dwellers. In the same way that you feed and protect your hand-me-down network for your own benefit, it is in your interests to nourish and protect your environment.


  • When you live with modest means, it is good to be on the look-out for items or materials that you may need in the future that are being offered free or extremely cheaply. Stocking this way is an imperfect science or even an art. You will inevitably misjudge some things and end up storing something you will never need. The most important consideration is making sure that getting rid of something will not be an undue burden before you acquire it. Secondly, think of where you will store it while you are considering acquiring something. And finally, make sure there is actually a reasonable likelihood you’ll need what you’re acquiring. Ideally you’ll turn down far more than you bring in.

  • Each person’s needs are quite different. If your job requires you to dress in an expensive fashion, you may have to store a fair amount of clothing to make it work. This is different than simply hording clothes for fun, although that can be a hobby for some. Inventory and reassessment still applies, unless you consider this a hobby.

  • When new disposable items come in, place them UNDER or BEHIND older or half-used equivalents and use the older and half-used equivalents first. (If you acquire new tape very cheaply before your supply has run out, do not place it on top of the old supply.)

  • Some people will become so good at this that they will become a network hub and acquire things they don’t personally need in order to feed them into their network. As with many other parts of this barter economy, there is a fuzzy line between the skilled networker and the out-of-control pack rat. The difference will be in both organization and generosity.

I hope my experience may be helpful, whether you are voluntarily or involuntarily living on modest means. These are some of the ways to both contain clutter and organize materials to be both sustainable and useful.

Best wishes to all!

Put down your burdens and breathe in the spring

The first day when the vibrant green of new grass shows through, the first moment when the sun really warms your back again--it may be unseasonably early but spring is still good.

In some ways, this spring feels better than any I can remember. It's partly because I have two functional greenhouses--an investment of two years of physical labor and financial scrimping. Now they are already full of leafy young greens, radishes, carrot tops just poking through and young cucumber vines braving the still chilly mornings. I also have chickens laying smooth eggs that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand and impart a sense of comfort and security. 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

That makes this spring particularly lively and the changing weather gives me reason for a bit of joy. But more than that I am thankful for the contrast from the rest of life. My work necessitates sitting at a computer for hours on. A few more hours are spent in on-line, telephone and graphic design activism to help civil rights and democracy-oriented organizations back home in the US in this difficult time. . 

I'm heartened to see the surge of interest and activism in the United States over the past few months after what felt like decades of apathy and disinterest on issues such as climate change, the undermining of our democracy, structural racism and rule by corporations. But the activist work still often feels insurmountable and i am like a kid getting out of school when I get up for a break and go to work outdoors. 

Old wisdom has it that you often love the time of year in which you were born and I suppose that might explain part of it. But there is no period when the air is cleaner or better than it is in early spring. The coal smoke of fall and winter has blown away on brisk winds and washed away with the gentle, misty rains. Summer dust and heat has not yet come. Now and for the next month and a half, it is delight to take big lung-fulls of the air, even in town. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I know there are people who suffer from pollen allergies even this early in the year. That seems like a particular injustice. And I do mean injustice. Rates of allergies and rates of chemical pollution and use of pesticides are closely correlated. I count my blessings having grown up far from industry and large-scale agriculture. Thus I find myself allergic to almost nothing, except hypocrisy and money (including m own oddly enough).

My hands are a bit cracked and dry from all the digging in garden soil, but I have herbal salves for that. I hung wind chimes on the back deck, so the song of the wind and the soft clucking of the ducks follows me as I water and coax the young plants.  

Meanwhile, on-line there seems to be a campaign to divide Democrats from supporters of third parties or independent options. Many on both sides will defend their perspective at all cost, but the hand of corporations such as social media and internet companies in gleefully promoting the acrimony is also clearly evident.

Even I have been cut out of two of the largest on-line activist organizations, though I refrained from negative comments, never used crude language and only rarely posted articles at all. The official reason given in one group was the scandalous discovery (found by browsing my page and history, rather than through my comments) that I had volunteered to help a local Green Party chapter. I never knew that was against the group rules as it was supposed to be a progressive activism group, and the other large progressive group banned me though I had not made any recent comments, most likely due to shared administrators with the no-Greens-allowed group.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It is actually not that hard to shrug off my momentary resentment at this exclusion from the largest on-line activism groups. It is less easy to banish the fear that wells up inside me. We have this a slim chance to resist tyranny and we seem to be letting it slip away for the most banal of reasons--infighting between those who should be allies. And worse yet, while some of this infighting appears to be organic, some is spurred on by precisely those interests that stand to lose if democracy wins the latest arm wrestle with fascism. 

My heart is heavy after an evening spent on my publishing work and a discussion with the Google content removal department, which despite the filing of official complaints refuses to remove links to pirated copies of my books. Google's official policy continues to state that they will remove such links and no reason was given in their official refusal letter, except that they believe since i published the work, I agreed to its "public" use, despite copyright laws. 

It appears that the corporate behemoths will always flatten you in the end, even when you think you've found a crack in their glass ceilings. My professional work is fragile and completely at the mercy of companies like Google. And if all life was contained in their computerized world, it would truly feel hopeless.

The morning sunshine blazes through my windows, greeted by a wild chorus of birdsong from the tangle of brush in the empty lot next door.. I don't know what the future holds. But for now I skip outside, giddy the way I was hopping off the school bus long ago, and sink my bare hands into the earth. It is a time to put down your burdens, breathe out your sorrows and take time to be one with spring.

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

"I don't have to be friends with everybody!"

It's so common that many people might consider it normal. A group of kids are playing with a soccer ball and one boy--a bit taller than most and with a forceful personality--gives orders. The others follow the orders gladly and one of the orders is that they don't play with "that kid." 

But common isn't necessarily okay.

I was always afraid my kids would be "that kid" because they're different from the other kids in our town, visibly and controversially. But when it happened, it was at a support group for kids like them, kids of a minority background who were supposed to be their best allies. And my kids weren't the one left out. 

Instead it was one of my people. The kid with a significant physical disability. It wasn't due to his behavior or personality. He's a fun kid. Because he was booted out of the boys' fun and he loved card games, I played Uno with him. I could wish my kids were as quick with Uno. 

And no, there is no excuse. This was not one of those situations where the child left out was too timid or too aggressive, didn't ask to be included or just felt offended and left. He was told to leave.

The others chased him with sticks because they wanted to play cops and robbers and he was handy as a robber. If he was near them the game was always everyone against that boy. It was all in fun. They never hurt him physically, but they absolutely would not play WITH him. 

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

I sat my kids down privately to understand the issue. 

"The leader doesn't want him to play," my daughter said

Why does he get to decide?

"We want him to be the leader. He knows how to make fun," she explains.

My son, younger and less verbal, just shrugs. He admits he doesn't feel great about leaving that one boy out, but he wants to play with the boys. He'll go along with whatever, even if it makes him feel a bad sometimes.

Finally, I directly witnessed the ringleader directing kids to gang up on the boy with a disability. So, I told the ringleader he was in time-out. He went to time-out but told me, "You can't make us play with him." 

The mother of the ringleader arrived shortly and took over. She told him, "That's not nice," and let him go. 

I gritted my teeth and started another Uno game. 

It wasn't really a new issue in this group, except before the issue had been me among the grown-ups. We have come to this group for four years now. During the third year, I was extremely frustrated. The same group of people met each time, and I still did not know who was who because people were never introduced again and I couldn't see their faces. When I asked, I was given awkward answers and then avoided.

Other parents formed little groups of friends within the support group and I was left on the outside. Once I was even explicitly told to give up my seat at a lunchroom table because a large group wanted to sit together and I wasn't invited. I was directed to sit outside the lunchroom in an area where there were large tables but also wasps that made the area less desirable. 

It was far from a "support group" for me. I only went for the kids to be with peers like them. But then one of the organizers decided to make the theme of this year's meeting be "the inclusion of people with disabilities," because her friend with the disabled child would be attending for the first time. 

I was asked for ideas for a disability awareness program. They wanted me to develop a blindness simulation, so people could see how rough it is to be blind. But the only ideas I am particularly interested in have to do with the social aspects of disability.

It isn't that rough to be blind. It's occasionally inconvenient. But it is rough to have people react to you being blind. 

The organizers weren't happy. My suggestions were ignored and the theme went ahead with little physical demonstrations of blindness and deafness. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the one thing I could explain in this context--that is the difficulty of recognizing faces when you are visually impaired. And somehow I managed to get through to the adults for the first time. By the end of the week, I knew everyone's name and could identify most by voice, stature or idiosyncrasies. It was a vast relief and I was even included in some conversations after that. 

Still, the child with a disability in our midst was left out and forced to play card games with the grown-ups. 

Toward the end of the week-long workshop, a guest came to give a presentation to our group. He was a man of the same minority background as the children in the group. Most of the guests to such a group are women, people in "caring" professions. So, having a male guest was a big deal.

The little boys were agog at this role model. He was buff, brash and a man. He had grown up in the ghetto and become the first minority city counsel member in his good-sized town.

He quickly noticed the disharmony among the children. As it turned out, once the disabled boy had been fully rejected from the pack of kids, the leader needed another target. And this time it was my son--quiet, not too well coordinated and younger than most. 

He joined me at the Uno table and pretended he didn't care much.

Our male guest gathered all the kids who had been involved in the shunning of the boy with a disability--and most of them were boys in this case--out on the soccer field and talked to them. The dynamics quickly became apparent. 

"I don't have to be friends with everyone," the ringleader said. "My father says I've got to be assertive. It's his problem if he's too weak to be in our club."

The man tried to reason with them and talked about compassion. He asked how they would feel if they were left out.

"I won't be left out," the ringleader said. "I'll make sure of that."

The other kids watched their leader and he did not back down. They learned. The adults were unwilling to lay down a law on this. Shunning may not be nice, but it isn't explicitly against the rules.

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

The session on the soccer field broke up without any resolution. But I held back from leaving because I wanted to get an email address from the guest, who I greatly admired, although he seemed a bit lost being called in to help mediate this conflict among the children.

As the others trailed away, the ringleader among the kids and one of his closest friends stood with the man from the ghetto, their admired role model. I waited patiently for him to finish with them, so I could ask for his contact information.

"My father says there are people called Neo-nazis who might hurt me because I'm not white," the leader of the kids' pack admitted to the man, his voice still strong but his stance clearly seeking some reassurance or support from this strong mirror of himself.

The man told him, "That's true. Some people are like that, but here is the thing you need to remember. Not many people are like that. Only a few. Most people are good."

I have a hard time with my big mouth. The man hesitated. He rocked from foot to foot, obviously struggling for words.

And the words popped out before I could stop them, "And that is a good reason, why you should be friends with as many people as you can. You never know when you'll need them at your back." 

The man jabbed his finger at me. "Yes! That is the thing! That is it!" 

He was clearly grateful to be rescued from an awkward issue of teaching morals to children--particularly a moral concept that adults don't actually observe all that well. We grinned at one another. A pact of the grown-ups with a quick comeback.

I do mean it though. Sure, no one can force you to be friends with the less cool, the ones who take a bit of extra effort--whether it's a kid on the playground who you have to work to communicate with or a grown-up who can't recognize faces. But hard times are coming and you may need just such friends. There is no friend more steadfast than those who have been on the outside.

Still. I acknowledge that mine was an easy answer, given to kids. I think back to my own childhood, when I struggled with social ostracism on a daily basis. There is a part of that memory I don't like to think on. There was a kid in my school for a time who was very strange in appearance due to a physical deformity.

He was smart and nice, but he looked strange even to my weak eyes. He was also not cool. He didn't have the kind of forceful personality that can negate physical difference. And so, even though I said "Hi" to him on the street and in the halls, I was never really friends with him. I yearned always toward the kids who were moving and doing things. Even I, who should have known better. did it. 

Now I swear I'll do better. Instead of looking around for who I want to be with, I'll look around for who is there and ready. 

She said it in 2016

My predictions for the next four... or ten years

I don't particularly want to be political on my blog, but this election was a call to all of us. It is past time we look at how this happened.

I know you're probably sick of politics at the moment. Frankly, so am I. It all seems too depressing and also confusing. It feels like talking about it does nothing but dig us into despair and negativity.

Here's the thing though. I have seen every part of this coming. When I was in my twenties and organizing international anti-war protests and one of my best friends was from Syria, I shocked her by predicting that her country was next. I could have been a bit more gentle about my horribly accurate prediction, but I saw the writing on the wall--wiggly, magnifying-glass eyes or no. 

A year ago, I also predicted Trump as president. I was confused all winter and spring about why people thought there was any contest in the Republican primary. I never had a moment's doubt about the Republican nominee.

Creative Commons image by Joseph Delgadillo

Creative Commons image by Joseph Delgadillo

Still if Donald Trump wasn't here, it would be someone else. This year or next time. This moment was a long time coming. I say that because I understand on a gut level the frustrations and alienation that led many Trump supporters to support him and to accept and even wallow in such hateful and bigoted statements, as well as to applaud irrational and extremely vague economic proposals. 

I am from Oregon, but the eastern, rural, Christian, conservative part of Oregon. My family were weirdos there with our internationalist, counterculture and often leftist thinking. But still. I understand Trump supporters. Partly because I grew up near them. Partly because I share their most basic root frustrations.

No, of course, I don't agree with them on everything or support Trump. But when you look under the racism, bigotry, fear-mongering and undefined-corporate economic concepts, you find people who feel disenfranchised because they never had anyone to vote FOR. They always had to choose the lesser of evils in a broken two-party system in which candidates never talk about the real issues.

Social media changed that this time; that, and Donald Trump's private media empire.. Let's face it. This election was not about who looked better or who had better speech writers and snazzier campaign ads as it often has been. This election, for the first time in my life, was about issues. It's sad that it was about racism, fear of foreigners and taxes for poor people, but there were real issues raised, issues that were previously taboo. 

Trump supporters in the parts of the US that I know well--that terrifying red swath through the middle of the country--are people struggling with the same root fury I have felt for years. But they were struggling with much less access to information and education, struggling in a society that never let the world (I mean the world beyond US borders) in.

Clinton supporters I know are out on social media right now bemoaning the election of Trump and yet repeating the very strange conviction that "America is still the best deal on earth," as if most of Europe, parts of the Middle East and good parts of Asia didn't have better education, health care, standards of living and just about everything else. Barack Obama convened congressional debates on health care early in his presidency and would not allow members of Congress who supported European-style single-payer health care to even participate in the debate.

And we are surprised that many Americans lack information and their frustration turns to bigotry?

If we limit choices to two parties which officially predetermine which issues can be brought up in televised debates, if we keep our school system focused on our own country's history and political system alone, if we allow news media to be controlled by a few naturally self-interested corporations, if we allow corporations to run almost every aspect of our society, we should not be surprised at the results.

Yes, this election was real democracy (except for the part about Bernie Sanders, the candidate with the most vehement supporters, being artificially cut out). This election reflects the frustration and lack of choice and the segregation of information that is rampant in our society.

Don't blame Trump. And don't blame Trump supporters. There are reasons for this.

As for Bernie Sanders, he is the only political candidate I have ever fully supported. That is primarily because I have known and closely watched him for twenty-odd years and I am convinced he was the real deal. I loved those months when Sanders looked like hope, but deep down I feared that the leadership of the parties would never stand for it. I also predicted that the next president would be a Republican. Sanders made me wonder for a while there because of the unpredictable influence of social media, but that was really only wishful thinking, given the impact of corporate media.

Where do all my predictions and statements about society come from? I am not a pollster or even a media junkie. I have been accused of almost never watching the news lately.  But I do keep up and follow important events. I observe the emotions of groups of people. My original profession was journalism and I was most known for drawing out the views of all sides in controversies. I heard out the fears of Czech Neo-Nazis and then walked across the street to a Romani ghetto and heard that side of the issue.

It isn't so much about knowing facts and polls, as it is about listening to people.

So, I have a few things to say in 2016 that I don't think you will want to believe. That's fine. I'm going to say them anyway and in four or five years, I'm going to dig this post out again and check how I did.

  1. Trump will be very bad for us and life will go on. Most of us will live and I will probably not be homeless in four years.
  2. Trump supporters will be told that their economic woes and feeling of disenfranchisement is not improving because of foreigners, Black people, the very poor (including people with disabilities) and other groups they should be against. For that reason, they probably will not be disillusioned with Trump as fast as we would hope.
  3. But their underlying frustrations, which stem from a lack of true choice in US politics and the heavily consumerist, corporate-led society, will remain unsatisfied. Unless something in the media changes radically, most Americans will continue to confuse the systems of corporations with the concept of "big government."
  4. Climate change is the most important threat to our survival. Extreme authoritarian religious groups are the other major threat--be they fundamentalist churches in the US or Islamic extremism (i.e. Trump or ISIS).
  5. Putin is not nearly as bad as Trump. He is in power and will generally stay there. If he has to imprison a few journalists to stay in power or keep his picked successor in power, he will, but he will use intelligent international and military strategies that are good for Russia and only incidentally good or bad for anyone else. His main concerns are what is good for Russia and his power in Russia.
  6. There will be other extremist groups that look like ISIS. There will be many refugees. There will be famine and huge waves of millions of refugees within ten years. Europe will build walls against them. And the US will shut down immigration from those areas.
  7. Climate change will not produce very many Hollywood-worthy disaster moments. Oh, there will be ever worse hurricanes, but mostly the dry lands will get drier. Violence will become more and more "normal." Resources will be more and more stretched. Life will become harder slowly enough that most people will not realize that much of the hardship is caused by climate change. But for the next ten years at least, we will keep struggling on. 
  8. History books will one day remember that a very important and dire world event happened in November of 2016 and it will have to do with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the many other pipelines being laid for frantic fossil fuel projects, not the election. I'm serious. In the long-run, that will probably be more historically important and our generation will look back and wonder why we were so distracted and didn't see it. 
  9. And after all that, I predict we'll still be here in 2030. I think life will be hard and we'll look back on this as a time with simpler problems and easier decisions. Our kids will not understand why we couldn't do better. But we will not live in a post-apocalyptic world. We will live in a stressful daily grind in which resources are limited and the cost of poverty is very high in terms of disease and mortality. There will never be a moment--more than now at least--when we can say the apocalypse has come. 

And we'll have to deal with all of that sooner or later. The sooner we start to take it seriously the better prepared we'll be.. 

Now is the time to put your energy into what you believe. Now is the time for solar panels, for learning self sufficiency and for building local communities. Now is the time for preparing for hard times and making sure we have the skills to survive.

This is the time to be serious and think hard about what we spend our time and money on. Is it TV and Facebook or is it learning to grow food and overcome antibiotic resistant bacteria with complex natural compounds? Is it buying another new car or is it about putting twenty percent of your income into one thing that might make a long-term difference.

This isn't about a catastrophe scenario. This is about right now. Live what you believe. If what you believe is not consumerism and TV (i.e. supporting corporations), then don't do it. There is much to be done.

How leaders prevent social exclusion: Raw experience and practical tips

I'm sitting on the hard bench of a cafeteria table on the ground floor of my elementary school where the cafeteria is. There's a pock-marked wall. Dark green.

Weird details stand out. I have a vague impression of plastic trays, the light from the kitchen and the voice of my second-grade teacher who has pigs at home that eat our leftovers... And the big table where I sit alone. 

There are several tables in the lunch room. All of them packed. Except mine. 

I was seven or eight, nine or ten that day. Hard to say. It went on for years.

The memory of pain is distant. I have to focus to perceive that my chest feels tight, my heartbeat has sped up, there's a loud ringing in my ears that drowns out present reality and my nose stings as if I've just snorted up chlorinated pool water. The mental image of that cafeteria automatically sends my body into overdrive--ready to fight for survival. If I'm with someone else when this memory surfaces, chances are that I'll suddenly find myself screaming, crying and/or fighting with them--having blacked out for a moment, unable to understand how I ended up acting like this. 

Classic trauma response, as if I was a vet with PTSD.

Creative Commons image by Martinak15 of

Creative Commons image by Martinak15 of

But there wasn't even very much violence involved. I was only beaten up a handful of times on a playground as a kid (that I remember). 

So, what are the PTSD symptoms from? 

A few years ago an adult friend told me she'd visited my old elementary school before it was torn down. She said she was shocked to hear kids daring each other to touch the diseased "Arie hole" in the wall of the cafeteria. She described the pock-marked wall I remember exactly. This new generation of kids had hear of my mythical cooties.

And I'd left that elementary school fifteen years earlier. 

Because I don't remember much of those years, I have only the facts I have been told by witnesses to go on in trying to trace my traumatic responses to their source:

  • I had no friends at school. None. Even though I tried to be friendly. I shared things freely. I was never intentionally mean or unsocial..
  • I made deals with my friends from outside school to pretend we didn’t know each other in school in order to protect them from being ostracized by association.
  • I wasn't just picked last. I was never allowed to join in games at recess. 
  • I sat alone at lunch every day, even though other tables were crowded..
  • I cried and argued when I was rejected. I was not the quiet suffering type.
  • I often sat in the classroom during recess, because I was no more popular with the teachers and I was always in trouble.
  • I asked too many questions in class and interrupted to ask if I could get out of my seat to try to see the blackboard closer. I annoyed and frustrated teachers.
  • Kids my age never came to my birthday parties. Except when I was seven my mother made a great effort to make sure other girls came to my birthday party. She cajoled other parents into it. I remember the pretty napkins and party favors, the outdoor fairy tea party table we set up. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and even so I was largely left out while the others played. But at least I remember that day, unlike most of the others, which are blank holes.

Those are the things I’ve been told. In essence I was shunned. That may even be all, nothing worse than that,. It doesn’t sound that extreme when written down that way. It sounds like I should have just been more sociable and everything would have been fine. At least that’s what people would like to think.

Creative Commons image by  CileSuns92 of

Creative Commons image by  CileSuns92 of

Why was I isolated in elementary school? Does the specific reason matter? There is often a kid like this--if not in every classroom than at least in almost every school. I've seen them. The ones no one will touch. Sometimes teachers try to help them and some times teachers dislike them as much as the kids do. They're chosen last again and again or not chosen at all if that's an option. They always have to partner with the teacher on projects and sometimes even the teacher resents it. These kids have disabilities or they're overweight  or they are visibly different in some other way or their parent's are poor or they're foster kids or they come to school dirty and hungry or they're just "a bit odd."  

It seems like every time I hear a discussion about bullying and social exclusion these days the whole thing gets bogged down in, "Yes, everyone is bullied at school. These mean girls called me..." 

I'm sorry to draw a line, but no, that isn't actually the same thing. Being teased or beaten up or harassed by some mean kids occasionally is not the same. It isn't okay either. It hurts and kids should be protected from that sort of thing. But it isn't the kind of bullying that we need to be talking about most. The kind that causes PTSD-like symptoms. This is social exclusion and it's a kind of bullying that 90 percent of the population, both children and adults, perpetrate--often without realizing it.

Social isolation - social exclusion

Unlike the inspiring stories on Facebook about a kid who is bullied and then the whole town comes out to support him, those who suffer from social isolation are almost entirely voiceless. They don't have a fan club. They aren't good looking or inspiring. They are the ones who make you uncomfortable, so you move across the room at a party without even consciously registering that you’re doing it.

And adults do it as much, if not more than kids. In fact it's becoming a hot-button topic in leadership training and all types of organizations interested in social cohesion and productive group dynamics.

Here's a real-life example of how social exclusion happens among adults.

I recently attended a week-long retreat in the mountains. It was my second year at the retreat but most of the people had been there longer, for as long as eight years. Most of them had formed strong friendships over the years. The group is interested in being mutually supportive for people with a particular family issue to deal with. The first year I attended I had high hopes for finding some friends.

By the second year, I knew not to expect much. But I went because there were things there that my kids needed.

I'm not a small child anymore and I know that the people at the retreat didn't mean to be cruel or even intentionally exclude me. And yet it happened. Again.

The first day, I made a huge effort to remember people's names. I wrote down and memorized the name every time I met someone new. But most people had been there the year before so they didn’t introduce themselves. They just called out greetings in a swirl around me. I may have heard everyone’s name once in a circle, but I couldn’t see the faces as the introductions were happening. I can’t see faces further away than four inches and they were sitting across the room.

I’m legally blind. And because I couldn’t see faces when I was an infant either, I never acquired the neurological hardwiring that allows people to easily remember the nuances of faces, so even photographs are only marginally useful. I don't have a problem remembering names, like a lot of people with that legitimate problem. I have a problem registering faces.

I know it seems like people would be understanding about the fact that a blind person doesn't recognize people's faces. But they usually aren't. I have been shocked time and again when people act offended at my assertion that I simply can't recognize them, while I'm holding a white cane. I've had people say openly, "That's no excuse. Don't you recognize voices?" or "You just don't care to try hard enough."  

Well, yes, after several longer conversations when I know who the person speaking is, I do eventually recognize voices. But when I'm in a group introduction situation, I only have that one brief sentence of introduction that is connected to the name. After that, it's just a jumble. There is no way I can connect a particular voice back to that name that was mentioned once at a distance.

So, by the second day of the retreat I had a list of names. And I had a few people who I could recognize by their voices. But I still had no idea which name belonged to which voice. And most voices were still a jumble because the others rarely conversed with me.

So, let me get down to why a little. My eyes look strange and that's off-putting. Subconsciously. They're squinty and the move strangely. I also can't do those basic social things like smile at a person in a group to show that I recognize them or use another person’s name and make eye contact when I say hello after all. Sometimes I don’t even acknowledge a friend's presence with a polite hello.

As so many times before, my fellows at the retreat soon thought of me as aloof and somewhat antisocial. They began to ignore me. Those few particularly thoughtful souls who initially made the effort to greet everyone they saw in the morning or at meal times stopped saying hello to me.  

Is this hard to believe? I’ve tried to explain it before and friends often shake their heads and say that surely people are not so quick to judge. But I’ve seen it happen over and over again and again, every time I join a new group. My friends ask me why I don’t just tell others that I can’t see them and can’t recognize them. And yes, I do that sometimes. I used to do it more. But it almost always backfires and creates even more severe social problems. People don't understand why I am telling them this when we first meet.

And it isn't primarily a conscious judgment people make. For adults, it is a function of the business of life and the fact that social situations are chaotic. They simply prioritize those they connect with more easily. And then when there is a connection with me and I then say I don't know their name, they are a bit offended.

I would bet you don’t think you would be offended by a person with a white cane if they asked for your name after several days of intense conversations. And maybe you are the exception.. But I have seen it happen more times than I care to count. When I come to the point when I can actually recognize a person's voice after either several days of close-quarters contact at an event or several months of occasional contact among neighbors, I have asked for a reintroduction with a name and people go cold with shock. They have known me for a long time, by their reckoning, and the idea that I was "faking" that I knew them all this time is very disconcerting. They feel betrayed and used.  The budding friendship ends. So, I have learned to keep my mouth shut and hope for a clear mention of their name by someone else in a situation where i can tell who is who just from listening. 

At this retreat, I vowed that I would do things right. I wrote down names and notes about people. I forced myself to focus on pretending to make eye contact by looking joyfully into the blurry dark spots where people’s eyes usually are. I greeted guests at the mountain lodge brightly and ended up with several quizzical responses from people who were not part of our group. But it wasn’t enough. Plenty of times I felt someone brush past me when I had not been quick enough to greet them in the hallway. By the second day, none of our group said hello“ or good morning“ to me anymore.

I could hear conversation going on all around me at meal times, but I was outside of it. When I tried to participate the effect was awkward and I often ended up interrupting people anyway because I couldn’t see them taking a breath or see the the focused look in their eyes that people know means someone is about to speak.

On the fourth day, I was sitting next to two other women at the outdoor fire, listening as one questioned the other on a point about a new law that would affect our group. Interested, I leaned into the conversation and asked a question of my own. The woman who had been holding forth turned on me and demanded “What?” with irritation in her voice. It was clear that she had considered their conversation to be private, even though we were sitting close together.

I was gradually falling out of the group. I’ve seen it happen time and again as an adult. Everyone else knew everyone else's name. This was a group that prides itself on being inclusive and friendly. They all greeted each other on the garden walkways outside or in the common room both with words and eyes. They noticed that I didn’t do these things, but they didn’t make the connection to the fact that I couldn’t see them, partly because I walk and hold myself like sighted people do. I have learned mobility well, in some ways too well.

Toward the end of the week-long retreat, I was having a particularly difficult morning. I felt isolated. No one had spoken to me the day before. And that morning the group  activities were impossible for me to participate in. One involved remembering some words the presenter wrote on a flip chart at the front of the room. Except the presenter didn't mention that there were words on a flip chart because everyone could see them and we were half-way through the activity before I realized what I was missing. By the time I went up to the chart and copied down the words the activity was over. 

The next activity was a dance workshop. It was supposed to make us feel good, creative and free, while we learned specific dance steps. Everyone was up in the middle of the circle. The music was lively. Most people had seen these dance steps at previous retreats. I remembered the painful dance workshop from the year before too. I like to dance and would have loved to know the steps, but the presenter simply demonstrated the steps in the middle of the group without words or description. She emphasized the steps once for the group slowly and then moved faster.

Even the slow demonstration was a blur to me. I had made sure I was standing near the presenter but I still couldn’t see her feet beyond the blur. I could hear the rhythm and I tried to guess. If the presenter had gone slowly three or four times and described the steps, I could have done the rest by listening to the rhythm. But there wasn't time. Many of the participants were kids and they had to keep things hopping. Most people already knew those dances from previous years anyway. I was the only odd one out.

So, I didn't ask for help. It would have disrupted the whole group. And that was why my nerves were raw as I came into the cafeteria of the retreat area for lunch with my four-year-old son.

I approached two places at one of the tables that seemed to be free. “We’re sitting there,” a woman’s voice came from behind me as I pulled the chair out. I looked around. There were clearly no other places left inside the cafeteria, maybe one alone in a corner but not two for me and my son.

A few people always had to sit outside in the direct sun with swarms of wasps at every meal, because the cafeteria is too small. That was hard on me. The bright light is very uncomfortable for my eyes and I can’t see the wasps, so the chances are very high that I’ll be stung, particularly on my mouth or tongue, while eating.

Trying to sit inside, I had been asked to move at every meal. Each time the reason was something like, “We want to sit here with our friends,” or “We’ve been sitting here all week. This is our table.” By this time late in the retreat, all the places inside had become someone’s “regular spot.” And I was in no regular group of friends. I had no regular place. As usual, I was being pushed out.

And it was a cafeteria again. Is there anything more hardwired in our DNA when it comes to social exclusion. There literally was no place at the table for me. I noticed that someone had in fact reserved these places with spoons, in order to go get the food.

"Fine. You all have your places and your friends. There's no place for us." I turned and snapped at the woman. She carried an infant in her arms and clearly didn't want to sit outside either. 

The room went dark around me. The roaring in my ears blocked out sound. The cascade of trauma response had started and I couldn’t think straight. My heart was hammering and I was filled with seething fear, anger, shame and grief, beyond anything that is bearable. Certainly beyond any normal response to being asked to honor a seat reservation. 

I whirled away then and tried to run out of the room. Some small voice of reason at the back of my mind was urging me to get away, not to have an emotional meltdown in front of people I wanted to befriend. But I couldn’t get through the crowd. The tenuous hold I had on my emotions slipped and I was crying, sobbing in front of everyone.

The woman who had sparked my reaction was shocked. She had simply been asking for the place that she had reserved and she had an allergy to wasp stings that could put her in the hospital if she sat outside. Others clamored around me, disapproving of my outburst and interpreting it as simple willful desire for that chair.

“What is such a big deal? Just go sit outside.”

“For heaven’s sake, you’ll get to eat too. You don’t need to force your way into everything."

"You're a bit overweight anyway.”

“You could try thinking of someone else for a change.”

I could only cry harder. How could I explain? They were already convinced that I was aloof. I didn’t know their names and they all knew mine and each other’s. This was so much bigger than not wanting to sit out with the wasps that I couldn’t see.

How can organizers foster inclusion in a group?

That sort of social disaster is usually where this sort of episode in my life ends. People feel that I have acted badly, selfishly and with too much emotion. I apologize profusely and flee. If I have to continue to be around that group for some reason, the relationship is strained and cold. Otherwise, I never see those people again. And the next time I try to make friends the same thing happens. No matter how hard I try to make it come out differently.

But this wasn’t the average situation. The organizers of the group had a deep interest in social inclusion. They didn’t notice the warning signs of social exclusion in the group, but once the meltdown happened they stepped up to the challenge. We worked out a plan together for how to prevent these sorts of problems, not just for me but for others as well. 

And the very first bit of the plan implemented on the last day of this retreat had immediate and tangible results. The group was asked to break up into groups for a project. I dread such scenarios because the groups are always formed by preexisting friendships. I end up either the odd person out or in a group of those who are lackadaisical or disinterested in the project (those being the reasons why they didn’t manage to get a place in a “real” group).

But this time the organizers tried my first suggestion for fostering social inclusion, and the effect was that all the groups--not just the one I was in--were extraordinarily successful in their projects. The cooperation in my group was vibrant and one of the members of the group who had seemed most irritated with me led the group and included me fully.

Creative Commons image by Grupo Emaús F.S

Creative Commons image by Grupo Emaús F.S

Working with groups of children might be a bit different, but this time I'm going to focus on tips for teachers of adults, event organizers, teen camp counselors, social groups, working groups, professional teams and activist organizations who want to truly ensure that no one is excluded. Ensuring inclusion in a group, not only is the right thing to do and avoids social unpleasantness, it also clearly boosts the work of any group and ensures that teams reach their goals more effectively. 

 For now, I suggest five areas of focus for group leaders and event organizers: 

  • the language of inclusion,
  • access to information and spaces,
  • introductions,
  • relationships and
  • effort

Within those topics here are specific tips and ideas:

Creative Commons image by HA1-000974 of

Creative Commons image by HA1-000974 of

  1. One of the easiest and most concrete ways to ensure inclusion is to moderate the forming of sub-groups. When something requires the large group to split up into smaller groups either A. split up the group randomly by counting people off, B. assign groups based on the known strengths and weaknesses of participants in order to ensure all groups will have the skill sets needed to succeed or C. ask group participants to consciously attempt to join a group with those they have not worked with before or don’t know well. (Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the size and type of group you’re working with, but if employed well they will vastly improve group dynamics.)
  2. Include the “language of inclusivity” in promotional and organizational messages for your group. When you write an email to remind participants what to bring or similar details, don’t consider it corny to mention your hope that everyone will be included. Ask participants to be conscious that some people will know each other and others won’t know anyone in the group. Ask them to reach out to those who are new as one of the ways to support the goals of the group (even if and possibly especially if those goals are simply to have fun).
  3. When you make introductory remarks in front of the group, emphasize inclusion and the need for participants to help one another with details and include those who tend to be on the margins. State your intentions and make social inclusion an open goal of the group. It will support all other goals, including professional and technical objectives.
  4. When you print out schedules or programs include a note on them about who to ask if you need assistance due to a disability or language difficulty as well as an upbeat note asking participants to lend a hand when they see someone who is lost or having difficulty. These notes may seem like pro forma political correctness (and they can be just that if organizers don't follow through with other measures), but wide experience of professionals in social work and psychology shows that the goals and intentions we state do have an impact. Not everyone will heed your reminders, but some will and that will often be enough to ensure that your participants aren’t excluded and your goals are reached more effectively.
  5. Try to ensure that there is enough space/chairs/tables/materials for everyone registered for your event or meeting. It may seem like a small thing that someone has to go without and it is small, IF it happens to that person only once. But the fact is that the last person in any line and the last person materials are handed around to is very often the same person again and again. People hand materials to people they know. And the reason a person is last in line (such as mobility or sensory problems) will often make them last in every line. I have been the only person without a seat or an information packet when such things were handed out at conferences and meetings more times than I can count.
  6. If you do have a shortage, make a specific effort to make sure that the most socially vulnerable people are not those left without. Those who are friends of the organizers can often help by accepting whatever shortfall happens by accident, because you know they will not be the ones excluded regularly. Like most people, I would be happy to stand or share materials with someone else as long as I am not made to feel excluded by consistently being the one left out, I feel honored to help a friend who is organizing a group by accepting a shortage.
  7. You can also often get around a shortage by coordinating. If you realize there aren’t enough information packets for everyone (and you should definitely have someone count before handing them out), ask for volunteers who can share a packet. Many people come to groups and events together, some dislike information packets and know they’ll just lose it anyway. You should have no trouble coming up with several people who sincerely don’t mind.
  8. Places to sit at meals are specifically sensitive to the human psyche. It probably comes from some prehistoric evolutionary pressure in which those who were not given a place to sit at meals were less likely to survive. In any event, not having a place inside the circle at a common meal brings up intense fears for those who have been excluded in other social situations. If you find yourself in a situation where places at meals are insufficient or clearly unequal (with some outside or at makeshift places), consider one of these alternatives to combat social exclusion: A. stagger meal times and let people choose between lunch at 12 or 12:30, B. assign places based on specific physical needs (some people may need regular chairs due to mobility disabilities or small children, those with allergies or other disabilities may need to be ensured a place away from hazardous insects, as in my previous example), C. specifically mention to the group that there is a shortage and ask those who can take the possibly problematic alternative to do so automatically (ask that those who can easily sit on the ground do so at a picnic with an insufficient number of chairs or benches), D. assign seats and rotate them to encourage participants to get to know each other or E.  ask participants to ensure that they sit with different people at each meal, mentioning that meal times are one of the best times to get to know others and exchange ideas, as well as one of the keys to the inclusion that will make your group successful in its specific endeavors.
  9. Hand out schedules and materials for your event, email them to participants and/or have them available for those that want them. It is amazing how many complex events, such as our week-long retreat with several workshops each day only post one copy of a printed schedule or have none. Certainly, plans will change, but the more your participants know about the schedule you are shooting for the more confident and included they will be. Information will always tend to flow more easily to those who know organizers personally and to those who have a lot of friends within a group. If schedules and plans are not circulated carefully, those who are already on the fringes will become truly excluded.
  10. Announce schedules as well. Repeatedly. If there is no one time when everyone can be expected to be present, announce schedules and changes at various times, keeping in mind that not everyone is able to stay up late at night and some may miss the first morning announcement. Announce scheduling changes at various times of the day. Be aware that large portions of humanity have difficulty assimilating written information and other large portions have difficulty with oral information. Sometimes this is due to a specific disability, but often it is just learning style. Use both print and oral announcements to ensure a greater possibility that information will reach everyone. If a participants roll their eyes over repeated announcements, as them to ensure that those on the fringes get the information. Information is a large part of inclusion.  
  11. Ask presenters to make handouts of what they plan to write on a board or flipchart or project as a PowerPoint presentation. Either distribute them or announce that they are available to those who need them, if you want to save paper. Don’t wait for participants to ask for help with this. Most people who truly need handouts won’t ask either out of a desire not to disrupt the work of the group or due to previous experiences with exclusion. There are a great many types of people (all those with visual impairments, those with reading disabilities and other sensory difficulties, those with small children or medical needs that may require them to leave a presentation for a moment and so forth) who will benefit greatly from having handouts of what may be displayed in front of the group. I have read posts by presenters who specifically say they don’t want to give hand-outs in order to ensure that participants have to give them full attention. So, you may run into some resistance from presenters. Simply mention that visually impaired people can’t see the front of the room and you are very likely to have visually impaired participants (as you are if your group is more than twenty people). Most people can understand this simple connection, even though many others will benefit.
  12. Make every effort to make spaces and materials accessible to those with mobility and sensory disabilities. Effort counts here because clear effort toward accessibility sends a message of inclusion. I know many wheel-chair users who would feel excluded in a venue that had stairs at every entrance, even if they could theoretically get someone to carry them up and down. They would not be able to go outside on a short break with everyone else and they would have to undergo a public and often humiliating process to get access to the building. If you’re running an event for a public agency or large business with the resources to afford accessible venues, sign interpreters and Braille materials, you must ensure these things, regardless of local laws, or you can’t be considered an inclusive organization.
  13. However, if your organization is small or your event is ad hoc real inclusion can be achieved with handmade ramps and volunteer readers along with other creative ideas. Even if the solutions may not be perfect, the point of accessibility is inclusion. Effort is paramount because 90 percent of inclusion is about social relationships, rather than physical barriers.
  14. I propose a rule for introductions and helping participants get to know each other. Always make formal introductions if A. your group is smaller than 20 people and the event or meeting will go for more than an hour, or B. your group is smaller than 50 people and the event or meeting will go for at least one day.
  15. If your event goes for more than one day, it is highly recommended that you use some sort of a game or ice breaker activity to help people get to know a few others in the group (ideally those they don’t already know). This can be done in even very big groups, although the goal in a large group is not to introduce everyone to everyone else, but to allow people to meet a few others and have some meaningful exchange.
  16. Repeat introductions on the second day of a multi-day event with more than ten people are also a very helpful. Use humor or use the opportunity to help yourself or other organizers remember names. Go around a circle and call out names again. This not only makes people feel included and recognized, it helps the organizers to know names AND it helps participants memorize names as well. Using another person’s name in conversation is a well-recognized key social skill that means the difference between connection and the lack thereof. If you want your participants to be included and to form meaningful connections and thus do good work, your goal should be to increase the likelihood that most of them will know each other’s names.
  17. That reminds me. Use humor, not only about forgetting people’s names. Use humor about lots of things involved in inclusion. When integrating the vocabulary of inclusion into your materials and introductory remarks, use humor to indicate that you know these things can sound like empty phrases and to prove that you value them at the core.
  18. If you must use name tags (which I have to admit are probably helpful to a lot of people even if they are the bane of every blind person’s existence), you might joke about your own difficulties with name tags in order to point out to the group that some people can’t see name tags at all. That is often all it takes, a minor mention, and people will be more aware and less likely to exclude those who can’t read the name tags for whatever reason. Humor can be used in many ways to both lighten an atmosphere and to remind people of truths they already know and might otherwise be offended at being reminded of, even though they actually do often need reminders when it comes to inclusive group dynamics.
  19. You may feel that some of these tips don't apply to high-level professional, technical or financial meetings. Of course you have schedules and your presenters don't need to copy things for everyone. Disabled people, non-native English speakers or people with family obligations don't work in your field anyway. Consider the fact that this may be precisely why people with specific differences don't work in your field. By assuming everyone can navigate these issues without being connected to the group, you severely limit the pool of talent you can work with. I have intentionally limited these points primarily to things that take little extra time and only a bit of specific attention. This is not about making cumbersome or expensive changes. It is primarily about reaching your group goals. When all is told, well over half the population falls into some category that can be inadvertently excluded. And these talents can be activated with minor changes that promote inclusion. 
  20. Finally, expect mistakes and shortcomings. No organization is perfect and leaders can do a lot to help a group become more inclusive, but they cannot force it entirely. Accept that sometimes exclusion will happen anyway and be on the lookout for it. When I was excluded at my mountain retreat, the exclusion didn’t end just because organizers took note and took some hasty steps to try to mitigate the problem. But it did improve, and more importantly, I became included by the mere act of openly addressing the issue. Don’t be discouraged by the impossibility of perfect inclusion. This is one area where the old A for effort you may have sneered at in elementary school is actually a well earned and perfectly honorable accolade. 

Inclusive group dynamics is a hot topic in business and public administration in some countries and the skills to lead a group in this direction are in demand. I hope I can use experience to help leaders develop ways to make events and organizations more inclusive. 

I’m sure my list of tips isn’t comprehensive or universal. There are probably plenty of things I missed. Please feel free to add to the discussion with your own ideas and tips to help others. Post ideas and questions in the comments below. Many thanks for reading and discussing!

I developed these tips as a volunteer because I care about people. It's my way of giving back for all the good things in life. My job is writing though. Here is what puts dinner on the table: my dystopian thriller The Soul and the Seed, which tackles social exclusion in a dark alternative reality that reflects uncannily on our world.  It relevant to the topic at hand but mostly it's a story you won't want to put down.